The making of Surface 3: Microsoft's little tablet grows up

Microsoft knows there's a lot riding on the Surface 3. And it looks like the company's finally listened to feedback from people who have asked for a little more oomph from these devices. Nearly three years after Surface with Windows RT was born, Microsoft is introducing its third-generation Surface, a tablet that runs full Windows, not the misstep of an operating system that was RT. This time around, Microsoft's tablet also features a screen designed to work with a pen, while an overhauled Type Cover promises to deliver a more solid, less wobbly keyboard and an improved trackpad. The Surface 3 is as much a PC as the Surface Pro 3, leaving behind the days of being just a would-be iPad competitor. It is, perhaps, what the Surface line should have always been.

Last week, I sat down with Ralf Groene, senior creative director for Surface, at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to talk about the development of Surface 3 and its evolution over the past three years. Specifically, the Surface design chief is showing me around Building 87, which houses a 100,000-square-foot lab that's used for designing, prototyping and testing products from Microsoft Devices Group, including Surface. On this particular, trademark rainy afternoon in Redmond, he begins our tour of the facilities by touching briefly on how the original Surface was born and the amount of work it took to turn it into a mass-market product.

Ralf Groene, senior creative director for Surface.

There, on a wooden table that's been carefully crafted to showcase nearly every Surface device ever made, sits the very first prototype of the tablet.

There, on a wooden table that's been carefully crafted to showcase nearly every Surface device ever made, sits the very first prototype of the tablet. "The first one was done in a laser cutter," he says with a reminiscing smile on his face. "This was the first model that got the business funded, back when Steven Sinofsky [the former president of Microsoft's Windows Division] was the boss." The thing looks so old and beat-up that you would think it was used in a war battleground, but there's glue and tape on it that are keeping it from falling apart. To say the least, for Microsoft and Groene alike, it's an irreplaceable piece of history. It's what started it all.

The Surface 3 is a 10.8-inch device with an Intel Atom x7 CPU and a starting price point of $499, which gets you 64GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. However, the main feature of the tablet, and for good reason, may be that it supports Windows 8.1 -- and, in the not-so-distant-future, Windows 10. But there's more to Surface 3 than this (it now charges via micro-USB), and Microsoft hopes that these changes are enough to erase the bittersweet memories left behind by the device's two predecessors, Surface with Windows RT and Surface 2. Aside from that, the Surface 3 now boasts a display with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a 1,920 x 1,280 resolution, as opposed to the 16:9 found on previous models.

In that regard, the third-gen Surface follows in the footsteps of its more powerful sibling, the Surface Pro 3. Groene says that the panels are indeed different, though he wasn't willing to go into detail about what's changed between them. Either way, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how sharp and colorful that screen is, and we have a hunch most of you will be happy about the new paper-inspired 3:2 aspect ratio. "When we designed the first generation of Surface, the operating system was kind of holed into a 16:9 aspect ratio, and that's why the first Surfaces came out with that aspect ratio," he says. "We then learned that it should be changed for better portrait mode."

On the left, the very first Surface prototype.

"If you want to make better products, at some point you gotta work on a software level."

Hardware, naturally, is only part of the equation, with software being more important than ever in shaping the user experience. Of course, a company that does this well is Apple, which is second to none when it comes to seamlessly integrating its software and hardware. When asked about how closely together the software and hardware groups work during a Surface's development, Groene says that this is an extremely important step for him and everyone on the team -- not that we would expect it to be any other way. Simply put, as the lead designer, he believes that "if you want to make better products, at some point you gotta work on a software level."

As for whether or not he learns anything from successful competitors like Apple, he says, "In general, when we find products that interest us or inspire us -- and this could be a Leica camera -- we take it apart or we take other companies' products and we [try to] understand how are these things made." Groene adds, "How do these people get to certain things, you know, [like] finishes; how did these people figure that one out? ... I think, on multiple levels, we are interested [in competitors]. In a larger sense, we all learn from each other. I mean, it's great that there are other companies pushing the envelope, that have us ask ourselves to find some room to push it the same or even further. I think it's very healthy in that way."

The Making of Microsoft's Surface 3

Part of the reason a company like Apple has found success is by designing its products' hardware and software in-house, which is an approach Microsoft started with the first-generation Surface and continues with Surface 3. Groene, who has been with the technology giant for more than eight years, says that's why having this state-of-the-art lab space in Microsoft's headquarters is so essential. Here, they can turn ideas into reality in a matter of minutes thanks to a number of factors, like having everyone who's working on a project close to each other, having access to high-level machinery that mimics the equipment used by Microsoft's manufacturing plants in China and having a room full of professional-grade 3D printers that make it possible to build test parts almost instantly.

One example of the type of work that can be accomplished here is the design and, subsequently, 3D-printing of something like the hinge for the kickstand, which Groene and team iterated on for months until they felt it was done right. The Surface 3 doesn't have a "continuous" kickstand like the Surface Pro 3, but instead uses a three-angle system that's said to be designed to provide more stability, especially while typing, than the Surface 2 or Surface with Windows RT.

"Surface [with Windows RT] had a one-position kickstand and we realized then that people wanted to type on their lap; Surface 2 [added] a second position and we realized we wanted a continuous hinge, but the development was going to take a while," he says. "It took so many iterations to get this right. The beauty is for us to be able to innovate." Groene tells me the same goes for the new mirror-like, laser-cut Microsoft logo on the back, as well as the position of the WiFi, Bluetooth and LTE antennas.

The Surface 3 in the audio lab, aka the anechoic chamber.

Unlike the Surface 3, Surface with Windows RT wasn't designed in Building 87. And Groene isn't shy about expressing his regret that it wasn't created here: "I wish it was; the tools we have here [Building 87] are a thousand times more powerful." He tells me that the first Surface "was designed in a small design space in the basement of Studio B" in Microsoft's Redmond campus, the area where the Surface team was located before moving to its new home last year.

At the end of the day, Groene seems confident that the sleek (and fanless) design of the Surface 3, combined with its affordable price and the promise of Windows 10, will be enough to bring more people into Microsoft's ecosystem -- especially students, he emphasizes. "I always like to look at the Surface as a stage for software," he says. "It's much more than just a piece of hardware." As for what he has learned from past mistakes with Surface, if anything, Groene adds, "Really, how do you define mistake? We learn from every product we ship, through the design and engineering process and, most importantly, from feedback from our customers."

So what's your feedback now?

Philip Palermo contributed to this report.