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Microsoft Says Surface Design, Display and Specs Beat the iPad

If there was any question about whether the Surface tablet was meant to be an iPad killer or a notebook replacement, Microsoft has erased all doubt. At an all-day briefing and lab tour yesterday, company reps talked about the extensive work that went into making Surface, making the case that its hardware quality is on par with the best in the industry, including Apple's tablet.

Built For Productivity, Portability 

In an introductory presentation, President of Windows and Windows Live Steven Sinofsky and Surface GM Panos Panay explained that the surface was designed from the ground up to offer an ideal balance of portability and flexibility while conveying a strong sense of build quality and durability to the user. Unlike Google and Apple, which built tablets as an extension of their smartphone products, Microsoft planned surface as an extension of the PC.

"We think of PCs as this generic kind of device that can work across a broad range of scenarios and have a broad range of form factors that have  an extensible platform that have peripherals and are part of ecosystems," Sinofsky said "We wanted to bring all that goodness to a kind of device that you carry around with you all the time and has all day battery life with its roots in this ecosystem and its roots in the notion of productivity."

Panay explained that, after considering the nearly-ubiquitous 10.1-inch screen size and larger 11-inch form factors, the company settled on the surface's 10.6-inch display because it provides a 16:9 aspect ratio which is preferable for content viewing and enough room for the keyboard without weighing the system down. Though Surface tips the scale at 1.5 pounds, Sinofsky and Panay said that it distributes its weight in a manner that allows it to feel like a much lighter device.

"The moment of inertia when you actually hold this device and you grab it is about 37 percent lighter than another 1.5 pound device that you might hold," Panay said. 

The company also focused heavily on portraying quality through the design and even the noise of both the Surface's kickstand and its magnetic dock. The two executives talked about how the kickstand has three separate hinges, two which control the movement and one which controls the sound so that it makes a pleasant snapping noise when you open and close it. The goal is to have the hinge feel like a well-built door opening and closing.

Screen Quality: Our 1366 is Better Than Their Retina Display

In a presentation on the tablet's 1366 x 768 display, a Microsoft engineer contended that, though the Surface has fewer PPI than competitors like the iPad, its picture quality is superior because of the gapless bonding between the screen and the digitizer and Microsoft's ClearType rendering technology.

During his presentation, the engineer projected a chart showing that the difference in perceived image sharpness between the 148 PPI Surface and 264 PPI iPad is really small and becomes nearly indistinguishable the further you hold the device away from your face and the older the user is. Users above age 45 see a rapid decline in nearsightedness, he told us. (We suspect that tidbit won't make it into the marketing.)

The engineer explained how Windows' ClearType software allows the Surface to turn on and off sub-pixels, not just full-size pixels. So, if enabling one third of a pixel allows the circle at the top of the letter P to look rounder, ClearType will enable just that subpixel. By using subpixel rendering images can appear both sharper and smoother, he posited. 

He  showed us images of a white circle shown on both an iPad and a Surface. On the iPad, the white circle had a number of reflections blurring its edges, but on the Surface, it was completely solid.

He explained that the air gap between the touch digitizer and the display panel on the iPad causes light to refract two times, blurring the image. However, on the Surface, the display and digitizer are bonded, eliminating the air gap and the refraction it causes.

The engineer then showed us an iPad and a Surface side-by-side and displayed a number of images on them to demonstrate that the Surface screen, while lower-res, can provide better images. When he showed an image of a galaxy on both displays, the higher contrast and better viewing angles on the Surface allowed us to see more stars in the sky. When he showed text, the letters seemed a little crisper on the Surface. 

Microsoft chose to go with a 1366 x 768 display, he said, because higher resolution screens eat up more battery life and generate more heat. He pointed out that, because of its new Retina display, Apple had to use a significantly larger and heavier battery on its third generation iPad than on the iPad 2.

