Microsoft's Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets are on the way, with a 22nd October US and UK release date, but all we care about is the £100 Touch Cover 2 keyboard accessory.
For starters, it looks set to be the Sebastian Vettel of tablet typing. It's thinner and lighter than its predecessor – a sliver at 2.75mm and weighing just 185g – and now boasts 1092 touch sensors inside compared to the original Touch Cover's 80 (one under each key). And that means the Touch Cover 2 is cleverer than you. When you rest your hands on the pressure sensitive keyboard between words or your finger bounces off a key after you press it, Microsoft's new genius keyboard knows that you're not pressing hard or long enough to strike a key. Microsoft say the tactile feedback in our fingers isn't fast enough to tell we're even grazing a key but the Touch Cover 2 knows.
There's also three handy gestures designed to keep your hands hovering above the keys and save time. Swipe two fingers to the left to move the text cursor (or press control and swipe to move words), swipe along the Number row to delete characters or, with control, words and toggle through Windows 8.1's predictive text options by swiping along the space bar and tapping to select. It's not as satisfying as mechanical keys but sliding around is a seriously clever use of space.
With so many hi-def sensors doing their thing, it would be a shame to stop at typing. Unlike a capacitive touchscreen, it knows how hard and for how long you are pressing a certain area. So that's why Microsoft decided to rip off the keys, start calling the covers Blades and bump up its street cred with the Surface Remix Project.
The Surface Music Kit is a Microsoft proof of concept designed to get hipster creatives all hot under the collar about what could be overlaid on top of Blades i.e. rather than print a traditional keyboard onto a cover, print or project something else on top of the sensor array. The hardware is just as thin and light as the Touch Cover 2 and, in theory, just as inexpensive – though it's not for sale right now.
Essentially it's a sampler made up of pressure-sensitive pads with volume and FX sliders plus play/pause, record, loop and skip functions coupled with Microsoft's own Surface Kit music creation and remixing software. Yes, you can do all this on a touchscreen but this way, you're not obscuring the controls with your hands, the sampler doesn't take up room on the screen and the software knows how you're playing the drums/bassline/banjo – softly or loudly. It's a neat compromise between touchscreen DJ apps and blowing £200-£2000 on dedicated kit.
Microsoft is giving away Blades to design kids in the US right now to see what they come up with. One promo video is promising: a cash register, a place for printed media like newspapers, a way to diagnose patients, a canvas, a game controller. But once Touch Cover 2 units are sent out alongside the Surface Pro 2 we reckon users will just hack the hardware anyway. We'd like to see Adobe get involved - running full-fat Creative Suite on a Surface Pro 2 and using the Blade's surface to work on, leaving the screen free for viewing the results.
Either way, Surface Music Kit looks to be a jolt and exactly the kind Microsoft's tab needs. Now, the wait begins to see if that pressure sensitive sampler is still flying solo in six months time.
At 2.75mm thick, it's damn impressive that the Touch Cover 2 is backlit as well as cramming in 1000+ sensors. Handy for typing in low lit meetings or duvet dens. But how? Where does everything fit?
One trick is using light pipes, or tubes. There's a light source at the top end of the keyboard case which is directed by a webbed structure to where it needs to go, rather than having many. Like light breaking out from a fiber optic bundle, only cheaper.
Disney is printing light pipes to build Papillon toys with expressive eyes and like Microsoft, Apple is looking to illuminate thinner MacBook keyboards with a light pipe system – Patently Apple found a filing back in April 2013.