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Retro review: Microsoft's 2008 Surface 'coffee table' in 2017

If you're reading that statement and thinking, "No way, Surface launched in 2012 alongside Windows 8", you'd be correct ... sort of. Microsoft was originally using the Surface brand on another line of products, before the Surface we know and love today. In fact, the original Microsoft Surface was arguably more fitting for its name, because it wasn't a tablet, but rather a table.

You read that right. The original Microsoft Surface was an interactive coffee table that retailed for $10,000. It was first unveiled in May of 2007, five long years before the Surface tablets and laptops we know today. Not many people remember this "original" Surface, and that's because the project was killed shortly after the debut of the Surface Pro in 2013.

Another reason why not many people know about Microsoft's original Surface is because the product wasn't really aimed at consumers but rather commercial markets looking to implement these tables in public spaces, such as shops or bars. As a result, this made them extremely rare, and they were basically unavailable to normal consumers. Not that a normal person would want to spend $10,000 on a table.

There were, in fact, two versions of the original Surface, with version 1.0 launching in 2008 and version 2.0 launching in 2012, where the product was renamed to "PixelSense" to make room for the Surface tablet line. I've always been fascinated by the idea of Windows in a table, and back in 2008 when the Surface 1.0 launched, I really wanted one for personal use. I was unable to get hold of one, however. Until recently, that is.

Specifications

  • Display and vision-input technology: Rear projection DLP with cameras
  • Weight: 198 lbs (90 kg)
  • Physical dimensions (L × W × H): 42.5 in. × 27 in. × 21 in. (108 cm × 68.6 cm × 53.3 cm)
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.13GHz processor
  • Graphics (GPU): ATI Radeon X1650 – 256 MB
  • Memory: 2 GB DDR2
  • Storage (hard drive): 160GB HDD
  • Display size: 30 in. (76.2 cm) diagonal
  • Display resolution: 1024×768 – 4:3 aspect ratio
  • Extensions (ports): XGA (DE-15) video out, RGB analog component video out, RCA analog component audio out, 4 USB ports
  • Networking: Wi-Fi 802.11g, Bluetooth and Ethernet 10/100
  • OS: Windows Vista (32-bit)

In 2017, the Microsoft Surface 1.0 is far from a powerhouse, but it also doesn't need to be. It runs a custom version of Windows Vista that essentially replaces the desktop shell with a "Surface Shell." (More on that later.)

This review will cover my use of the Surface table with its original software, as well as my experience with the hardware and apps.

The table

First up, let's talk about the Surface table as exactly that: a table. It's designed to look and function exactly like a normal table, because that's what it is. The whole point of these Surface tables back in 2008 was that they were designed to be social, communal and interactive, no matter what side of the table you were sitting on. You can put items on the table top, even on the screen; there's no area on the table top that you can't treat like a normal table.

At first, this was pretty difficult to get used to. I didn't want to put anything on the screen, because there's a screen there. I was worried that I'd somehow break it or spill water on it or something tragic and simply ruin the whole unit. That's not really possible, however. Now, I obviously advise against spilling stuff on it, but if you did, the table top is designed in a way that protects the entire computer, so you won't damage it if you wipe up whatever it is you've spilled quickly. It's also worth noting that the screen itself is protected by the table top; the screen isn't on the surface, it's slightly below it.

The table top itself is made of acrylic, with a matte material covering the center of the device, where the screen is, to keep it from getting scratched or smudged. Since my Surface 1.0 was purchased used, it has a few wear and tear marks that are noticeable even from a distance. The top isn't scratch proof, especially the semi-transparent acrylic that surrounds the screen atop the table. It is rounded at the edges, so there are no sharp corners to worry about.

Back to using it as a table. After a few days, I had gotten used to the idea of putting things on top of it. I'm now at the point of using it as I would a normal table, however, I'm still avoiding putting hot beverages or plates on the screen area. Luckily, the screen doesn't cover the entire table top, so there's plenty of room around the sides to use the table as an actual table without worrying about the screen.

It's a very futuristic looking coffee table, with built in lights that shine out through the transparent acrylic for the table top. But what's also nice is normal people wouldn't necessarily know it's a table with a PC built into it. It looks like a modern table, and I think that's a really great design choice. It means it looks at home in an office or a modern living room, rather than looking out of place as a business-orientated device in a home.

When it's turned on, however, it becomes incredibly noticeable that it's more than just a table.

