The Windows and Devices Group pulled off an incredible event earlier this week that looked and felt completely different than previous Microsoft launches. And the tech world took notice, some calling it the most exciting event from a technology company this year. Undoubtedly, this was due to a slew of great presentations starting with Terry Myerson setting of the stage of Windows 10’s growth, to Bryan Roper’s “productive like a boss” demonstration of Continuum, to Panos Panay’s pride in the Surface team’s commitment to craftsmanship.
But the arguably the absolute show stopper was the grand finale, the unveiling of Microsoft’s first laptop, the Surface Book. While there were vague rumors of a larger Surface being introduced at Tuesday’s event, the new laptop-first hybrid shocked the audience.
The Surface Book stomps out any of the Surface Pro’s complaints of ‘lapability” (the concern you can’t really use a kickstand supported device in your lap or other uneven surfaces) by introducing a hard keyboard notebook form factor with a detachable and reversible display. And what makes this possible, and gives the Surface Book its definitive and not-of-this-world look, is the hinge that connects the keyboard base to the 13.5” tablet PC.
Microsoft calls this the dynamic fulcrum hinge. Just after Tuesday’s event, Margaret Rhodes of Wired had the chance to speak with Microsoft’s Ralf Groene about the hinge to find out what went into this stunning component that enables the magic of Microsoft’s first laptop.
Groene says he and his design team first conceptualized the Surface Book while working on the Surface. He explains:
“We had the idea of people starting out with that laptop architecture, going about their business, and then transforming it into something more personal.”
But they weren’t willing to compromise screen size, processor power, and battery life when creating a new hybrid lpatop. As Rhodes points out, this created the following structural engineering dilemma in order for the Surface Book to convert into the tablet experience Microsoft has dubbed Clipboard:
…the display would need to balance at the edge of the keyboard base. But to do that, and do it sturdily, the base would need to be bigger than the display, which would add considerably to the device’s weight.
So out of necessity and sheer ingenuity, Groene and his team designed the dynamic fulcrum hinge, which connects the keyboard and display with a watch-band like flexible aluminum segments. This solved the structural problem as it allowed the “the footprint of the base to extend by up to 20-millimeters on an as-needed basis.” The new malleable design worked, “giving the device balance, while allowing Groene and his team to shave off hundreds of grams in weight.”
The aluminum, scorpion tail like hinge stands out against the rest of the magnesium body of the Surface Book. And, decidedly, it is this aluminum hinge that creates the signature look of this new convertible, which pushes boundary of how you define a hybrid device.
Interestingly, Groene also notes that the separate muscle wire lock mechanism, which secures the tablet to the keyboard, did not play a role in determining how the dynamic fulcrum hinge was built. The hinge works adjacent to the muscle wire lock, but not directly with it; leaving no impact or demand for design trade-offs in the development of the new hinge.
Other 2-in-1’s that are laptop first focused do exist and have for some time. They can also be much thinner and lighter. Lenovo Yoga 3’s pro is a formidable form factor introduced last year that is light weight and ultra-thin, but sports a Core M processor with less battery life. Not to mention the screen doesn’t detach.
And many others have been at it for awhile with their own unique solutions, such as Dell, HP, Asus, among many others, who have all tried to make their mark on a 2-in-1 form factor ever since the original Surface was introduced three years ago. But Microsoft did something absolutely phenomenal this week. They made a no compromise best in class laptop that also works as a best in class tablet.
That said, of course the tablet is larger than most media consumption focused tablets and can only work so long without being attached to the keyboard base where most of the batteries reside. But it is stunning to see a full powered 13.5” laptop display detach and become a Skylake generation Core i7 tablet. And not just any old tablet, but one that is thinner and lighter than Ultrabooks like the MacBook Air or the Dell XPS 13, and faster than performance oriented laptops like the MacBook Pro.
The crux of what allows this device to shine is some incredibly well thought out mechanical engineering which elevates the bar for the Windows device ecosystem and will encourage PC OEMs to think big about making computers more personable and blurring the lines of traditional device categories.
So hats off to the Surface Team, the engineers and designers who endured numerous critiques over the years for creating a category defining hybrid device. Because those comments didn’t stop them from continuing to make the Surface Pro 3, and now the Surface Pro 4, let alone deter them from thinking up the Surface Book and its dynamic fulcrum hinge. Toaster fridge comments be damned, because after all, as Steve Jobs famously said, “the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”