The Microsoft Surface

Glossy as it is on its surface, Microsoft's chic new tablet actually packs some seriously clever design and engineering in the technological innards beneath its Gorilla Glass screen.

Actually, there's cleverness in the chassis behind and around the tablet and even hanging off the edge, attached by a discrete but sophisticated magnetic latching mechanism.

The Scene At L.A.'s Milk Studios

Surface's body is made through a process called VaporMg.

Microsoft has shunned the trend toward making mobile devices like this out of pure aluminum, and has opted for magnesium alloy instead. This metal, symbol Mg, may be something you remember from your high school chemistry lessons for being the reactive one that fizzes spectacularly brightly when you burn it.

But when you mold it, machine it and subject it to vapor deposition (see where Microsoft was going with its name?) to toughen up its exterior, you end up with a material that's very stiff and strong for its light weight. That means you can make it into very sturdy but very thin shapes, with high precision and detail.

This is why MS could give the Surface its thin kickstand, which is strong yet light, and over which Microsoft devoted much effort to get it to feel and sound right.

Cover Story

While much attention was lavished on the tablet itself, Microsoft really scored with the keyboard accessories it's promoting alongside Surface (as a not-so-subtle hint that Surface is a "productivity"-friendly device, versus the iPad which is accused of being for consumption only).

A great choice of bright colors will appeal to many consumers.

But maybe you'll marvel that the Touch Covers shown here somehow contain a magnetic latch and contacts to send data to the tablet inside their slender hinge. There's even an accelerometer so that the circuitry inside knows when you've folded the cover back behind the device to hold it in a more slate-like format, iand thus disables the keypad.

And all of that fits into a plastic sheet that's just three millimeters thin.

Key Innovation

Microsoft's R&D division has been working on the tech inside the keyboards for quite some time.

It's based on a patent MS has held since 2003 and was used in 2010's Sidewinder x4 keyboard for serious gaming.

The sensors are both low power and ultra-thin, and they operate in reaction to force--so they can ignore you resting your hands on the cover. When your fingers start hitting the keys with the effort of typing, the cover's electronics detects the action within 8 milliseconds, assesses how hard you're tapping away to determine your intent to type, then starts sending data on your finger's movements to the tablet. When it's folded away it even turns the sensors off so they consume no power at all.

And it's multitouch, so it doesn't care if you're pushing several fingers onto its matt surface at the same time--which means it can cope with shift or control key presses.

Cover Story 2

But MS also uses the same system for its slightly chunkier Type Cover, which has plastic keys that travel a very tiny 1.5mm when you type at them--perhaps to appeal to users who are habituated at bashing away at their laptop keyboard, or for slightly more hardcore gamers.

The keys actually just push on the same system inside the Touch Cover, exerting pressure on the same force resistors printed on thin film--of the sort shown here--in the same way.

They MS-tery Within

Curiously while MS has been forthcoming about many aspects of Surface, including the clever keyboards, it's taken a much more muted position on the rest of the tech inside the tablets.

There's much less of the MHz and GB and three-core, front-side bus, on-die cache malarkey that typically goes on when someone's promoting a Microsoft-powered conventional computer.

We do know the entry level devices will be powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, and will rock a 31.5 Watt-hour lithium battery inside a 9.3mm thin case. It'll also have an "HD" display versus the "Full HD" display of the Pro version (resolution unknown). This more expensive machine will be powered by a familiar Intel CPU and be 13.5mm deep, presumably to enclose the fatter 42 Watt-hour battery needed to run the thirstier CPU.

And that's about it. Refreshingly un-techy, isn't it?