The PC

Let's finally talk about what makes this table special. In case you haven't already caught on, the table has an entire PC built into it. It's by no means a high-end PC in 2017, but it's a PC nonetheless. The screen is a 30-inch, 1024x768 display with an aspect ratio of 4:3. It's a big screen, but it isn't a high-quality one. Now I know a 1024x768 resolution sounds like hell in 2017, but it's actually not that bad.

The software that the Surface table runs is custom-made, so the UI has been designed and sized so that it doesn't look as bad as you'd think. What's more, considering the angle in which you'll be looking at the display, and the fact that you'll likely be sitting a bit further away than if you were looking at a normal PC screen, it turns out to not be the worst display in the world. In other words, I've used screens on laptops at 1366x768 that have been worse.

Viewing angles are great, and that's because the display works in conjunction with cameras, IR sensors and a projector. It isn't your average screen. Since you'll be sitting around the table, looking at it at an angle rather than directly, viewing angles must be good, and they are. Again, it's not a high-quality display, but it's a good display nonetheless.

The main way of interacting with the table is via touch. However, it's not using capacitive touch-screen technologies like most touch displays these days. It uses the IR sensors and cameras inside the device to detect your fingers and objects, and controls elements that way. As a result, touch feels slightly slower than on a capacitive touch screen display.

There are benefits to this type of touch technology, which make perfect sense for a table. Since it uses IR sensors and cameras, it can see objects and interact with them. It can see text on a page, or a tag under a glass, and display relevant information within an app if said app is programmed to do so. Capacitive touch screens don't have this capability.

The table has some nice speakers built into it. They've got bass and get real loud when needed. I wouldn't purchase this table as a dedicated music player, but it's definitely got a decent pair of speakers. I've had no issues with them, they sound clear and crisp, and they work just like you'd expect them to.

There's a compartment hidden behind one of the sides of the table base where you can gain access to a collection of ports. There are six USB ports, a VGA cable, two headphone jacks, an Ethernet port, and component video and audio ports. There's a sweet selection of ports, but none of which I'm particularly going to use. I plugged in one wireless USB-keyboard-and-mouse receiver for setting up the device, but that's it.

All of the PC ports and power port are hidden rather well. That's because as I mentioned above, the Surface table was designed for retail spaces such as shops, where the public would be able to interact with it. You wouldn't want someone walking up to one of these, plugging in a USB and causing all kinds of problems. You also wouldn't want someone walking up to it and turning it off.

I actually spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to turn on the PC when I first got the table. I ended up having to call the person who sold me the table to walk me through it. Turns out, once plugged in, there's an on/off button opposite of where the power socket is. It's hidden really well, for the reason I listed above, but once I found it it's easy to find again. It's directly under one of the sides of the table, in a place you can't see. Turning the table on and off is done by feeling where the button is.

The compartment where the PC ports are is locked away, requiring you to unscrew two hand screws to get access to it. They're spring-loaded screws, so they don't detach from the table, you just unscrew them, and push down on the table side to unhook it from the body. That reveals the ports. Again, getting access to the compartment is somewhat hidden, which makes sense.

It's a great looking table that looks at home in an office of modern living room.

When powering the table on and off, it'll display a purple and blue light around the table top which looks sexy as hell. You can definitely imagine turning this on at a party and having people sit around it with drinks. It's really nice.

What isn't nice is the noise it makes when it's on. It's loud. It's got a projector in it, as well as fans to keep it all cool, so you can hear all of that going on. Even when sitting idle, it's loud. You won't want to have it on all the time, as the fan noise will eventually get to you. If you're hosting a party, however, you won't hear it if you're playing music over it. This is more of something to keep in mind if you're planning to use the table in a quiet environment.

The software

As I mentioned above, the Surface table uses custom software. It's running Windows Vista, but it's using a custom shell called "Surface Shell" built specifically for Surface 1.0 devices. It's a UI that's entirely touch-first, with an app launcher and big buttons that are easy to hit. The software boots up into a nice water app, which allows you to play with water effects. It's what the table sits at by default, and remains there when you're done using it.

As mentioned above, the display sees objects as well as fingers for interaction. You can put a glass on the water, and the water will react around it. It's really neat and makes for a super-cool interactive experience.

It's a nice introduction to how you're supposed to interact with the display. It's a relaxing UI that when interacted with, reacts like water. It then reveals buttons at all four corners of the display, all of which bring you to the app launcher where you can launch other Surface apps. Hitting any of the four buttons will kick off a super-sexy animation that reveals the Microsoft Surface logo before showing you the app launcher.

