The rumor mill was operating at maximum Monday when Microsoft unveiled Surface, a new line of sleek devices and accessories that blurs the distinction between tablet and laptop.

Comparisons to Apple’s market-leading iPad are unavoidable. Even so, there are some definite distinctions.

Most obviously, unlike iPad, Surface supports the 16:9 format familiar from modern televisions and high-definition movies. Furthermore, in a nod to practicality, it comes with standard USB and HDMI ports and card slots in addition to Bluetooth.

Less geekily, Surface tablets have a built-in kickstand that becomes virtually invisible when not in use, without adding any thickness. It may not seem important, but it’s a nice touch of practical design that users will appreciate having.

Speaking of design, there’s the Touch Cover, a 3 mm-thick keyboard-type interface that doubles as a protective cover. According to Microsoft, the Touch Cover senses keystrokes as gestures, enabling touch typists to work faster than a virtual keyboard allows. For those who prefer a more traditional keyboard, there’s the Type Cover, which is 5 mm-thick (less than 0.2 inches) and has moving keys.

Looking at the bigger picture, one of Apple’s core strengths is how seamlessly its products work together. Surface runs on Microsoft’s Windows RT or Windows 8, and therefore should – should – provide a similarly seamless experience when used with a Windows Phone, Windows PC and an Xbox 360. In theory that could make Surface more appealing than iPad for corporate users seeking easy integration, as well as for home users who want a device that already works with their existing system.

Microsoft has not disclosed pricing, nor has it named specific release dates.

Related links:

Surface – official site

Microsoft – press release

GigaOm – Microsoft Surface: A new tablet and a bold strategy

Bloomberg Businessweek – Microsoft’s Surface Tablets Raise the Bar for PC Pals

CNN Money – Hands on with Microsoft’s Surface tablet

TechCrunch – Hands-On With The Microsoft Surface, Inside And Out

AFP – Microsoft unveils ‘Surface’ tablet in iPad challenge