Microsoft Surface Hub goes on sale in September

The giant PC will combine videoconferencing, presentations and whiteboarding

Microsoft Surface Hub could take the place of the projector in many conference rooms

Microsoft Surface Hub could take the place of the projector in many conference rooms

Microsoft has a gigantic new member of its Surface family of touch-enabled devices called the Surface Hub, a widescreen all-in-one computer that can act as the focal point of conference-room meetings.

Announced in January, the Surface Hub will go on sale in September, according to Brian Eskridge, senior manager for the Microsoft Surface Hub. Pre-orders for the computer begin Wednesday.

The company is marketing the Surface Hub as a less expensive, and easier to maintain, replacement for the traditional assortment of office audio-video and computer equipment used in today's conference rooms.

It will come in the form of an all-in-one computer with its components packed in behind either an 84-inch (213cm) or a 55-inch diagonal display. That screen will be able to use touch and handwriting input. List prices will be US$19,999 for the 84-inch model and $6,999 for the 55-inch.

The "Surface Hub is a creative new combination of capabilities not previously available that blends videoconferencing, projectors, and smart whiteboards," wrote Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, in an email.

Executive meetings are frequently multimedia events, often involving a tangle of barely compatible technologies, Microsoft said.

Presentations typically are made with PowerPoint and Excel, usually by connecting the presenter's laptop to a fussy projector. Often, videoconferencing is used to loop in employees working from home or other offices. If brainstorming or complex explanation is involved, the venerable whiteboard, or a digital whiteboard, is rolled out.

If the presentation gets boring, or needs more input, participants jump on their own laptops to check e-mail, company documents, or social networking sites.

Microsoft designed the Hub for these environments, integrating all the needed functionality into a single machine.

Surface Hub runs a modified version of Windows 10, but instead of booting into a standard desktop mode, the computer offers a simplified menu configured for routine meeting tasks. A user can join a meeting, make a videoconference call, launch the interactive whiteboard software, or connect a device to share data.

The computer is an all-in-one model, meaning its components are packed into the back of the display to make a single unit.

It will run on an Intel Core i7 processor and use an Nvidia graphics card to drive the display. It includes HDMI and USB inputs, as well as video cameras to capture activities in the room for remote viewers.

Users can write on a digital whiteboard right on the display, using a stylus the size of a standard marker. A finger will work, too.

Remote participants can join in a meeting in progress via Skype. The remote users get a view of the conference room, and participants in the room will be able to see the remote users.

Participants in the room with smartphones that support Miracast technology can wirelessly stream documents to the Surface Hub.

The potential market for the Surface Hub is a big one, potentially encompassing every conference room, Forrester's Gillett said.

Pricewise, it's competitive with many advanced conference-room setups involving smart boards and expensive projectors. It's a bargain compared with telepresence systems offered by the likes of Cisco and Polycom, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Gillett said.

The device may also have a cost-saving factor in that it can be managed like any other Windows device when it comes to issues such as software updates. So companies won't need a separate AV team to manage conference equipment, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft says a number of companies have already shown interest in the Surface Hub. Cleveland Clinic hopes to procure one to help medical students with brainstorming. The Chicago law firm Bartlit Beck and the New York-based Shop Architects also are interested in the product, Microsoft said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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