THE DIAL IS Microsoft’s coolest input device ever, a silver puck accompanying the new Surface Studio computer. The gadget, which sits on the Studio’s 28-inch screen and twists like a doorknob, is a peripheral, like a mouse and keyboard. Except it’s not like those things at all.
The easiest way to understand the Dial is to consider its analog counterpart. If Surface Studio is your drafting table and the Surface Pen stylus is your pencil, then Dial is your palette. It’s the object you hold in your other hand that contains all the tools you dip into on a regular basis. “If a tool is used 99 percent of the time by 99 percent of the users they [app makers] might put that on radial dial,” says Scott Schenone, Surface’s product designer.
Dial clicks, double clicks, rotates, and detects screen position. Whether you’ll use it depends a lot upon why you use a computer to begin with. Microsoft created Dial specifically to make life easier for artists and designers—and for a certain type of creative (the type who can afford a$3,000 computer, for starters), it will do exactly that. The Bluetooth-connected gadget is like a physicalized shortcut. It parses what you’ve got on the screen—be it a map app, Photoshop, Microsoft Paint, whatever—and provides a radial menu of tools and shortcuts specific to the task at hand.
With Edge, Window’s browser, twisting the Dial scrolls through a web page. On Maps, it zooms or reorients a map. Other uses are more mundane—adjusting volume or screen brightness, undoing or redoing a given action, that sort of thing. But this is simple stuff accomplished easily enough with a tap, pinch, or swipe.
Where Dial gets more interesting is in the creative apps that Microsoft unveiled Wednesday. You can program Dial to adjust hue saturation, brush size, and screen orientation in Sketchable. Cooler still, you can rotate the entire canvas. In the drafting app Drawboard, you can use Dial to create a protractor. A haptic click, designed to feel like the tumblers on a lock, shifts your attention from searching for tools to using them. “People don’t have to be clicking different icons or task bars within apps,” says product manager Avi Negrin. “They can be entirely in their flow.”
Users can program the Dial to do essentially anything they want, but most of Dial’s tricks will come from developers. “It will take a little more time for more apps to take advantage of the Surface Dial on the screen,” says Brian Hall, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of devices. “We had a small cadre that we brought into the test early, but now is the time that we really start working with all the app makers of the world.”
The challenge to developers is determining what kind of tools you need that aren’t already available. “A color wheel I think is nice, but I don’t know why I need to put the product on the display versus just using my fingers to open up a window or to rotate something,” says Nick Cronan, a founder of Branch Creative. Right now, Microsoft’s answer is that Dial is a way to ease the cognitive load of designing on a computer.
That’s where developers come in. Because although Microsoft created the Dial for creatives, it needs the creativity of developers to elevate Dial from something you want to something you need.