Microsoft Surface: inside the three-year secret project to build the first great Windows tablet

The scene: two dozen journalists file into a small auditorium on Microsoft's Redmond campus. Steven Sinofsky, head of the Windows division, and Panos Panay, general manager of Surface, make their way on stage, each with a tablet in hand. In every audience seat, an elementary-school-style desk with a wrapped parcel placed on top. Inside: a Wonka bar, along with a golden ticket. It's the day before Surface for Windows RT goes up for pre-order, and in addition to sharing some key pricing and availability details, the company is about to give these lucky reporters a tour of the proverbial chocolate factory, the halls where Surface was conceived and tested.

It's an apt analogy, when you think about it: the company's testing chambers and design studios are generally forbidden to people without corporate badges. Even then, relatively few Microsoft employees were aware of the Surface before it was announced to the public. On this day, we're told we'll be turned into giant blueberries — or, at least, escorted from the premises — if we wander off or take photographs around the building. There won't be any first-hand recordings today, and no fresh hands-on material. There are more than 200 custom-made parts inside the Surface, say Microsoft reps, and nothing is there by accident. We're here to learn more about the specs, as always, but also to get some insight into how Surface came to be: what compromises were made, and what design ideas were abandoned along the way. If gadget porn is what you're after, you can revisit our first look from June. But if things like display technology and hinge design float your boat (and why wouldn't they?) you'll want to meet us after the break for a more detailed explanation of what Microsoft was trying to achieve.

Hardware decisions

As Sinofsky tells it, Surface was in development for three years before its official reveal at an LA press event last June. This was in the summer of 2009, when Microsoft was putting the finishing touches on Windows 7 and just starting to shift its development efforts to Win 8. For those keeping score at home, there wasn't even an iPad to compete against; Microsoft already knew that Windows 8 would be touch-friendly, and that it needed a solid tablet as a vehicle for showing off its next-gen OS.

What followed were hundreds of iterations: some large, some small, some light, some quite heavy. Though the company ultimately settled on a 10.6-inch screen, it experimented with both 10.1- and 11.1-inch form factors. An 11-inch tablet, they decided, would have been too unwieldy. A 10.1-inch panel, at least, would have been easy to procure — the netbook boom had seen to that. The problem was, if Windows 8 was to make room for a narrow multitasking pane on the side of the screen, 10.1 inches would have been too cramped. A 16:9, 10.6-inch display, however, would have enough room real estate for a 4:3 window and a second app running alongside it. What's more, that extra half-inch over a 10.1-inch screen would allow for a more spacious keyboard, along with a trackpad. One hitch: 10.6 inches isn't a standard size, so Microsoft couldn't have ordered these screens in bulk from suppliers. So, it made the display itself. All told, the final product is comprised of more than 200 custom-made parts, a series of components that includes everything from the kickstand to the dual MIMO antennas.

Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is up for preorder today, starting at $499 for the 32GB model keyboard covers sold separately


The chassis, too, was the subject of much obsessing. Though Surface's look and feel is now final, the team's design room remains papered in blown-up photos, a mix of renderings and inspirational objects — things like a slim Moleskine notebook. Many of the concept devices had sharper corners than the final version; in fact, Microsoft says it made some slight changes to the silhouette even after announcing Surface earlier this summer. The company also experimented with many build materials. Before settling on magnesium, Microsoft considered aluminum, among other options, taking into account cost, flexibility and manufacturing logistics. That magnesium chassis, as you may have heard, is made through Microsoft's own VaporMg process, which involves pushing out excess air to help minimize the device's thickness. This, too, required not just custom parts, but custom manufacturing equipment.

"We made a decision that there would be no downtime, ever."

At 1.5 pounds, the Surface isn't the lightest 10-inch tablet. It's not even the thinnest, at 0.37 inches. Still, Microsoft claims that it feels lighter than other 1.5-pound devices, though we're not sure how that's possible. According to company reps, the magnesium helps make it feel lighter than it is (or maybe lighter than you'd expect?), while the battery is evenly spread out inside the chassis, making for some more balanced weight distribution. (We'll wait until we have a review unit of our own to weigh in on that one.) The thickness, meanwhile, brings its own set of tradeoffs: as a productivity tablet, this had to include a full-size USB port. What's more, the magnetic power port is larger than the standard micro-USB socket you'll find on most other ARM-based tablets. It's a proprietary standard, which will annoy some users, but Microsoft defends it thusly: the Surface is said to recharge in a little over two hours. Ultimately, says Panay, it once again comes back to productivity. "We made a decision that there would be no downtime, ever."

