Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop isn’t the $300 education system we were expecting, but then that’s not Microsoft’s role in the PC industry.
It’s the hero of this story.
A decade or more of darkness. Average products. Poor builds. The computer as a commodity. Once dominant computer manufacturers couldn’t figure out how to make eye-catching products that weren’t more form than function.
This was, in part, Microsoft’s own fault. It built the Windows operating system and basically handed it to OEMs with a “Do with this what you will.” Obviously, there’s always been collaboration between Microsoft and hardware partners, but the OEMs always led the way on system design and, I guess, Microsoft always hoped for something better.
In the meantime, Apple’s Steve Jobs and then CEO Tim Cook tried to usher the world into the Post-PC era, even as that company built and sold its own personal computers.
The PC industry and, quite honestly, the PC, felt dead.
As we know, hardware revival came from an unlikely source.
Microsoft took its partners and really the entire Windows PC industry by the hand and showed them the way. A computer could be beautiful and functional. Design elements could serve capabilities. And what started with the Surface computer five years ago, a computer that straddled the line between tablet and ultra-portable, has culminated in this, the Surface Laptop, Microsoft’s first true clamshell computer, which Microsoft unveiled on Tuesday in New York City (along with the education-friendly Windows 10 S).
Like all the Surface computers that have come before it – Surface Pro, Surface Book, Surface Studio – the $999 Surface Laptop seeks to redefine a category with brash and unusual design choices, like a 3.6 mm-thin touch screen and a fabric-covered keyboard, that combine to make the portable more, not less, functional. My only quibble is that the wedge design makes the screen can’t fold all the way over onto the system’s back, which would, obviously, make it a convertible.
And to understand why today, a day in which Microsoft did not wow the world with a sub-$300 education laptop, is still a win for Microsoft, you need to know what Microsoft is doing in the PC space in the first place.
Form and Function
Microsoft’s plan with the Surface brand is not to, so to speak, flood the zone, covering every possible permutation of the venerable PC. Its all-in-one Surface Studio only arrived last year and it’s literally taken them years to build a non-convertible version of a laptop.
It’s also not building systems purely as a technology showcase. Yes, the Surface Book’s dynamic fulcrum hinge was unusual, but it was designed to help balance a system that split the battery and, in some cases, the discrete graphics and core CPU (and other components) into two slabs.
What Microsoft’s Surface design choices prove is that Microsoft focuses as much attention on industrial design as Apple does on each generation of the iPhone. Part of this is to show consumers and partners what’s possible, but most of it is to inspire current and future Windows customers.
Microsoft has never had an issue with operating system name recognition. Everyone knows, if not loves or likes, Windows. Microsoft has never had a recognizable hardware brand — until Surface.
Surface is now as well known as Dell, Acer and Asus. But like the Apple brand, it carries a certain cachet. One that Microsoft won’t trade to fill a “value” niche, even if it’s trying to attract education buyers. Doing so would only harm the brand and its design leadership position.
Much of this became clear to me as I peppered the Surface Laptop design team with questions about the keyboard and mostly screw-free design.
Easily the mostly startling aspect of the Surface Laptop is the keyboard. It’s a one-of-a-kind melding of aluminum, plastic and nylon.
As good as it looked, I couldn’t help but think that Microsoft has unnecessarily carpeted a computer.
“Why fabric?” I asked Microsoft Senior Designer Rachael Bell.
“First, why not?” said Bell, adding that a fabric-like material on keyboards has long been part of the Surface identity. While similar to Surface Touch Keyboard fabric, this material is different. I’d call it “feltier” but Bell told me it’s a non-woven, pressed nylon with a special polyurethane covering for durability, including water and chemical resistance.
Bell also reminded me that it’s “soft and beautiful to interact with,” and I had to admit that it felt good to the touch and comfortable when my palms rested on the spaces adjacent to the spacious touch pad.
However, she added, there’s utility and value here, too. A fabric covering allows Microsoft to hide the speaker under the keyboard. Yes, there are precision holes cut in the fabric for the speaker grill, but you really can’t see them. If the keyboard cover were plastic, you’d see the holes.
Still, I worried about how the covering would hold up to wear and tear. What if it peeled off?
Mechanical engineer Mohammad Haq explained that Microsoft developed a lamination process, using heat, pressure and a specially formulated adhesive, to bind the fabric to the chassis.
As I held the Surface Laptop in my hands, I examined that bond, looking for a lip, a place where some middle-school kid could gain purchase and peel the fabric right off. I couldn’t find one.
That perfect cut comes by way of an optical laser. The fabric cover starts out larger than the keyboard and then the laser trims away the excess leaving what looked like a one, clean edge.
During the Surface Laptop unveiling Microsoft Corporate VP Panos Panay said “When you hold the Surface Laptop, you will find no reference to how these parts came together.”
It’s true. I couldn’t see a screw anywhere. How did Microsoft do it? What’s holding this laptop together?
“There’s a considerable amount of adhesive, including heat activated pressure sensitive and liquid dispense (or hot melt),” said Haq.
The only place you’d find screws are in the three-element hinge and on the motherboard.
All this attention to detail comes together in a laptop that I could literally open and close with a fingertip.
It’s not a $200 or $300 laptop and that’s by design. Microsoft has poured an insane amount of detail and expertise into crafting its perfect ideal of a traditional laptop. It’s a product consumers will probably want and partners can learn from.
Ultimately, Microsoft will leave it to OEMs to build systems at the prices and variety consumers, especially education customers, demand, while it focuses attention on lust-worthy devices that remind people that Windows can live in cool hardware, too.