The Surface Studio is a most impressive desktop that has already shaken up the all-in-one PC landscape, however, its exorbitant price makes it an extravagant dream for everyone but artists and illustrators.
- Seamlessly transitions between modes
- The best and biggest digital drawing board
- Impeccable build quality
- All rearward ports
- Pricey proposition for most
Even as it enters the second year of its lifespan, the Surface Studio continues to bewilder and inspire. It’s an idea we never would have thought possible in the pre-Surface Pro era, but we knew better by the time of its launch in the latter half of 2016. It was the obvious next step in a sequential chain of obvious next steps. The Surface Pro made a tablet more like a laptop and the Surface Book made a laptop more like a tablet.
The Surface Studio, then, would combine the staggering performance of a high-end desktop with the versatility of a 2-in-1 laptop. When we first started hearing rumors of its existence, we thought it could go either way, but ultimately the resulting machine exceeded expectations. We’d seen all-in-one computers before, but none that could articulate quite like the Surface Studio’s Zero Gravity Hinge. The Surface Dial, too, is a major differentiator unique to Microsoft’s first desktop.
With that in mind, the Surface Studio is also ludicrously expensive, which ought to turn some heads when it comes down to a purchasing verdict. Its closest competitors start at less than half the cost for close – or even better – specs. So, before you buy, you’ll want to make sure the advantageous flexibility and accessorization of the Surface Studio are worth three grand. To the most devoted artists and creators, these components mean a great deal. To the general user, however, they might not.
Pricing and availability
Microsoft’s Surface devices are usually aimed to be premium, but the Surface Studio is on another level with a starting price of $2,999 or AU$4,699 (about £2,390). Every version of this AIO comes with a 28-inch (4,500 x 3,000) display. But, at this level, you’ll be getting an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive (with an integrated 64GB SSD) and an Nvidia GTX 965 (2GB GDDR5 VRAM) graphics.
The Surface Studio ranges from anywhere between $2,999 (£2,999, AU$4,699) and $4,199 (£4,249, AU$6,599), the latter of which we reviewed here.
The ‘cheapest’ unit comes outfitted with a 6th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics card and 1TB of storage. Meanwhile, the top-end Surface Studio model we reviewed is stacked with an Intel Core i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM and a 4GB GTX 980M eGPU.
A total of $4,199 (£4,249, AU$6,599) is a worrying price tag, especially when the iMac Pro starts at $4,999 (about £3,870, AU$6,680) and comes with a much more potent set of parts, including an 8-core Intel Xeon processor, an AMD Vega GPU with 8GB of HBM2 memory, 1TB of SSD storage and a 5K display. It’s no touchscreen, but it does have an array of ports that are more up to date (Thunderbolt 3 anyone?).
To say the least, the Surface Studio we reviewed is a very pricey desktop indeed. Even if you were to max out the configuration of a Dell XPS 27 AIO, it wouldn’t even come close at $3,299 or £2,999 (about AU$4,320). The same goes for the HP Envy AIO 27, whose most lavish variant is $1,799 (about £1,346, AU$2,363).
From the moment we pulled the Surface Studio out of its box, we knew we were in love.
There isn’t any shortage of impressive desktops what with Apple’s ever-thinning iMacs to the six-speaker sound on Dell’s XPS 27 AIO. However, nothing beats the simplicity and elegance of the Surface Studio.
By moving all the components to the basement, so to speak, the display is just a touchscreen with remarkably thin bezels. Without that rear bump, the profile of the screen is a mere 12.5mm, making it slimmer than virtually any dedicated monitor.
There’s also no fat chin underneath the screen to flaunt a Windows logo – actually, it’s refreshing to see no branding anywhere except for a mirrored logo on the back.
The Surface Studio is a modern and minimalistic desktop designed with straight edges and a simple gray on chrome aesthetic. The base of the desktop takes this one step farther by simply being a nearly featureless, ashen box. The noticeable element is a subtle line that wraps around the perimeter of the Studio’s foundation to provide cooling for the mobile computing parts contained within.
Microsoft arguably takes this clean aesthetic a bit too far, as all the USB 3.0 ports as well as the memory card reader are located on the rear. The lack of USB-C and ThunderBolt also means you won’t be able to take advantage of the fastest external drives.
Although we’ve already said our piece on the Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse separately, we absolutely adored the completely wireless and clutter free setup when paired with the Surface Studio. The two come included along with a Surface Pen in the box.
Back to the digital drawing board
We’ve seen some truly impressive displays, such as the 5K iMac and Dell’s ridiculous 8K monitor, but the Surface Studio takes the cake.
Although 4,500 x 3,000 pixels isn’t the sharpest resolution in the world, it is sharper than a 4K display without being overzealous. This combination of screen resolution and size with the Studio’s 3:2 aspect also means you can snap four separate programs to each corner and still have a legible view of each app. Frankly, the size and resolution feel just right.
Microsoft’s nearly perfect sense of color gamut and contrast carries over to its latest PixelSense display. Additionally, there are more color profiles to choose from, including sRGB, Vivid, and DCI-P3 to make it a truly production-grade display.
Holding up this glorious display is the Surface Studio’s other winning feature, the Zero Gravity Hinge. This catchy-named mechanism absorbs all the torque required to move the 13-pound display, making it easy to switch from a standard all-in-one PC to a digital drawing surface.
