Did you know there’s a new Surface Studio? Check out our Surface Studio 2 review.
The Surface Studio’s high asking price may have turned you off when it first hit the shelves, but the all-in-one PC has successfully carved itself a niche among creatives and professionals. And, for anyone reluctant to make the jump into an all-in-one PC running full-fat Windows 10 Pro, the Surface Studio seeks to win over IT professionals and enterprise users by allowing them to use custom scripts while updating the OS.
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That won’t mean much to most people that aren’t in IT, but there’s a lot going on under the hood. The Surface Studio takes the flexibility of the best 2-in-1 laptops, and combines it with the raw power offered by a traditional PC.
And, while the Surface Studio is far from the first touchscreen desktop we’ve used, it is the first that can transform into a virtual drafting table, thanks to its Zero Gravity Hinge. The hockey puck-like Surface Dial does a lot of work to set the Surface Studio apart from the competition, too.
Make no mistake: the Surface Studio is a very expensive device – its closest competitor is about half the price for better hardware, especially now that the Surface Studio 2 is here. It has a very specific target audience, and you may be part of that audience. So, with this Surface Studio review, we’ll help you decide if the accessorization and flexibility of the Surface Studio is worth the price of admission.
For most everyday users, you may want to look elsewhere.
Here is the Microsoft Surface Studio configuration sent to TechRadar for review:
CPU: 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ (quad-core, 8MB cache, up to 3.6GHz)
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M (4GB GDDR5 VRAM)
RAM: 32GB DDR4
Screen: 28.125-inch, (4,500 x 3,000) PixelSense Display
Storage: 2TB, 5,400 rpm Rapid Hybrid Drive Storage (128GB SSD)
Ports: 4 x USB 3.0, SD card reader, mini DisplayPort, headset jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system: Windows 10 64-bit
Camera: 5MP Windows Hello camera
Weight: 21.07 pounds (9.56kg)
Size (display): 25.09x 17.27 x 0.44 inches (63.7 x 43.9 x 1.14cm W x D x H)
Size (base): 9.84 x 8.66 x 1.26 inches (25 x 22 x 3.22cm W x D x H)
Pricing and availability
Traditionally, Surface devices represent a premium market, but the Surface Studio takes that to a whole new level. The original Surface Book started out at an astronomical $2,999 (£2,999, AU$4,699) with an Intel Core i5 CPU with 8GB of RAM, a 1TB HDD (with an integrated 64GB SSD) and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965 GPU. All versions come with a 28-inch (4,500 x 3,000) display.
The Surface Studio ranges from that to a $4,199 (£4,249, AU$6,599) configuration, 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 GPU and 1TB of storage. Meanwhile, if you want to max out the Surface Studio you’ll get an Intel Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM and a 4GB GTX 980M eGPU.
A total of $4,199 (£4,249, AU$6,599) is an intimidating price tag, particularly when you can pick up an HP Z1 G3 for just $1,359 (about £971, AU$1,723) featuring a business-class Intel Xeon E3-1270 CPU, Nvidia Quadro M2000M graphics and a 3,840 x 2,160 4K screen to top it all off. Plus, unlike the Surface Studio before it, HP’s workstation all-in-one is easily upgradeable and future-proof, thanks to internal accessibility.
The Surface Studio reviewed here is, without a doubt, an expensive desktop. Even if you were to max out the Dell XPS 27 AIO, it wouldn’t even come close at $3,299 or £2,999 (about AU$4,320). Similarly, the HP Envy AIO 27 maxes out at just $1,799 (about £1,346, AU$2,363).
You can pick up the Surface Studio 2, with updated internals, but you’re looking at an even higher price tag, with the base model will set you back $3,499 (AU$5,499, about £2,750).
Either way, because the Surface Studio 2 has been on the market for a while now and the original has been officially discontinued, so you’ll have problems finding a Surface Studio these days – new or otherwise.
However, this doesn’t mean that wouldn’t be able to. There should be plenty of refurbished Surface Studios out there, especially as more people upgrade to the new model.
The moment we pulled the Surface Studio out of its box, we knew it was love at first sight.
There isn’t any shortage of impressive desktops on the market, from Apple’s ever-thinning iMacs to the six-speaker sound on Dell’s XPS 27 AIO. Still, nothing comes close to the elegance and simplicity offered by the Surface Studio, except perhaps the Surface Studio 2.
By transferring all the components to the base, the display is just a touchscreen with remarkably thin bezels. Without that rear bulk, the profile of the screen is just 12.5mm, making it slimmer than even the best monitors.
There’s also no fat chin underneath the screen to flaunt a Windows logo, which is actually refreshing to see. There’s no branding anywhere except for a mirrored logo on the back.
The Surface Studio is a modern and clean 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 an almost 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 inside.
