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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • A narrow 1/2" ring binder from Staples

    makes a great lap pad for tablets, netbooks or laptops. You can thread cords through the rings, clip them to the edges, it provides an air gap and slight tilt in whichever direction is most comfortable, can be color coordinated with the machine, and is lightweight. No cutting, costs $2.
    • nice idea, but I'd cut it in half to save the weight

      Surface doesn't have the heat issue (my cats are sad since I switched from laptops!) and I want something smaller myself, but ingenious!
      • this is awesome

        truly awesome!

        A kit to make the Surface mobile!

        With this kit you can afford to use your Surface, while traveling, or commuting on your lap... what a concept!
  • Why not save $600 ...

    ... and buy a comparable laptop?

    This is the real problem with surface users - they buy a Surface when they really want a laptop, then waste half their weekends - and a few more dollars - trying to turn the thing into a laptop.

    Cut out the middle bit - if you want a laptoptop, buty a laptop. With the cash you save, you can probably buy a decent tablet - rather than lug about your Surface, with it's 1990s software.

    You know it makes sense. So do all the other people NOT buying surface. Which is why Surface2 is having a $1bn buy back, just like Surface1 did.
    • Hate to Agree, But

      Heenan73 has a point. I am a Surface Pro (1, 2, and 3) fanboy, but all of those pictures drive home the fact that some folks really do need a laptop (dare I say MacBook Air 11) rather than struggling with makeshift concoctions. For me, even the Surface Pro 2 second stage kickstand was more than enough for lap use - the SPro 3 should be light-years better than that.
      • your legs will be longer than mine

        I've measured a lot of Surface users; the ones with long legs have longer laps and find the two position kickstand is enough. Us short folks apply our skills to address the issue.
        • Your "fix" is very resourceful, Mary.

          Have you noticed that the latest Surface 3 video ad doesn't show it being used on a lap? Maybe there's a reason for that. :)
          • it was fine in my lap

            I doubt any video could show all the usage modes of any device, unless you went on for a few hours ;) I need to test it more, but 'as good as Surface 2 despite weighing more' was a good start for me
          • *Straw*


            (In case you were running out of something...anything to grasp at)
      • Depends...

        I have the Surface 2 and it's the best tablet I've ever used. I do use it for a laptop replacement when I'm away from the office or traveling, and it works great for that as well. However, I too have short legs and experience the same issue that Mary describes. But, I rarely ever need to use the tablet on my lap with the keyboard, almost never. So, this issue is not enough to make me go back to carrying a laptop instead. As Mary said, I can use the tablet and keyboard in my lap by propping up my legs so that I have more room for it to rest on. Contrary to popular belief, the Surface does work on the lap, with keyboard cover, when needed; it just doesn't work as well for some people as it does for others and short legs and/or a short lap is the biggest reason when it doesn't work well. For me, I can use it like a laptop on my lap, it's just not as comfortable as it would be with something like Mary's "Surface surface".

        Basically, the only time I need to work with the Surface on my lap, in laptop configuration, is when I'm at my kid's ballgames and something comes up that I need to address or I'm killing time before the game starts by doing a little work. For my needs, something like Mary's contraption would be easy enough to carry in one of the pockets of my folding chair, where it would be there when I need it. Otherwise, I would just use the touch screen to get the work done instead. The Surface does work very well in your lap when you don't need the keyboard cover. Just flip the keyboard cover backward and open the kickstand for a nice, solid, canted viewing angle or lay it flat. You can use the onscreen keyboard in that configuration and type quite fast as well; it's just not as good as typing on a real keyboard.

        So, for me at least, even with this minor shortfall in the design, the Surface is still a better fit than a full laptop. That's because I use it as a tablet as much as I use it as a laptop, if not more. And I rarely need to use the keyboard cover on my lap; in fact I never have to use the keyboard cover this way, but on rare occasions I do prefer to. I suspect that most Surface users would agree. It seems only non-Surface users have trouble comprehending how well this device really does work to fulfill a user's full range of mobile computing needs.
      • No he does not have a point

        People just like Mary buy a tablet because of the size and weight, they don't want a laptop. Every ounce makes a difference. Surface 2 is 2lbs. Surface 3 is 1.67lbs. The lightest Ultrabook is 3 pounds and the new IPad is 1lb. While the IPad is very light and cannot do what Surface 2 or 3 does. A Ultrabook is 1lb to heavy.

