The Surface Hub is a giant display designed to help teams work better together. It comes in two sizes: a massive 84-inch screen and a still pretty huge 55-inch model.
It's effectively a high-end digital whiteboard that runs on a custom version of Windows 10. This means that, as well as sketching out ideas, teams can also videoconference with colleagues elsewhere and share work with them.
The Surface Hub is not designed to be a personal device: you don't log into it as you would your PC. The idea is that none of the data is stored on the device. After a session, the whiteboard notes must be emailed to the participants or shared to OneNote.
It's certainly a fine-looking piece of high-end hardware: the 84-inch screen flanked by speakers that jut out at the sides will certainly add some class to a conference or boardroom.
We're used to hardware getting ever cheaper, so it was slightly unnerving to play with something costing tens of thousands of pounds, just in case I managed somehow to break it.
The display is a 100-point multi-touch screen, which means you can theoretically have ten people, using all 10 fingers at the same time, drawing on the whiteboard. In reality, even with the 84-inch screen, it would be a squeeze to get that many people in front of the display, although three people works comfortably. It also comes with two pens that can write in multiple colours, 'lasso' content to move it around, and delete it if necessary.
It's a rewarding device to use: getting out of your seat and writing and drawing at the same time as other people undoubtedly lifts a meeting out of the ordinary. The vast screen is bright and crisp, and responds quickly to both pen and finger input.
Because it's a Windows 10 device you can also import content -- such as a web page to annotate -- to the infinite whiteboard using Microsoft Edge. Remote team members conferenced in using Skype for Business can also see the images on the whiteboard, but can't add to them. Although you can have many more people on the call, you'll only see up to three 'video cards' on-screen.
The Surface Hub runs a variant of Windows 10 Enterprise called Windows 10 Team, which among other things means it will only run Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps -- that is, those from the Windows App Store.
Some of the apps available to take advantage of that big-screen format include medical diagnostics, architecture, and engineering (like Siemens JT2GO, which allows engineers to manipulate 3D models) -- something that also fits nicely with what Microsoft is trying to do with HoloLens.
Businesses can build specific apps for Surface Hub, which will need to be digitally signed by Microsoft, although they won't have to publicly appear in the Windows Store.
You can also run a presentation on Surface Hub from your PC via Miracast, although you'll need Apple TV and a special app to do the same from a Mac.
The Surface Hub is, of course, locked tightly into Microsoft's ecosystem: Office 365, and OneNote, and Skype for Business in particular are key features, so you're not going to get very far if you've gone down the G Suite route. In that case, you'd probably be better off with Google's considerably more affordable $5,000 Jamboard.
You can either have your Surface Hub wall mounted or on a rolling stand: around 40 percent in use by customers are wall mounted, while 60 percent can move around. You can't use Surface Hub flat like a table, as you could the original Surface display from a few years back.
Worth the investment?
One thing that looms large over the Surface Hub -- even bigger than that giant screen -- is the price tag: £21,000 ($21,999 in the US) is a lot to pay (the smaller model will cost you £8,000, or $8,999 in the US), especially when the alternative is a whiteboard or one of those giant flipboard pads on an easel, which would cost less than £100.
Last year Microsoft published some research commissioned from analysts Forrester that suggested a potential return on investment on the Surface Hub of 138 percent and payback of about eight months.
Forrester's model may not work for every organization, as it assumed a saving of $25 on printing per meeting and a time saving of 15 to 23 minutes for busy executives who wouldn't have to struggle to connect cables or fiddle with videoconferencing software, plus a 20 percent increase in sales to customers suitably impressed by the overall experience.
"Some organizations shared how rooms with Surface Hub devices have impressed clients and led to higher-quality sales meetings, enabling some new and larger sales," noted the report.
Microsoft argues that after an average one-hour meeting, an additional 20 minutes is spent on after-meeting tasks like typing up whiteboard notes, or taking pictures of whiteboards, or writing explanations to go alongside a diagram or image.
The ability to fire off an email with the images from the board saves that time, and Microsoft's own research quotes the COO of a US law firm which tested out Surface Hub as saying: "I personally have probably 50 pictures of whiteboards from the last five years on my phone that I constantly refer to... Emailing the OneNote files after a meeting saved time on every meeting that uses the Surface Hub."
More productive meetings and wooing sales prospects aren't the only use-cases you can imagine: according to Microsoft, Surface Hub has been used everywhere from oil rigs to university lecture theatres -- basically anywhere people need to share a display and collaborate.
The Surface Hub has been on sale for around 18 months -- and a year in the UK, where Microsoft has just added 15 new resellers. The company said it already has more than 2,000 customers across 24 countries, up from 500 customers last July. Manufacturing, engineering, and construction are main users, but education and general workplaces are also represented. Microsoft said it has large multinational customers that have bought hundreds of the displays, while smaller organisations tend to buy five to 10 units. Despite the hefty outlay, Microsoft argues that the Surface Hub represents good value.
At many meetings, potentially business-changing ideas are discussed and written up using marker pens on big sheets of paper -- only to be rolled up and forgotten as soon as the meeting is over.
Generating good ideas is rarely the only problem: where companies fail is to capture those ideas properly, share them, and act upon them. This is a failure of corporate culture: new ideas inevitably disrupt older ways of doing things, which makes them hard to push through.
Technology alone can't solve this, but it can help by making it easier to generate and share ideas in an easily understood format.
Even the act of investing in these kinds of devices can be an icebreaker, disrupting established corporate culture by demonstrating that creative ideas and collaborative working are supported.
Surface Hub is never going to be a mass-market device, as most organizations will get by with some combination Google Hangouts, Skype calls, Post-it notes, and email.
What the Surface Hub does is package up a set of existing technologies in a way that makes them easier to use, and therefore makes it more likely that they will be used. And the price tag means that it's a device that should be in pretty constant use -- if it's not, the finance director is likely to start making angry noises.
Microsoft Surface Hub specs
Operating system Windows 10 Team
Dimensions 84-inch: 1171.5mm x 2202.9mm x 105.4mm (46.12" x 86.7" x 4.15") 55-inch: 806.4mm x 1514.3mm x 85.8mm (31.75" x 59.62" x 3.38")