CES: Underneath Microsoft's new Surface

Microsoft's big update to Surface has made it considerably smaller, more accurate to touch, and even cheaper. But is it ready for your living room?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read
Touching the new Surface
Microsoft's new Surface computer makes use of LCD technology for a thinner exterior. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

LAS VEGAS--While much of last night's CES kick-off keynote by Microsoftcentered on huge Kinect sales, Windows Phone 7 features, the latest PCs, and the technical prowess of the next version of Windows, tucked into the presentation was a product that has been largely untouched since its introduction back in 2007.

That would be Microsoft's Surface, a $12,500 table-top, multitouch computer, which has a new version shipping out later this year that's five grand cheaper, has 10 inches of additional screen real estate, more powerful internals, and a drastically thinner underside.

The new unit is four inches thick and made out of an LCD panel that's been optically bonded to 40 inches of Corning's Gorilla Glass. This can be placed either horizontally on stands or counter tops, or (for the first time) on vertical surfaces for use as a kiosk. In fact, if you didn't know any better, when it's on a wall, it's easily mistaken for a TV.

"Two years ago, this was not possible from a technology standpoint," Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft's Surface project, told CNET in an interview. "What we've done with Samsung LCD is gone right to the manufacturing line. And part of the panel is embedding these sensors right into it. So now it's basically coming right off the standard LCD line."

That move to LCD and away from projection technology with multiple cameras has resulted in the smaller size, as well as what Panay said is a much more reliable product. This last bit ends up being one of the most important aspects of the second generation hardware, since the first Surface units were prone to having their camera system jiggled out of whack, which would result in a loss of precision.

Surface 2.0
The newer version of Surface looks more like a TV screen sitting on a stand, than an old arcade cabinet. (click to enlarge) Microsoft

As for the bigger size, Panay said 40 inches was not a guess or an accident. "With all our version one learning, this is almost the perfect distance for two people sit across from each other. It's the perfect width for two people to sit next to each other and interact," he said.

New on the inside too
The overhaul of the display centers on 2 million sensors that have been built into the panel. These are placed one between each pixel and trade off between picking up visible or infrared light. This new system is also what lets you put down something like a sheet of paper and have it be able to pick up its features.

The technology that powers the recognition of that data, which Panay said was around 1 gigabit per second, is something Microsoft calls PixelSense. It's not powerful enough to recognize something like a person's fingerprint, but it gives the unit more accuracy when it comes to being able to differentiate users by the size of their fingers as well as where they're sitting on the board. That data ends up giving developers a lot more to work with when it comes time to build applications, something Panay said should let developers make applications they couldn't make with the first version.

But hardware aside, some of the most substantial changes have been made to the system's software. Microsoft has overhauled the Surface's UI to make it browse, find, and launch applications. Instead of scrolling through large application icons--something that Panay said did not scale well--every single installed application shows up in an "accordion" that sits in the center of the screen. Apps that don't show up in the core group get squeezed down into smaller rectangular icons, which can still be easily spotted and tapped to launch.

To jump back to the Surface's home screen, users now have to slide up a software button on one of the corners, much like unlocking a touchscreen cellphone.
To jump back to the Surface's home screen, users now have to slide up a software button on one of the corners, much like unlocking a touchscreen cellphone. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

This new app launching UI is automatically oriented based on where the user who unlocked the system is sitting. Panay said this uses PixelSense by having users simply put all 10 fingers on the display. If for some reason a person on the other side of the table wants to see it from their angle, the menu can now be flipped around with a swiping gesture from one of the corners.

Corners too have been been given a tweak, requiring users to slide their fingers up--much like unlocking a modern day smartphone, in order to jump back to the home menu. This, Panay said, keeps accidental taps in the corner from exiting users from an app.

As part of the update, Microsoft plans to roll out a major version of its Surface software development kit for developers to take advantage of the new hardware and the PixelSense technology. Panay would not go into detail on the timing of its release, but suffice to say that it is coming.

But what Panay would divulge is that Bing is now the default search application for Surface. Microsoft has put together a Surface-centric Bing app that multiple users can take advantage of at a single table.

To begin a search on Bing, Surface makes use of a virtual keyboard.
To begin a search on Bing, Surface makes use of a virtual keyboard. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Each Bing search box can float around the Surface tabletop and look up Web pages and images, which cluster around once a search begins. Searches can also be attached to specific objects as part of the Surface's pre-existing tag identifying system.

In your home?
One thing Microsoft still wants to make quite clear is that this is still not a consumer product for your living room--at least not yet. The company still views Surface as a tool for businesses, as can be seen with some of the companies that Microsoft says will be the first to make use of the newer hardware.

What may get in consumer hands sooner is the PixelSense technology in products that are a smaller size than a TV or the new Surface, but out of the range of where capacitive touchscreens can be made with cost efficiency.

"Specific to Surface, capacitive technology currently does not scale well due to both cost and its limitations on touch only," Panos said.

But don't expect other devices with PixelSense just yet. "Right now, PixelSense is built for 40 inches. We focus on 40 inches and we're going to continue to optimize for 40 inches," Panay said.