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Scratching the Surface: Microsoft tablet's gaming potential

Yesterday's super-secret Microsoft announce looked at first to be a bit of a wash out, but Brenna Hillier thinks the Surface may have important connotations for gamers.

We'd all heard the rumours and pored over the "leaks", but nobody genuinely expected Microsoft to announce a new console yesterday. Instead, like every Microsoft announcement since the Internet crawled off bulletin boards and into mobile devices, we all knew ahead of time exactly what was on the cards: a new tablet, presumably positioned to compete with Apple's increasingly ubiquitous iPad.

We are now at a time when Microsoft cannot afford not to front a tablet; Apple has proven beyond doubt that they can really work. Once considered an also-ran niche between laptops and smartphones, the province of those with too much money and not enough sense, tablets have won out over their clunkier netbook brothers by turning out to be exactly what the western elite was lacking in their lives: a device portable enough to make couch-sprawled viewing comfortable, but versatile enough that you can work from it in a pinch. Tablets have arrived, and Jobs' heirs cannot be permitted to own an entire category of device. Hence, the Surface - an excellent name Microsoft wisely stole from a far less universal product line, the newly-dubbed PixelSense coffee table touchscreens.

It was inevitable that we'd see yet another entry in this increasingly crowded market, but what was really surprising is just how little Microsoft had to say about the gaming potential of the new product. It mentioned support for the Xbox app, and it's madness to think the Surface won't utilise SmartGlass and connect natively with the next Xbox console, but no games were shown - although Cut the Rope was installed on one of the demonstration units. Despite this presentation oversight, the Surface is already exciting commentators.

The mobile gaming scene Apple has helped foster is booming, and while Surface's "Windows 8 Apps" focus will struggle to catch up with that even with significant effort on Microsoft's behalf, the iPad has demonstrated that there is a demand for a gaming tablet. The number of calls for (and rumours of) an Apple control pad peripheral or decent third-party standard is proof enough that tablet gamers want to move beyond App Store offerings, too.

The Surface is ideally positioned to meet that demand. Despite Microsoft's tendency to work in closed systems (not as notorious as Apple's, but prevalent enough to be the butt of jokes), the Surface does something the iPad is often criticised for failing to do - it works with the gear you've already got. The screen runs 1920x1080, meaning there's no need to convert or scale video media, and for those times when that isn't enough, the Surface has an HDMI port. No more shelling out an eye-opening amount of money for a glaringly white but exquisitely styled plastic converter which really ought to have been in the box on purchase; whatever you've got on there can presumably also go on your TV using cables already found in your home

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Stylish marketing? Has the world gone mad?

While we're talking about ports, get a load of that USB 2.0 logo on the side there. It's here that things start to get really interesting. Microsoft hasn't promised anything, but the fact that the musclier of the two models - the Ivy Bridge-powered Pro - runs Windows 8 natively means that you may be able to plug in an Xbox 360 or generic PC control pad. Microsoft may even lose its head and throw in wireless Xbox 360 control pad support.

So now we're starting to see a compelling picture - you have an admittedly middling spec but serviceable Windows box which you can carry anywhere, hook up to a TV, and plug peripherals into. Will it run Steam, or Origin, or GOG, or that catalogue of indie games you've built up over the last dozen bundle sales? Will it be capable of supporting any number of modest browser-based and free-to-play games?

If so, Microsoft will have done something quite amazing. Over the last five years we've seen PC gaming explode and diversify as smaller and indie developers led a push to uncover new markets not constrained by the big-budget conservatism of console-driven triple-A development. It might not have the grunt to run the latest and greatest blockbusters with maxed settings, but the Surface could, with very little effort, provide a portable window (I know, I know) into the PC gaming world for all those not interested in shelling out for an uber PC.

That's something the iPad doesn't do.

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