Microsoft Surface Book Behind the Scenes in Redmond

by Nicole on June 16, 2016

It’s been a long time since I’ve since I have been stopped while using a notebook by someone who was curious about what I was holding.. The Surface book is perhaps the most revolutionary design we’ve seen since the Macbook Air, the dynamic Fulcrum Hinge curves leaving a gap the way no other notebook does. So I jumped at the chance to get a sneak peek at how my “productivity weapon-of-choice” was made when Microsoft said the word.


How Far We’ve Come…

Before we dive into the good stuff, I want to remind everyone just how long I’ve been waiting for this moment. Mobile Geeks was born out of Netbook News, the team has been covering small form factor, high productivity computing for a decade (Remember UMPCs or Palm Pilot?)

A long legacy of mediocre products hit the market before Microsoft committed to a touch experience. Gigabyte offered a Netbook with a rotating hinge in the middle of the display. ASUS had the Padfone, a Smartphone which docked into a tablet and keyboard.
But, when Windows 8 debuted, Intel was ready to enable a 2 in 1 or Convertible form factor, and this is when things really started to get interesting.


The first few generations of 2 in 1’s had growing pains, both in terms of price and durability. Intel boasted at IDF Shenzhen, a few months ago, that the refresh rate on Convertible’s was 12-18 months. This is good new for those making devices that might not be so great for those buying them. It’s not only that refresh rates were moving from 4 years to a time frame closer to that of the Smartphone, but 2 in 1’s also had moving parts that inevitably made them less durable.

When faced with a competitor that made only a handful of products and an ecosystem that was trying to figure the next best step forward, it’s easy to see why Convertibles have had rather a slow start.

Enter the Surface Book


The goal was to make a machine with Surface DNA in the screen but have it fold closed like a book.

The Surface book’s unique design is as much as a design statement as it is an engineering feat, but it didn’t start out that way. Senior Designer of Surface Design, Rachael Bell told a story of how, during the process of creating the Surface Book

“It all started with the iconic hack made of cardboard which we just called the Book, it was meant to represent the ultimate laptop. So no matter what during the design process we would always refer back to it.”


The Surface is designed in the  where you will find 10,000 square feet of hackerspace jam packed with drool-worthy equipment. There are 3D printers, laser cutters, and an anechoic chamber that are just the beginning. There are even contraptions that make 3D renders of human heads and a machine to make custom screws.

Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

The Surface began simply as a cardboard cutout. From there, the team was able to generate 3D-printed versions, and finally ended with a unique, one of a kind machine that served as a template for future models. During the day’s, before they had to submit the final design, they would create an entirely new mock up in a mere day. With a 4pm deadline to get their new ideas into the machines, you can image the lab humming with possibility.

Microsoft mantra “Fail Fast” teaches that failing fast is the best way to succeed. Throughout the day pretty much everyone we talked to brought up the philosophy at least once.

“You have to deploy, you have to build faster than the technology is coming out, Failure is now cheap, that’s how you keep up with the pace of the technology, by just doing stuff over and over, and taking ideas and executing them. When you do fail, learn, don’t dwell and move on”

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Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

High ceilings and large work tables, stacks of materials, we do wish we were able to take photos of many of these spaces. Lucky for us the many of the working spaces hadn’t been “sterilized” and they were actually working on next generation devices. (Which doesn’t mean much to your since I couldn’t take any photos) Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

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Panos Panay Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Devices

Panos Panay Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Devices credited the Book’s standout design and innovative construction to this process. Endless numbers of iterations lead to The Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge. As you open the laptop, the hinge rolls out like a carpet unlike traditional hinges that stay stationary. ave the hinge roll out like a carpet and as you open the laptop. The footprint of the bottom then becomes longer and larger which makes the whole product more stable. To me this hinge is the sexiest piece of engineering around. It’s not just using mad physics, it gives the Book a unique quality that I love and find super useful.


If you’re after a device that has extra graphic performance, the Surface Book has an NVIDIA graphics card in the base as well as an integrated GPU from Intel in the tablet. Microsoft integrated the graphics card into the 2 in 1 concept perfectly. Other companies have tried and, in my opinion, failed. What Microsoft has done with the Surface Book concept is the best I’ve seen to date, bringing performance to a flexible form factor, and it’s all thanks to the Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge.


Magic = The Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge

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The construction of the hinge is made using muscle wire so you actually can’t take the tablet off the base unless it lets you. Pressing a button will disengage the GPU and the most satisfying click sound emanates for the Book, then you’re good to take it off. Other devices with similar set ups fail. If the GPU was engaged and you remove the tablet, it can crash causing a blue screen, or, if you’re lucky, just a restart. If I have a program running using the GPU, then I open the Book, it won’t allow me to detach the tablet until I close the program.

