Over the past few years, Microsoft has been quietly doubling down on its hardware capabilities. The company’s Surface range of tablets and transformable PCs was launched back in 2012, designed and manufactured to be the ultimate companion for the new Windows 8 operating system. From the outset, the company went for premium prices and a creative customer base, exploiting the synergy between the touchscreen capabilities of their OS and the device, the first laptop ever designed in house.

Since then, the range has expanded, processors have sped up and customer expectations have risen. Windows 8 has given way to Windows 10, one of the most stable and accomplished OS’s ever. And yet the ‘ultrabook’ sector is a crowded one, with Apple’s faithful MacBook Air and Pro models still the weapons of choice for the corporate road warrior and itinerant IT-centric freelance creative.

For the first time in its history, Microsoft was positioning itself as a leftfield choice. Even the hardware itself went out of its way to be different, from the Surface Studio all-in-one PC to the Surface Hub whiteboard and the extremely flexible detachable screen on the Surface Book line. The latter is the range’s portable flagship and the company recently launched the Surface Book 3. Other devices in the range include the Laptop 3, a more conventional model with a focus on high performance, and the Surface Pro X, a touchscreen model with an optional attachable keyboard and the lightweight Surface Go 2, designed for portability not overall performance.

The Surface Book 3 blends all these capabilities without compromising on any of them. In fact, it goes further. With up to 17 hours of battery life in the 15” model, the option of superfast NVIDIA graphics chips, two cameras and a number of screen configurations, the Book 3 is a true portable studio. The retention of a traditional headphone jack and SD card slot caters for musicians and photographers, while the pen experience is silky smooth and one of the best digital paper experiences available.

‘We’ve put people at the centre of every device,’ says Microsoft’s spokesperson Gillian Binks, explaining how the various interface methods — pen, touch, dial, trackpad and voice — are intended as a ‘seamless connection between your creativity and completion.’ In essence, Microsoft doesn’t want you to feel there is a computer in the way. This desire for ‘invisible hardware’ is slightly undermined by the tactile quality and attention to detail of the Surface Book 3; this is a very seductive device with its concealed speakers, aluminium surfaces, and clever hinge and detachable screen.

Microsoft has had a hardware division since the 1980s, initially for producing peripherals like the first PC-compatible mice. Ralf Groene, Corporate Vice President Design Microsoft Devices, started at the company 14 years ago, becoming head of all industrial design in 2015. Born in Germany, the industrial designer’s background is in toolmaking and he spent time at both frog design and IDEO before ending up in Redmond. Ten years ago, he started up the Surface design team. ‘There were three designers and maybe five engineers,’ he recalls, ‘we had to set out on a journey of thinking about tablet devices. The iPad had just come out and we wanted to see what the form could do for Windows.’

‘Every product in the Surface line has this idea of creation, production and entertainment,’ says Ralf Groene, Corporate Vice President Design Microsoft Devices

After an intensive design period, the idea of the original Surface device emerged. ‘We did 50 or so prototypes in eight weeks,’ Groene says, brandishing a duct-taped prototype. ‘The final idea was a tablet that can be unfolded into a laptop. That realisation set us on our way.’ The rapidity of technological advance allows products such as this to adapt with surprising speed – hence the arrival of Book 3 and the fact that the Surface Pro model is up to version 7 already. ‘A laptop is a classic form factor,’ Groene admits, ‘it’s a bit like when architects redesign the chair.’ That said, the ease with which the Book 3’s screen clicks off is an unexpectedly delightful tactile experience.

‘Every product in the Surface line has this idea of creation, production and entertainment,’ Groene explains, ‘these products are transformational because they adapt to your behaviour.’ They must also conform to our expectations, getting sleeker and faster each year. Groene admits that the rhythms of the computer industry, and the way in which faster processors, more memory and smaller components drive each cycle of hardware, sometimes takes precedence over creating decisively different devices. What goes on beneath the metal surface is ultimately the economic driver and the designer estimates that a production cycle of 18-24 months is typical for most devices. Microsoft manufactures across Asia, where it also has a dedicated design studio (the current geopolitical situation necessitates a certain caginess about specific locations – ‘it’s a global product,’ is all Groene will say). At Microsoft HQ there are about 30 industrial designers, with their own prototyping facility that can turn out short runs of fully functional devices.

Surface is still a premium product, a computer designed to last. ‘We’re not about churning out box after box after box,’ says Groene, ‘we have to work out how to move human-computer interaction forwards.’ One big step is the recently released Duo, an oversized folding device that is part tablet, part phone, a form factor that is currently seeking a pioneering user base. Flexibility, variety and user friendliness are still the key Surface characteristics. ‘We are not a committee, but a team,’ Groene concludes, ‘diversity of backgrounds, skills and nationalities is huge for us.’ We’re all remote workers now. Horizons might have shrunk but no-one has any desire to be tethered to a desktop. The Surface Book 3 is one of the best ways you can stay on the move. §