Making my Surface 2 more 'lapable' with a little bit of DIY

Summary:An extra surface for my Surface makes it work better on my knees. Here's how to make your own.

Ever since my 64GB Surface 2 somehow became my main computer (which happened imperceptibly but now I only switch on a 'full' PC about twice a month), my Surface hack has been seeing more usage — and I've added a couple of refinements.

What I call my extra Surface surface is the cut-down Samsung Series 7 case I mentioned last year , which I was using with a Surface Pro to make it more usable in my lap; the weight of the Surface Pro meant it definitely needed a flat surface to balance on.

samsung-series-7-case-cut
A Samsung Series 7 case I cut in half for another project gives my Surface a surface to sit on. Image: Mary Branscombe

I liked my original Surface RT but it wasn't fast enough for real work so it lived in my nightstand as a web and gaming machine and only came out for press conferences: lightweight plus long battery life plus OneNote and Outlook and Excel are a great combination.

Surface 2 has more battery life and far more power; I needed the 64GB version to cope with my giant OneNote notebooks plus everything I sync from OneDrive plus a serious amount of email, but it's coped with everything from schlepping round conferences, to my regular writing load at home, to doing my annual accounts (three or four large Excel spreadsheets with lookup formula referencing other spreadsheets all open at once).

The two position kickstand made it more stable as well. But I still had the tipping problem sitting in most conference chairs (or in the passenger seat of the car in stop and go Silicon Valley traffic).

Longer legs mean a longer, flatter lap than short legs. My legs are so short that in most chairs putting my feet flat on the ground means my lap slopes down abruptly, and the kickstand is perched right on the edge of my knee as well. 

Having already cut a Series 7 case in half for an experiment meant I had a flat surface that's the right size, has a flock lining for extra grip and corners to brace the kickstand on. Perching that on my knee gives me a flatter surface that's long enough for the kickstand and keyboard. (It also avoids the kickstand leaving a dent in your skin if you're wearing shorts.)

But it was still most effective if I could prop my feet up on the chair in front but hammering away on my notes at Build when the crowded keynote meant there were no empty chairs to stretch out with, I was having the problem where typing fast moved the keyboard enough to bounce the Surface 2 up and down slightly; too much of that and it can tip right over backward, even on the extra surface. I do type at speed and with some vigour.

I grabbed the lanyard my badge was hanging from and looped it over the keyboard where it connects to the Surface and under the Samsung slab, knotting it firmly at the end. The extra stabilisation held the Surface 2 perfectly in place no matter how hard I was typing, and let it balance at much more extreme angles. Thanks to the magnetic connector, I could leave the lanyard tied onto the base and just unsnap the keyboard when I didn't want the extra support.

elastic-holds-angle
The elastic holds the keyboard down for extra stability. Image: Mary Branscombe

I improved on this by replacing the lanyard with an elastic headband I found on sale in a drugstore for 50 cents, in my trademark lime green (there are another two in the packet if the elastic stretches too much). Pull it tight, knot firmly and snug it up against the keyboard where it meets the Surface.

elastic-here
Tie the elastic snugly and slide it to hold the keyboard down where it meets the Surface. Image: Mary Branscombe

Since April, this has kept my Surface 2 stable on a wide range of chairs (unless your feet don't easily reach the floor you may not notice how much the height of random office chairs varies). And in the five minutes I had to play with a Surface 3, it worked just as well. I didn't try it for long enough or in more than one chair so I don't know if I'll need the elastic to hold the keyboard firmly; I didn't need it in my brief trial.

What really impressed me is that the Surface 3, which is a full Haswell PC, was almost exactly as lapable as the Surface 2, thanks to the extra stabilisation of the keyboard, which folds up to grip along the length of the bezel, so you don't have the single point of failure.

With multiple magnets gripping, the oscillation from heavy typing doesn't have the same bouncing effect. I'm looking forward to getting a review unit and trying that out in more places. An active pen is one of the things I miss most with Surface 2; Surface 3 feels light and stable enough that it might bring me back to using a PC full time.

If you want to make your own and you don't have a Series 7 case to dismember, you need something thin, light and rigid; thin hardboard or MDF, like the back of a clip frame or similar — anything that doesn't flex too much when you twist it between your hands. The base I have measures 7.25 inches.

To get maximum stability, you need something for the kickstand to brace against, so glue or tape a strip of moulding (or a couple of strips of cardboard or two pencils or an old knitting needle or anything else you have lying around) along one of the long edges. Brightly coloured duct tape is good for this, especially if it matches your elastic. This also stops the elastic sliding off.

Or if you're gluing two sheets of cardboard together or getting a sheet of Plexiglas cut to size, mark where the kickstand sits (in both positions if you have Surface 2 or in your most-used angles for Surface 3) and cut grooves for the kickstand to sit in; make the cutout in just one of the sheets of cardboard or ask the hardware shop cutting your acrylic to size to engrave the groove for you, because you don't want the kickstand to slip right through.

snap-off
The elastic reinforces the hinge rigidity. Image: Mary Branscombe

It's hard to design a super-light, super-thin keyboard that snaps on and pulls off easily. And doesn't get in the way when you're using the Surface as a tablet that also has a hinge strong enough to hold up a tablet the way a laptop hinge holds up a screen, and really it's the hinge that dictates the usage of a modern computer. If the hinge folds, you have a laptop; if it twists, you have a convertible.

Surface replaces the hinge with the kickstand, simplifying the engineering problem, but not entirely solving the lap problem. I'd love to see a small panel that slides out from the keyboard to stabilise the kickstand, but I can see engineering problems with that too. My extra Surface surface is a hack, but it doesn't add much weight and it makes Surface 2 (and, I expect, Surface 3) far more usable for me. It's the kind of thing a case manufacturer could include in a Surface slip case, as an extra layer of protection you could pull out and use in your lap...

Further reading

Topics: Mobility, Microsoft Surface

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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