How does the docking work?

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The connective tissue between the Surface Book’s base and display is an isopod-like piece of aluminum that flexes back and forth thanks to four rotational points. It’s almost like a carpet that rolls out, and it’s curved shape leaves a gap that I love. Unfortunately, if someone dislikes the design, it’s usually because of exactly this. Wasted space or dirt trap are the two most common complaints I hear, but with all notebooks looking the same, I don’t mind something whose function adds flare.

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According to Panay, the hinge solved Microsoft’s structural problems by allowing the footprint of the base to extend by up to 20-millimeters giving the device balance. This allowed the Surface team to shave off “hundreds of grams” in weight.

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Among the multitude of prototypes we were shown, we got to check out the first working version of the mechanism that would allow the tablet to unhinge from the keyboard.

As the team worked through various detachment solutions, which included levers, solenoids and even hydraulics, they settled on an alloy called Nitinol which has a sort of “muscle memory” so when you run an electrical current through the wire it contracts releasing the tablet.

The “Muscle Wire,” which runs throughout the device, is called a shape-memory alloy, and when electricity runs through it, it heats up and retracts. But when it stops, it goes back to normal.


The model showed how they tested this first half of the detachment solution – getting the wires and concept in place.

Now, there isn’t any actual ‘undocking’ going on, but the muscle wire mechanism is charged by it’s own 9 volt battery. You can also see a full battery in the prototype. In the final version of the Book, there is actually a small secondary battery in the display. This is separate from the battery used to power the tablet, and it is specifically for the docking mechanism.


If you check out the animation above, you can see how the mechanism works. The bottom lever arm (the silver one in the animation above), has a little rolling rod in its grasp. When the lock is activated, the rod sits in a little niche on the base and holds the two together. But when the wire contracts and the mechanism pulls that arm up, the rod gets forcefully rolled out of its little divot, allowing the pieces to separate.

Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft

Surface Pro 4 Type Cover

During our visit to the Microsoft Surface Lab we had the chance to meet with lead designer Rachel Bell who brought Alcantara to Microsoft after an exhaustive trip around the world which ended in Italy.  She figured out how to make this next generation fabric work on a Surface Type cover.  She discusses the process of engineering this new material, little things like it being too thick for an accessory and managed to slice the fabric in half to make it thin and light enough.

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There is so much more going on in Building 87

When I said that this building had every toy a maker could want I meant literally. There is a room which allows you to mimic any lighting condition. It’s living room style and it allows you to change things up to simulate different types of outdoor and indoor lighting. This space is not only used to test glare on the Book’s display but all of Microsoft’s other devices.

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I mentioned earlier that the Surface Lab had all the coolest toys. Not only is the entire Surface line designed and prototyped in this space, but things like the Band and Holo lens are also developed in this space.

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Gopal Gopal Principal Human Factors Engineer, Microsoft Devices

Looking to spend some time in the world’s quietest room? The 80 HZ Anechoic Chamber is actually in the Guinness book of world records. If you’re wondering what they do in this room, whatever it is, they need to wrap it up in 45 minutes. Silence this long can be very stifling. If you do find yourself in this room, you’re likely testing things like the sound of the keyboard makes, fan noises, or, say, various languages for Skype’s universal translator.

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What a laser scanned arm looks like

Assessing key placement for keyboards, distance for the palm rest, determining various sizes of the Band, and making the Holo Lens fit everyone’s face all happen in the human factor lab. Making things fit means measuring markers on human faces, determining various average sizes the human head or a machine that uses a laser to measure the size and features of the wrist are just a few of the things that they do. There is even a room to test out different lighting conditions because no one likes glare on their screens or how various lighting effects the devices themselves.

Steven Bathiche, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Applied Sciences

Steven Bathiche, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Applied Sciences

The Applied Sciences Laboratory has a “distinguished scientist” whose child-like enthusiasm is infectious as he basically gets to play all day with super expensive toys. One of the tasks that Steven Bathiche, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Applied Sciences was tasked with for the Surface Book was determining how much they had to improve the pen to make as similar to writing on paper as possible.

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If pen on paper has a zero percent latency, what percentage of latency is acceptable? Obviously, zero percent is ideal, but is there be a number where the person using it wouldn’t be able to perceive a difference? These are the types of questions the applied sciences lab gets to answer.

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One of my person favorites is the room that lets you take a 3D image of your head, incidentally it has the best lighting for Selfies!

After visiting the Microsoft Devices Hardware Lab and talking to the team about their vision for the entire line of products and several iterations to come, we’re even more excited about what’s coming next.

If those weren’t enough photos for you, here are some other random shots of my day in Redmond.