Surface, the sorta-tablet-sorta-laptop that shouts the future, goes on sale later this month. We got to peek (and touch, a little bit!) behind the scenes, with access to Microsoft's secret labs never granted to anyone else before. So, should you buy a Surface? Very possibly—the thing seems pretty fantastic.
At least, that's what Microsoft is screaming until its lungs explode.
Note: for those of you who don't care about anything except how and when you can buy a Surface, OK: it's available for pre-order in the UK today, with the 32GB model running £399 over there, and the 64 GB costing £559, including keyboard. You can buy them straight from Microsoft here.
In a pretend Microsoft retail store in a nondescript Redmond shopping compound, masked from the outside world and cordoned off by corporate paramilitary forces—I had to attach a labelled sticky note to my phone and surrender it before entering—is a prototype of what every Microsoft store will look like when Surface launches. "Store Zero," they call it. It's a fake store, but the idea is very real: All Surface Everything. The word is everywhere. Almost half the joint is covered with slate samples. And in the back, on a very large screen, we were treated to a preview of the first ad for Microsoft's wunderkomputer, a one minute dance montage directed by the guy who brought us Step Up 2 and one of the G.I. Joe movies. It's sixty seconds of people whirling around with impeccable matte Surfaces, clicking the keyboards into place, spinning into each others' arms, grinning, winking, spinning more, twirling upside down—an orgiastic tablet frenzy, a perfect hybrid of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and late-season Glee.
Microsoft presents Surface with the pride parents would ascribe to a drumming, overachieving baby. Its creators actually refer to it as "baby" on multiple occasions.
Absent from the ad is any mention of how you actually use the computer, or why you should. Which is odd, because Microsoft gave me a meticulously guided tour of its hermetically sealed R&D facilities just to impress upon me how much thought it put into the Surface as a super-slim ultra-computer of the current millennium, not a musical dance prop. And there's no reason to doubt it: Microsoft poured an unprecedented amount of dedication and consideration into Surface, easily (ostensibly) equaling Apple's recent design fanaticism with the iPhone 5. It shines with thoughtfulness. The size of the screen was agonised over, oscillating between fractions of an inch to reach ideal proportions for Windows 8's multitasking. It had to feel exactly like a book, spine and all. The kickstand, project leaders explained to us, was carefully tweaked so that it would sound exactly perfect when it snaps shut. The extent to which this click was obsessed over during the design process seems like marketing hot air, then insanity, and then after you keep hearing them talk about it, you realise it's just a company truly giving a damn about making something beautiful and nearly perfect.
Surface has an extra, custom-designed hinge devoted solely to create this particular click sound.
The industrial design team, commanded by a Teutonic Jonny Ive equivalent with glasses as meticulously designed as the computer he oversaw, walked us through Microsoft's creative odyssey, the spirit of which they say began before Windows 7 was even finished. A time, Microsoft brass archly points out, in which there was "a complete absence of an iPad." Microsoft says it's the logical advancement of everything that is Microsoft—everything that is the computer, regardless of what shape it takes. It's not about an expensive way to play Temple Run or watch movies on an airplane, say Redmond's acolytes. It's about making things. Real life stuff, like emails, essays, presentations. Things that earn you money, grades, and gratification. Not the sexy stuff of Zooey Deschanel ads or dance routines, but, as the boring term calls it, productivity. Creation, not consumption.
In other words: screw you, iPad, I'm writing a book report on this thing. Go to hell, Kindle Fire HD—I'm writing books, not reading them. At least, that's how Microsoft would like to frame it.
The crazy thing is, this may not be just bluster. After all, Surface runs Windows, and as un-sexy as that might sound, in 2012, it's actually great. Windows RT, the tablet-ised version of Windows 8, will give you almost all the tools you're used to using on a desktop, plus the plush touch wonders of the new Metro Start Menu interface. So you can swipe around Twitter feeds and maps with extremely fluidity—Surface's touch display is one of the best, most responsive I've ever laid fingers on—and then set your wrists down to tap-type away like you would on a desktop's keyboard.