When lowered, the Studio’s touchscreen display holds itself at the same angle of pitch as a standard drafting table. Of course, you can also adjust the display at different levels of tilt and without worrying about it moving under the weight of your hands as you work.
As with the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, drawing and writing on the Studio feel like it’s almost too good to be true. Surface Pen strokes translate perfectly into lines of digital ink. Unlike other styluses that feel like they’re gliding on glass or cutting themselves into the touchscreen, Microsoft has refined its hardware so that it offers just the right amount of resistance.
Dialing it in
Aside from the Surface Pen experience we’ve all come to know and love, the introduction of this desktop also came with a new Surface Dial. This curious, mini-puck-shaped accessory is actually a Bluetooth-connected module you can use to change settings on the Studio and in specific Windows apps.
It’s intuitive and, within minutes of picking it up, you’ll realize it both spins and acts as a physical button. Pushing in the dial brings up a radial menu of options like volume and screen brightness controls as well as zooming and scrolling. Hit it again and you can get to tweaking whichever option you’ve selected.
But that’s just the surface (sorry) of what this dial can do. In most apps, you can use the dial as a zoom slider, but for drawing and painting apps, you can more easily switch between tools, change brush sizes and undo your last stroke with a simple twist.
It might sound functionally simple, but having that quick access to physical controls without having to stop drawing is huge if you want to stay absorbed in your process. Of course, this also means only digital artists and other creative professionals are going to get the most out of this accessory.
One other small gripe we have with the Surface Dial is it doesn’t stay in place when you have it on the Studio’s screen. Instead, it slowly slides down the touchscreen – even if it’s lowered all the way.
Unfortunately, that’s really the extent of everything the dial does for now. Both FreshPaint and PaintSketch can’t switch between colors with the Surface Dial, and they’re the poster children for Microsoft’s digital art programs. There’s also virtually no integration with Adobe’s suite for media production apps, including Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom and Premiere.
Microsoft has told us support is coming soon and it is working hard with Adobe to make things happen just as their partnership led to Photoshop getting a touch-based interface.
After installing the Creators Update preview (officially available starting April 5th), we were able to squeeze a bit more functionality out of the Surface Dial. The latest version of Windows 10 adds customizable Dial controls and Paint3D as another app for the artistically adept.
Beyond that, though, we have yet to discover more uses for the Surface Dial. For now, we’d say there’s a lot of potential for the Surface Dial, but you would be better off saving your $99 (£149, AU$149) than buying this extra peripheral.
You might balk at the graphics chip from last year and the less-than-current Skylake processor on its spec sheet, but the Surface Studio keeps up with other all-in-one machines.
Thanks to its high-end GPU, this desktop pulls well ahead of the XPS 27 AIO and iMac with 5K Retina screen with a Fire Strike score that’s nearly four times higher. Unfortunately, the Studio’s processing power doesn’t prove to be impressive, and its more CPU-intensive benchmark scores lag behind.
Benchmarks aside, this desktop knows how to put in work. Microsoft’s AIO never buckled, even as we loaded up dozens of tabs on two web browsers, a separate Google Music streaming app, Slack, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator all at the same time. Even Lightroom, which usually grinds gaming laptops to a halt, ran smoothly on the Studio as we processed images for this review.
We also played a fair number of Overwatch matches at the Surface Studio’s full-screen resolution with Ultra settings without issue. During our entire time with the device, we didn’t encounter any graphical performance issues that would have required the latest Nvidia graphics.
The most impressive thing about the Surface Studio’s performance is how quickly everything loaded on it. Rather than being equipped with a traditional SSD or hard drive, Microsoft used Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology to intrinsically tie a 2TB spinning drive to 128GB of flash memory.
In this setup, the hard drive does all the heavy lifting of storing all your files, meanwhile, a smaller segment of your data is compartmentalized onto the SSD if it has been associated with a commonly used program or service. Although this system doesn’t allow you to directly access the faster storage solution, we never felt like we had too as files loaded seamlessly and quickly the whole time.
We hesitate to say that if you weren’t interested in the Surface Studio already, our review probably didn’t change your mind. Microsoft’s contribution to the all-in-one PC space is expensive to say the least, but it’s also nothing short of the best when it comes down to build quality and innovation beyond offering the latest specs.
Whereas the iMac, Dell XPS 27 AIO and HP Envy 27 AIO are all compelling additions to the market, the Surface Studio thrives because of its uncompromising desire to convince you that it’s something else entirely. For the price of a Surface Studio, sure, you could build a PC that’s just as powerful and still have money left over.
However, for artists and especially illustrators the Surface Studio introduces a new wrinkle into a world primarily dominated by Wacom tablets. Not only does the Surface Studio allow you to sketch and inspect your picture with one device, the visual quality of the PixelSense display is far greater than that of Wacom’s Cintiq display or Dell’s new 27-inch Canvas.
For those reasons, we’ll reiterate that the Surface Studio would best serve artists and illustrators. It’s without a doubt one of the finest premium computing devices ever produced, but there’s no reason regular users should purchase this unless they’re in the market for the highest-end iMac and want more options…or bragging rights.