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Microsoft's Surface tablet: Worth waiting for?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Ever since Microsoft (MSFT) unveiled an early version of Windows 8 last year, pundits have been betting that the software giant might shake up the touchscreen tablet business when its new touch-friendly OS comes out this fall. One big variable in that equation, though, is the hardware. Microsoft generally relies on its vast network of hardware partners, and that often results in mediocre products. On rare occasion, Microsoft takes things into its own hands (Xbox, Zune), and when the company owns the whole product from end to end the results can be quite stunning.

That looks like that's what's happening now.

Yesterday, Microsoft took the wraps off its house-brand tablet, called the Surface. It's Microsoft's attempt to do a Windows 8 tablet right, without depending on hardware vendors to pay attention to all the little details that can make or break a product like this.

So how does it look?

Pretty good, at least based on the peek Microsoft gave the world. The post-PC gadget weighs less than 2 pounds; comes with front- and rear-facing cameras; has a high-resolution, 10.6-inch display; and offers a choice of processors and memory configurations ranging from 32GB to 128GB. The screen is made of extremely scratch-resistant "Gorilla Glass," as with the iPhone.

The Surface also comes with a magnetic flip cover like the iPad's Smart Cover, but this one has a built-in keyboard. Not to diminish the rest of the new tablet, but the keyboard cover is pretty darned cool.The Surface also works with both touch and a stylus, which promises to make the device far more flexible than the iPad for many kinds of tasks.

Of course, leave it to Microsoft to bungle the name. Surface isn't a terrible moniker, unless you happen to know about Microsoft's giant touch-screen table, which goes by the exact same name. That's confusing, but probably not as bad as the name of the Windows version the tablet runs: Windows RT, which is going to lead to some confused Google searches as consumers try to learn about Windows 8 and get endless pages of articles about a technology that's been around for years called Windows Runtime.

Still, the Surface represents a bold move for Microsoft, and its success will obviously depend on far more than just its name. Price and other details are still unannounced, and the device should be available in the fall when Windows 8 is released. This should be an interesting season for anyone who is considering a touch device.