First came the Surface, a 2-in-1 tablet laptop that experienced a rocky start to life until it evolved into the Surface Pro and became wildly popular. Then Microsoft released the Surface Book, bringing a more conventional laptop design and high-end specs to the Surface range. Now we have the Surface Studio, a gorgeous all-in-one desktop computer featuring a 28-in touch screen with a “Zero Gravity Hinge” that smoothly pulls the screen down to a drafting table angle, perfect for drawing and editing with a stylus.
Can Microsoft’s new desktop machine live up to the high standards the Surface Pro and Surface Book set in mobile? Let’s find out.
A BEAUTY INSIDE AND OUT
The guts of the computer are housed in a 25cm x 22cm x 3cm square that acts as a base for the beautiful 28-in PixelSense display. The entry level Surface Studio ($4,699) has an i5-6440HQ CPU, a 1TB Rapid Hybrid Drive, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M 2GB graphics card. Pay extra ($5,499) and you can have an i7-6820HQ CPU and 16GB of RAM. Pay even more ($6,599) and you’ll get a 2TB Rapid Hybrid Drive and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M 4GB.
At the rear of the Surface Studio’s base, there’s 4x USB 3.0 ports, an SDXC card reader, a Mini DisplayPort and gigabit Ethernet. As you’d expect, there’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and because this is a Microsoft product, Xbox Wireless is built in – so an Xbox controller works without an additional USB receiver. Like other Surface devices, the display has a Windows Hello depth-sensing camera for quick login, and a 5MP 1080p webcam. Surprisingly, the “stereo 2.1 speakers with Dolby Audio Premium” sound excellent for speakers built-in to a computer. They may be the best built-in speakers ever placed into an all-in-one PC.
A wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouse are included with the Surface Studio, which are designed to aesthetically match the machine they come with. The metal framed keyboard is your typical shallow keystroke chiclet affair, with a number pad and shortcut keys. The mouse is a basic two-button and scroll wheel unit that feels a bit flimsy. The magnetic battery flap on the bottom is a nice touch though. Thoughtfully, Microsoft has included a Surface Pen (the same one that ships with other Surface products) in the box too, so you can get scribbling right away. The Surface Pen magnetically sticks to either side of the Surface Studio for storage – another nice touch from Microsoft.
The Surface Pen attaching to the screen brings us to the centrepiece of the Surface Studio: that absolutely stunning 28-in, 12.5mmm thick, 10-point multi-touch, 4500 x 3000 PixelSense display that has 100% sRGB coverage and is calibrated out of the box for DCI-P3. All those pixels mean that the Windows UI can be set to 200% and everything works perfectly – no more scaling weirdness. The end result is a super-crisp desktop that has the same space as a 2250 x 1500 display.
Full credit to Microsoft for putting so much effort into the quality of the display on the Surface Studio, it’s a sight to behold and going back to a conventional display is a little disappointing now. Apple used to be the only OEM concerned with quality displays on its computers – it’s great to see others finally doing the same. If the Surface Studio’s display was sold a standalone monitor, it’d probably be the best display on the market.
You might be thinking, “4500 x 3000? That’s an odd resolution!” and you’d be right. These days most displays are widescreens, in a 16:9 ratio. The Surface Studio’s display has a more square-ish 3:2 ratio. Microsoft has bucked the trend and designed the Surface Studio so that it is able to display an 8.5×11-inch piece of paper (a common paper size in the US) at full size. Perfect for drawing on, which brings us to the raison d’être of the Surface Studio – using the Surface Pen on that big beautiful screen.
The Surface Studio wouldn’t be a Surface if it wasn’t designed around being able to use the Surface Pen and the Zero Gravity Hinge is a perfect example of this. Wanky name aside, the hinge is perfectly counterweighted with the base, so in a single movement, one handed, the Surface Studio is transformed into a drafting table that leans at a drawing friendly 20-degree angle.
Whilst the mechanism is smooth, it isn’t perfect. If you place the Surface Studio’s display approximately an arm’s length from your eyes (as recommended by most ergonomics guides and optometrists), then proceed to pull the display down to draw on, the display is too far away to reach and the entire computer must be dragged forward to comfortably use – which is made difficult thanks to the Surface Studio’s non-slip base that grips the desk.
This is an oversight from Microsoft. Did nobody place this thing on a normal person’s desk before manufacturing it? All the hinge needed is the ability to pull the display forward and it would be sublime, but instead, it is awkward and cumbersome. If you plan on switching between upright and horizontal use often, this could be a deal breaker.
However, when the display is laid down flat and you’ve pulled the unit closer to you, you’re greeted with a huge canvas that the Surface Pen can take full advantage of. If you’ve used a Microsoft Surface Pro or a Surface Book before, the stylus experience is identical, but with a 28-in screen to enjoy. Artists, designers, architects and any other professional creative user who is using a Surface already will have a ball with the larger screen.
