Surface Team answers questions about the Surface tablet

There’s a lot of excitement over the pricing details and pre-order announcement of Surface RT yesterday. You must have already read about it on our earlier posts. But still many of us have a lot of doubts about Surface and Surface RT in particular. Yesterday (Oct 16th, 11-1pm PST)  Panos Panay, GM of Microsoft Surface and his Engineering Team answered several queries on Surface on Reddit AMAA; i.e.. “Ask Me or My Team Almost Anything” .

Here are some of the answers from the Surface Team of the best questions which we all wanted to know. It’s a long post, but quite interesting as you got your replies directly from Surface Team (Surface Team abbreviated as ST).

Q: How big is the install of Windows RT? For a 32 GB Surface, how much free space will one have after the install? This question is in the minds of many as Surface RT starts at 32 GB.

ST: After the OS, Office RT and a bunch of apps, you will still have more than 20GB. (That looks pretty good, Windows 8 RT + Office RT + few apps, may be all built-in apps, takes about 11-12 GB).

Q: Can the Apps be saved to SD card and run from there so that it doesn’t take up the Primary storage Space?

ST: One can add an SD card but can not add apps there but one can surely add music, movies and photos there.

Q: Can you swap media cards without shutting down the machine? (This was asked by someone as his Playstation Vita requires to shut down before changing cards)

ST: There’s no need to shutdown or anything special and can swap cards like one would do in any other PC.

Q: How did you calculate the 8 hr battery life estimate? What were the test conditions? Any comment on real world battery life. For instance, can you make it from Seattle to Tokyo or Beijing on a charge?

ST: “We conducted testing across a variety of core scenarios such as local and streaming video playback (watching movies!), audio playback, wireless web browsing and productivity scenarios such as using Office and mail. We tested using different Wi-Fi networks with pre-production hardware and software. Hence the battery life numbers started early in the program as a model with calculations and then get verified with actual device HW and SW.” Surface RT will provide you all day battery life. I’ve tested on the ride from Seattle to Beijing with a stop in Tokyo.

Q: What was the toughest challenge faced when designing the Surface? Why is there no NFC integration?

ST: For the product design experience we were aiming for with Surface, the Mg metal enclosure, including the back case, was critical. This made good antenna design for NFC a trade-off in our development process.

Q: Why was USB 2.0 chosen instead of USB 3.0 for Surface RT?

ST: The full size USB 2.0 port on Surface supports hundreds of millions of devices that are out there. We chose USB 2.0 based on capability of the ARM SoCs during our development timeframe.

Q: What kind of devices one can or can’t use with the USB-Port. Can a printer, a regular keyboard supported? Can a cell-phone be connected to charge it?

ST: 100’s of millions existing USB devices are supported. Printers, Keyboards, Cameras etc supported. Yes, Phones can be charged.

Q: Does the Surface support Kinect and/or 360 USB controller inputs?

ST: We used the 360 USB controllers to play with Surface all the time and they work great. We have not tried Kinect yet.

Q: Does the kickstand arrangement work for someone who wants to type with Surface on their lap? How about using it lounging on the couch?

ST: I’ve been using my Surface for a couple of month now. It works on your lap in multiple ways. Typing on the lap works fine, Surface is great for typing while on your couch. There are so many ways it folds and adjusts to your typing needs. You will be pleasantly surprised. 🙂

Q: Does Surface Pro & Surface RT support microSD?

ST: Both will support microSDXC. It is behind the kickstand, and hidden. Pretty cool place to store info.

Q: Will Surface be able to import images from a digital camera or card reader via its USB port? Or is that for signed devices only?

ST: Yes it can import via microSD and USB . Most cameras will show up as mass storage device via USB.

Q: Will Surface support the use of Bluetooth headsets? For instance, can we use a Lync or Skype client on Surface with Plantronics headset to make conference calls or chat with family?

ST: Yes, Surface supports Bluetooth 4.0 and will work with Bluetooth headsets. It has built-in dual digital mics, stereo speakers in the device and front/rear facing HD cameras. You can also plug-in USB conferencing peripherals. Surface RT can certainly be used for video and audio calls.

