I put on a pair of goggles as I walk into a secured lab. In one room a 3-D printer churns out a mock-up of the back cover. In another room a laser printer spits out a sample layout of the Touch Cover keyboard. In another secured lab around the corner a machine makes a sound similar to a dentist’s drill as it carves into aluminum. Down the hall a machine drops the tablet from at least 15 feet above the ground.
This is the building where Microsoft created and tested its first-ever tablet — the Surface.
Yesterday, five months since the dramatic announcement of its Windows 8 tablet, Microsoft followed with the pricing and availability of the Surface. It also had a small media event at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., revealing details of the making of the tablet.
“We had to use every ounce of space smartly,” Panos Panay, the general manager of the Microsoft Surface, said as he welcomed journalists. “Everything in this tablet was intentional,” he later said.
I spent three hours touring the building in which the Surface was made. I was told about the display and why Microsoft intentionally made it 10.6 inches across rather than 10.1 to accommodate a wider keyboard. I learned that the hinges of the kickstand had to be specially made for durability, but also so the sound they made didn’t seem cheap. I learned that the Touch Cover keyboard went through hundreds of iterations to make it feel like a real keyboard and to get it down to a thickness of less than 3mm.
There’s more. I was told that the tablet’s VaporMg frame (a magnesium-aluminum combination) and Gorilla Glass screen are so tough that you can safely drop it or turn it into a skateboard and stand on it. (Microsoft doesn’t actually recommend you do that, but Windows head Steven Sinofsky did tweet pictures of it.) I also learned about the ClearType display’s contrast and resolution and why higher resolution may not always mean better.
Hard-core gadget geeks like me will find all those details extremely interesting. But Microsoft opened its doors in Redmond for another reason: to tell key journalists, and by extension the world, that it’s serious about making hardware now.
Software? Eh, they have been doing that for years. But hardware — well designed, well thought-out hardware — that’s new. And Microsoft says it is invested in and serious about it.
Of course, the downside was that I didn’t get to spend much time with the tablet. But I did try it long enough to conclude the tablet is well made and the Touch Cover provides a unique typing experience. It’s entirely different from typing on a physical keyboard or on a tablet’s glass screen. In the brief time I got to test the keyboard in one of the labs, I was able to type at a decent clip. I did have trouble getting the space bar to work, though; Microsoft maintains it will take a bit for you and it to adjust to each other.
Next week, on Oct. 26, the Surface goes on sale in Microsoft stores and begins shipping to those who pre-ordered the tablet. Microsoft says it is confident it is one of the best products to show off the potential of Windows 8, and at $499 it’s priced right in line with the iPad.
Next week, though, the lab goggles come off and goggle-free buyers are simply going to want to know how the tablet works without thinking about the hardware inside.