Now there's a reason why the UI displays the app launcher button on all four corners of the screen, and that's because the UI is designed to work no matter what side of the table you're on. If I'm interacting with the table from the right-hand side, the UI will cater itself to me. If I'm on the left, it'll do the same but on the left. This was one of the big UI design points the Surface nailed, allowing multiple people to interact with one UI at any given time without needing to switch orientation.

Depending on the Surface, there are several apps that come bundled with it. Mine came with a number of "demo" apps. They're full, working apps, but they're apps that Microsoft used to demo the table to businesses back when it was on sale. It comes preloaded with Music, Pictures, Mobile Connect, News and games such as Ribbons, Chess, and Checkers.

The Music app is actually nice, and it allows you to organize your music in an interactive, touch-first UI that is easily shared with other people at the table. It shows an MP3 player and all your albums surrounding it. Tapping on an album will open that album up, revealing all the songs within it. You can then play individual songs, or drag songs into the MP3 player to create a playlist.

Pictures is a great app for sharing photos with friends or family. Just boot the app up, and all your photo albums are ready and waiting to be manipulated with touch. You can organize photos into bubbles, resize them, and flip them around to show people on the other side of the table.

Mobile Connect is a super interesting app, but unfortunately, it basically doesn't work anymore. It was an app that allowed people with a Windows Mobile 6.5 device to place their phone on the table, and have the table "see" it and display contact information, photos and more directly on the table. With the app, you'd be able to drag and drop contacts and photos or music from the table onto the phone, and vice versa.

A lot of the apps are demo apps, and most of them work. Some of them are no longer supported, however.

I say it no longer works anymore because you need an app on your Windows Mobile 6.5 device for it to be able to share data with the table. That app is no longer available for download, as far as I'm aware, so I was unable to test this functionality. It's a shame, as I honestly think this would've been where the Surface table really began to shine. Many of Microsoft's original Surface videos demoed functionality like this, and for a while it was a real thing. But not in 2017, because the software has been discontinued.

The last app I want to talk about is Ribbons, which is a "game" of sorts that isn't really a game but an app that demos how elements can interact with objects. You can draw ribbons on the screen that shoot off and run around the display. Then, if you place an object on the table, the ribbon will hit the object and begin circling itself around it for a while before detaching and moving on. It's pretty cool.

Performance for launching apps and booting the OS is fine. It's Windows Vista, so it takes around a minute to boot up and get the Surface Shell running, but once the Shell is all up and operating, the experience is pretty swift. It takes a couple of seconds to launch an app, and the OS doesn't really lag at all. That's not surprising, as the software is super lightweight on the system, as are most of the apps.

Personal use

So, I bought the table. What have I done with it? Is it worth it? Is it useful? These are all valid questions. Let's start by talking about why I decided to get one. First and foremost, it's a collector's item at this point. They're rare and pretty cool to own. I also needed a table, so I thought why not get one that's branded with Microsoft Surface?

The Surface software is super cool, but it's old at this point. The original idea of the table being able to see objects and stuff is still a great one, and the tech would be amazing if it had been left in development, but the Surface 1.0 and 2.0 devices were discontinued, along with their software. I'd love to be able to put my phone on my table and have it be able to see the data on my phone. I'd love to be able to put drinks on my table and have the table display all the drinks' ingredients. But none of that works in 2017, because nobody is building the support for it anymore.

As a collector's item, it's an amazing piece of kit that I'm glad I own. However, outside of being able to interact with music and pictures, it's not entirely useful anymore. I bought the table knowing this. I knew before I purchased it that the software was outdated and most of the futuristic stuff it was able to do 10 years ago no longer works or is practical for home use. In fact, my main reason for buying one of these was to modernize it in some way.

I thought it would be a good idea to try and run Windows 10 on it. A few talented people have ventured into trying to get Windows 7 and Windows 8 running on the table and were successful, for the most part. If Windows 7 and Windows 8 works on the table, I assumed Windows 10 would as well. It was a project that took around 6 hours, but I eventually got Windows 10 working on the Surface table, and it's amazing.

I'll do a follow-up post detailing the Surface table experience with Windows 10 later this week, so stay tuned. It really is great and something you won't want to miss.

