At Ignite 2015, Microsoft’s Vineet Thuvara, a general program manager on the Surface team talked in depth about what went into designing the Surface Pro 3. You probably know by now that the Surface Pro 3 is a resounding success across the consumer and the commercial space and as you might have guessed, a lot of work went into designing the tablet that can replace your laptop.
Thuvara starts off by talking about the purpose of the Surface line, which is to blur the boundaries between laptops and tablets, making it a seamless experience to switch between two computing modes.
“We create devices that people love with the best experiences Microsoft has to offer, where people can do what they want and get done what they need.”
Microsoft also had to take a lot of development factors into account. The Surface team had to think about customer expectations when designing the Surface Pro 3, how fast they can build it in an efficient way to meet market deadlines, the cost effectiveness of the product - Microsoft is after all, a business - and last but not least, “manuacturability”, or how complex is it to find the right combination of manufacturers for the parts and components required.
“[The design process] is like solving a LEGO puzzle when you’ve assembled two pieces and you find that the other pieces are changing their size and shape”
Thuvara reveals that making the Surface Pro 3 thinner and lighter was of vital importance. Despite praising the Surface Pro 2 for being “built like a tank”, jokingly saying that you “could hit someone with it and nothing would happen [to the device]”, customers still wanted something that was thinner, lighter, and thus more portable.
Microsoft opted to use a magnesium alloy for the enclosure that although is more difficult and expensive to manufacture compared to aluminum, it’s also about 30% lighter for the same volume. And in an effort to ensure that the Surface Pro 3 was environmentally friendly from “cradle to grave”, the company tried to persuade manufacturers that relied on using oil to control the temperature of the highly flammable magnesium when machining it, to using water instead. Manufacturers thought this was a crazy and impossible request at first, until they gave in to Microsoft’s determination and found a way to make it possible. Go Microsoft!
In regards to the batteries used. Typical batteries tend to last about 6-8 months, but because Microsoft wanted to completely seal off the Surface Pro 3 for the sake of esthetics, a clean design and a thinner profile, Microsoft needed batteries that last about 3.5-4 years without needing to be serviced. So the company had to work closely with suppliers to design custom batteries for the Surface Pro 3.
Another dilemma Microsoft faced with the batteries was finding the right size. Since the device is going to be thinner, the batteries need to be spaced out more, taking up a larger surface area (no pun intended). This however led to intense discussions with the team in charge of the motherboard, who were already struggling to shrink the PCB, so much so, they had to invent a new way - which the company has patented of course - to integrate memory.
Microsoft had to think about making the Surface Pro 3 thinner without sacrificing performance, and cooling was a very important factor. The hybrid device simply wouldn’t provide a tablet experience if it burned peoples hands. Typically in electronics, squeezing components closer together results in more heat, so this led to the team designing a new thermal solution where the cooling fan is itself integrated into the heat-sink, instead of being placed adjacent to it, or on top of it.
Unlike the Surface Pro 2 that has two fans, the Surface Pro 3 only has one. But because of its ingenious design, that one fan does the job of cooling the tablet just as well as its predecessor. Located in the top right corner of the device, the fan efficiently cools all the necessary components as you can see in the air flow pattern graph above.
The kickstand has always been a crucial part of the Surface line from the very beginning, but users complained that the device didn’t allow them to replicate the angles that a laptop provides. While a kickstand with predefined angles was easier for the engineering team to design and manufacture, it hindered the performance of the device as a laptop replacement. So Microsoft went all out with the kickstand on the Surface Pro 3.
Thuvara says that the full friction kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 was one of the most complicated aspects of the product to design. But because it's such as important aspect of the product, the company went to great lengths to perfect it, like ordering 6 economy class seats from Boeing so that the team didn’t have to fly every time they wanted to test how useful the kickstand was when used on an airplane.
Just like the batteries, the kickstand needs to last 3 to 4 years without needing to be replaced. As with anything that has moving parts, there will be wear and tear. Additionally, because of how compact the components are in the Surface Pro 3, the two hinges on the device are not identical. Functionally, they work together in tandem and in perfect harmony, but physically, they are different. Each hinge is made up of 8 small parts, but only two of those parts are physically identical and are shared between the hinges, the other 6 are not.
The hinges also have to provide different levels of friction at each stage so that for example when the kickstand is first open, the is no friction at all to about 25 degrees, after that point the friction needs to be light enough to adjust the kickstand, but strong enough to hold its position when the user taps on the screen to writes with the pen. It’s a very intricate design, an engineering marvel.
