Under the covers: The clever engineering that went into the new Surfaces
What's so clever about the new second-generation Surface devices, which Microsoft unveiled yesterday?
For a start, although the cases look very similar, this isn't just Haswell slapped into the same motherboard of the Surface Pro -- although that might have been faster to bring to market. This is a completely redesigned motherboard, tuned to reduce power consumption as much as possible. Haswell helps improve battery life by having a Turbo mode that gets processing done faster so you can power down the chip more quickly as well as lower idle current and reduced leakage so you waste much less of the voltage running through the chip -- but the motherboard has also been redesigned to be more power efficient.
"We're using LP DDR3, the lowest power memory available and we worked with the suppliers of the SSDs we use to tune the firmware of the drives to get the lowest power," the Surface engineers told CITEworld. It's also worth noting that, unlike the recent Haswell-based MacBook Air, Surface Pro doesn’t underclock the Haswell chip; with two fans and the vent around the edges of the case to keep it cool, Haswell in the Surface Pro is running at full speed.
One place the new Air is ahead is on the Wi-Fi connection. Surface and Surface Pro 2 don't have the same fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi. It's likely this is coming in a future model -- the design team used phrases like "we have no announcements to make but we're very aware of 802.11ac." Wireless will be faster through, because the internal SDIO bus it’s connected through is twice as fast. Until 802.11ac wireless access points are more common, this probably gives you the best balance of faster connectivity without putting the price up.
The improved screen in Surface Pro 2 has a visibly wider color gamut and more accurate colors; side by side, reds and greens in photos are richer and brighter but whites and yellows stay clear and bright.
The cameras in the Surface 2 are also dramatically improved from the original models, especially for use in dimmer lighting. "The sensor in the camera is five times the size of the one we had before, and it is good enough to do 1080 video," product manager Ben Reed told us. "People told us for Skype, they didn't want to have to be a lighting technician to get a good picture, so it lightens up the image, it lightens up your face. And we moved the microphone to the front so it picks up the conversation better." It's not clear if the same higher quality cameras will be in Surface Pro 2 as well, though.
Type, touch, and gesture
The engineering inside the new Touch and Type covers is particularly clever. The first Touch Cover had capacitive sensors under the surface placed to match the keys; the new one has a grid of sensors every 5mm.
"That gives us three things," Microsoft research director Stevie Bathiche told us. "It means it's more accurate and it's more sensitive" with the sensors much closer together, you're not going to miss a key when you're typing fast. "And third, it gives us gestures".
That's not the Windows 8 gestures (which still work on the trackpad) but new gestures to control the text insertion cursor in documents. "If you think about it," Bathiche points out, "every PC has two cursors -- one for pointing and one for selecting. We let you control both."
The Touch Cover has three gestures so you don't have to take your hands off the keys to move the cursor or select text when you're typing. Put two fingers down anywhere on the QWERTY keys and you can use them as a giant trackpad to move the cursor around inside text. Hold down the Control key and that moves you around the screen a word at a time; hold down the Shift key and you can select what you swipe over. Put two fingers on the row of number keys and you can select words on screen by swiping across the keys; if you overshoot and select too much text, just swipe back a little to reduce the selection .
It's specifically designed for technology companies.
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