Zac Bowden
Zac Bowden

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

61 Comments
  • Like the Surface Hub?
  • zactly
  • Good luck using a Surface Hub as a table :P
  • Jus hot my hands on device I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power o guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • More like another thing that was not advertised more back in the day and which would have brought more development to Windows. It was around the time they decided not to push on mobile and develop Windows mobile for a touch screen smartphone like Apple did. They would be a big player in mobile now if they would've had the foresight to follow the Apple model
  • It wasn't advertised because it wasn't targeted to home users.  It was a big, bulky, expensive table that was designed for product displays.  IIRC, some AT&T stores put them in place, and I think there was a bar/restaurant in Vegas that had some.  Also, MSNBC used one during the 2008 presidential election for interactive election maps. It was well known enough to get a parody video.
  • Jus hot my hands on device I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power o guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • An upgraded Surface Studio with a larger screen (35") which can be laid flat will do.
  • I was thinking about this thing recently and remembered how the 2.0 version (the proto-surface hub one) had a screen that could "see" the things that were touching it and do things like read papers and stuff. I feel like if they were to revisit that tech if they might find a more mainstream use for it in the surface line, possibly even the surface phone of they're able to miniaturize it enough.
  • Surface 2 also had second sight.  The ability to project another visible layer above the table.  Really cool tech. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkSg6WU23h8 Still I like how they use the PixelSense display which can also see, inside surface hub.
  • Second Sight was a research project using two beamers projecting on a surface that could be made clear or frosted electronically.
    ​This allowed to rapidly toggle a shutter on the beamers and the frosting of the glass to have one beamer project on the surface, and the other to project on whatever is above the surface, giving a two layers image. ​Basically a cool tech, but that required rear-projection like the Surface tabletop v1, not an LCD-based display like Surface tabletop v2. It would have been completely incompatible with the technology used in v2 and would lose the benefit of the empty space under the surface gained by the PixelSense technology.
     
