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Microsoft Surface Team Dives Deep on Design Questions

The Microsoft Surface team fielded some questions in a Tuesday Reddit session about the company's new tablet device, which is available today for preordering.

The Reddit AMA (ask me anything) session, tagged to Panos Panay, general manager of Microsoft Surface, is a sprawling read. However, there are a number of interesting comments within the threads. One post concerns the visual display specs used for Surface. It turns out that Microsoft has a nuanced view about what's important in delivering quality screen views on tablets.

The Screen Resolution Question
For instance, one of the questions concerned the Apple iPad3's screen resolution of 2048 x 1536 compared with the Surface's screen resolution of 1366 x 768. The Surface team said that those looking at the screen's specs should look to "modulation transfer function" (MTF) instead of pixel resolutions. MTF was defined in the Reddit session as "a combination of both contrast and resolution."

The MTF concept appears to be embodied in Microsoft's ClearType technology, which the company describes as using "a model of the human visual system to choose the brightness values of the sub-pixels." Supposedly, this approach reduces the "jaggies," or the sharp edges of type displayed on LCD displays. Reflections on tablet screens can reduce the contrast needed to read type, so Microsoft took a "three-pronged" approach with the Surface display.

"First prong, Microsoft has the best pixel rendering technology in the industry (cleartype 1.0 and 2.0)...these are exclusive and unique to Windows, it smooths text regardless of pixel count," the Surface team stated. "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 which is more commonly done on phones we are doing on Surface."

The post claimed that Microsoft ClearType screens reflected about 5.5 percent to 6.2 percent light, whereas the new iPad showed 9.9 percent reflections, adding that "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."

Fast Typing
In addition to display innovations, the Surface team claimed to have invented a new "digitizer" for the touch cover. It can track a key press to one millisecond. It purportedly supports fast typing speeds, with Surface team members claiming 65 words per minute and 86 words per minute on the touch-cover keyboard.

The Storage Question
Disk storage on the new Windows RT Surface tablets is presently limited to 64 GB and 32 GB. However, someone in the Reddit thread asked about how much space the Windows RT install takes up. Ricardo Lopez, test manager on the Surface RT team, indicated that users of the 32 GB machines will have more than 20 GB of storage space left over.

"After the OS, OfficeRT and a bunch of apps, you will still have more [than] 20GB," Lopez explained in the post. It's also possible to add a secure digital memory card to extend the device's storage, he added.

Wireless Support
The team also explained why the Windows RT-based Surface lacks an option for 3G/4G wireless service. Instead, the devices support Wi-Fi and and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technologies. Microsoft found, through its research, that people buying tablets mostly weren't using the 3G/4G wireless broadband connections.

"We made what we feel is World Class WiFi connectivity," commented BrettO of the Surface team. "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."

The Surface team also explained that the kickstand, which retracts to prop Surface devices onto tables, also doubles as a docking station. It has USB and HD connections, but there's no Ethernet plug for connecting to a hotel Internet service. Moreover, Pavan, who is the hardware lead on the Surface team, added that Microsoft is "not offering an ethernet to USB bridge solution for wired scenarios."

Microsoft also apparently dropped support for near-field communication (NFC) wireless connectivity because of the magnesium case design of the Surface machines.

"For the product design experience we were aiming for with Surface, the Mg metal enclosure, including the back case, was critical," Pavan stated. "This made good antenna design for NFC a trade-off in our development process."

Currently, just the Windows RT version of Microsoft Surface can be preordered. The Windows 8-based Surface version using x86 hardware is expected to be available 90 days after Microsoft launches Windows 8 on October 26.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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