Back in January 2015, Microsoft dropped two huge product announcements at an event on its Redmond campus: Windows 10, a new operating system, and HoloLens, a cutting-edge holographic projection headset.
Overshadowed in the resulting mania was Surface Hub, a new line of gigantic Windows 10 mega-tablets intended for the conference room, in 54-inch and 84-inch screen sizes.
After some delay, the Surface Hub finally started shipping to customers in March 2016. And during last week’s Microsoft Build conference, I had the chance to go hands-on with the 84-inch Surface Hub, retail price $21,999. And I have to tell you — it’s pretty awesome.
The idea, I’m told by Microsoft Devices’ Tim Bakke over the course of my demo, is that the Surface Hub is supposed to be the centrepiece of a meeting, even when the other participants aren’t in the same room with you. It’s like the lousy, complicated teleconferencing system you might have at your job, but streamlined with some extra smarts.
On the surface, the massive Surface Hub looks like a gigantic, good-looking TV, outputting ultra-high-resolution HD video. It’s flanked by high-definition cameras, infrared sensors, and speakers. Under the hood, the larger Surface Hub has a customised Intel i7 processor.
Bakke says that they wanted to make it as easy as possible to get started. Microsoft made a custom version of Windows 10, just for the Surface Hub, that makes it incredibly easy to get to the three main things you’d want to do in a meeting, directly from the lock screen.
Push one button, and you can scribble on a whiteboard-like version of Microsoft OneNote, call in remote participants via Skype, or just project the desktop from a Windows 10 PC.
It all worked great in my short demo. And Microsoft showed plenty of attention to detail.
For instance, the Surface Hub comes with two Surface Pen styluses. Users can optionally log in to each stylus separately via their corporate email accounts, such that you can track which employee contributed which scribbles to the brainstorm.
Another nifty thing is that the Skype controls permanently stay on either side of the screen, meaning it only takes a second to call someone and loop them into what you’re working on. And because it’s all Skype, you probably already know how to make a call and share your desktop.
To my mind, the neatest part about the Surface Hub is its Windows 10 foundation. Despite its massive size, the Surface Hub can run literally any app from the Windows Store (yes, including Candy Crush Saga), whether or not it’s been optimised for the huge screen.
That benefit manifests itself in all kinds of different, interesting ways. The default Windows Maps app wasn’t designed for an 83-inch screen, and yet it’s gorgeous and weirdly addictive to fly around the globe and view the wonders of the world at a larger scale.
More germane to the business users that the Surface Hub is intended for, the Windows software means it’s relatively easy to get work done on the big screen using a company’s existing productivity apps.
Bakke demonstrated a Windows 10 kanban work management app that let employees vote on project priorities on their own smartphones and then have the results tallied on the big screen.
For non-Windows 10 apps, the Surface Hub lets you project a Windows PC’s desktop in real-time, kind of like mirroring your desktop or Android tablet on a Google Chromecast, so you can still share your precious content.
In short, the Surface Hub is a clear reflection of Microsoft’s philosophy. For developers, it’s just another place to sell Windows 10 apps with a minimum of extra effort. For Microsoft, it’s another way to push Windows 10 and probably the Microsoft Azure cloud everywhere. For business customers, it’s a device to run meetings more efficiently.
Yes, it’s pricey. But it’s surprisingly fun to mess around with a gigantic tablet, especially when it looks this good.