Surface 2 declassified: How Microsoft made Surface into the tablet the world said it wanted

Microsoft's first Surface tablets left room for improvement. We sit down with Panos Panay and other members of the Surface team at Microsoft HQ to find out how the company's group of designers and engineers listened and regrouped to create the next generation.

Tim Stevens/CNET

REDMOND, Wash. -- Panos Panay and I stand on the third floor of Microsoft's Studio B, an unassuming building easily missed amid the company's sprawling Redmond campus. Panay, the Microsoft VP in charge of the Surface, looks a bit tired as he leans on a handrail and looks out across the inner courtyard of the building, the hub of Microsoft's ever-expanding and increasingly impressive hardware efforts. Still, he's visibly enthusiastic about the work he's about to show me.

A series of balconies frame a central meeting area below. To our left, a giant display ticks off the days until to the Xbox One launch: 60-some and counting. "The Xbox One design work happened on the fourth floor," Panay tells me. Other than the odd mouse and keyboard, the rest of the building is dominated by the company's tablet efforts, highlighted by large "Surface" stickers plastered onto most of the inner-facing windows. These are proud territory markers.

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The Surface project, which started in a small, windowless room on the ground floor, has now spread to take over nearly the entire, heavily secured building. The beeps of ID badge scanners and the clunks of heavy doors punctuate the daily routines of a team that, once a dozen employees, now numbers some 500 in Redmond alone and more than 1,000 internationally.

Panay gives me a lay of the land: design, engineering, supply chain -- all disciplines comingle in Studio B to foster open communication. The large, central area on the first floor is meant for quick meetings. Offices and cubicles fill the sides, and in the corners lie what Panay calls "vaults" -- secure rooms segmented internally with areas requiring even more-privileged access. The vaults are where the critical stuff happens.

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It's into one of these vaults that Panay takes me, then farther into a secure lab within. It's clear the lab has been dressed up a bit for the visit. On white platforms around the edges lie Surface tablets and a phalanx of accessories -- rainbows of Touch and Type covers, a new dock, a new battery cover, a few exposed motherboards and battery packs, and, over in the corner connected to a JamBox, the DJ-friendly Surface Remix Project.

Panay briefly explains the lineup, detailing how the new $899 Surface Pro has improved internals for more performance and battery life, and that the $449 Surface 2 (nee RT) is thinner and lighter and faster and has a higher-res display. He highlights the new covers and other accessories and then, politely, excuses himself.

"Have fun. This is your lab now," he tells me on the way out the door, leaving me to play with the new toys his team has been developing in secrecy for over a year. He's obviously confident, and he has good reason to be.

History

It was Julie Larson-Green , executive vice-president of the Devices and Studios group at Microsoft and a potential heir to the Microsoft throne, who brought Panay onto the brand-new Surface team after she discovered his work on Microsoft's first Surface product, which he'd been a part of since 2008. Back then, the Surface was a big, smart table-shaped computer controlled by touch -- not today's thin laptop replacement. That Surface wowed nearly everyone who tried it, but its consumer applications were limited, to say the least.

When it came time to build the flagship, touch-based platform for Windows 8, Larson-Green knew who to call. Her pitch was simple and ultimately effective: "We're going to reinvent Windows and we need a showcase for the product. We need to do our own hardware to do that. You should come to Windows and build the Surface PC."

Even in the Microsoft tablet's infancy, the team called the project "Surface," though the group would cycle through many other options before finally deciding to keep the name and rebrand the smart tables as "PixelSense." (The leading Surface alternate, by the way, was "One." That title would go on to make a comfortable living at HTC.)

During the birth of the Surface, Steven Sinofsky was boss of Windows and a major Surface proponent. (He was also the man who brilliantly suggested putting a USB port on the Surface's AC adapter.) Sinofsky left Microsoft in November 2012, almost immediately after the tablet's debut. The public's initially cool response to the tablets and the sudden nature of his departure gave rise to no shortage of speculation, but the official word was that of an amicable parting of ways. "Steven did an awesome job of setting up our team," a Surface designer told us. "He's responsible for a lot of what we look like and how we work here. His presence is still felt."

