Microsoft's Surface town hall meeting: All the questions, All the answers

Tuesday afternoon, seven members of Microsoft's Surface team, led by General Manager Panos Panay, fielded questions from the public in an "ask me anything" (AMA) forum on popular Web community Reddit.

In the two-hour session on Reddit, the team was hit with several hundred questions about Surface; of which, about 50 were directly addressed. Like the United States Presidential debates, there is a considerable amount of equivocation and evasion involved in this sort of question and answer session, so some questions get glossed over with no mention. This happened quite frequently with two questions in particular: Why is there no NFC (near field communications) and why does it cost as much as it does? Neither was directly answered.

Here are all the questions directly related to Surface that Microsoft answered:

Q: Is there a way to access work email (Microsoft exchange server) on surface?
Where can one get a preview or listing of apps available for Surface?

A: BrettO / Program Management and Architecture here - The built in Mail App in Win8 allows you to connect multiple mail clients: Hotmail, Exchange, Google, AOL, Yahoo, etc

Q: Can you share some of the thought process that lead to Microsoft building the Surface? It feels like a big departure from the company's tendency to stay out of PC device hardware.

A: We have evolved the words, but the principle has stayed the same. We are focused on being a Stage for Windows . It is good to keep in mind that we have been in the Hardware business for sometime now, and with the combination of our history along with our very clear target of making Windows 8 great, it came together very clearly!! We really did start from a blank piece of paper and built the experience from the ground up knowing that we wanted to get it perfect as we designed the experence of Surface along side the experience of Windows 8.

Q: How does the Surface team interact with other Microsoft teams? Meaning, did you work with other hardware divisions at Microsoft? Did other divisions have input on Surface? Side-question: How does the original Surface (Now PixelSense) team feel about you stealing their name?

A: 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.
The Pixelsense team is part of the Surface team :-)... They feel pretty good!

Q: Quick question regarding the cover. 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? (This would be when the cover is flipped to the back of the device.)

A: Hey this is Stevie, 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: Wanted to ask where your philosophy for design language comes from. To me, it's a refined industrial look. It's like Motorola products if they weren't cheesy or 80's inspired, or apple products with a dose of testosterone and a dash of fighter jet inspiration. The fact that you make it functional with the lip on the non RT version is just a further testament to the strength of the design. We saw this in the Zune HD and I absolutely loved it. I almost bought one on that alone. I absolutely hope you guys carry this through to the Xbox next/720/Durango. It would be awesome to see a console with a black metal exterior.

A: Hi there, Ralf here, creative director of Surface. 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.

...A bit more context: 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.
... a stage for your software

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

A: 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: Why is there no 3G/4G option for the Surface?

A: BrettO - We made what we feel is World Class WiFi connectivity. For 3G/4G we looked at several elements when deciding on what features to include. We knew that the primary use was going to be in the home, we looked at tablet sales data 2/3 WiFi, 1/3 Mobile Broadband. Of the 1/3 sold, 1/2 were activated. Phone hotspot / tethering use was also a consideration.

Q: How big is the install of Windows RT? Meaning if I get a 32gb unit, how much free space will I have? Can I save downloaded Apps to the SD card so it doesnt take up primary storage space? How awesome is the Surface on a scale of 1 - Awesome?

A: I am Ricardo Lopez, Test Manager for Surface RT. After the OS, OfficeRT and a bunch of apps, you will still have more that 20GB. As you say, you can always add an SD card and while you cannot add apps there, you can get music, movies and photos there...Regarding rating, I believe it is extremely awesome.

Q: 1) Can we get some non-English layouts for keyboards in the US (specially spanish or latin american)?
2) Is there any chance we will get this in Latin America ever? (we never got the zune for instance)

A: 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 did you calculate the 8hr battery life estimate? What were the test conditions? Why is there no NFC integration when WP8 is pushing it heavily? What was the toughest challenge you faced when designing the Surface?

A: Pavan, HW lead: 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.

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: Will the surface type cover be available in colours?

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

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?

A: BrettO here - Absolutely, uSD and USB 2.0. Most cameras will show up as mass storage device via USB.

Q: When if at all will Surface be coming to Ireland? Microsoft have a massive EMEA HQ here in Dublin, yet Zune Pass/Xbox Music, Bing Local Scout on WP7 and now Surface show no sign of coming here.

A: I can't answer the specific question of when it will make it to Ireland or any other markets we have not announced yet... but stay tuned...

Q: I've seen it mentioned but not directly addressed... Short and sweet: Why is there no mention of NFC or GPS on the Spec Sheet? Are either there? If neither are present... why?

A: Pavan: 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 assumed that the Surface would include the keyboard cover by default, as it helps to differentiate the device from rival offerings, why was it not included? Also, what are your thoughts on Microsoft possibly making more hardware, such as a Windows Phone 8 handset?

A: You will find that of the three core device offerings, two of them include Touch Cover. That is exactly because of the point you are making. We are pretty excited to see people purchase the unit with Touch Cover, but also are happy to have people purchase the unit as a tablet and pick their cover as an add on.
We make a lot of great Mice, Keyboards, Webcams and XBOX as well!

Q: can you swap in an out media cards? I have a Playstation Vita and it surprised me that you have to shut down the machine to change cards.

A: This is Ricardo. You can swap cards like you would do in any other PC (no need to shutdown or anything special).

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

A: We wanted the screen to be normal to the face. Voila, you then have a 22 degree angle.
Seriously 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: Will Surface support the use of Bluetooth headsets? For instance, could I use a Lync or Skype client on Surface with my Plantronics headset to make conference calls or chat with my wife/family?

A: Pavan: Yes, Surface supports Bluetooth 4.0 and will work with Bluetooth headsets. We have 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 with wife/family.

Q: What about the type cover? Do you type much faster? I'm wondering if I should get the type cover to take notes at school or if I can learn fast enough on the touch cover

A: Hi this is Stevie. 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: There are some varying reports on micro SD card support on the Surface RT vs Surface Pro. So, does the Surface RT support micro SDXC?

A: Yes. SDXC is supported. It is behind the kickstand, and hidden. Pretty cool place to store info right?

Q: Surface looks really amazing, especially the keyboard covers. I am wondering if you guys have any comment on screen resolution. 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, even if it was just a more expensive version of current hardware.

A: Hey this is Stevie. 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 (http://www.telescope-optics.net/images/eye_contrast.PNG) and if you want more see the links below. 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 (see the Displaymate link: http://www.displaymate.com/iPad_ShootOut_1.htm). 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.

Some more links to share if you want to know more… (http://www.normankoren.com/Tutorials/MTF.html)… Also This is a great book to read if you really want to get into it, and more here.

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