The Surface's built-in kickstand threw another wrench into the design process, as did the magnetic hinge used to attach the keyboard covers. According to Panay, the stand had to be not just sturdy, but easy to flip in and out. "You can't scare the people using it," he said. To that end, the company added a notch on one side, that makes it easier to lift the stand away from the rest of the chassis. The hinge itself is comprised of three pieces: one on either side of the tablet, and one tucked underneath the stand. (Yes, these are custom-made, too.) Of these, two control the feel of the kickstand, while the other enables that smooth clicking sound — a pert "click" assuring users that yes, they're using the stand correctly and no, they haven't broken it. You can tell Microsoft is especially proud of this detail: the first Surface ad emphasizes that feature to the point where Windows RT's various features more or less take a backseat.

The magnetic hinge, meanwhile, utilizes a mix of alignment and clamping connectors, which are exactly what they sound like. By design, it should be impossible to miss when you try and attach a keyboard cover to the Surface. At the same time, the connection couldn't be so strong that the keyboard would be difficult to remove. (Hence the Moleskine comparison: the designers wanted a book-like cover that users could easily peel away.) Presented that way, it sounds like a compromise, but Microsoft seems pleased with the results. In a demonstration before a group of reporters, various company reps dangled the tablet by the Touch Cover. The tablet never fell to the floor, though the company did perform a separate drop test inside a controlled chamber, in which the Surface continued to record video even after plummeting three feet. It's the same testing equipment used on Microsoft's Chinese manufacturing line.

About that display

Back when Microsoft first announced the Surface, there was one spec it steadfastly refused to clarify: screen resolution. In retrospect, we can see why: the RT version has a 1,366 x 768 pixel count, a modest resolution when the iPad has a 2,048 x 1,536 screen and several Android tablets have 1,920 x 1,200 panels. The company did finally confirm that spec, but not before making an impassioned defense of the actual image quality.

In brief, it comes down to modular transfer function, a calculation that takes into account both contrast and resolution. In layman's terms, says Microsoft, the eye is not equally sensitive to all spatial frequencies, and our ability to register contrast eventually starts to drop off after the resolution hits a critical point. What the company's design team is arguing, then, is that for this particular device, a 1,366 x 768 panel allows Microsoft to create a sharp-enough picture, while staying within that curve of easy readability. It doesn't hurt that many websites are formatted for 1,366 x 768 anyway.

Then there's the touchscreen. That, in and of itself, is a compromise: touch panels will always introduce some visual noise. But, like many handsets, the Surface's screen is at least optically bonded, meaning the LCD and touch panel comprise a single layer. A thinner screen helps minimize the tablet's thickness, as you can imagine, but Microsoft also argues that there are fewer opportunities for light to refract. Additionally, Surface makes use of company's ClearType technology, which uses subpixel rendering to help smooth rough edges.

Curiously, the Surface team seems to be courting comparisons with the iPad: as part of its lab tour, the company made a series of pointed comparisons with Apple's tablet, highlighting differences in reflectivity, color temperature and readability. You could say it was a blind comparison, of sorts, as both products were covered, save for their displays. (Though when one tablet appears to win most of the rounds, it's obvious which tablet is which.) It's a lovely display, and we said so the first time we saw it, but again, this isn't a day for hands-on time.

Touch Cover

A 3mm-thick keyboard about as thin as a placemat. A keyboard whose buttons are all but flat, with laser-printed characters. The Touch Cover was always one of the most intriguing things about the Surface, and yet, it's also been the most mysterious: there weren't even working units at that June launch event. Thankfully, the company had some working models on display during its lab tour, and allowed the journalists in attendance to spend a few minutes trying them out. All told, Microsoft claims that it could take four or five days for users to reach their peak touch-typing speed, which means our few minutes of use leaves us unprepared to make any definitive judgments. We will say that our uneasiness receded after about a minute; with practice, we were typing faster, and making fewer typos. And when we did make mistakes, the backspace key was easy to hit, as was the spacebar, which Microsoft made wider after some big-handed focus group testers hit the touchpad instead. We'll revisit this in detail in our inevitable review, but for now color us pleasantly surprised.

Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is up for preorder today, starting at $499 for the 32GB model keyboard covers sold separately


The truth is, we didn't need a tour of Microsoft's facilities to feel intrigued by Surface: our appetites were already piqued enough. Still, it remains slightly worrisome that after a splashy launch event and a privileged peek at the company's labs, we still haven't gotten much hands-on time with Microsoft's Windows 8 halo device. As promising as Surface for RT seems (and it absolutely looks well-crafted) we're eager to test out everything — the hinge, the kickstand, the display — for ourselves. Hopefully, it won't be long before we get that chance.

Images courtesy of Microsoft.