Larson-Green now heads up the group that owns the Surface, also overseeing the launch of the Xbox One and every other piece of hardware that Microsoft makes -- and will make. If there's one thing the Surface team loves to tease but hates to discuss, it's future devices. "Surface 2 was being developed before the launch of Surface RT. That's something to frame," Panay told me with a hint of pride.

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Those first 2012 Surfaces were impressive, the premiere efforts of a fledgling hardware team, designed under the watchful, steel-rimmed eyes of Microsoft's Wolfsburg-raised and Bauhaus-minded creative director Ralf Groene. No one could find many faults in the design of those slates, nor in the spot-on concept of a productivity-focused tablet.

But the execution suffered shortcomings. Battery life on the Surface Pro disappointed. Many wanted more screen pixels and more apps for the RT. And then there was the kickstand and its critical flaw: you could hardly call the Surface a laptop replacement if you couldn't comfortably use it in your lap.

To prove that the new Surface 2 is far more lap-friendly, Groene sits me down in a black Eames lounge chair, itself of the most iconic designs of all time. The subtly curvaceous wooden seat is comfortable and steeply reclined. The new Surface on my lap can be more steeply reclined, too, kickstand offering an additional angle that is far more stable than before. However, it's still not exactly comfortable with the thin kickstand cutting into my legs.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Feedback and revision

Panay can't suppress a big smile when I inquire about his Reddit AMAs (here and here), in which he invited that vast yet remarkably civil and thoughtful community to ask him anything. That they did, and he and his team answered nearly every question -- "unless it was about our road map, for competitive reasons."

Each of Panay's posts garnered roughly 3,500 upvotes, a healthy number in what turned out to be an equally healthy discussion for Panay, who was inundated with many recurring demands. One of the clearest, he says, was, "We need to be able to attach a keyboard with a battery." This rather pointed request was music to his ears, as the team was already testing such a keyboard in the lab. Instantly, he knew their instincts were on-point.

Panay mentions requests for a better camera and a more adaptable kickstand as additional missions delivered by Redditors of the world, missions successfully completed by the Surface team with the introduction of the new Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 .

Of course, some less polite complaints about the tablets' shortcomings bubbled up among the helpful suggestions and polite requests for functionality. Battery life issues headlined and echoed the problems highlighted in most reviews, including my own and CNET's. These reactions were not a surprise to the Surface team. The designer I spoke with told me, "Our goal was just to make the best hardware out there. That's a pretty hefty goal....Coming into this market that's so saturated, I think we expected mixed reviews."

And that's why Panos, Groene, Larson-Green, and everyone else I spoke with at Microsoft was so eager to point out all the many improvements made to the two new Surface tablets -- and the myriad accessories coming along for the ride. Battery life? Improved by up to 100 percent on the new Pro. Screen resolution? 1080p on the Surface 2. Lap-friendly kickstand? Fingerprint-resistant exterior? Better cameras? Check, check, and double-check.

Few, though, were more eager to talk innovative specifics than Steven Bathiche, the wild-haired Director of Research at Microsoft and a man who spends much of his time tinkering in a windowless laboratory he named after Thomas Edison.

Tim Stevens/CNET

In the corners of the Edison lab, in various states of disassembly, I found prototypes and production versions of the PixelSense table , a device covered by numerous patents in which Bathiche is named. A big, truly different product like that is easy to get excited about, but he's just as happy to talk about the many improvements he and his team contributed to the next-gen Surfaces.

First among Bathiche's fixes is the new Touch Cover, barely distinguishable from the previous version externally, yet vastly different on the inside. What was basically one sensor per key, about 80 total, is now an array of 1,100 discrete sensors that can detect exactly how hard your finger is pressing and where it landed -- even if it landed between keys. This enables gestures and a new level of accuracy that the original Surface lacked. Along the way, his team added backlit keys and increased the rigidity of the typing surface. "We went from 80 sensors to 1,100, we added a light guide, and it's thinner. And it's stiffer. That's cool," Bathiche says.

