At one point during the development process of Microsoft’s laptop-tablet hybrid Surface Book, engineers within the design team at the company’s Redmond offices were 3D printing new chassis structures daily — making changes to their designs throughout the day, setting the fast-prototyping machines to work overnight, and then repeating the same process the next day. For a company best known for the slow and iterative progress of Windows and Office, this is something distinctly different. And the hardware that it has created is something special.
In the Microsoft Devices Hardware Lab, hidden inside Building 87 of the company’s 40,000-employee Redmond campus which covers nearly 100 hectares an hour’s drive northeast of Seattle, a 24-hour rotation of engineers have worked to build new Surface hardware since before the launch of the original Surface Pro and Surface RT, and the latest device to exit its doors is the Surface Book.
The Surface Book genuinely wowed people upon its announce — a full-sized (if slim) 13-inch laptop with a fully metal chassis milled from magnesium, with impressive battery life and a beautiful super-high-resolution screen. Oh, and that screen? It detaches completely from the keyboard base, but doesn’t sacrifice its top-of-the-line Intel Core i7 processing power. And the Surface Book is built for Windows 10, with an infrared camera for Windows Hello, a Bluetooth pressure-sensitive digitiser pen, and dual noise-cancelling microphones for Cortana voice recognition.
All of this took a lot of work to turn into reality.
Microsoft has not traditionally been a hardware company, especially in personal computing — almost ironic, since some version of Windows runs on nearly 300 million devices around the world. It’s had to learn quickly how to build devices that look good, feel good in the hand, that operate properly and reliably over their multi-year lifespans, that function in the same way or better than the dozens of competitors — and partners — that have been building Windows laptops and tablets for years or decades. So it’s no surprise to find out that the birth of Surface Book especially wasn’t perfect or easy or trouble-free.
The heart of the Hardware Lab is a warehouse space filled with massive, multi-ton computer-controlled CNC mills and metal sintering machines, turning raw blocks of metal — aluminium and magnesium, mostly — into prototypes of different devices, different form factors and internal honeycomb body structures with different properties of strength and weight. We weren’t allowed to photograph anything inside there, for fear we’d spot an unreleased device or early prototype in the corner of shot. But it was big and loud, bright and organised, with a dozen different truck-sized printers humming away and iterating on Surface Pro 5, or Surface Book 2, or whatever Microsoft is working on next.
If the heart is the 3D printing warehouse, then the brain is built all around it, in a dozen different rooms devoted to different disciplines. Microsoft tuned the Surface Book’s stereo speakers, forward-firing from the outer edges of the tablet’s body, as well as the dual noise-cancelling microphones surrounding the front-facing camera, in the Audio Lab in Building 87 — it’s the quietest room in the world. Gopal Gopal is Microsoft’s Principal Human Factors engineer, with a background in the academia of human speech and hearing, and led the team that refined the Surface Book’s ability to clearly distinguish different languages like Xhosa and Zulu.
Microsoft’s legendary Steven Bathiche created the Applied Science Group within the company in 1999, and has been instrumental in securing patents — he has 60 — and leading a team of interdisciplinary scientists that have worked on dozens of different Microsoft devices. Touch and face recognition interfaces aside, Bathiche’s team built a rig that could measure luminance and colour temperature across a wide range of display technologies, and used that expertise to tune and refine the Surface Book’s 13.5-inch PixelSense display, an incredibly sharp 3000x2000pixel panel with amazingly good contrast and black levels and brightness — it’s one of the world’s best displays for either tablet or laptop.
Everything from the Surface Book’s front and rear cameras to the magnetic wire hinge and lock inside the Surface Book’s tablet half were designed and tested and built in the Lab, by a team that knew what competitors were doing and that wanted to do better. Kait Schoek is one of the Surface design team’s visionaries that dreamed up the idea for that hinge, which operates through Windows with hardware and software triggers working together, and was one of the team working day-in, day-out with new 3D-printed and laser-cut designs to make it happen. The early prototypes — one even has a 9-Volt Energiser glued to the display’s glass to fire off the hinge’s relays and motors — are a testament to the work that built Surface Book.
And all of that is beside the point that the vast majority of the Surface Book’s chassis is filled by battery — both in the tablet portion and the keyboard base — leaving only a miniscule amount of room for the motherboard and daughterboards, with strip of silicon barely more than an inch wide hiding CPU, RAM, solid-state storage, a dedicated Nvidia graphics card and all other kinds of processing and I/O. It’s not a tiny 13-inch laptop, but thousands of hours of effort have gone into making its internal components as miniscule as possible.
From a walk through Microsoft’s Devices Hardware Lab in Redmond, it’s clear that there’s a team within the massive company that operates almost like a bootstrapped startup, trying new things — seeing what works and what doesn’t work — to build new devices. The fact that the Surface Book’s tablet-locking hinge was such a surprise, that the Surface Pro 4’s kickstand is oft-imitated, that Windows Hello is taking off — each of these is a feather in the Devices team’s cap. The Surface Book might be a first generation product, and it’s rightly received criticism for that reason. But if this is a first generation device, we really can’t wait to see what comes along next.
When you think about how much the Surface family has evolved — from the unloved Surface RT, to the Surface Pro that was an amazing proof of concept that waited years for computing hardware to catch up, to the finally-refined and ready-for-the-world Surface Pro 4 — in such a short span of time, it’s doubly impressive that this was done at a place that was a software company. It’s not any more, but it was.