Microsoft wants you to adorn your company conference room walls with Surface Hub — its electronic whiteboard system I have been trying out. With today’s faster networks, there’s a fresh expectation that we can instantly brainstorm ideas with colleagues thousands of kilometres away, all squiggling together on the same whiteboard canvass without any delays.
Surface Hub is big. It’s as if Microsoft got hold of a 10-inch Windows tablet and injected a magic electronic growth substance that blew the device up to 55-inches, and then again to 84-inches. Surface Hub is so much like having a gigantic tablet computer on your wall, but it’s more.
It’s intuitive to use. And the display offers 100 points of touch. Walk into a conference room, it will recognise motion and switch on. I simply picked up one of the pens located at either side of hub, and I was away. As with tablet devices generally, you can also use your finger to navigate.
There is a home screen with three main options. Skype for Business, a whiteboard, and a connector option for linking other users. They could be connecting through other hubs, TVs, tablets or phones. Microsoft says it ripped out the extraneous parts of Windows to come up with a simple-to-use wall-type tablet.
Selecting the whiteboard brings up a huge white canvas. At the bottom there are colour controls, and it’s easy to swap between colours and line thicknesses when using the pen or your finger.
Whiteboard contents can be saved as you go and the area is endless. Swiping to the left brings up a fresh area to use. Surface Hub importantly also has a Windows home button. Press it, and you get a menu of applications, as with any Windows 10 device.
The fun starts when you combine the whiteboard with other applications. As with a tablet, you can have two apps sitting side-by-side on the screen, and one can be the whiteboard.
In my case, I had Bing Maps on one side and the whiteboard on the other. I could define an area of the map, and in one click copy it to the whiteboard, then resize and position it with my fingers.
Surface Hub is ideal for PowerPoint. I could find a presentation on the hub’s hard drive using File Explorer, and open it. I used my finger to jump from slide to slide, and the pen to highlight or annotate parts of the slide. I could draw lines or use a virtual highlighter with the colour of my choice.
Hub lets you select files on the device, in the cloud, or from a USB stick you poke into its side.
People in the room can authenticate with Surface Hub and take part in the conversation.
I particularly liked the Miracast functionality. Someone at a meeting can get out their Miracast capable phone, such as an Android handset, register it with the hub, and start creating content that is shared on the hub.
The person using the hub can also create content. At the end of the session, when you detach, all the new content including that created by hub is stored on that phone. You can also connect Apple devices to hub, but communication is via the cloud and there’s no two-way flow of information as with Miracast.
When the session ends, you select “return hub to factory settings”, and all information from your session is erased. No file or user information is retained.
Surface Hub has a few features that aid conference communications. It has two wide-angle 1080p HD cameras and a four element array microphone that will pick up whispers at 7m away by tunnelling to the audio endpoint. That’s great, but I’d avoid quiet conversations with a person sitting next to you during a presentation, in case it becomes more public.
The two pens automatically charge when they’re in their dock at each side.
There are three mounting options. You can mount Surface Hub on Microsoft’s sturdy looking stand, mount it using a bracket on the wall, or use Microsoft’s U-shaped stand that attaches to the wall from ground level up. In this case, you don’t have to mount it on drywall.
There are significant differences between the 55-inch and 84-inch models. The 84-inch model has a 4K display, an Intel Core i7 processor, and power efficient Nvidia Quadro K2200 graphics. The 55-inch one has a 1080p display, a Core i5 processor and integrated Intel HD 4600 graphics.
Both sizes have a 128GB solid state drive with 8GB of memory, and front-facing stereo speakers. You get Windows 10 with Microsoft Office.
Surface Hub stemmed from Microsoft’s 2012 acquisition of Perceptive Pixel, which specialised in scaling up multi-touch devices to offer a fine-quality touch experience.
Surface Hub was soft-launched in Australia six months ago with some of Microsoft’s regular clients; now it wants to bring it to the wider local market. It’s an opportune time with Cisco rolling its rival Spark Board and Google’s Jamboard on the horizon.
Hub is not cheap. The 55-inch model costs $13,499, and the 84-model $34,099. You need deep pockets for the 84-inch model in particular. Here it’s more expensive than in the US where we’ve seen prices quoted of $US8999 and $US21,999.
That made me think — could you get by just rigging up a tablet to a big TV and work from that? You could but you wouldn’t have the simplicity of use and connectivity options offered by hub.
You can buy it from Microsoft Australia or through its Australian resellers.
Price: 55-inch: $13,499, 84-inch: $34,099.
Giant internet connected touchscreen
Collaboration via an electronic whiteboard
Skype for Business integration
Runs Windows hub-compatible apps
Easy to use, touch/pen operation smooth
Collaboration using Windows 10 programs
Easy in-room connectivity with Miracast
84-inch Surface Hub expensive
Value to you will depend on available hub apps
Fast internet needed for remote collaboration
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