Q: Is there a way to access work email (Microsoft Exchange Server) on Surface?

ST: The built in Mail App in Windows 8 allows you to connect multiple mail clients: Hotmail, Exchange, Google, AOL, Yahoo, etc

Q: Why $599 (with touch keypad)? Don’t you think that’s too high considering where Microsoft is entering the tablet space?

ST: When you start to see it includes touch cover, clear type display with better contrast, twice as much storage, along with Office included, you have a pretty cool deal. I think you will find the value is extraordinary once you start using the product. When you compare it to last generation or smaller devices, you can quickly see the value you are getting with Surface.

Q: If you flip the cover back, say to rest the tablet flat on a surface or to hold it, is there a mechanism that disables the keyboard so that it’s not randomly typing?

ST: Yes absolutely. Both TouchCover and TypeCover have sensors that understand orientation relative to Surface… in fact the Type and Touch Covers talk to Surface to figure out their relative position no matter the orientation of gravity of the device (pretty neat!). There are 3 positions modes: Closed (keys and mouse are off), Open to 180 degrees (keyboard and mousepad on), beyond 180 degrees to the back (keys and mouse off). That way you can flip back the covers and feel secure you are not pressing keys by mistake.

Q: Why is there no 3G/4G option for the Surface? Why is there no mention of NFC or GPS on the Spec Sheet? Why?

ST: For 3G/4G we looked at several elements when deciding on what features to include. We looked at tablet sales data, 2/3 was WiFi and 1/3 Mobile Broadband. Of the 1/3 sold, 1/2 were activated. Phone hotspot / tethering use was also a consideration. There isn’t a NFC feature in Surface RT. We use Wi-Fi based location services, the device doesn’t have a physical GPS sensor.

Q: I have an iPad 2 and a Galaxy S2. Can you tell me something that’ll make me want to shift to your platform? I just can’t find a reason. What feature does the Surface have that may not seem like much but makes it amazing to use?

ST: I am not sure what you do on your other devices and can not comment on it… however, I know that on Surface you can get a ton of stuff done. Given, we have a full operating system in Windows, we have the full suite of Office available, and the seamless transitioning in and out of different user states with touch cover… the ability to use it all day, use a USB port when needed to connect millions of devices, ultimately you have a full PC at your disposal…. you find yourself accomplishing a ton.

Q: How does the Surface team interacted with other Microsoft teams? Did you work with other hardware divisions at Microsoft?

ST: We used a ton of our learnings and history to be sure we had the right balance of support and expertise to build Surface. That said, we built Surface in a very confidential matter. Only those that needed know, did know.

Q: Can we get some non-English layouts for keyboards in the US (specially Spanish or Latin American)?

ST: Of the primary launch Markets we are launching in, we have keyboards specific to those languages. We are not announcing any new markets beyond what we said today. However, we will for sure be expanding to more markets in the future.

Q: How fast can you (personally) type on the Surface Touch keyboard? How about the Surface Type Cover? Do you type much faster on that?

ST: I can type about 86 wpm on the Touch Cover and I am typing on a Pink Touch Cover! It depends on how you type. I have been using both for a while, and love them both. I love the sleekness of Touch Cover. Touch Cover has a very special digitizer that we invented.. it senses the impact force of your key presses. We designed super-fast electronics and smart algorithm in the keyboard so that Touch Cover can profile your key press down to a 1ms (1000 times a second).

Using that information Touch Cover can infer if the user meant to press the key or not.. It is a smart key. So even though there is no key travel, the user can rest their hands on top of the keyboard and find home position without accidentally triggering keys.. pretty cool! The first time I typed on a full working version of Touch Cover, I typed just as fast as I do on a normal keyboard. I am confident you will be able to type significantly faster on Touch Cover than an onscreen keyboard. And with a little practice you will even do better (maybe even faster!) For folks who really love and really need keys that have travel, then Type Cover is one of the best keyboards I have ever used (desktop or other). It has a super awesome snappy key mechanism that feels great (has a strong hysteresis curve). Honestly both are great… try them both, actually get them both.

