The Microsoft Surface isn't the world's best tablet, nor is it the world's greatest laptop, but it is a first-of-its-kind hybrid device that is subtly raising the bar for what we can expect from either of those categories. Featuring an ultrathin, detachable touch keypad and a built-in stand that flips open with a satisfying, sound-designer-approved click, the Surface is a real head turner, especially when sitting on a desk or kitchen table (we actually found it a bit challenging to keep steady on an airplane tray table or our laps). It's also just .37 inches thin (with the capacitive touch keypad adding just .11 inches, or a full keyboard adding .19 inches) and 1.5 pounds.
The real claim to fame, though, especially for anyone who's bored of everything from the Window-based Mac and Windows 7 PC desktops to the widget and icon layouts of iOS and Android tablets, is Windows 8 RT. Though a slightly reduced version of the full Windows 8 – the main difference being that you have to download apps from the Microsoft's "Store" rather than directly off the Web – RT still has the captivating, side-scrolling, live-tile-based layout that Microsoft adapted from the Xbox for its new mobile, tablet, and desktop operating systems. The "live" aspect means that these square or rectangular windows, each of which represents anything from an app or website to a favorite contact, are constantly updating you with the latest headlines or status updates. This is either refreshing and useful or annoying and distracting, but the info-hound in us puts us firmly in the former camp. Besides, it's just fun and entertaining, and you can move the tiles around in whatever configuration you want with just a few swipes, since the entire screen is also a touch-enabled.
For serious work, there are built-in versions of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote) programs, and for entertainment, the 16 by 9 HD widescreen speaks for itself (not to mention the free Xbox Music streaming that gives you all the to-go streaming features of Spotify without the extra fees). Another less overtly sexy but quietly impressive feature? Unlike many a tablet, the Surface has a USB port, which is convenient for instantly transferring files from a thumb drive or for connecting a mouse or other peripherals. And it seems to already have built in drivers for everything, from mice and printers to USB speakers. No need to wait for those pesky drivers to install themselves – just click on print and, assuming you have a wireless printer, you're likely to hear that document making its way out of the paper tray.
It's not all impressive: Besides its aforementioned in-flight tray table incompatibility, the Surface could use better speakers, some decent operating instructions, and HBO Go (among other apps, though the initial lineup includes Netflix and Hulu Plus). Still, despite its flaws – no technology is perfect, after all – the Surface is a complete original, and remains one of the more captivating and intriguing gadgets of the year. [$499, 32GB; $599, 64GB; microsoft.com]