What does a car manufacturer have to do with the Surface Pro 3? Paint technology. Microsoft talked to a company that designs the paint for Porsche vehicles because it wanted to create a product that would not lose its paint layer when a user drops the device. So the company ended up using the same paint technology used on Porsche cars on the Surface Pro 3. “It was super expensive” says Thuvara, and the company’s finance department questioned the decision as cars are designed to last 7 years compared to 3-4 years for electronics. It simply wasn’t viable, but the Surface team pushed and had its way, promising to find a way to innovate down the line to reduce the cost of using the technology over time.
Every Surface Pro 3 device is dropped from 10 feet onto a concrete floor before it gets packaged and shipped to customers. That’s a lie. If you’ve read this far, grab a cookie, you deserve it, and probably need it. But seriously, Microsoft sadistically tortured Surface Pro 3 prototypes in drop, tumble, temperature, humidity and other tests to ensure that the device remains functional even after a severe drop. The company even used cats as a measure to see if the kickstand would break when your feline overlord jumped on your Surface Pro 3.
The company used high-speed cameras to see how the device bends and wobbles during drops for example, then spends hours analyzing the videos and figuring out which areas of the enclosure needs reinforcing. Lots of torture, but it’s for science, and ultimately, customer satisfaction and peace of mind.
One of the problems with increasing the screen size on the Surface Pro 3 was also having to increase the size of the Type Cover as well, since it doubles as a cover. A side effect is that now, the Surface Pro 3 takes up more space on the lap. This increases wobble and since it takes up more lap space, it makes the device prone to falling off people’s knees when sitting down. Microsoft solved this rather elegantly with magnets that attach to the base of the Surface.
Microsoft spent months on the design. 8 magnets get the job done and the company paid a lot of attention to getting the magnetic force just right. Just like the friction hinge, a good balance needed to be struck; the magnets had to be strong enough to stay in place, but weak enough to tear off without pulling a muscle. Also, Microsoft had to think about industry standards for magnetism. The company needed to ensure that the magnets did not affect other components in the Surface, as well other devices that user may have such as smartphones.
Many questioned why Microsoft switched from using the battery-less, hence more convenient, Wacom pen technology in the Surface Pro 1 and 2 to using n-trig technology on the Surface Pro 3. The reasons are two-fold. The first is decreasing latency and accuracy, and the second is to add more functionality to the pen.
A battery helps achieve both those goals. Now that the pen has more power at its disposal, it can reduce response times, giving users a very natural writing experience, as well as add a button to launch OneNote, so that users can immediately start taking notes before the idea they had is lost.
The AAAA battery used also adds to the weight of the pen, which isn’t necessarily bad in this case as it gives the pen more of a substantial feel. Like a real high-end pen, it once again adds to the natural writing experience, almost as if users were taking down notes using a real notebook and pen.
As with every other aspect of the Surface Pro 3, a lot of thought went into designing the pen as you can see in the image above. An interesting part of Thuvara’s discussion was on the storage of the pen. Currently, the only way to store the pen is to use the Surface Pen Loop, which attaches to the Type Cover or the Surface itself. While the pen itself can be attached magnetically, it’s not reliable and can easily fall off. People questioned why the pen couldn’t be stored in a silo in the enclosure, just as is done on some Samsung devices. The reason is that Microsoft prioritized the writing experience over storage. If you look at the pens that can be stored in Samsung phablets and tablets, they’re miniscule, extremely thin, and come nowhere near what the Surface Pen offers in terms of the writing experience, so this is yet another compromise that Microsoft had to make. However, the company is fully invested in the pen, and will continue to find innovative ways to enhance the temporary storage solution with the Loop while somehow maintaining the excellent writing experience.
Thuvara also shared some information on the new Surface 3. He revealed that the device is primarily targeted at students, busy parents, and mobile, cost-aware professionals. He also gave us a look at what the device looks like on the inside, which you can see in the images above and below. The device is absolutely gorgeous, inside and out. A lot of the innovation from the Surface Pro 3 went into designing the Surface 3 as you can expect.
Looking towards the future, the Surface Pro 4 is on its way, and if rumors are true, the device will be more of an evolution of the Surface Pro 3 rather than a revolution, and here’s where the long-term cost effectiveness mentioned earlier comes into play, with the Surface 3 being the first sign of that. The Surface Pro 3 is a fantastic device already and may only need minor changes to perfect. Nonetheless, judging by the attention to detail the Surface team pays to the products they build, we expect whatever comes next to be just as fine-tuned. The bar has been set high, and there’s no dialing it back now.