The Surface team grabbed what they could for their home offices when Microsoft (MSFT) closed its Redmond, Washington offices in March 2020 due to the pandemic. The Frankenstein, a prototype for a versatile, transformable laptop built in conjunction with Windows 11, was one of the projects for a small group of engineers and product designers.
The mysterious device had been in Microsoft’s development lab for three years and was set to ship on October 5, 2021, the same day Microsoft planned to release its first major software update in six years.
The Frankenstein, on the other hand, was far from finished: the pieces were taped together with a Surface Pro, a laptop-to-tablet device with new sensors, a new keyboard, and a trackpad on the bottom. The lock screen, the woven hinge, and the face tracking system, among other things, needed to be updated.
After a year and a half, that device — now known as the Surface Laptop Studio — is the highlight of Microsoft’s fall lineup, which was unveiled on Wednesday during a virtual press event.
The $1,599 device, according to Microsoft, can be anything you want it to be. It’s a standard notebook when it’s in the laptop mode. Users can pull the 14.4-inch touchscreen forward into a docking station in Stage mode, which is ideal for playing games or watching TV shows at an angle. Studio, the final mode, transforms the computer into a blank canvas for drawing, sketching, and other creative endeavors. It has features that are intended to appeal to professional developers and creators.
While the hardware design isn’t entirely new—Lenovo, for example, has tried similar transformable devices—Microsoft wants to show that it can provide consumers with something truly innovative. It’s part of the company’s broader hybrid device strategy, which was bolstered by a slew of other updates to its laptop-turned-tablet products during the event.
Microsoft, on the other hand, had to deal with the constraints of a pandemic as well as supply chain issues in order to finish designing the product and bring it to market.
Rather than meeting in person with colleagues in the early days of the pandemic, the Surface Laptop Studio team told CNN Business that they would leave one of several Frankenstein prototypes on each other’s doorsteps. Microsoft (MSFT) employees would bring them into their homes for testing after a thorough cleaning.
Then there were the issues with the parts themselves. Aside from supply chain issues, the team was unable to visit its factory in China to inspect production. “We had factory team members on the ground put on Microsoft’s mixed reality headsets, because we typically would have been there to solve those problems in real time on the production line,” said Angela Krauskopf, senior director of engineering at Microsoft. “We couldn’t travel and still can’t do that, so this was a piece of technology [that helped that process].”
The Studio device’s goal is to combine the power of a desktop computer for home or work with the portability of a laptop. And the details are some of the Surface Laptop Studio’s best features: The bump on the hinge is small, according to the design team, and it took a lot of trial and error to get it right. When you use the second-generation Surface Slim Pen, it stores neatly beneath the keyboard, charges inside, and vibrates through your fingertips, just like a real pencil. Depending on which mode you’re in, the content is optimized slightly.