USEABILITY & THE DIAL
For those already using high-end tablets such as the Wacom Cintiq should take a close look at the Surface Studio, but it may not replace it outright. The latest range of Cintiq displays have 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity, whereas the Surface Studio manages only 1024. Latency when using the Surface Pen is almost identical to the existing range of Surface machines, with 22 milliseconds between your Surface Pen actions appearing on the screen. Apple’s latest iPad Pro is slightly superior though, at 20ms, and when it comes to latency, every millisecond counts.
An optional accessory is the Surface Dial ($149.95) and is basically a Bluetooth enabled dial that works on, and off the Surface Pro’s display. When used off the display, it’s like having an extra mouse button shortcut. The default setting simply lets you turn the dial to adjust system volume, but can be configured for other system wide shortcuts like scrolling, zooming in or out of a document, and spinning the dial to undo or redo a task.
In applications such as Adobe Premiere it becomes a useful jog shuttle. In Photoshop, it’s an extremely useful way to zoom in and out quickly. Advanced users can set specific application keyboard shortcuts to be assigned to a dial action, making the Dial a pretty nifty timesaver.
Where the Surface Dial really comes into its own however, is when it’s placed on the screen and used as a companion to the Surface Pen. In various apps, the Surface Dial acts as an additional contextual menu for your opposite hand, allowing rapid selection of options without having to drop the Surface Pen to use the mouse. For example, in Autodesk SketchBook, the Surface Dial can rotate and resize the canvas, fine-tune brush size and adjust hue, saturation and luminance. The Surface Dial’s backing is simply rubber, there’s no magical material to make it adhere to the glass. This results in the Surface Dial slowly sliding down the screen, even when the screen is laid flat, eventually obscuring what you’re working on and getting in the way. It’s not as cool as Microsoft’s promo material makes out.
The Surface Dial is more of a novelty than a must have at this stage, as software support for the Surface Dial is still growing. But all apps can take advantage of the Dial’s basic scroll, zoom and undo actions. Some of the applications that have advanced use of the Surface Dial include Bluebeam Revue, Sketchable, Drawboard PDF. A full list is available on Microsoft’s website. The Dial can also be used on the latest Surface Pro tablets, so expect to see Dial support increase rapidly as developers cater for the much larger Surface Pro market.
The Surface Studio’s display is simply amazing, the Zero Gravity Hinge is mechanically smooth, the Surface Pencil is a great creative tool and the Surface Dial is a capable assistant when software supports it. It all sounds great, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the performance a high-end creative user willing to spend thousands of dollars on a new desktop computer expects, just isn’t packed into the Surface Studio’s tiny chassis.
Microsoft has encumbered the Surface Studio with laptop parts to reduce heat output in that small square base where the CPU and GPU live. The low power CPUs and mobile GPUs just don’t do justice for the type of work (editing complex 3D CAD files, detailed art drawing, etc.) Microsoft promotes the Surface as being capable of. The Surface Studio has the performance that can be had from practically any mid-range laptop for far less money.
The design decision to make the base so small leads to another problem – noise. To dissipate the heat generated inside that cramped space, the fan runs constantly, even when idle. In a silent room such as a home office, the fan noise is unpleasant. Apple’s iMac, which has a CPU and GPU that generate similar amounts of heat, manages to run virtually silently the vast majority of the time. Why couldn’t Microsoft do the same here?
Another interesting design decision is the Rapid Hybrid Drive. Microsoft leverages Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology to combine a small SSD with a larger HDD so that it appears as a single large drive that caches commonly used data on the SSD, whilst storing infrequently accessed large files on the HDD. Disappointingly, Microsoft decided to pick slow 5400RPM drives, instead of faster 7200PM drives, which could have made a significant improvement to performance if they weren’t willing to go full SSD. At least on the i7 variants of the Surface Studio, the 5400RPM drive is paired with a 128GB PCIe SSD.
That said, in 2017, it’s bizarre manufacturers (Apple is also guilty of this) aren’t using pure PCIe SSD solutions in their flagship products, particularly considering the already high cost of the Surface Studio in the first place – a few hundred dollars more for a vastly superior SSD storage system probably wouldn’t stop anyone already not put off by the Surface Studio’s price-tag from buying it.
It makes little sense as to why Microsoft decided to make the base so small. The screen is huge, so by making the base larger, either in width or height, to fit in the necessary cooling, the overall sleek design of the Surface Studio wouldn’t have been compromised. A slightly thicker base that is the same width as the display may have even improved the overall proportions, whilst giving Microsoft a significantly larger thermal envelope to work with, that allowed more powerful desktop performance components a creative professional would really appreciate.
Ultimately, the decision to purchase the Surface Studio should revolve around how useful you’ll find its touch screen and the Surface Pen. Sure, a few executives will buy it as desk candy, but for the rest of us, unless you’re a creative professional whose software of choice has good multi-touch support, it’s difficult to recommend this expensive, but beautiful computer. If Microsoft releases an updated version of the Surface Studio with a more performance focussed arrangement of hardware and convince developers of 3rd-party software to find creative uses for the Surface Dial and the Surface Pen, the Surface Studio’s high price tag would be easier to justify.