The Touch Cover, which we were given a chance to finally paw under supervised lab conditions, combines a super-sensitive pressure-triggered keyboard and trackpad into one mega-thin sheet, definitely isn't painless. It will take practice. Typos were frequent, and my hands felt off when I first put them down on the thing. But even within ten minutes or so I was able to feel my brain slowly rewiring itself, no longer relying on the feeling of buttons being pressed down, but letting the recesses and the laser-etched lettering guide my fingertips. It never registered keystrokes in error. You can rest your wrists on it without typing "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" by accident. It's all tuned by software algorithm to detect when you're intentionally typing.
Microsoft says it'll take about five days for you to reach full speed typing on a Surface. I didn't have anywhere near enough typing time to say for sure, but I'd reckon you'll double that to account for discrepancies between Microsoft and reality. The thought of getting actual work done, or composing an email more than "k thx" on an iPad makes me want to commit shrieking suicide. On a Surface, it seems to be just a pleasant trip up a learning curve. Would it be more ideal if the keyboard worked perfectly right away? Of course it would. But if the effort to get it seamless turns out to be as nominal as Microsoft promises, it'll be well worth it.
We weren't allowed to photograph anything we saw, which is a drag, so here's a list of design-wow bullet points, the next best thing to a JPG:
- The Surface design we know now was initially inspired by a Moleskine notebook. Then a college ruled spiral notebook, carved up with a knife with strung together with scotch tape to resemble the real thing.
- The industrial design team, which Microsoft says had never received outside visitors before, stared at each other with a mix of caution, paranoia, and terror when we walked in, like some isolated indigenous tribe who'd traded spears and arrows for typeface manuals and Pantone swatches. They were up to their neck in dizzying prototype sketches and hugely complex planning diagrams. Their love was manifest.
- Speaking of prototypes, the team's leader says they went through roughly 300 models before arriving at the Surface's current form. They still sit, stacked upon each other like old magazines, in the Surface design studio. Piles and piles.
- Some of these models were unbelievably ugly—one's back was covered in reflective chrome trim.
- The current model is entirely beautiful. One of the most subtle, powerful, and lovely pieces of gadget design I've ever held.
- The sound the keyboard makes when touched was agonized over—it had to sound just as right as it felt. It does. The keyboard, Microsoft says, also knows when its trackpad is being used as a spacebar instead of a trackpad. The keyboard is smart.
- The team used paper printouts of a keyboard and ink-stamped fingertips from hand focus groups in order to craft an optimal button layout that anyone could type quickly on.
- The Surface's proprietary magnesium construction is strong as hell. At one point, a team leader brought out a Surface with skateboard wheels affixed to it and rolled back and forth standing on top. It barely flexed.
- The custom-crafted polyurethane Touch Cover is washable. Spill your gravy on it and then put it under the sink.
- Microsoft is obsessed with chamfers. Our year, 2012, might just be the year of the chamfer. The team spend literally minutes talking about the decision to go from an 0.3 mm chamfer on the Surface's top edge to an 0.5 mm chamfer. It was admitted that the stage Surface was first revealed upon mirrored the exact chamfering of the Surface's frame. Do you realize how crazy that is? Do you realize how much Microsoft loves this computer? There's no shame in googling "chamfer."
Here's all you really need to know, all we can know at this point: Surface is truly gorgeous, and fantastically designed upon first blush, and second blush. But despite Microsoft's insistence that it has no carefully chamfered axe to grind, the company is obviously insecure about its wonderful computer. The comparisons to and preemptive defenses against the iPad were countless—despite an immediate declaration that Surface is in a category of its own (it's not, unless your definitions get so narrow that everything is its own category).
It's a company compelled by the powers of a terrific computer-designing demon. It's a company possessed. It's a company whose executives literally packed us into an auditorium and shook the Surface by its Touch Cover's hinges to show how strong those hinges are, and that it will not come loose. It didn't. Our look at Surface was equal parts posturing and powerful sincerity. Microsoft is diving after this thing with the crazed ferocity of a starving man, putting on grand theatrics for both us as press and everyone else as advertised-to public like a bus with no brakes.
What it doesn't realise, perhaps, is that it may not have to. Put aside all the neuroses and manic design education, and Surface gives every indication of being a terrific device. And if Microsoft can get the word out, can sell enough of them without giving itself a corporate ulcer or psyching itself out of the game completely, Surface just might be the most explosive, crazy-worthy gadget in a long time. Assuming, of course, that it lives up its enormous expectations.