Did you know that Microsoft’s first Tablet PC was introduced in 2002? It was a big flop. Now, however, on the heels of Apple’s successful iPad, Microsoft is trying again with its recently introduced Surface RT Tablet.

In early 2002 Sandy and I went to a special party hosted by Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. The party was given to introduce the press to an entirely new concept -- the tablet PC. Although the hardware was manufactured by others, Microsoft developed the specifications and there was even a Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system. At that party Mr. Gates was extremely enthusiastic about the Tablet PC talking about how he envisioned it to be used by doctors, educators, artists, and even restaurateurs.  

What! You don’t remember the Microsoft Tablet PC? Well, not many people do. Although pretty cool for its time, it was under-powered and over-priced, and quickly became one of Microsoft’s biggest flops.

Now, eleven years later, Microsoft has introduced a new tablet, one that they are manufacturing themselves. This tablet is called the Surface. Instead of being the leader of the tablet pack, Microsoft is going up against the Apple iPad which has skyrocketed to the lead of the now extremely profitable tablet market. Without a doubt, Microsoft, who was originally too early is now late to the party. Yet, the Surface tablet may not be too little too late.

The Surface tablets are actually very well-priced, capable tablets.  The Surface tablets are being introduced in two very different versions. The first version, called Surface with Windows RT (a tablet version of Windows 8) is available now with the 16GB version selling for $499, which is $100 cheaper than the cheapest current version iPad. The Surface RT like the iPad runs only apps. It cannot run full-blown programs like Quicken or Photoshop.

The second version of the Surface, Surface with Windows 8 Pro will be similar to the Surface RT, but it will run full-blown apps and of course, be more expensive. It is not yet available.

Microsoft has opened stores around the country where you can see and try the Surface RT. I visited the one in Southpoint Mall in Durham, and found the Microsoft employees there to be well-trained, knowledgeable and helpful. If you are interested in purchasing a new tablet it might be worth the trip to Durham to see the product and get your questions answered. There is also an Apple store there, so you can compare two tablets in one trip. The Apple employees are also very good.

The Surface RT is based on the new Windows 8 operating system with its new colorful tile interface, which is clean and modern-looking. Rather than tiny icons, the tiles are large — large enough so it is easier to see and find what you need. Like on the iPad, you use touching and swiping on the touch-screen.

Like the iPad, there is also on on-screen keyboard. But Microsoft goes one step further.  They offer two optional keyboards that also act as covers for the device. The Touch Cover is made of a more-or-less flat piece of plastic. The Type Cover has raised and more defined keys and feels more like a real keyboard. Both are well-designed and easy-to-use, even for a touch typist. The keyboards not only put the device to sleep when they are closed, but have other smart features like the ability to tell when your hands are hovering or when they are typing. Also when you fold the keyboard back to set the device on your lap, the keyboard does not register any key presses allowing you to use the on-screen keyboard. Really great technology that easily surpasses any add-on keyboard that I’ve seen for the iPad or for Android tablets. The Touch Cover can be bundled with the Surface RT for $100 more. The Type Cover costs $120.

In a smart move Microsoft has developed the Office 2013 programs as apps so they run on the Surface RT. In a really smart move, Microsoft has included these with the Surface RT. So when you purchase a Surface RT, you get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, which normally cost about $100, at no extra cost.  These programs are touch-enabled, but they run in a desktop mode right on the Surface RT, so if you are used to using Office programs on a PC, you will be able to do everything in Office in a similar manner to what you are used to.

The Surface RT has a smooth, sleek, well-designed case made of Vapor Mg. At 10.81 x 6.77 x .37 inches it is approximately the same size as the full-sized Apple iPad (9.5 x 7.31 x .37 inches). However, it is sized for better viewing of movies.  The Surface RT has a kickstand that puts it at the proper viewing angle for typing and viewing. The LifeCam camera even self-adjusts to the proper straight-ahead viewing when the kickstand is open.

Another great feature is that the Surface RT has a USB port that can be used for adding printers and other devices and it will also print to just about all wireless printers, a feat that the iPad and Android tablets cannot accomplish directly.  This Surface also has a microSD card slot and a HD video out port (optional adapter needed.) Syncing the RT with Microsoft’s Sky Drive is easier than using iCloud in the Apple ecosystem.

Of course, Microsoft has a long way to go in beefing up its App store.  Some popular apps like Evernote and Kindle are already there, but others like Angry Birds and Words with Friends are not. Microsoft opened its App store with about 1,000 apps, while the Apple App store currently has more than 275,000 apps.

The Surface RT has a lot of features that go above and beyond many other tablets in this price range. If Microsoft can enhance its ecosystem quickly, it may be a winner, especially for those who use Microsoft Office programs and for those who hate typing on a screen.