I remember being among the detractors when the first Apple iPad was unveiled, having vocally denounced it as an overpriced gimmick that was unlikely to catch on. Three years later, I am unashamed to admit that I have eaten those words (without salt) and now see the benefits of tablets, both as a functional tool and as a platform for gaming. The iOS and Android tablet platforms offer a wealth of high quality and affordable games, and now Microsoft has followed suit by introducing their own tablet, simply called “Surface.” What innovations this tablet offers, especially in the gaming realm, definitely has my mind buzzing with possibilities.

First off, let’s go over a few of the features of this new tablet, especially since it’s the first one that Microsoft has both developed and put to market. There are two models being released, the standard Surface RT tablet and the Surface Pro. Both boast a 10.6 inch ClearType HD touch display, which is slightly larger than both the iPad and Android tablets, and the standard model is capable of 720p while the Pro runs at 1080p. The Surface tablets will run the Windows 8 operating system, both will have front and rear-facing HD cameras and the storage capacity ranges from 32 GB to 128 GB depending on which model you choose. In terms of specs, Microsoft’s new offerings have the core functions that are standard for quality tablets on the market.

Some of the cooler features include a cover that magnetically attaches to the tablet, and then flips open to reveal a full touch-sensitive keyboard. Similar to peripheral keyboards that are available for the iPad, the surface keyboard and real kickstand props up the tablet and resembles a makeshift laptop. The other feature that is standard to your average PC but is uncommon in tablets is full USB and Micro SD ports, which open up loads of possibilities when it comes to attaching other devices to the tablet and transferring data. Where applications and software are concerned, Microsoft’s lineup of launch apps might seem sparse compared to what Apple has on offer, however this was the same thing people said about the Android marketplace and that has been quick to catch up.

The main area of interest for me is what the Surface tablets can offer in terms of gaming. Let me go on record and say that I am generally not a fan of playing games on smart phones and tablets. This is not to say that I am completely against it, however the appeal for me is mainly limited to puzzle games and other genres that can effectively integrate the touch-screen support, such as racing and rhythm games. Trying to play a first-person shooter is an awkward and clumsy experience, and the touch controls utilized in ports of old arcade and console games are patchy at best. I am fully aware that this probably has more to do with me being accustomed to a tactile controller than deficiencies in the games themselves, but I’m definitely not alone in having this preference.

What the Surface can hypothetically offer, and I emphasize the word hypothetically since nothing has been confirmed, is more options when it comes to gaming. Since I’m not a fan of touch-screen controls in most games, the aforementioned USB port has me thinking that a wired Xbox 360 controller, or maybe even an adapter that supports the wireless controllers, could be used as an alternative. Third-party accessories such as the iCade have shown promise in bridging this gap, but an actual game controller that is easy to plug and play is something we have yet to see. The touch-sensitive keyboard,which also includes a mouse touch pad, could also be used to playing ports of PC games that were made for the classic mouse and keyboard controls.

The latest trend in gaming seems to be daisy-chaining your console with your portable devices, with Sony’s Playstation Vita offering remote play, Nintendo’s Wii U utilizing the tablet controller and Microsoft even throwing their hat into the ring with SmartGlass. It would be interesting to see Xbox Live effectively integrated into the Surface tablet, with the ability to download full games, demos, arcade titles and tablet exclusives that support online multiplayer and achievements. A similar plan was introduced by Microsoft for their line of Windows Phones, however the tablet opens up room for even more cross-platform integration. The thought of being able to play Xbox 360 and past generation games on my tablet, with an actual controller plugged in, is a very appealing notion.

It’s too early to say what approach Microsoft will take with the Surface tablet, however some kind of Xbox Live support seems like a logical step to me. Tablet gaming has become immensely popular due to the ease and affordability of the games, and if Microsoft wants to compete in a well-established market, supporting it early and often is imperative. The Surface is also being pushed as a PC and tablet hybrid of sorts, given the operating system and core features, so having a strong gaming component will definitely give it a boost when it hits the market, which they are projecting will be sometime in Fall 2012.

The exact launch date and  price for both the Surface RT and Surface Pro have yet to be determined. It’s safe to assume that the Pro model will the more expensive of the two, so I am estimating around $500 for the RT and $650 for the Pro. Could this be Microsoft’s successful bid to knock Apple from it’s throne? All will be revealed in time.