Nobody likes boring presentations, so I’ll get right to the point. Microsoft’s new Surface Hub digital whiteboard is so good and so affordable and so well suited for its purpose that it makes existing conference room equipment instantly obsolete.
The Surface Hub is essentially a giant tablet built from the ground up to live in corporate conference rooms and replace every piece of equipment therein (except for the table and chairs).
When you walk into a Surface Hub conference room (as I had occasion to do last week at Microsoft’s San Francisco offices) you immediately notice two things. First, the Surface Hub is beautiful. It’s minimalist and appealing, somehow managing to be both professional and cool-looking.
Microsoft makes a range of mounts, from roller mounts to wall-mounted models to floor mounts and even hybrids, which sticks the Surface Hub to the wall, but gets support from the floor (the big Hub weighs about 280 pounds and the smaller one about 105 pounds) so they can use the extra support.
Furthermore, it’s always in a kind of “on” state with a muted image on screen. Forget about starting every meeting with awkward connectivity, login, setup and the usual conference-call gymnastics. Touch the screen, the Surface Hub instantly springs to life and your meeting has already begun.
Once on, you notice that the screen is conspicuously high-resolution (the larger unit displays 4k resolution and the smaller one is 1080p) and that it responds to the user. So if you’re using an app that has on-screen controls on one side, the controls will switch sides when you move to the other side of the screen.
The Surface Hub responds to touch controls, including swipes, pinching and all the rest, with ultra high-resolution images on screen responding instantly. (The display and touch sensor are coordinated to refresh at a whopping 120Hz, which means the display refreshes every 8.33 milliseconds.)
It really shines with a purpose-built pen, which feels just like using a marker on a whiteboard. Each Surface Hub comes with two battery-powered pens, which Microsoft claims have “sub-pixel accuracy,” as well as a Microsoft keyboard.
Ten people can each put all ten fingers on the screen at once, and the Surface Hub will register and respond to every finger. (Plus, it can handle three simultaneous pen inputs.)
Two very wide-angle HD cameras, which offer a 100-degree horizontal field of view, connect remote participants to the meeting.
A four-element microphone array both targets human speaking voices directionally and also isolates the sound to eliminate environmental noise. Two front-facing speakers broadcast the voices and videos of remote participants.
The Surface Hub also harvests contextual information through passive infrared presence sensors and ambient light sensors.
Surface Hub connects via Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth and Near Field Communication. Meeting participants can connect over the Internet or directly to the Hub via Bluetooth. The NFC support enables app developers to authenticate users, even using the same badge that employees use to access the building.
Microsoft teased the Surface Hub at its Redmond, Wash., Windows 10 event January 21, but the elephant in the living room was the price. Now we know: The 84-inch device retails for $19,999 while the 55-inch version costs $6,999.
Microsoft’s Surface Hub Cuts Conference Room Clutter
Those prices sound high, but they are a fraction of what companies already pay to buy separately all the necessary components—projectors, whiteboards and video conference systems.
They go on sale for pre-order on July 1 in 24 markets and ship in September. Those markets include the United States, Canada, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
Microsoft achieved these price points by doing its own manufacturing in the company’s little-known facility in Wilsonville, Ore. Microsoft’s presence in Wilsonville was established by Jeff Han’s 9-year-old, New York-based Perceptive Pixel, which Microsoft bought three years ago. If you recall, Perceptive Pixel sprung into the public’s awareness when CNN obsessed over their Perceptive Pixel displays for coverage of the 2008 presidential race.
The current facility sits right next to Wilsonville’s World of Speed museum, which commemorates cars and drag racing. The area and the state is a longstanding display technology powerhouse.
In fact, some of Surface Hub’s competition has roots in Oregon as well. For example, Silicon Valley-based Polycom acquired the assets of HP’s Visual Collaboration business and its Halo products, which were developed in Corvallis, Ore. InFocus, which makes the Surface Hub-like MonoPad, is based in Portland, Ore.
The Surface Hub wins in part by leveraging a traditional Microsoft strength—compatibility with Windows software—and, in fact, it’s a Windows 10 PC, but it also relies on and two newly discovered Microsoft strengths.
The first is compatibility with iOS, Android and other platforms. You can participate in meetings via a Mac or Android tablet. In fact, the Microsoft engineer who helped demonstrate the Surface Hub for me was using a MacBook Pro.
The second is cloud-friendliness. Because the Surface Hub is a Windows 10 machine that’s always connected to the Internet, any sort of cloud service works. So, for example, if you’d like to shoot off a note during a meeting, just open the browser, log on to Gmail or whatever, and use it as you normally would.
The central applications for Surface Hub out of the box are Skype for Business, Office and OneNote, but any Windows 10 compatible app will run as well. The aforementioned Microsoft apps have been built for Surface Hub compatibility—especially Skype, which stacks call participants along one edge of the screen, and OneNote, which is likely to be the all-purpose collaborative application for Surface Hub users.
Microsoft smartly created a conference room system that functions like a turn-key appliance if you want it to, but can also do pretty much anything a Windows 10 PC can do and more—especially if your organization creates custom applications for it.
Because of the Surface Hub’s elegance, flexibility, versatility and low price, I think you’re going to see them cropping up at scrappy startups, schools, university labs and most of all, inside the personal offices of C-level executives. Heck, I’ve got an Internet TV tech news show, and I would love one on the set.
The Surface Hub feels like a sure hit at this point. The combination of looks, functionality and low price is just what conference rooms need to finally move beyond their antiquated meeting contraptions.