Building the Touch Cover

Though it's not included on the base $499 model, the Suface's unique Touch Cover and its flat, rubberized keyboard are one of the slate's biggest selling points. Panay explained how the Touch Cover was always an integral part of the Surface's development and design process as the screen size and magnet connector were both chosen to accommodate the Touch Cover's keyboard. 

Having a QWERTY keyboard layout and a touchpad like those on the Touch Cover is important for productivity, Sinofsky maintained. He said that editing a document is much more difficult on a touch-only device because a human finger is only capable of 40 DPI precision where a mouse can reach hundreds. He said that tapping in the middle of a paragraph on your document with your finger is a frustrating process as is typing on screen.

With the Touch Cover, he maintained, users would have a far superior touch typing experience, though one that is not quite as good as a real keyboard that has moving keys. A Microsoft engineer explained how, in the journey from original prototype to final design, she was able to increase her typing rate on the Touch Cover to 86 words per minute, just a little less than the 90 wpm she gets on a typical keyboard.

By studying user behavior, Panay said, his team recognized the need to make the space bar taller so that users would be able to target it with their thumbs. They also shaped the keys so that touch typists could find the home row without looking. Better still, the Touch Cover is programmed to measure the amount of force users apply so that it can tell when you're simply resting your fingers on top of the keys and when you're pressing down to type. The Touch Cover also knows how it is positioned relative to the tablet so that it disables its keys when you flip the cover over behind the screen.

We had a chance to spend a few moments typing on the Touch Cover in the lab and were pleased with its accuracy, with the softness of its deck and with the large size of the keys. We were able to type a sentence quickly and with just a couple of errors, but we were struck by the total absence of tactile feedback on the keys. The tapping sound coming from the software helped improve the experience a bit, but we think we'd prefer the $129 Type Cover which is 2.5mm thicker, but has real moving keys. 

When his team started planning the Touch Cover, Panay said, the goal was to make it no thicker than 4.5mm. However, through their work, they were able to reduce its size to just 3mm. He also said the magnetic docking mechanism was designed to require so little force that a three year old could pull the cover on and off, something he tested with his own children.

Durability and Wi-Fi

Panay and Sinofsky explained that durability, both real and perceived, is a key feature of the Surface. In the company's reliability lab, we saw a pair of endurance testing machines, one that was curling and uncurling a set of Touch Covers and another that was opening and closing the kickstand. Panay said these machines were specially designed to test the Surface and that both the Touch Cover and the kickstand have proven that they can withstand hundreds  of thousands if not millions of openings and closings.

With the help of a technician, Panay placed a Surface into a drop machine and we watched as it was dropped onto a hard surface from a height of 30 inches. When he took the tablet out of the drop machine, it was still working fine and appeared undamaged. He even showed us a movie that tablet had filmed on its webcam while it was falling.

A lab technician talked about the Surface's dual Wi-Fi antennas, which feature Marvell MIMO technology that greatly enhances reception. He said that, in his house, he has three access points set up in different locations because his laptop simply couldn't get a signal from the one in the pantry if he was on the deck outside. However, with the Surface, he said he was able to detect not only his three access points but four points from neighbors. With the dual antennas, he explained,  there's no way to hold it wrong by covering a particular one with your hands.

Competitive Positioning

At its $499 base price, the Surface is priced identically to the current-generation iPad, but as Sinofsky highlighted, Microsoft's tablet provides a larger screen (10.6 vs. 9.7 inches), double the internal memory (32GB vs. 16GB) and a full-size USB port. Like the iPad, the Surface has a mobile operating system that can't run standard desktop apps. 

"Keep in mind what they're competing with," he said, referring to the iPad. "This is a competitor to that and it also does more and better."

When asked whether consumers would be confused when they buy a device with Windows RT and realize that it can't run all their old apps, Sinofsky said that consumers would be comparing the Surface to the iPad rather than a notebook and would not expect it to run their old software. 

"I don't think a lot of people go to an Apple store and stare at an iPad and ask if Mac Quicken runs on it," he said.