Microsoft is often thought of as a software company, and rightly so. It has, however, occasionally dabbled in hardware with such devices as the Xbox, Zune, and - yes – the KIN. Today, all of that changes. With Windows 8 set to change the future of computing, Microsoft has taken things into its own hands and created the ultimate line of computing devices known as the Surface. The Surface combines the best elements of a laptop and a tablet into a single no-compromises device, and it has the entire tech press almost giddy with excitement.

On the surface, the device looks like your traditional 10.6-inch tablet – a beautiful one, if I do say so myself – but it packs a few nice surprises. Namely, a multitouch pressure sensitive keyboard/trackpad Touch Cover (although you can also opt for a Type Cover with physical keys), a kickstand, and a magnetic pen (which is only available with the Windows 8 Pro version). The kickstand is built into the 9.3mm thin body, which is made out of vapor magnesium or “VaporMg” for short. The ClearType HD Display is made out of Gorilla Glass 2, the edges are beveled at a 22 degree angle, and the “Surface has great WiFi. It has the best of any tablet today,” according to Windows boss Stephen Sinofsky. Of course, no device would be complete without front- and rear-facing cameras, which are built using Microsoft’s LifeCam technology. Stereo speakers and dual microphones are also included.

As great as tablets are, sometimes you need to sit down with a keyboard to accomplish real work. That’s where the Touch Cover keyboard comes in. The 3mm Touch Cover (included) is a full multitouch pressure sensitive keyboard and trackpad which doubles as a screen protector when closed. The device even knows how the Touch or Type Cover is positioned, and it’s able to enable or disable the keyboard accordingly. While the Surface itself only comes in a silvery-black finish, the covers are available in five different colors – black, white, blue, red, and pink. The Windows 8 UI will also change to match the color of the cover.

The Surface will come in two distinct versions, just like the Windows 8 OS itself. The Windows RT version lacks support for traditional desktop applications (aside from those already built into the OS, like Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT), but it’s the faster and lighter of the two models, since it’s running on ARM. It weighs just 676 grams and is a scant 9.3mm thin, just barely smaller than the iPad. 32GB or 64GB of memory, an NVIDIA Tegra 3+ processor, a microSD card slot, USB 2.0, and Micro HD Video also come standard.

The x86 version, on the other hand, weighs 903 grams and is 13.5mm thick. This version, however, runs Windows 8 Pro, so it is almost equivalent to an Ultrabook. Most importantly, it will include full support for legacy desktop applications. The specs are better as well, with the storage getting bumped up to 64GB or 128GB, a next generation Intel Core i5 ”Ivy Bridge” processor, a Full HD display, a microSDXC card slot, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort Video. This version also includes the magnetic pen and Palm Block. The Intel Surface requires fans to cool down the machine, but the vents will be placed around the edges so as not to bother your hands when holding the device.

While Microsoft isn’t ready to commit to pricing and availability for the Surface just yet, we do know that the ARM-based version will hit stores around the time of Windows 8′s General Availability (GA). In other words, think sometime between August and October. The Intel-based version will be available 90 days after that. “We took the time to get Surface and Windows 8 right. To do something that was really different and really special,” said Microsoft at the grand unveiling in Los Angeles. “We’re proud of the Surface like we’re proud of Windows 8. Because of Windows 8, the Surface is a PC, it is a tablet… it’s something new.”

In one announcement, Microsoft has managed to do what its hardware manufacturing partners never could: generate genuine excitement about a Windows PC. The Surface is a departure from Microsoft’s traditional M.O., but it’s one that I’m sure will pay off in spades. PC manufacturers, take note: Microsoft has set a new bar for Windows devices.

[Microsoft Surface]