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Microsoft Surface Studio review: a beautiful invader of Apple's base

Touch, pen, and Dial all in one display

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The last desktop PC I owned was a 2009 iMac. I now use a laptop every day for work, connected up to two monitors and a keyboard and mouse. Desktop computing hasn’t really changed for nearly 40 years of boring beige or black PCs, but Microsoft’s new Surface Studio is trying to shake things up in a surprising new way.
It’s going after the Mac’s oldest stronghold: creatives.

Apple’s iMac might have tempted me a few years ago with its pretty looks and the chance to get familiar with macOS, but like a lot of people I simply don’t need an all-in-one desktop PC. That’s not stopping me from considering a Surface Studio. It’s a different type of desktop PC that transforms into a giant tablet for drawing. Although I’m not your typical creative, I’ve been testing the $3,000 PC for the past week, and I can’t stop tinkering with it. It’s clearly designed for creatives that would typically buy a Wacom Cintiq, but I still really want its monitor.

Photo by James Bareham

The heart of the Surface Studio is its 28-inch PixelSense display. It’s stunning to look at and it’s truly one of the best desktop monitors I’ve ever used. It makes things feel oddly lifelike because you can’t see the pixels — text, videos, and pictures just look great on this thing. You can even hold a piece of paper up to the screen and the Word documents shown on-screen will be the same size. The only way you could improve this monitor is if it was OLED like Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga.

The Studio uses a 4500 x 3000 (192 dpi) resolution, primarily because it actually has a 3:2 aspect ratio. That’s really unusual for desktop monitors, but it matches the same ratio used on the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book devices. I love extra vertical space for reading and writing, even if it takes a little getting used to on a display of this size. The display is glossy and reflective, but I didn't find that too troublesome in my own office space.

Surface Studio review GIF

The Studio also doubles as a giant tablet

This beautiful display also doubles as a giant tablet — sort of. The entire display is incredibly thin at just under 13mm, and supports touch and the same pressure-sensitive Surface Pens found on the Surface tablets. Microsoft is using what it calls a zero-gravity hinge to prop the display up, and you can push on the top of it with a single finger to move the display into various angles.

Even though it’s easy to adjust, you can still touch or draw at any angle as it has some resistance to being pushed back. I found myself bizarrely pulling the entire display toward me and angling it underneath me to read articles online or even when I was writing because the display is just great to have up close.

The real party trick of the Surface Studio is its drawing board mode, and it’s also its biggest selling point. You can push the display all the way down to get really up close to it and start drawing. It won’t sit flat on a desk, though, as the minimum angle is the drawing board mode’s 20 degrees. Microsoft explained to me that it didn’t want people placing their coffee cups on the display and spilling them on a $3,000 PC while they’re drawing.

The Dial feels really natural to use

To help with the drawing process, Microsoft is also releasing a new accessory: the Surface Dial ($99). It’s a little puck-like device that’s powered by two (AAA) batteries, and it’s designed to be another form of input. You don’t even need a Surface Studio to use the Dial, as it works on any Windows 10 machine with Bluetooth, but it’s paired best with Microsoft’s new PC. Oddly, it's only bundled in the box with Surface Studio preorders, but Microsoft plans to sell it separately otherwise.

I’ve been using the Dial in my left hand while I draw with my right, and it feels totally natural to use. You can tap on the top, crank the dial around, or tap and hold to access menus and controls. Most of the controls are radial menus that appear when you interact with the Dial. If you place it on top of the Surface Studio then it creates those menus directly under the Dial on the display, and they’ll follow the device wherever you place it.

I have spent hours drawing with the Surface Studio display and the Dial. As a kid I used to love drawing, but as I got obsessed with building PCs as a teenager, I dropped my pencils in favor of gadgets. The Surface Studio has unexpectedly reignited my interest in drawing, and I’ve sat at my desk doodling away instead of watching TV for entertainment over the past week. As much fun as it’s been, I’m not going to spend $3,000 on a Surface Studio just to doodle in my free time. This device is really designed to go head-to-head with Wacom’s Cintiq displays, so I invited a real artist over to get a better idea of the Surface Studio’s capabilities.

