It's easy to think that gadgets, laptops and tablets are disposable these days. They're all so cheap, and every day there's a new announcement about some new processor, design, feature or spec. We never stop and appreciate the little things anymore that used to delight us. Mind you, not all of us are Ralf Groene: the guy who designed and built the bigger, brighter and lighter Surface Pro 3. We sat down with him, in the hope of getting back in touch with the little things.
Ralf has been designing stuff since the year I was born. Back in 1988, he was a designer at Interform Design: a design agency based out of Chicago. Since then, he's moved from company to company every few years, offering up his unique design skills. In 2008, Ralf landed at Microsoft as an industrial design manager, and has worked his way up through the ranks to the position of creative director from 2011 through to today.
He's sporting a Surface Pro 3 as he sits down to speak with us at Microsoft's Studio B: the hub of design at Microsoft's Redmond campus.
It's a gorgeous device, to be sure, but his looks a little different: he has doodled skulls and crossbones all over the front of his Type Cover, mostly to differentiate which is his in a sea of sleek silver tablets, but also to express himself creatively.
"It's what I see when I close my eyes," he jokes, pointing at the scary cartoon faces.
Ralf has been around with Microsoft since the birth of the Surface. Some have called him a design savant, others have called him a genius. All he knows is that he loves his new Surface Pro 3, and went to the ends of the Earth to make it as thin and light as possible — in a bid to beat the MacBook Air for the title of thinnest and most practical computing device on the market.
Whenever you start designing a product, you first have to think of who you're building it for, Ralf explains. The unique challenge with the Surface Pro 3 is that it's for just about everyone who has ever wanted to read things on the internet more conveniently. Ralf doesn't seem daunted by such a challenge, however, as he slowly beings to unwrap his mission.
"If you follow the generations of Surface, one of the goals was to create hardware that lets people do more. We wanted them more productive but also wanted them to do more with their digital stuff — like snacking on news, sorting through photos, pivoting into reading and writing email, and then doing heavy program application work like CAD, Illustrator, Excel. The vision that we have around Surface is to make products that let people get to their digital stuff in a very natural way," he explains with a slight German accent.
"With all the Surfaces so far, you'll find that there's nothing superfluous on them. It's super-valuable for the person and for us at Microsoft to connect our products to people's lives."
That, he explains, is the vision that ties the whole Surface Pro 3 together: nothing superfluous. Not a thing.
From Geeky To Glossy
One of the stranger choices surrounding the new Surface Pro was the decision to switch the aspect ratio from a 16:9 widescreen display to a 3:2 configuration. It's now sporting a larger screen with that new aspect ratio, up two inches from its previous iteration.
The Surface has always been engineered to feel like a book: a premium, bound journal that you carry with you from meeting to meeting as your do-everything device for work and home. The edges of the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 were designed with a slant to both help the device sit better on its limited-angle kickstand, but also to make it feel more like a book with a flexing spine when you rested it horizontally in your palm.
Even the Touch and Type Covers were designed with special accents on the edges to make them feel like a bound stack of premium paper.
Ralf still wants the Surface to retain that design identity in the Pro 3, but instead of a hefty journal or diary, this time it's all about resembling sleek, glossy magazines and A4 sheets of paper.
Microsoft realised that not everybody uses the Surface Pro in its landscape orientation mode when reading content like news and emails on the couch at home. Instead, they use the portrait aspect which — thanks to a 16:9 aspect ratio — made the whole viewing experience feel narrow, cramped and claustrophobic.
By pushing the display out by two inches and switching to a 3:2 aspect ratio, the Surface is now almost exactly the same measurement as a piece of A4 paper. The designers wanted it to feel like a magazine as it was held in portrait mode for reading, and a clipboard when held in portrait mode while working.
Kickstand Ad Infinitum
But it isn't the aspect ratio that makes Ralf happy about the Surface Pro 3 came out. He's always been more of a fan of the magnets, and the handsome kickstand that defines Surface.
The difference about the kickstand on the Pro 3 is just how versatile it is: rather than fix itself in two positions, the kickstand now adjusts down to a 150-degree angle, making it almost sit flat on a table.
"I'm always amazed by the kickstand and the magnetic attachment of the keyboard. The Surface 1 had a one-position kickstand, just because we thought that people would want to stand it up on the table every now and then. Then people wanted to have a second position for ergonomics, and to put it on your lap. Now with the infinitely adjustable kickstand, we find it can be adjusted for everything: different sizes of people, different chairs, different lighting conditions and so on.
This new kickstand wasn't just something that Microsoft bolted onto the Surface Pro 3, either. It took Ralf years to figure out how to execute his vision of a continuous kickstand.
So why the delay? Ralf says it all came down to something as seemingly inconsequential as the amount of friction feedback the stand would give you as you pushed it further down onto the table.