        Nothing is perfect. In Mary case she wants to use the Surface on her lap, but she have short legs. For many man this is not a problem because they have longer legs, so they don't have to do the project Mary did. Notice she will have the same issue with a laptop. With the hack she did, she solve her problem of short legs and the surface might extend beyond her knees but the tablet weight is still on her thigh.

        Beside, we don't pay attention to Heenan73. He hates Microsoft, he hates Windows, especially W8 and he hates Surface. There is no reason to read or comment on any Windows article because it is not his interest, but he does because he likes to spread FUD and this is what make him a 100% certify troll.
        • Short legs

          Jazzy, also many men have short legs (I am one), so Mary's 'project' has wider relevance than you think.
        • Nno, Jazzy,

          "The lightest Ultrabook is 3 pounds"? Not so. My Toshiba Ultrabook weighs in at just under 38 oz. Not too heavy at all, though it is heavier than the Surface 3.
      • Why a MBA?

        Surely the majority of people purchasing the Pro want a device running W8. Why would they be better off with a MBA? There are thinner and lighter Windows laptops that have the added advantage of a touchscreen.
    • Only if you just used it as a laptop

      If all you did is use the Surface like a laptop then yes a cheaper laptop would get the job done; but that ignores the portability and versatility of the surface compared to ultrabooks(not even laptops). Surface is the one of lightest device in the ultrabook class. Yes it weights more than most if not all arm powered tablets but also no tablet with a arm processor comes close to matching its performance. The ability to install and use x86 software is a big plus for someone who is on the road and need a machine that will run whatever software to do there job. The tablet formfactor allows for a greater portability when compared with clamshell PC's, having tried using a laptop on a buses and planes; I can tell you from personal experience it is less than ideal. Now having used a Surface RT I can appreciate the tablet formfactor when space is a premium. I could I have used a tablet, yes but is would have force me to compromise my work flow or travel with two devices(cables and accessories) with a Surface Pro no compromise needed. Its not the best tablet nor is it the best ultrabook, but when you take a look at the device as a whole then you start to appreciate not have to lug one more device. not have to manage charging and keep track of numerous devices is a big plus when you traveling from location to location.
      • agree

        At the last company i was at we started deploying Windows i-series tablets to highly mobile users and also c-level execs because of what having a tablet in meetings and docking it to become a laptop at their desks gave them.

        At the desk it was no different to a person with a pc, in meetings they would use a pen to ink comments on adobe pdfs and word documents and use onenote for general notes which had the added benefit that it meant they stopped printing (which in the case of the c-levels was a massive cut in printing costs that almost paid for the tablets on its own).

        In addition because it was full windows it meant the IT support team could manage them through SCCM just like every other laptop and pc in the company - so it was a win all around.
    • "its 1990s software"?

      Heenan73, "...its 1990s software." (abused apostrophe removed).

      Really? That Windows 8 and current MS Office is "1990s" is a new one on me. Not even the Vista/Office 2010 combo I have on my main laptop looks "1990s"...
      • Heenan73 fears all things Microsoft

        So he'll say anything, no matter how silly it comes off.

        He is crippled with 1990's thinking, in which he'll repeat the same thing over and over, hoping there are still a few gullible people who will believe him.

        Sad, really..
    • $600?

      A 64GB Surface 2 with a type cover is $680. In order to save $600 you'd have to find that comparable laptop for only $80.
    • What's the weight and battery life on your cheap laptop?

      I don't want a laptop. I want a tablet and a laptop. I want it to weigh about the same as an iPad. I want it to run IE and Office. I want it to have Explorer and Paint and Notepad. I want it to have all day battery life. Surface 2 does all that, so well that I've stopped using the laptops I already have, and yes they have touch screens (I test a lot of laptops so there's always a few around). The usual Surface 2 price is $599 plus the cover, although I got mine when the Microsoft Store was running a deal to bundle in the cover for a lower price, might have been $500 total. You sound rather like the people I meet who tell me their Surface is lighter than their iPad, because it means they no longer need to carry their Thinkpad as well.