Microsoft Surface, a Better UI than Cover Flow for the Desktop

ms surface cf Microsoft Surface, a Better UI than Cover Flow for the Desktop

Cover Flow is a nice looking interface, but it is eye candy far from a practical and useful interface. The biggest problem with Cover Flow is that the user can only view the currently selected album, the one before, and the one after (and only a fraction of the latter two). The reason why this is not useful has to do with the way we mentally process ordered lists.

Typically we view lists in words made up by letters- since the alphabet is standard and consistent, we are used to making sense of where a “G” falls in reference to the rest of the items in the list. It is an automatic mental process developed by our mastery of the alphabet and language. By contrast, Cover Flow forces us to constantly relearn our mental processes of ordering visual cues in the form of album covers. While you could argue that it is possible to learn the order of album art covers, it would take time and would be difficult since the list is dynamic.

We are all obsessed with album art and love visual interfaces, but a different approach needs to be taken in order to circumvent our natural understanding of language and ordered lists.

At CES 2008 I had a chance to use MS Surface hands on, particularly the Zune interface. The first thing I thought was, “I want this in my home tomorrow”. But considering the hardware is not available to consumers and the hardware costs push to over $10,000 my dreams of a fluid and useful interface where instantly crushed. Instead, taking a different approach I thought, “How can this be translated to the desktop?” The answer is, almost directly.

While some things would be missed translated to the desktop such as multi-touch and physically setting the device on the screen, it would only take simple work arounds and minimal sacrifices to get a fully working Surface interface in Windows Media Player or the Zune’s software. This interface becomes particularly interesting on the desktop when we have the ability to drag and drop and manipulate the album cover matrix with a mouse.

So how does this solve Cover Flow’s deficiencies? The Surface interface would work around our mental inability to order art by allowing us to view 50 to 100 album covers at a time. Many times entire collections could be viewed at once, but when collections are larger and require minimal scrolling, visual cures in the form of letters can be added into the album mosaic.

Here is a video I took of Surface and how it interacts with the Zune. This could obviously be applied to Windows Media Player and other portable devices. The way that they are dragging content to the physical Zune laying on the Surface could be done as an icon or a virtual Zune on the desktop.

This is the Zune’s Now Playing screen. Currently the purpose just eye candy fading album arts in and out in addition to displaying the now playing list and current album. These also fade out when in active to show only the album and mosaic. With a few tweaks to this screen, with the addition the addition of Surface features and additional usability, you would have a pretty stunning way to browse music, make playlists, and sync your MP3 player.

zune nowplaying thumb 425x318 Microsoft Surface, a Better UI than Cover Flow for the Desktop


km on February 28, 2008 12:14 AM

I don’t see any problem with the new interface idea! It’s about time somthing was designed for us visual, non linear learner types (we are in the minority) could excel at. Bring it on!

Andrew on February 28, 2008 5:10 AM

Though admittedly a bad tool for seeking out a particular album, I think that CoverFlow has some merit as a tool for browsing haphazardly through my collection looking for ideas, or things I haven’t listened to in a while. When I’m somewhere between knowing exactly what I want to listen to and doing an All Songs shuffle, I use CoverFlow to visually flip through my collection looking for something to catch my eye. Since images provide a more natural association with music than text does, this seems to work well for me.That being said, the excess of eye candy really doesn’t add any value, and make rather poor use of screen real estate.

Cruleworld on February 28, 2008 8:33 AM

I have a question, if I am correct the zune requires you to plug it in to sync wireless. So how does it sync with the surface?

Jason on February 28, 2008 10:42 AM

I believe what you are after has been available in Musicmatch for several years…

Royel on February 28, 2008 3:52 PM

@CruleworldYou don’t need to plug the Zune in to sync wirelessly…

dragnandy on February 28, 2008 7:02 PM

the zune and other things will sync through this bar code like thing on the bottom of the zune, i think they call it a stamp. in the future there will also be things like credit cards and such that have this stamp so when you go to like a restaurant and theres a microsoft surface, you can use that and such.i have to say the microsoft surface is very cool. it might not be good for home and personal use, but great for stuff like 5 star hotels, restaurants, casinos, and such.

madve2 on February 29, 2008 10:41 AM

I really like the idea, the last “screenshot” looks extremely great. Even if Microsoft won’t implement this for the WMP/Zune in the near future, Songbird developers may: when the new api for the Songbird’s library view comes out, I think it will be fairly easy to make an interface for Songbird like this. (Songbird will be great, I can’t wait for a stable release =))

Sunboom on February 29, 2008 2:13 PM

We all love album art? Well, I don’t. Because the music I listen to (house music) isn’t presented and sold in the way other music like rock is: in the form of albums. So actually, I can’t really use the feature. I also hate the fact that most daps order the music by album. Like my Clix. When I select an artist, I would like a list with all of the artists songs. Instead however I get a list with the albums first, which is ‘unknown album’ in my case. I have to select that one first before I can get my list. Very annoying, and I think it’s strange that companies don’t think about people listening to other music.

test on April 20, 2008 9:51 AM

this is already partially or fully possibleMediaMonkey 3 + prettypictures

TheMike on May 13, 2008 4:33 AM

Geeze, I personally hate album art. It’s MUSIC after all.. meant for your ears. Who cares what ridiculous art they usually throw on antiquated cd covers these days. Nobody buys cd’s anymore that I know anyways. The article is right on that it’s counter intuitive. Just use a normal list with letters and words and all will be logical and well again :)

Jason on July 16, 2008 2:08 PM

Just noticed this article. As with most, you seem to have a misconception of what it cost and takes to create a multi-touch setup. These setups are actually very simple and everything needed to create one has been out on the market for years. The software side is what has needed development. This has actually been taken care of by the DIY crowd. I suggest if you are really interested in a multi-touch interface to check out a site called The forums have tons of information on how to build one. The music browsing app. might not be out there (not sure) but there are plenty of proficient programmers that would be willing to work on something like this and I can think of some code that could be reused from multi-touch apps the group has already created. Best of luck.

Cindy on August 5, 2008 2:05 PM

To be honest with you, I don’t see how this technology is any better than cover flow…for me, at least. Your picture right after the video (the one with all the album artworks listed), that one is so crowded that I have no idea where to find my album. It appears so disorganized that it makes me dizzy. I am perfectly fine with cover flow. In fact, it is in the alphabetical order of the artists’ names…which seems to work really well with my brain >.>

Chris on August 15, 2008 12:21 AM

I have been trying to work on an interface that would organize my music collection with piclens..I have too many albums to worry about flash loading all the images.Piclens displays heaps of images (albums) at once, making the search for an album an awesome party trick.I can’t get into the code to modify piclens to play audio though, have a nice looking set of images of my cover art, but still have to go through another app to play them.soon…so very soon…

Comments Closed. Please continue the discussion in the forums