No one saw it coming: The Surface Book, history’s first Microsoft laptop (or notebook, if you prefer). And has there ever been a more apt setting for a special delivery than the giant and largely defunct Post Office building in Midtown Manhattan in New York City?
Microsoft’s new head of Windows devices, Panos Panay, was positively gleeful on Tuesday when he introduced the magnesium laptop with an unusual hinge, and he thoroughly enjoyed punking the audience into believing that it was a “normal” touchscreen laptop — until he “replayed” the reveal video with a crucial piece of detail added — it’s a convertible.
This was something different, especially for Microsoft. A full-blown MacBook Pro competitor (and for every other high-end laptop on the market, really) that wore its innovation like a badge. What was special was unmistakable: A four-piece hinge system that rolled out like a carpet, a touchscreen tablet computer that held tightly to the base and still detach at the touch of a button, and dual GPUs (one in the tablet and one in the base) that could somehow be smoothly managed by the Windows 10 operating system.
Up close, the Microsoft Surface Book feels expensive, solid and distinct. The laptop closes, but it doesn’t seal. There’s an intentional gap between the keyboard and screen, until they meet perfectly at the front edge.
When opened, the laptop appears to shift its own weight, a bit of mechanical-engineering sleight of hand that somehow makes the bottom larger than the top. The new pen holds fast to the side in a magnetic vice grip, but feels more than ever like a real writing implement. The brand new “eraser” actually, in the most pleasing way possible, dragged across the screen just a little bit.
Microsoft really has something here, and I couldn’t wait to hear the story behind the Surface Book from the designers themselves.
It’s a notebook
I found Panos Panay, along with design chief Ralf Groene sequestered a floor above the massive keynote stage. On the way to see him, I passed relics from the Post Office’s storied past. Like Microsoft, the entire building is in the midst of a reclamation project, one that will transform a huge swath of it into a commuter rail station. It reminded me of all Microsoft has gone through to reach this point and how much further it has to go in its own renovation project.
The entire Surface line — especially the popular Surface Pro 3 — and Windows 10, have been a big part of that, providing the slow and steady progress back into the spotlight Microsoft needs. The Surface Book, though, is special — even radical. It’s the slam of a wrecking ball that startles everyone and instantly draws their attention. Whatever happens next, the moment Microsoft introduced it will long be remembered.
Panay, who looks absolutely drained when I find him, knows that the Surface Book has that “otherness” that needs to be explained.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Why isn’t it a tablet?’ because it’s not, it’s a clipboard. It’s going to be used differently,” Panay told me as we sat before a collection of design objects that represent the path from Surface Book ideation to launch reality.
Surface Book, said Panay, will spend 80% of its time as complete laptop. It’s why they call the top a “clipboard” instead of a tablet. Microsoft is not pitching the product as a convertible or hybrid. It’s a device that can elegantly serve a dual purpose.
“This clipboard is for writing, it’s for learning, it’s for reading. You want to be more productive than that? Then click into the base and go for it…. It’ll take some time for people to resonate with that, but it is the use case that we built it for,” said Panay.
A couple of pieces of black cardboard held together with a bright strip of yellow tape that says “Surface” stand as proof of this original intention.
I pick it up and it feels stiff and useless, but represents an important idea, the germination of Surface Book as a complete device.
“We had this conversation where Ralf waked in and he said, ‘Hey, Panos, let’s make a book,’” recalled Panay.
A couple of years ago, Groene’s team created the black and completely non-functional mockup; its only relation to the final product is its relative size and the fact that it folds open and closed. It was a pretty basic notebook concept.
Except Panay took to holding it portrait style in one hand, thinking of it as more of an actual book. “We had this vision of ‘let’s make something that feels like a book, let’s go to the next level,’” Panay told me.
Yet, the concept lacked the big idea.
“And then, you walked into me in the lobby and said,” recalled Groene, dropping his voice into a conspiratorial whisper, “‘Let’s take the top off.’”
Groene, who immediately grasped the design and engineering challenges did not exactly jump for joy.
Panay grinned at the recollection, “What a blast, right?” Panay and Groene told engineering they wanted “the best laptop ever” and the “best screen for reading” and “I want to pull off the top and create a whole new category for people. This is Surface, this is what we do. Let’s have people come with us on a reinvention.’”
One can only imagine the color draining out of the engineers’ faces.
Ever since the debut of Windows 8, there have been plenty of PC convertibles, but they usually make design compromises because of their hybrid nature. The keyboard base is usually much heftier than the screen or the screen/tablet top is cantilevered forward so the bottom doesn’t topple over when you open it.
