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How Microsoft’s Surface was conceived and manufactured

At an exclusive press event in Redmond yesterday, Microsoft gave a handful of journalists an insider’s view of how the Surface tablet was conceived, designed, tested, and manufactured. If you had any lingering doubts about the seriousness of Microsoft’s entry into the PC hardware market, they will be banished in the next few hundred words.

According to Steven Sinofsky, work on the Surface tablet began way back in the summer of 2009, as Microsoft started to shift its focus from Windows 7 to Windows 8 – and before the release of the first iPad in spring 2010, incidentally.

Microsoft already knew at that point that Windows 8 would be more touch-friendly than Windows 7, and to show the world (and its OEMs) that touch is a viable input method, it decided to make a showcase tablet. I’m not entirely sure that I buy the veracity of this story, but we’ll give Sinofsky the benefit of the doubt.

What followed was a lot of prototyping – hundreds of potential designs that iterated through varying dimensions and screen sizes. 10.1 inches was deemed too cramped for Windows 8’s split-screen mode, while 11.1 inches was apparently too unwieldy. After much testing, 10.6 inches at 16:9 was picked as the Goldilocks size – big enough for split-screen and a generously proportioned keyboard, but not too large for a handheld device.

Because 10.6 inches is a “non-standard” size, Microsoft claims that it had to make the display itself – though again, I find it hard to believe that Microsoft has actually invested billions of dollars in an LCD production line. It may have invested in one of Asia’s screen makers, though, such as Sharp or LG.

Beyond its actual size, Microsoft was at pains to point out that the Surface RT’s low display resolution (1366 x 768) doesn’t necessarily mean that overall image quality is lower than the iPad 3 (which has a 2048 x 1536 display). Microsoft says that the Surface’s display is optically bonded – a technique where the LCD and front glass are all bonded into a single package. This lowers the screen’s penchant for reflecting/refracting light, and can also increase brightness and contrast. Bonded displays are common in smartphones, but because the process is difficult (and thus prone to breakages) it isn’t generally used with larger LCD panels. The iPad 3 doesn’t feature a bonded display, while the Surface does.

Aside from the display, Microsoft has given us very few details, except for the photo below of the main logic board. We are still running on the information from the June unveil – that the Surface RT tablet sports a quad-core Tegra 3 SoC – even if it would make a lot more sense if there was a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro inside.

The chassis

A lot of work went into the Surface’s chassis, too, with the design team trying out a range of materials before settling on magnesium. All told, at 676 grams and 9.3mm thick the Surface RT isn’t the lightest or thinnest tablet out there, but Microsoft says that it feels lighter due to its internal weight distribution (the battery, the logic board). We’ve also heard a lot about those bevelled edges, which are chamfered at exactly 22 degrees – apparently the ideal angle for hand holding.

Both the magnetic hinge on the bottom of the device (where the keyboard covers attach) and the kickstand required a lot of engineering work, too. More custom parts had to be fabricated – and for the kickstand, there is actually a specific component whose sole purpose is to create a satisfying click sound when pulled out or stowed.

The keyboard

Other than the kickstand, the most intriguing aspect of Surface is the 3mm-thick Touch Cover – a cover that doubles as an ultra-thin keyboard and touchpad. When unfurled, with the kickstand in place, Microsoft claims that the Touch Cover provides a typing experience that far outstrips on-screen tablet typing. Unfortunately, Microsoft still seems very uneasy about letting outsiders try it out. At the June unveil, the Touch Covers were simply plastic stand-ins, and at the event in Redmond we were only given a few minutes to try it out, while Microsoft says it will take users a few days to get used to it. Our initial impression is that the Touch Cover is definitely better than typing on a solid touchscreen, but more testing is required.

Overall, Microsoft definitely gives us the impression that a lot of effort went into making the Surface tablet – and given the £399 price point and $1.5 billion (£930 million) marketing budget, it would seem that Microsoft is putting just as much effort into selling it.

As far as Windows RT (Windows 8 on ARM) is concerned, though, there are still huge question marks over the size and quality of the app ecosystem. Microsoft has produced an attractive, solid-feeling tablet that can go toe-to-toe with the iPad on a hardware level – but if that was enough, then why are full-size Android tablets still an endangered species?

If you’re hungry for more details on the hardware within the Surface, check out our in-depth teardown of the device.