Hands-on: Microsoft's massive Surface Hub enables big-screen collaboration

Microsoft Surface Pro Hub
Credit: Mark Hachman

Imagine a Surface tablet, exploded into something that dwarfs you as you stand beside it. Add in a pair of cameras, superb digital inking, and collaboration features. That’s the Microsoft Surface Hub, which I had the opportunity to demo at Wednesday’s Windows 10 event.

Available in 55-inch and 84-inch screen sizes, the Surface Hub is a tool for collaboration, including working on documents and video conferencing. It’s designed to replicate the experience of a large group, working together, spread out over multiple locations. And the hardware is outstanding—the 84-inch display are 4K resolution, and at a whopping 120Hz refresh rate. (The 55-inch version is 1080p.) That’s twice what most displays are offering.

Unfortunately, Microsoft isn’t talking about price or availability yet. That information will come at a later date, a spokesman said.

Microsoft Surface Pro Hub Mark Hachman

Hands-on with the Surface Hub

The Surface Hub starts up instantly, recognizing you as you approach the device through the integrated Kinect sensor. A screensaver interface offers three default options: a Skype call, a OneNote notebook, and connecting a third-party device such as a phone or tablet.

Inking on the Surface Hub is superb. The included pen supports pressure, so that pressing down widens the digital flow of ink. Flipping the pen upside down turns the pen into an eraser. And you can also lasso content and move it from one side of the display to another. I was able to draw on the 55-inch display as easily as I would ink something on a 12-inch Surface Pro 3. And with support for 100-point touch, several people can work on the same display at once.

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The Surface Hub start screen.

When used as a videoconferencing solution, the Surface Hub appears to do a good job of making sure remote users feel like they’re part of the conversation. The cameras in the Surface Hub are at eye level, so that remote users feel like they’re talking to you, not the top of your head. The videoconferencing software, Skype for Business, shows users in small video windows off to one side, with a main screen for sharing presentations and other documents. Because the display runs any Windows 10 app, content can be snapped to one side of the screen for optimal viewing. And if a device supports Miracast or HDMI, phones and tablets can be connected to the Surface Hub as well.

At the end of a meeting, the content that was shared—including the digital ink applied to it all—is gathered up and automatically given to participants. Then the device wipes itself to prepare for the next meeting.

Why this matters: This isn’t something that you’ll buy for your home. But the Surface Pro Hub should be something businesses look into. Collaboration is key for large groups, and the Surface Hub allows large groups to work together. It’s not clear how this will play in the Unified Communications market, where third parties rule the roost, but Microsoft’s solution appears well designed and well integrated with its product suite.

Correction: The 55-inch Surface Hub is 1080p, not 4K. 

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