"We've now spent a couple of years perfecting it. Just the hinge was in development for a couple of years. It took so long to perfect because it is not easy to put this type of performance in a 9.1mm thickness of a product. A couple of things we loved in previous hinges, we have in the new hinge too.
"For example, you pop the hinge out and it pops into the Surface 1 position. Then as you push it beyond the first locking position, you find it moves continuously with an endless amount of friction. We had to take time finding the balance between making it easy to adjust, allow enough force that it didn't fall over.
"There's also a pair of feet on the stand to make sure the two outer points of the Surface Pro 3 touch the table if you're on a flat surface. That foot is made from steel so it can interact with magnets hidden in the bottom of the body, to ensure that when the kickstand is not in use, it creates a seamless part line.
"You can just imagine the amount of warp you get on pieces as thin as the kickstand, so engineering it into something straight was tough. There are ridges in the bottom of the stand that give it stability when deployed, while magnets hold it flush at other times," he says, endlessly flipping the kickstand in and out of the device, surveying his creation.
The Man And The Machine
Ralf put a lot of himself into the Surface Pro 3. It's more than just a soulless tablet to him.
"When the tablet comes to rest at 150 degrees, we call it the 'drawing angle'. I personally call it that because I like to draw. It's laying out easel-style on the table, when at the same time it's more comfortable for on-screen typing," he says gleaming at his own graffiti'd Type Cover 3.
"We failed hundreds of times until we found the formula of that mechanism. Sometimes it increased the thickness, sometimes it didn't have the friction. We spent countless hours in Studio B designing it."
When you talk about design, however, it's easy to think that there is one school of thought on what makes 'good' design. Pointing to gadgets like the MacBook Air or the HTC One M8, and you find that it often includes swathes of thin yet sturdy metal, interesting yet aesthetically pleasing accents and a perfect symmetry across the device.
But if you look at the Surface Pro 3, you quickly notice that it's far from tidy and symmetrical. The front camera and rear camera are offset to each other; the Windows soft key is set to be in the middle of the device on the portrait orientation, making the horizontal orientation look sloppy, and the kickstand doesn't come out if the exact centre of the device. What you and I might call sloppy design, however, Ralf calls his personality infiltrating the device.
"Aesthetically, I find products that aren't designed symmetrically more interesting. Just like the human face, it gives it character, and from a functionality standpoint, we're super happy with where we landed with it.
"Moving the Windows button was an ergonomic for something we call actuation avoidance. When you scale to 12 inches and you're typing [on a Type Cover] for example, you have to lift your whole arm and press the centre button [if it's in the same place it was on the Surface Pro 2]. But we find that with a centre button halfway up the device, you only have to lift your thumb to press it while you're typing.
Elsewhere on the device, peripherals are placed off-centre to each other to avoid compromising on the overall thinness of the device. Microsoft wasn't about to compromise its mission of being thinner than a MacBook Air just to put cameras on top of each other.
"The cameras are off-centre to each other because we wanted the best cameras possible, and they wouldn't fit on top of each other without increasing thickness, so we put them side by side."
Even the charger had to change in the relentless pursuit of thinness.
"[The charger on] the Surface 1 wasn't very good, the Surface 2 was very good, and now it's even better. There's now no fiddling with the charger [because] it's magnetic and automatically falls into the connector," Ralf says beaming. He cares about his creation like a mother would her child.
The Surface Pro 3 has even had a colour change from a deep, metallic black colour, to a vibrant silver. Ralf says that it's not all about styling (although it does look rather handsome). He says it's to make the device look brand new, even if you use it every day.
"The Surface Pro 3 is silver. It's made of a silver magnesium [so] if you scratch it it, it still shines silver. Think of it like a belt buckle: it's something that's going to get used and scuffed, but that shouldn't mean it looks broken. The magnesium gets covered with a fingerprint resistant coating, and the chemistry that we used in the paint prevents oils from your body from sticking to the parts."
Microsoft also ditched the magnetic pen connector found on the previous two Surface models, finally admitting that all you did was lose the damn thing.
"The pen itself was 9.5mm, thicker than the whole Surface Pro 3, so it didn't fit. We moved away from the magnetic connector because you just end up losing your pen. The Cover now has a groove to slide your pen in, or we're shipping pen loops so you don't lose it," Ralf explains.
Microsoft was even so obsessed with making the Surface Pro 3 thin and light that it researched a new way to bond the glass to the LCD panel, therefore reducing the amount of glass used in the device by 15 per cent, and reducing the parallax error caused by light refraction when you use a pen on the screen.
At the end of the day, however, being thin and light with new engineering techniques isn't keeping Ralf wired. He's just sitting in his chair, sketching up the next idea on his Surface.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.