Hands on: Surface Studio review

Has Microsoft machined the ultimate all-in-one PC?

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The Surface Studio is an incredibly clever, powerful and gorgeous all-in-one PC that, judging by its price, is clearly not for everyone. Regardless, Microsoft may very well have set the bar for all-in-one PCs in the same way it has for 2-in-1 laptops.

For

  • Gorgeous touch display
  • Clever design
  • Powerful innards

Against

  • Quite pricey
  • Surface Dial not included
  • Old graphics tech

In the hardware space, Microsoft has been all about setting standards. It's done it for 2-in-1 laptops with the Surface Pro 4, and now it seems to have set the bar for all-in-one PCs with the Surface Studio.

Just as the rumors and leaks foretold, the Surface Studio is a 28-inch all-in-one PC with a new iteration on Microsoft's PixelSense display, and an all-new way to control the device in the Surface Dial.

What the rumors and leaks didn't prepare us for, however, was the price: a whopping $2,999 (around £2,450, AU$3,920; UK and Australia pricing is yet to be confirmed).

How does the Surface Studio justify that astronomical price tag? By being a very strong contender for the title of 'Best All-in-One PC of All Time', that's how.

Release date and price

You can pre-order the Surface Studio right now, assuming you have a minimum of $2,999 (around £2,450, AU$3,920) lying around. It doesn’t come cheap, but for that price you’ll get an adjustable, 28-inch PixelSense display, a 6th-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU. 

If you need more power for your day-to-day routine, however, you can upgrade to an i7 configuration with 16GB of RAM or an i7 with 32GB of RAM and a 4GB GTX 980M GPU for $3,499 (about £2,780, AU$4,590) or $4,199 (about £3,340, $5,510), respectively. While a Surface Pen comes standard with every Surface Studio purchase, pre-order and you’ll get a Surface Dial accessory free of charge.

As of right now, pre-orders are slated to ship in ‘early 2017’. Although every Surface Studio comes with a Surface Keyboard, Surface Mouse and Windows 10 Pro pre-installed, the complementary Surface Dial offer, a $99 (about £79, AU$130) expires on December 1.

Latest developments

Since its reveal on October 26, the Surface Studio has done so well that it’s sold out until ‘early 2017’. Luckily, those fortunate enough to pre-order early can expect their units to arrive the week of November 21. On the downside, there’s no telling when the vast majority of pre-sale units will land, save for the start of next year.

Meanwhile, Microsoft isn’t the only one building computers for creative types. Dell, too, has shown off its all-in-one prowess with its Smart Desk PC. Both Dell and Microsoft appear to be challenging Cintiq rather than Apple by offering premium (in both price and quality) transforming displays on their desktop PCs.

With Surface Studio shipments initiating as we speak, we now know for certain that it meets the requirements for the recently revealed Windows 10 VR headsets when they arrive next year. In the meantime, it's safe to assume Microsoft will continue fighting off ransomware and adding new features like second-screen touch control to its acclaimed operating system.

Design, feel and what's inside

Microsoft touted on stage that, at 12.5mm at its thickest point, the Surface Studio is the thinnest desktop monitor ever created. The word 'monitor' is key there, as there's actually no hardware within the screen unit, as with most all-in-one PCs.

Nay, Microsoft shoved all of that stuff – the processor, the graphics, the memory and the hard drive – into the tiny base that holds the 'zero-gravity hinge'. It makes for a beautiful-looking product that makes the hardware seem to disappear.

The zero-gravity hinge absorbs all of the torque required to move the 13-pound display, making it shockingly easy to switch between its standard desktop PC orientation and that of a massive digital drawing surface. The chrome hinges on which the screen sits give the all-aluminum device a welcome touch of sheen.

Using the device in its 20-degree-angled drawing orientation feels wonderful, even for someone who isn't a digital artist by any stretch. It's like having the most powerful Wacom tablet in the world, which just so happens to be a complete computer running Windows 10 Pro.

The components inside allow for a seamless drawing experience, in that your taps, swipes and other stylus gestures are rendered so near 1:1 that it seems as instantaneous as creating physical art.

Those components include up to a quad-core Intel Core i7-6820HQ processor at 2.7GHz, Nvidia's GTX 980M graphics chip with 4GB of memory, as much as 32GB of RAM and a hybrid hard drive as large as 2TB (128GB SSD). 

All of this sits in the Mac Mini-like puck in the base, which in turn powers the 4500 x 3000 (!!!) touchscreen at 192 pixels per inch.

Now, you might balk at the graphics chip from last year, and Microsoft hasn't had much to say about why this device doesn't include a 10-series Nvidia chip with the latest Pascal architecture. 

Our best guess is that Microsoft started work on this way before Pascal was even a thing, and got the power it wanted out of the old-hat graphics processor. 

Likewise, it's also running an older-generation Intel mobile processor, due to there not being any high-end Kaby Lake processors yet. 

In our brief time with the device we didn't encounter any graphical performance issues that we think would be fixed with the absolute latest Nvidia graphics. While you could certainly game on this device, that shouldn't be the end goal for your three grand spent.

All in all, the Studio feels like the most premium all-in-one we've ever laid hands on – and something we'd have no business working on short of a full TechRadar review.

The Surface Dial, and how it works

One of the most interesting bits about the Surface Studio isn't the all-in-one at all, but its brand-new accessory, the Surface Dial. This is a radial control module that operates over Bluetooth, just like the included Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse. 

But, unless you're pre-ordering a Surface Studio immediately as of this writing, you'll have to pony up an additional $99 to take advantage of it – here's why you might want to do that.

The Dial offers specific controls in certain Windows apps, like the upcoming Paint3D, allowing for quick access to controls that you'd otherwise have to stop drawing to use. For instance, in Bing Maps, you can use the Dial to zoom and tilt a 3D map image.

In an app like Paint3D, you can access all sorts of color swatches and pen or brush styles by simply long-pressing the Dial. Then, you just turn the dial to your desired selection, and press in once. 

Better yet, the Dial can interact with the Surface Studio screen to make its radial options around the device when it's placed anywhere on the screen's surface. Imagine drawing something with the Surface Pen in your right hand and immediately changing the color of your input with the Dial in your left hand. It's a marvel to watch, much less try yourself.

Of course, the Surface Dial is one of those accessories that only digital artists and other creative professionals are going to get the most out of. But that's who the Surface Studio is aimed at anyway: digital artists that are sick of using separate surfaces to create on.

Early verdict

Microsoft may very well have set another high bar in a hardware category that hasn't seen much innovation geared toward professionals in a while, save for advances in resolution. You might balk at the price, and chances are that, if you do, then you don't work for a design firm or do freelance digital artwork.

And, with such an exorbitant price, it's as if Microsoft knows that. That's compounded by the fact that the company is releasing the Surface Studio in limited quantities for the holidays, and it has kept tight-lipped on international pricing and availability as well.

From its gorgeous touch display that can switch between DCI-P3 and sRGB color profiles in an instant to its awfully powerful innards and clever design, Surface Studio is the most beautiful and complete all-in-one we've ever seen.

The Surface Studio might not be for all of us in the same way a Surface Pro 4 might be, but that's not the point. The point is to lay a figurative mic drop on the tech vendors powering the creative industry, and we think it's done just that. 

Gabe Carey has also contributed to this review

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe has worked in games and technology media for nearly a decade for several publications. His writing has been featured in PC Magazine, AOL's Games.com, Laptop Magazine and Tom's Guide among others. Currently, Joe serves as TechRadar's Senior Editor, leading computing coverage specifically. Yes, that means he uses both macOS and Windows – every day.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.