"The Surface Studio is certainly the strongest contender so far."

Lawrence Mann is a freelance illustrator who typically uses a four-year-old MacBook Pro and Wacom’s 27-inch Cintiq display to create his art at home, and a Surface Book on the go. Mann drew parts of two pieces for The Verge over a few hours with the Surface Studio, and came away generally impressed with the Studio.

"What astounds me is how close Microsoft have got their experience to what I have already carefully crafted with pieces from three different companies," says Mann, referring to his Cintiq, MacBook Pro, and Surface Book combination. Mann thought the accuracy and pen lag seemed comparable to Wacom’s Cintiq, but to be fully satisfied with the Studio he'd like to see some improvements elsewhere. He would like to have the ability to rotate the display, along with a more ergonomic stylus, and some extra buttons on the Dial for more than the basic controls.

"Because of the different technologies in use between Wacom and Surface, the Surface Studio does not suffer from the same cursor-to-stylus offset parallax that affects the Wacom Cintiq range," explains Mann. "It’s something that has never been of major importance to me, but I know many others might find it important when they next open their wallet. The Studio’s offset parallax was virtually nothing."

Mann says the Studio has left him with a "lot to think about" in terms of opening his own wallet. "I can safely say as a professional digital artist looking to upgrade my main device, the Surface Studio is certainly the strongest contender so far."

Apps like Sketchable are where the Surface Dial and Surface Pen really come to life. You can use the Dial to alter brush sizes, paint colors, or spin the canvas around without having to dig through menus and find the option you need. It’s a really quick way to adjust without having to use keyboard shortcuts or navigating away from your work with the pen. I prefer to use the Dial on top of the Surface Studio itself, but I did notice it doesn’t stick to the display very well. Even at the near-flat 20-degree drawing angle, the Dial gradually slipped down the display (perhaps because of oil marks left from using the touchscreen). I noticed it out of the corner of my eye when the radial menus kept bouncing down to keep up with the slipping dial, and it’s distracting and annoying.

The other disappointing aspect of the Dial is the lack of app support. There are nearly 20 apps on Microsoft’s official list, but even many of those just have basic zoom or scroll controls, or just the ability to adjust the system volume. Impressive Dial support can be found in Sketchable, Drawboard, or Mental Canvas, but I’m disappointed that apps like Photoshop don’t have full Dial support. Mann is equally surprised: "I find it remarkable that Adobe haven’t already had all of their applications updated ready for this." Microsoft is going up against accessories like Wacom's Express Key Remote ($99), so it needs to prove it's building an app ecosystem around the Dial here. It’s a slow start, but given Microsoft’s push with the Dial I’m quietly confident that most of the apps you’d want to use with it will include support soon.

Aside from the Studio’s creative assets, it’s a PC at heart. At the base of the display is where all the components are housed, in a box that looks like a miniature computer. On the model I was testing there’s a sixth-generation quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, 2TB Rapid Hybrid Drive, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics card inside. That’s actually some old tech for such a futuristic-looking PC. Microsoft has opted for last year's Intel and Nvidia chips, and its storage isn't all solid state. This is especially tough to swallow on the GPU front, because Nvidia's 2016 Pascal architecture is miles ahead of its predecessors. Intel and Nvidia's latest chips simply weren’t ready in time for the Surface Studio, and the storage uses a mix of 128GB SSD with a 2TB hard disk drive. That's disappointing, because even a GTX 1060 would have pushed the Studio into VR gaming, something Microsoft is starting to support directly in Windows 10.

This isn't a gaming PC, but it copes fairly well with games

Despite these qualms, the Studio is still very capable. This isn’t designed as a gaming PC, but I found it coped well with games like Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 3. You’re not going to be able to play either on the top settings, but they’re perfectly playable on the Studio if you don’t care about maxing out all the detail. Microsoft has even built in Xbox Wireless support — so you can use any Xbox One controller for games — and a Windows Hello-compatible 1080p camera so you can log into Windows 10 with just your face.