  • Is there anyway to upgrade the processor/ RAM on that thing? It's pretty awesome in any case despite it being old.
  • Yea it'd be pretty neat just to have a home. Great conversation piece and great for entertainment.
  • Hey I recently purchased one of these but the pc hardware was removed for security Reasons is their and pc out there I can replace back in and get this thing up and running ????
  • Oh man, I got to play with one of these in the House of Tomorrow at Disneyland. Not sure if they still have it since converting most of the space into the Avengers Mansion (and now they're turfing it entirely with Star Wars land right?). Was really REALLY cool at the time. When the guy demoing it told me it wsa cameras under the table that made it work my mind was blown hahaha. Shame they never tried to push it to be something more but I can't imagine many of these would have made their way into people's homes the way it was intended.
  • One of the mobile operators where I live actually bought two and put the smart tags on all the dummy phones. If you wanted to compare two phones, just drop both on the surface.
  • Last time I was in Bellevue, a couple of years ago, they still had one of these in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. Had fun playing the the Bing Maps 3D cities on it. It was still fairly responsive to be fair...
  • cool
  • Giving life to a great old product, love it. Looking forward to what W10 unlocks.
  • That's great!  Can we know how much you paid? If windows 10 works well I think it would be interesting to explore! I've seen it at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue, WA but often times it's not running/frozen.  They should put Windows 10 on it and have all the apps ;)
  • The original Surface vision system and then PixelSense on Surface v2 was very cool. First one (pictured in article) used several infrared lights and cameras to recompose a full depth view of things on and above the table up to a few centimeters.
    The PixelSense in v2 was the same idea, but using infrared LEDs and infrared sensors pairs built directly into each individual pixel of an LCD display. Basically the IR source integrated into the LCD backlight, and IR sensors built right into the red, green and blue subpixels squares. (Microsoft Research tech manufactured by Samsung, check out the SUR40 for details) ​Now that you can get 1080p capacitive touch screens in 42" for about $1500 and 55" for about $2500, I really wish they would have a tabletop shell for Windows 10 that supported UWP apps but with the added ability to size and rotate them to any 360° orientation on a top-facing display. Such a monitor built as a table with a NUC computer would make a perfect replacement to run modern apps.
  • PixelSense displays are currently used in Surface Hub 55" and 80" to power their 100 concurrent touch points.
  • No, Surface Hub and previous Office PerceptivePixel devices are large projected capacitive touch monitors originally designed by Perceptive Pixel, Inc. (PPI) that Microsoft bought in 2012.
    These are very cool as well, but they are capacitive, they don't have the infrared vision technology that allowed the Surface tabletops to view objects.
    Microsoft reused the PixelSense brand to refer to their capacitive + pen technology used in Surface tablets and Hub just like they reused the Surface brand for the devices. They are not technologically related to the PixelSense found in Surface tabletop v2.
  • Jus hot my hands on device I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power o guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • Hey I recently purchased one of these but the pc hardware was removed for security Reasons is their and pc out there I can replace back in and get this thing up and running ????
  • I've always wanted to check these out when they were first introduced. Now that you said you have windows 10 running on it, i am really intrigued by the concept of Win 10 on it and how the cameras and everything would work. Are there new drivers out there that someone made, etc?
  • it sould technically be able to work with the same drivers with little issues
  • i agree, but i had quite a bit of trouble trying to get vista drivers working on win 8/10 on an old laptop/tablet.
  • Jus bought one these devices I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power i guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • Jus hot my hands on device I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power o guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • You should get inside that thing to see what the motherboard looks like, adding more memory & SSD might be possible.
  • Well, NOW I want one.
  • There is one for sale on Craigslist Seattle.
  • $750!  hmmmmm!  gotta see what windows 10 offers, waiting on you Zac!  
  • I use to play with this at the Microsoft Store in Mission Viejo. It was a cool device.
  • I'm a MS partner and spend all my time at the MTCs. Playing with the Surface 1.0 and 2.0 was pretty neat. The Surface Hubs are pretty cool too.
  • Zac!!! You cant leave us with the cliff hanger like that! How is Windows 10 on it? That sounds awesome!
  • "It was a project that took around 6 hours, but I eventually got Windows 10 working on the Surface table, and it's amazing.
    I'll do a follow-up post detailing the Surface table experience with Windows 10 later this week, so stay tuned. It really is great and something you won't want to miss."
  • I recently got one of these. I am working on upgrading the motherboard, swapping out the hard drive with an SSD, and upgrading to 8gb ram. Where did you find the demo software? I am having a hard time finding it.
  • Jus bought one these devices I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power i guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • Hey I recently purchased one of these but the pc hardware was removed for security Reasons is their and pc out there I can replace back in and get this thing up and running ????
  • In 2008 i was 16 and absolutely captivated by the original Surface. If I had the cash at that time I would have built my own, since it was made out of easily accesible components like an old projector and a string of IR LEDs. Still may build one someday just for old times sake...
  • Jus bought one these devices I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power i guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????
  • What kind of display do they use on the Hawaii 50 TV show? It is clear that Microsoft is using this show for product placement as they use Lumia 950's for phones, Surface Pro tablets, and the occasional Surface Book. But in their office they have a large "table" style computer they use to look up information on suspects and then move the information to a large vertical screen with a sliding hand movement.
  • Enjoyed this review, I always wanted to try the original Surface table. Really looking forward to the Windows 10 follow up. Also, I think it would be nice if you continue with this kind of reviews of old/collector Microsoft items including software ones.
  • Cool review Zac.  They had one at the Microsoft Store where I live when that store had a debut back around 2009.  I got to use it a little.  Really interesting device. I watched to the end of your video and heard you say you are going to review one running W10! Looking forward to it.
  • I was looking for this!
  • Oh great stuff Zac! Looking forward to hear more about your experience with Windows 10 running on this
  • This was a very enjoyable read. Looking forward to the next article.
  • Wow, can't wait for another article.
  • nice
  • Hi, very interesting review, is it possible to upgrade the hardware like at least the RAM and storage ?
  • I recently just got my hands on one of these. I was able to tear it down. From what I can see, it can be upgraded with newer equipment. I am actually about to attempt this myself within the next month or so.
  • Hey I recently purchased one of these but the pc hardware was removed for security Reasons is their and pc out there I can replace back in and get this thing up and running ????
  • We still have them in Orange shops in Romania . Don't know if is the original surface but the lag is there when i play with pictures/videos so maybe .... :)  
  • So, where does one aquire one of these in NA? I want one for my recroom/ media room....
  • Wow, love this! Thanks for uploading a video too.
  • I bought one of these last year off EBay, unit was in perfect working order until one of our cats decided to sneak up on me and nose the unit while I had the panel off on the I/O side. He apparently nosed the high voltage section as he jumped about 3 feet into the air and apparently fried something. The unit will power on with a teal LED color showing through the top but that is apparently not a common error color as I cannot find reference to it in any of the remaining troubleshooting documentation. Very sad that I got to play with it for all of 30 minutes before it was ostensibly fried... Still looking for anyone who might know a contact @ Microsoft that is familiar with these old units, would love to get it working if I could!
  • They should bring back the v2 PixelSense tech in the Surface Studio 2.
  • Damn why was Microsoft so short sighted this device was working well before the Iphone or ipad came into existance. if they had made a small tablet with this things capabilities damn they woud have given the Ipad a run for the money. Microsoft has to be like a tiger and bring their great stuuff out faster to the general public. 
  • Jus hot my hands on device I’m here to hopefully get some help it’s missing the pc and power o guess can you point me in the right direction to get it back up and running thanks ?????