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That is cool, and indeed many of the most interesting innovations in this new line of Surface tablets lie not in the devices themselves but in their accessories. But just as with the first Surface, these innovations run the risk of receiving a giant collective shrug from the public. People just don't get excited about accessories, regardless of how innovative. Microsoft doesn't include any of the keyboards in the price of either tablet. This lets users choose whether and which keyboard cover to purchase, but it also has the side-effect of relegating these devices to footnote status.

But the new Surface Pro's biggest improvement, battery life that lasts twice as long, also risks going unacknowledged. Double the battery life in a new machine would be a stunning development under normal circumstances, but Intel's Haswell CPUs have essentially made such improvements mandatory for x86 systems launched in 2013. We've come to expect it.

The Surface team insists it owes only half the new Surface's battery life improvement to the latest silicon from Intel. According to the team, Microsoft engineers toiled for months to optimize every driver and every internal component, measuring current to the closest microamp, reducing the number of low-power DDR3 chips, and making countless other tweaks. One thing they didn't change: the size of the batteries. They remain the same as before.

The critical question

One by one, the Microsoft team has checked off almost every upgrade dropped from the initial version of Surface because of cost or complexity. If you had a complaint about the original Surface hardware, chances are your concern has now been addressed. The new Surface devices are world-class; the Surface 2 sparks with great performance and a bright, 1080p, calibrated display. It looks and feels fantastic in the hand, and, at $449 for 32GB, is priced quite competitively with the $599 32GB iPad. The new Pro, meanwhile, has all that battery life and more performance to boot. That Microsoft pulled all this off in a relatively short period of time certainly is an accomplishment.

Tim Stevens/CNET

However, there's another, vastly important aspect of the Surface success equation: the software. Some of the most critical problems with the original slates were core aspects of Windows 8. The operating system is far and away the most finger-friendly Windows yet, but the need to frequently drop into desktop mode on the Pro raised a host of troublesome scaling issues. Those issues were less of a problem on the RT, but only thanks to the incompatibility with legacy apps. New apps have since marched steadily into the Windows app store, climbing to over 100,000 choices, but major gaps (Pandora, Rdio, Firefox, Chrome, YouTube, HBO Go, Facebook, to name a few) remain.

Windows 8.1 helps the scaling issue somewhat by adding features like discrete settings for external displays, and it finally allows developers to better tailor their desktop apps for tablet use. However, there continues to be a huge difference between the new Microsoft Design Language apps (the tiled interface formerly known as "Metro") and the traditional desktop that's been around since Windows 95. Moving between the two will still feel clumsy and disjointed. It's clear that these devices, which were meant to be a showcase for Windows, are evolving more rapidly and more progressively than the operating systems they run.

So there it lingers -- the critical question: Will the quality of the new Surface hardware pave over the kinks and gaps in the software? The world will need more time to experience both the new device and new revision of Windows together at length to make that call, but I feel comfortable putting a related doubt to rest.

Tim Stevens/CNET

If you feared Microsoft might drop the Surface RT after its initial sales struggles , every indication points the opposite direction. After all, Microsoft calls the tablet simply "Surface 2" this time around. Larson-Green told us the Surface program is "incredibly important to the business." And, of course, Panay can't resist teasing about things to come:

"The team is overexcited. We have such a long road map ahead of us, and we know we're in this marathon. The team knows that. You start with your first generation of products, you put them out there, you know they're good. There are ways they can get better. Now the second generation comes, they only get more motivated and when you look at our road map to come."

A Surface designer confirmed that sentiment: "We're excited. Launch time is always a good time."

Still, this designer couldn't resist asking, multiple times and with a hint of unease, what I thought -- whether I was impressed by what I'd seen. I told her I was indeed impressed, impressed by the quality of the hardware and impressed by the dedication of the team. But in the end, of course, it's not whether I'm impressed. It's whether you are, dear reader.

About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

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