James Bareham, The Verge

Apps like Photoshop are still super responsive, even if you’re working on files stored on the HDD. The 32GB of RAM will help with multitasking or when working on huge files that demand a lot of memory. And although my workload is relatively light, I wasn't able to overwhelm the Surface Studio at all even with games and multiple apps running side-by-side. Almost similar to most conventional PCs, you also get 4 USB 3.0 ports in total. Microsoft is still steering clear of USB-Type C, for now. Alongside the USB ports there's an SD card reader, headphone jack, and Mini DisplayPort for connecting up a second monitor. You can’t use this DisplayPort to use the Surface Studio as a monitor itself, though.

As this is an all-in-one PC, there are still some compromises with the Surface Studio. All of the ports are at the rear, which makes it hard to access them if you have the Studio placed against a wall. This isn’t a silent machine either, and the fan constantly hums away, with the volume depending on how much you’re doing with it. If you’re trying to run some games or process video then you’re going to start hearing it. It’s distracting if you’re used to silence, but it blends into the background otherwise.

Photo by James Bareham

Most of the PC aspects of the Surface Studio are exactly what you’d expect from an all-in-one, and there’s very little to fault here. My main questions are around its price and uses cases. At a starting price of $2,999, it’s up there with Wacom’s 27-inch Cintiq ($2,799), but for that extra $200 you’re getting a full PC and not just a monitor. For creatives, that’s a seriously tempting offer, but you’re really buying the Surface Studio because of its display. It’s stunning, and there’s nothing quite like it on the market right now that has this 3:2 aspect ratio, touch capabilities, and the Surface Pen support, all while being almost pixel perfect and super thin.

It’s an engineering marvel of a monitor, but I really wish Microsoft sold it separately. I want to dock my Surface Book to it, or transform any laptop into a full Surface Studio. If I’m investing in a desktop PC at this kind of price then I also really want to be able to upgrade it and use it for gaming and more powerful work. I can’t do either of those things with the Surface Studio. If this was a monitor with a powerful GPU in it designed to complement Microsoft’s existing Surface devices and "upgrade" them, I’d probably be throwing my wallet at my screen right now. It’s hard to do so knowing that I’m not getting the latest and greatest specs for that $2,999, and that’s before you even consider the top model I’ve been testing is $4,199.

Microsoft is doing what Apple refuses to do
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That doesn’t discount what Microsoft has attempted to do here. It’s truly something unique and a hint of real innovation we haven’t seen for some years with PCs. Others have tried to experiment, like HP's Sprout, but it's rare to see something more than just an all-in-one. Microsoft’s exciting Surface Studio unveil has been compared to Apple’s disappointing MacBook Pro launch, and with good reason. Many creatives I’ve spoken to about the Surface Studio have said the same thing: why isn’t Apple doing this? Apple seems to be forcing creatives to choose an iPad Pro for touch and pen, but the powerful and professional apps just aren’t there yet on iOS, and it’s not clear if companies like Adobe are willing to rewrite their software to be just as useful on an iPad Pro. Microsoft has realized the potential in the market to reach out to creatives who feel abandoned by Apple, and it’s an influential crowd that could be swayed over by devices like the Surface Studio.

It’s still a small part of the overall PC market, though. Creatives will have to weigh up whether this beautiful set of floating pixels is worth the price. If you're already in that price range and considering Wacom's Cintiq — and you don't need a really powerful machine — then the Surface Studio is a no-brainer. For many, the switch from macOS to Windows 10 could be the daunting part, and for others it will be the question of how many apps truly support this new way of working with the Dial.

The fact that Microsoft is even being considered an alternative to Apple’s line of machines for creatives is not something anyone, not even Microsoft, was expecting for the Surface devices. The Surface Studio won't take over Mac-focused design houses just yet, but that it’s even a possibility is remarkable. The Studio is special because it knows exactly what it is and who it’s for — and it’s largely spot on. If Microsoft keeps developing its strengths here, some of Apple's most loyal customers might well be tempted to switch camps.

Photography by James Bareham.
Video by Max Jeffrey and Phil Esposito.
Edited by Dieter Bohn and Vlad Savov.