Sometime later this year, Microsoft will sell a new family of Windows 10 devices called Surface Hub with the aim of unlocking team collaboration in innovative new ways. If you think of Surface tablets as Windows expressed as hardware for individuals, Surface Hub is basically the same thing, but for teams. And now that I’ve finally had a chance to actually use this device, I’m hooked. Surface Hub is the real deal.
If you’re familiar with the lineage of Surface, you probably know that Surface Hub is essentially a more modern take on the original Surface “big ass table” and the Perceptive Pixel (PPI) displays, which Microsoft purchased. I was lucky enough to use a PPI display during my appearance at the Windows 8 launch in New Zealand in 2012, so this experience provides a frame of reference for what’s new with Surface Hub.
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At a superficial level, Surface Hub seems similar to a PPI display. But the two devices are in fact fundamentally different. Where PPI was just a giant screen with pen and touch capabilities, Surface Hub is an integrated device with onboard computing, two 1080p cameras, multiple sensors, stereo speakers, a 4-mic array and a special communal version of Windows 10 and integrated apps for communication, whiteboarding, and more. And it supports 100 simultaneous touch points and three simultaneous pen points.
There are two versions of Surface Hub coming, a 55-inch 1080p model and the 84-inch 4K version I used. It is an impressive—and imposing—piece of hardware, with a glorious and bright screen and silky-smooth touch and pen capabilities. It turns Windows 10 apps—including built-in apps like Maps—into immersive experiences that need to be seen to be believed. The performance is superb.
As a Windows fan, I was of course most curious about the custom version of Windows 10 that ships with Surface Hub. The OS has indeed been customized for this form factor and for the unique needs of the device. So Start is a floating rectangle that appears in the middle of the screen, providing access to a handful of pinned app tiles and the full All Apps list. There are no app buttons in the taskbar, and the Cortana, Start and Task View buttons are centered in taskbar at the bottom of the screen, with a clock and “I’m done” button (for ending the current task) in the lower-right.
In addition to the taskbar, there are bars on the left and right side of the screen as well: These are identical to each other to accommodate both left- and right-handed users, as the four buttons you see in each—Call, Video Call, IM, and Sharing (file, screen)—are Skype related and can use the cameras and microphones found on each side of the display. A right-handed person will tend to use the buttons on the right, and when they do so, the camera is angled so that it is aimed at them for communication purposes.
Perhaps more intriguing is that you don’t sign-in to Surface Hub. The system is meant to be communal, so that one or more co-workers can walk up to the device and simply start running apps. The device exists on the corporate network, so you can send email and other things from Surface Hub, and apps that need you to authenticate can do so on the fly.
Surface Hub also embraces and extends Miracast in ways that are truly exciting. Yes, it can act like a dumb display mirror, as with any Miracast device. But you can also connect an external PC—like a Surface Pro 3—using wireless (which is a combination of Miracast and Microsoft technologies) or a wire and project the display into the whole screen or a snapped area of the screen. As important, this connection isn’t one-way; it’s what Microsoft calls “ink back, touch back,” meaning you can use touch and a pen on the remote display (Surface Hub) and have what you do impact the document or app you’re working with on the Surface Pro 3 or other device. It’s two-way Miracast. With snap support.
Of course, what I’ve described is the thing. But Surface Hub exists for a reason, and it’s not just to be an aspirational example of what’s possible when you combine Windows 10 with truly amazing hardware. Surface Hub is a collaboration tool, aimed at teams, that seeks to overcome the limitations of today’s meetings, whether they’re completely in-person or involve call-in co-workers too. (“Are you still there, Bob?”)
My Surface Hub introduction came courtesy of senior product marketing manager Tim Bakke, who explained that this device showcases what’s possible when people are really collaborating together.
“We know that the best work we do is the work we do with others,” he explained. “There’s an energy, it’s like jazz, where people riff off each other and really get things done. This can happen physically or virtually with Surface Hub.”
When it’s not in use, Surface Hub sits there with a basic time display and a pretty picture. But when you pick up one of the nicely balanced pens—they’re bigger than Surface Pen for Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3, with a tapered shape and a Sharpie-like writing experience—Surface Hub goes right into whiteboard mode. This lets you—and up to two other people, each with their own pens—to brainstorm in real time.
It also mimics how Surface Pen can launch OneNote with one button press—in that case bypassing a logon and other navigational requirements—letting you get right to work. Customers don’t want to fuss with the technology, they want to write. That’s why they picked up the pen.
The difference between using a Surface Hub and projecting a PC display to the wall using a standard projector-type technology is striking. Rather than speak to something on your PC—while others look at the big screen—you can interact directly with the content, touching it, or drawing on it and taking notes. And you can do so with others. It’s not a presentation device per se—though it can be used that way, of course, but rather a collaboration device.
For remote users, you can access the Skype for Business-based side buttons to trigger a variety of interactive communication tools, including of course screen sharing.
Microsoft sees businesses putting Surface Hub in communal spaces, as you’d imagine, which makes sense in the modern workplace, where employees often don’t have their own offices and many work from home and come in to the office only occasionally. So a Surface Hub isn’t someone’s PC, it’s something anyone can use at any time to host impromptu or scheduled brainstorming sessions, meetings, and other collaborative get-togethers.
The big questions about Surface Hub involve pricing and availability, of course, and for now Microsoft isn’t speaking. PPI displays were of course quite expensive, and since this is even more impressive technology—especially the more powerful 84-inch version—I think it’s fair to say it won’t be bargain priced.
Compared to the other custom Windows 10 device we know about now—HoloLens—however, Surface Hub is a far more mainstream solution and is more obviously useful to a wider range of users. It’s impossible to stand in front of this device and not want to touch it, and writing on the screen and using its multi-touch capabilities—spinning a 3D map of San Francisco, for example—is a delight. It may cost as much as my car, we’ll see. But I want one.
I bet we learn more soon. But Surface Hub looks truly impressive.