Panay and Groene wanted to build a laptop with Surface DNA in the screen, but have it fold closed like a book.
Groene’s team spent six months tinkering in the model shop. “You have one hinge point, what can you do? And then we figured that you have an object on the top and then balance it out with an object on the base. The object on the base needs to be heavier than the object on the top,” he told me.
That’s a fairly obvious concept, but the differential between the Microsoft Surface Book top and bottom would be measured in ounces, not pounds; the base would only be slightly heavier, which meant they’d need another piece of innovation to make the book look work.
“We had this idea of a hinge that rolls out like a carpet and as you open the laptop, you make the footprint [of the bottom] bigger in order to make this whole product more stable. So if the center of gravity walks outside the footprint, things tip over and if you make the footprint longer, it’s more stable,” said the designer.
Panay saw the effort to create balance in the Surface Book as part of a broader effort to achieve literal and figurative equilibrium.
“There’s balance in the software,” said Panay, noting that the Surface Book’s ability to juggle multiple GPUs (one in the clipboard top and a more powerful Nvidia chip in the base) is a direct result of working closely with the Windows 10 software team. It’s also, claims Panay, a first. “It’s never been done before. This product is the first ever where the GPU is in the base and then a second GPU is in the top.” The result is a “balance” between hardware and software.
As for the more literal balance, that was a fairly intense mechanical-engineering problem.
“When you put all that weight in the top of the product, it’s like 1.57 pounds on the top, you have to balance that out with base. That’s the key. Every single trade-off in the product, how much battery you put in, how much battery you put down bottom, how do we hold to the 12-hour target that we set?” said Panay.
In the end, the battery is split, though not evenly, between the base and top. The top gets four hours of battery life, and the bottom gets eight.
Groene described the act of building a product like the Surface Book as more than a simple collaboration. Engineering and design, he told me, have to do a kind of dance. “The product that will bring this vision to life is this choreography between design and engineering and software coming together,” he said.
That was all well and good, but I wanted to know who, exactly, designed the sure-to-become-iconic hinge?
I suspect Panay or Groene knows who made the first prototype — there were, after all, a couple of very early, plastic maquettes of the hinge right in front of me. Still, all Panay would say is, “If we pointed at one person and said, ‘Hey, this one person figured it out,’ it would be both a mistake and it would be unfair. What you see here is a multitude of functions coming together. This hinge is a mechanical-engineering marvel.”
A solid one, but also two
The Surface Book is distinct from other convertible computers in numerous ways, probably exemplified most by how “clipboard” detaches from the bottom. Unlike its Surface Pro cousins, you cannot simply pull the two pieces apart. They are held together like glue.
“You can pick it up like you pick up laptops,” said Groene.
To detach the device, you hit a dedicated keyboard key for a couple of seconds until you hear a satisfying click, then you can grab a corner and tip the top right out of its Surface Book seating. This simple act, though, is actually a combination of hardware engineering and a little software audio theater.
Groene pulled forward what looked like an aluminum model of the Surface Book. It lacked a real screen and keyboard, but had a cutaway just below the screen area and right above where the hinge would end. There was also, oddly, a 9-volt battery embedded in the screen area and a tiny white switch right above that.
As they were trying to figure out the detachment solution, which included the consideration of levers, solenoids and even hydraulics, they settled on a nifty little alloy called Nitinol. Its marquee feature? It has a sort of “muscle memory” and tightens when you charge it.
The model showed how they tested this first half of the detachment solution. When Groene hit the white button, tiny metal plates where pulled silently sideways by a collection of Nitinol springs.
“In the final product, we used same idea, but added sound design to give you confidence,” said Panay. That’s right, the click you hear when releasing and securing the Surface Book top is nothing but theater. Even so, “that’s what gives me confidence on stage to pick it up without hesitation,” explained Panay.
Panay, Groene and their team knew the Surface Book could be special and so they agonized over small details, maybe no more so than how to add what Panay called a “kiss” to the vaunted hinge. They wanted to give the outer edge of the four-piece hinge a little flourish.
“This is a month of back and forth on how do we light up the whole hinge? Do we just do it when it’s folded? Like when it’s folded in you get that small kiss,” said Panay.
“We had this feeling: We needed to put something on it that refers to precision of this device,” agreed Groene. They settled on a subtle shine on the outer edge of each segment. I actually noticed it when I was first handling the Surface Book (and silently wondered if someone accidentally left the protecti