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 about the Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse separately, it’s still worth mentioning here that we absolutely adore the completely wireless and clutter-free setup when paired with the Surface Studio, rounding out that minimalist look quite impeccably.
The two come included along with a Surface Pen in the box, though you might soon find that it’s not the best version of the accessory you can buy. With Microsoft having patented a new rendition of the Surface Pen, complete with haptic feedback capabilities, the experience of using the stylus accessory might resonate even more with us in the future.
Back to the digital drawing board
4,500 x 3,000 isn’t the sharpest resolution out there, but it’s sharper than a 4K display without going overboard. This combination of screen resolution and size with the Surface Studio’s unique 3:2 aspect ratio means you can snap four separate programs to each corner for multi-tasking and still have a legible view of all the apps. Frankly, the size and resolution just work.
Microsoft’s nearly perfect grasp of contrast and color gamut carry over the latest PixelSense display on the Surface Studio. Plus, there are more color profiles to choose from this time, including Vivid, DCI-P3 and sRGB to make it a truly production-grade display.
Holding up this beautiful display is the Surface Studio’s other winning feature, the Zero Gravity Hinge. This catchy-monikered mechanism absorbs all the torque required to move the 13-pound display, making it effortless to switch from a standard all-in-one PC to a digital drawing surface.
When lowered, the touchscreen on the Surface Studio holds itself at the same angle of pitch as a standard drafting table. Of course, you can also make adjust at different levels of tilt, without having to worry about it moving under the weight of your hands while you work.
Drawing and writing feels almost too good to be true – just like the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4. The Surface Pen strokes translate flawlessly into lines of digital ink. While other styluses feel like they’re gliding on glass or cutting themselves into the touchscreen, Microsoft has found a way to offer just the right amount of resistance in its hardware.
Dialing it in
Using Bluetooth to wirelessly tether it to the Surface Studio, the Surface Dial is a creation unique to Microsoft. Shaped much like a hockey puck, the Surface Dial has the potential to be a game-changer for creative professionals with a fondness for Windows 10, a common demographic for the Redmond tech giant’s recent products.
The Surface Dial is intuitive, and within minutes of picking it up, you’ll realize it both spins and acts as a physical button. Pushing in the dial will bring up a radial menu of options like volume and screen brightness controls as well as zooming and scrolling. Push it again, and you’ll be able to tweak whatever option you chose.
But that’s not where the use of this nifty dial starts and ends. The Surface Dial is also compatible with a wide array of apps that have been optimized in its favor. These include both first- and third-party applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Microsoft Photos and even Spotify.
In the Adobe Creative Cloud software specifically, users can leverage the power of the Surface Dial by rotating it in order to tweak brush settings as well as adjust size, opacity, hardness, flow and smoothing. In Spotify, on the other hand, the music volume can be changed by the force of a simple hand motion.
It might sound functionally simple, but having that quick — not to mention, easy — access to physical controls without having to stop drawing is huge in keeping your creative process seamless and free from distractions. Of course, this also means only digital artists and other creative professionals are going to get the most out of this accessory.
After installing the Creators Update, we were able to get a bit more functionality out of the Surface Dial. The more recent versions of Windows 10 integrate customizable Dial controls and Paint3D as another app for the artistically adept.
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.
3DMark: Sky Diver: 21,345; Fire Strike: 8,103; Time Spy: 2,986
Cinebench CPU: 604 points; Graphics: 104 fps
GeekBench: 3,443 (single-core); 13,308 (multi-core)
PCMark 8 (Home Test): 3,234 points
The Division: (1080p, Ultra): 56 fps; (1080p, Low): 106 fps
GTA V: (1080p, Ultra): 32 fps; (1080p, Low): 162 fps
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.
Armed with high-end graphics chip, the Surface Studio pulls well ahead of the XPS 27 AIO and iMac with 5K Retina screen with a Fire Strike score that’s almost four times higher. Unfortunately, the Surface Studio’s processing power doesn’t prove to be as impressive, and its more CPU-intensive benchmarks scores fall behind.
Benchmarks aside, this desktop does know how to put in work. Microsoft’s AIO never buckled, even as we opened 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 during our review.
We also played a fair number of Overwatch matches at full-screen resolution on 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 admirable 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 when storing all your files, while 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 this faster storage solution, we never felt like we had to 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 sphere 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 be something else entirely. For the price of a Surface Studio, sure, you could build a PC that’s even more 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. The Surface Studio not only allows you to sketch and inspect your picture with one device, but the visual quality of the PixelSense display is also far better than that of Wacom’s Cintiq display or Dell’s new 27-inch Canvas.
For these reasons, we’ll say it again – the Surface Studio best serves artists and illustrators. It’s, without a doubt, one of the best computers ever designed. However, 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.
Bill Thomas and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this review
First reviewed April 2017
Image Credit: TechRadar