Q: With the new iPad and several Android devices the bar has been raised to something like 1080P on a 10 inch device. The surface is still 720P (approximately). For me the resolution is a pretty huge factor, do you guys think there is any chance of a 1080P version in the future?

ST: Screen resolution is one component of perceived detail. The true measure of resolvability of a screen called Modulation Transfer Function (MTF), not Pixels. MTF is a combination of both contrast and resolution. There are over a dozen subsystems that effect this MTF number.. Most folks just focus on one number out of dozens of items that effect perceived detail. Without good contrast resolution decreases. Check out contrast sensitivity of the human eye graph here and if you want more see these links.

Basically, as resolution/DPI increases the eye has becomes less sensitive. So as a result, the amount of light in a room and the reflections off the screen have a huge effect on the contrast of the display. In fact, a small amount of reflection can greatly reduce contrast and thus the perceived resolution of the display. With the ClearType Display technology we took a 3 pronged approach to maximize that perceived resolution and optimize for battery life, weight, and thickness. First prong, Microsoft has the best pixel rendering technology (cleartype 1.0 and 2.0) .. both these are exclusive and unique to Windows, it smooths text regardless of pixel count. Second, we designed a custom 10.6″ high-contrast wide-angle screen LCD screen.

Lastly we optically bonded the screen with the thinnest optical stack anywhere on the market.. something much more commonly done on phones we are doing on Surface. While this is not official our Cleartype measurements on the amount of light reflected off the screen is around 5.5%-6.2%, the new iPad has a measurement of 9.9% mirror reflections. Check this displaymate link.

Doing a side by side with the new iPad in a consistently lit room, we have had many people see more detail on Surface RT than on the iPad with more resolution.

Q: Will the Surface Type cover be available in colors?

ST: Currently only the Touch Cover is available in Colors…. but keep the feedback coming and you never know what will happen

Q: Any likelihood of laser-etching designs on the back, as with the Zune? Any chance of getting a custom keyboard printed on a touch cover?

ST: Nice idea! Keep the suggestions coming.

Q: Where your philosophy for design language comes from? For me… it’s a refined industrial look.

ST: Designing the surface was an effort to create a great stage for the software. We wanted to make sure that the hardware was a physical extension of our software. The language we found came together by choosing the right materials and revealing the essence of out an idea. Make it comfortable to hold, light and strong.

We started at looking at the software and thought about how to extend it into a physical product. We tried to stay away from any classic design language stuff, we didn’t want to have a bunch of styling in the way, we wanted to build a bridge between you and your digital things. We developed the idea that later turned into the keyboard covers and kickstand. Most of the time we spent on revealing the essence of this idea: How can we make it comfortable to hold? How do we fit our connectors, and so on.. Step by step we found the design. The language behind it is a point of view to make a very useful product. I don’t believe in defining a design language in shape. A design language should be a consistent approach to execute the vision you have.

Using magnesium allowed us to make our product thin, light and strong. The color we chose lets the physical product fade into the background and pronounces the screen as the main act.

Q: Any chance you are working on a docking station for the Surface RT? Perhaps one that will work with the cover on?

ST: The Kickstand and Touch/Type Cover is your docking station. We are pretty pumped about the experience you get by kicking out the kickstand and then being able to use the USB and HD out connections to do what is needed. We specifically thought of this scenario and optimized for it. It is a pretty cool experience.

Q: How did you determine the angle that the kickstand allows Surface to lean to?

ST: We did a ton of studies around lighting, reflection, ergonomics, table height, etc…. and then made sure it looked perfect and felt perfectly balanced.

Q: How can I join your team?

ST: Please check careers.microsoft.com. You’ll find posting for the Surface team.

This was how the Q&A session with Surface team went. Now watch the video on the Making of Microsoft Surface!

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The author has been a Microsoft MVP awardee in various Windows categories (2006-2016) and currently a Windows Insider MVP. A Technology Enthusiast, interested in anything technical and is committed to Microsoft technologies and products. He is actively associated with various Microsoft online communities, forums, Newsgroups and has been actively involved in Beta testing various Microsoft products and bug submissions.