It’s a big week for tablets. As we reported earlier today, Apple unveiled their iPad Mini to mixed fanfare yesterday at their press event. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has reported that their much-hyped Surface tablets have begun shipping ahead of the official launch on Friday as pre-orders have sold out in numerous markets within a day of going on sale.

The Surface RT marks the first time Microsoft has entered the PC hardware field by producing it themselves, rather than partnering with a competing hardware company as has been common throughout the company’s history.  This version of the Surface runs a modified version of Windows dubbed Windows RT, which aims to meld productivity and entertainment. In January, Microsoft will release another version of the tablet using the full version of Windows 8 called Surface with Windows 8 Pro, which will enable users to further integrate their tablet with their PC and use apps found in Windows 7.

The 32GB version of the Surface RT tablet, starting at $499, sports a few nifty features that have many consumers salivating, such as the screen cover that doubles as a keypad, a split-screen feature to allow use of two apps at once, a built-in kickstand, and a battery that charges extremely quickly while lasting significantly longer than many competing products.

While slightly heavier than the iPad 3 10.1 at 1.5 lbs, the difference in weight amounts to only .04 lbs more on the Surface RT. It  also touts one of the largest screens available on the tablet market at 10.6 inches, twice as much RAM as the iPad 3, as well as a quad-core processor, full-size USB 2.0 and HD video out ports, and a microSDCX expansion cardslot. So far, reviewers have lauded its sleek design as a great accomplishment of both usability and durability.

“It is extremely well-designed; meticulous even,” writes Mat Honan of Wired.

Critics of the new tablet have cited its current lack of software and apps as the products greatest drawback, as only programs downloaded from Microsoft’s Windows Store may be installed, echoing the complaints heard from users of Windows 8 smartphones. While Microsoft says that many developers are currently working towards the creation of apps usable on both their smartphones and the Surface tablet, it does indicate how consumer’s demand for high-quality apps may hurt sales of the tablet when faced with competition from the more-established offerings by Google, Amazon, and Apple in the tablet market.

“Microsoft is trying to promote its entire eco-system – including its own Office software and the fact it can offer integration between Windows computers, Windows Phone handsets and the Xbox games console – to gain an edge,” said Francisco Jeronimo, mobile device researcher at consultants IDC in an interview with the BBC. ”But it faces a huge problem as its rivals are offering cheaper-priced devices.”

While early adopters and fans of Windows will likely flock to the Surface immediately, it remains to be seen whether the current state of the Surface’s software will prevent Microsoft from sufficiently penetrating the tablet market as competition between Apple and the various Android-powered tablets comes to a head in the coming holiday season.