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Microsoft Surface Studio: the engineering beneath floating pixels

A computer inspired by a desk lamp

Microsoft’s Surface PCs are known for their hinges. From the first, launched alongside Windows 8, to the new Surface Studio, each device has a hinge system that has evolved over time. That’s no accident, as the designers behind the scenes have been tweaking the Surface formula for years now. This latest creation, the Surface Studio, is designed to create an illusion of floating pixels. I met with the Surface Team last week to hear the history of the Surface and its latest Surface Studio hinge.

“There is a tradition of us getting funding with pretty crappy prototypes,” admits Ralf Groene, Microsoft's head of industrial design, as he sits proudly next to the Surface Studio during its launch event in New York City last week. Those “crappy prototypes” include the original Surface RT concept, that was an acrylic sheet with a piece of string attached. Microsoft started with the basic concept of propping up a tablet on a table and typing, and the first prototype went to Panos Panay, head of Microsoft’s Surface devices, to approve. “In those crappy prototypes, the idea is pure because it’s easy to make good-looking design models with all chrome and details, and it kind of hides away from what it actually is at its core.”

The Surface RT ushered in an era of Microsoft making tablets and PCs, and one of the biggest feedback points was around that all-important kickstand hinge. "It's actually crappy, you know, these days," admits Groene. "I think what happened, we wanted to do the continuous one after we launched the first Surface, but we couldn't quite engineer it in time." Microsoft wanted to launch the Surface RT alongside Windows 8, and it wasn't until the Surface Pro 3 that the company finally realized its vision for an adjustable kickstand. Even the Surface Pro 2 shipped with a slightly tweaked kickstand that supported two angles. It was a response to the single-angle criticism, but Microsoft knew it was working on something far better.

Microsoft Surface RT pictures

We just needed time, and at that time we were getting the kinematics for what the mechanism would need to look like in order to fit in the product," admits Andrew Hill, senior director of mechanical engineering at Microsoft. Part of that time was honing the skills required to design and make mechanisms like the latest Surface Book or Surface Studio hinges. "Even though the Surface Book hinge, mechanically, is very different, it uses similar elements in how we think through and the way we solve the problem is exactly the same," says Groene.

Solving the Surface Studio hinge problem relied on what Microsoft wanted the product to be. Microsoft started with the idea of having a device you could move the screen into a drawing mode, and it took some time to get to the final product that Microsoft unveiled last week. "We built these working contraptions where you'd grab the device and there was a capacitive sensor behind the screen and it would unlock a mechanism and it would go CRSSSH," explains Groene, excitedly making the machine's sounds. "Then you'd move it and let go and it would go CHERRRK." Although it sounds, in more ways than one, like an interesting mechanism, the team ultimately decided it was "too robotic."

Microsoft originally tested a Clutch mechanism

One prototype's clutch mechanism stopped working, and using it without the clutch made the Surface team focus on balancing the screen and the weight with the arms to make it feel weightless. "We really engineered everything to fit Tetris-like together," explains Groene. "It's actually pretty similar [to a desk lamp]. The inside is actually a four-bar hinge, many desk lamps have these two parallel beams that are connected, and that's exactly what is in here, that keeps the upper in correspondence to wherever the lower is." You'll find desk lamps with similar hinges everywhere, and the Surface Studio's works in a similar way.

Microsoft Surface Studio pictures

Like a desk lamp, it also doesn't fold flat. "There's a whole bunch of things that start to happen when you start to put it flat," reveals Groene. You put your coffee cup on it, you step on it, and all of these things." Microsoft tried models where the Surface Studio went flat, but the company wanted to maintain a drawing mode that was comfortable. "We didn't really wanna move it further. There was no reason." The 20 degree angle is a common angle for Disney drawing boards, and the Surface team settled on that idea to bring the Studio to life.

That balance of refining parts so that the display would balance perfectly reflects the engineering and design that's gone into the Surface Studio. "The trick was to build a team that kinda builds it all, not in a protective way, not in a non-collaborative way, but in a way so that you have the ability to tune everything together," explains Groene. Separate teams didn't just build out components and tell engineers they needed to fit into the Surface Studio, it was always built in a collaborative way. It's the type of engineering that does mean a lot of the work is under the covers, where you don't see the hours that went into balancing tricky product decisions.

"We're not here to get to show off our work, we're here to make awesome products," says Hill. "I think that's super important." It's a belief that's reflected by Groene, too. "If the work is not good inside, the product cannot be good on the outside," he says, noting that you're squeezing a lot of technology into small volumes.

"We're here to make awesome products."

The Surface Studio is the latest hinge in Microsoft's Surface lineup, but it won't be the last. I asked Groene whether the team has settled on the Surface Pro 3 and Pro 4 hinge as the way forward. "I think that would be sad right, we always push the envelope," says Groene. "Maybe it changes, maybe it doesn't change, but we always try to refine and push things forward." Groene didn't give me any hints about the Surface Pro 5, but he did reveal a new philosophy toward Surface at Microsoft.

"We really don't need to make hardware if we don't choose to make hardware, in the Microsoft sense," explains Groene. "We started out with Surface and we had to launch with Windows 8, and then there was a pressure to do another one, and we had to kinda get going." Now Microsoft has a Surface brand, a plan, and a much larger platform for its hardware efforts. "Satya Nadella [Microsoft CEO] spends a lot of time in the design studio," reveals Groene, and the Windows design team and Surface teams spend time hanging out with each other. "He [Nadella] would just get immersed in things, and it's a very organic piece. From there connections and workstreams get started."

Microsoft's Surface Studio might be the latest cool hardware to come out of Redmond, but it's also the first product that really shows Microsoft truly going after Apple's core customer. Microsoft has been trying to differentiate itself with the Surface Pro against the iPad, and the Studio makes a play for creatives in a big way. That doesn't mean that the Surface team thinks what Apple is doing is the wrong approach.

iPad Pro

It's a different brand, different choices," says Groene. "We come from the neighborhood of productivity and now we're going into creation, and for us it's super important that these angles work and that you can take an all-in-one and make it dynamic, and not just static." That's obviously different to Apple's iMac approach, but Groene is unfazed. "That's important to us, it might not be that important to Apple because the way they look at the world is different, and that's just totally fine. They brought out the Pencil, we have a Pen, it's fine. It's good. Honestly, competition is great."

Speaking of competition, Microsoft's Surface has inspired the competition to create their own takes on Surface, with some coming particularly close to Microsoft's creation. "Sometimes you go ‘Is that Surface, oh no it's not a Surface,'" jokes Groene. "There are some emotional things, especially if someone just copies things like 1:1, because we spend a lot of time getting to these points." Groene isn't super protective of Surface, though, and he admits that product development is "one big circus" that all designers and engineers participate in. "The world of product development is rather small and we all push each other, it's good for the customer. Someone needs to invent the next big thing, and maybe it's us and maybe it's someone else. That's all good sport."

Groene didn't want to talk Surface Pro 5 or Surface Book 2, but he did reveal that Microsoft won't be following Apple in some of its design choices. "We need to do something crazy," jokes Groene, responding to my question about removing escape keys from keyboards. "We will not remove the audio jacks, but we need to do something crazy!"

Photography by Dan Seifert.

Surface Studio hinge photos


Microsoft Surface Studio PC first look