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The Surface Laptop Studio isn’t as original as Microsoft would have you believe

The Surface Laptop Studio isn’t a step forward from the Surface Book line — it’s a step back

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Okay, I know this might be partially my fault. When I reviewed Microsoft’s 13.5-inch Surface Book 3 last year, I complained that the design was dated. I complained that my biggest nitpicks about the Surface Book 2 (which I’ve owned for years, by the way) hadn’t been fixed. Microsoft still hadn’t figured out how to do anything new or fun with the detachable, I lamented. “This form factor might be a dead end.”

I love the Surface Book and am a staunch defender of the line. I couldn’t see myself using anything else as my primary driver. I hoped — prayed — that my words would result in Microsoft releasing a slimmer, sleeker, better Surface Book 4. I hoped they’d spur Microsoft into pushing the full-sized detachable workstation, a form factor that really only Microsoft has ever mastered, to heights it had never seen before.

Unfortunately, Microsoft appears to have done the opposite. The Surface Book line, it appears, is no more. Instead, we got the Surface Laptop Studio, a product that Microsoft is pushing as a groundbreaking innovation, but which is really — as anyone who closely follows PC releases can tell you — a step backward out of the innovative space and into territory that’s more familiar to the laptop sector.

So this Surface Laptop Studio is a laptop with a 360-degree hinge. A stylus lives on the bottom edge. You can use the device like a regular clamshell. You can pull the display forward over the keyboard and prop it up right above the touchpad like a little tent (a position Microsoft is calling “stage mode”). Or you can flip the display around, over the hinge, and use the thing like a tablet. Those are the only three positions — the hinge can’t hold the screen at whatever angle you want.

Now, Microsoft is pitching this as the next step for the Book line: a new, innovative form factor. “It is the culmination of years of Surface innovation — on hinges, display, silicon, and more,” Microsoft’s vice president of devices said of the Studio. CEO Satya Nadella declared that the company was “creating a new laptop category.”

But if you follow the laptop market anywhere near as closely as I do, it’s hard not to look at this device and think, “Oh boy, another one of these.”

Just to catch up everyone else: This is not a new or unique design. For one, ThinkPads were doing something similar in literally 1994. But to pull a more modern example out of the air, HP’s been doing these for a couple years, and its 2021 Elite Folio is basically this thing covered in leather. That laptop also has a stylus (though it lives in an arguably more convenient location just above the keyboard). HP declined to comment on the Surface Laptop Studio for this story.

I wasn’t making that up. This is from 1994.
Image: Raymondgold22
This one worked as a tablet, too. Look, there’s even a stylus!
Image: Raymondgold22

Acer (you know, that small, obscure laptop manufacturer) was also doing a similar form factor as early as 2013. It has a gaming laptop that’s kind of like this. It has a whole line of creator-oriented workstations that are basically this. The ConceptD Ezel is actually a more advanced form of this design with more powerful components (as Acer pointed out to me when I pinged the company for comment). That screen can stay put at whatever angle you want, so you can float it at infinite angles above the deck, use it as a reverse-clamshell with the screen facing away from (but still perpendicular to) the keyboard, or put it in any number of other positions.

Here’s the Studio from the back. Mmmm. Laptop.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The Laptop Studio can’t even make a cost-savings case against these two laptops. Its base model (with a Core i5, integrated graphics, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage) is $1,599.99, and the stylus and its charger are an extra $164.98 together; a comparable Elite Folio (stylus included) is currently listed at $1,416, and a ConceptD 3 Ezel (stylus included) with a Core i7, a discrete GPU, and twice the storage is $1,499.99. And before you all start on build quality — the Elite Folio and the ConceptD are both very nice laptops with excellent keyboards and touchpads. They’re premium devices targeting a deep-pocketed crowd. (I mean, the Elite Folio is literally covered in leather.)

And in addition to these direct competitors, there are various Surface Pro clones that serve a pretty similar use case. To be clear, the old Surface Book and new Surface Laptop Studio are very different from the Surface Pro and its ilk: they’re full-sized laptops with chips in their base (and optional discrete GPUs), while Surface Pros are Windows tablets to which you can attach a keyboard and kickstand. But I think the case for a Surface Book over a Surface Pro is still much stronger than the case for a Surface Laptop Studio over a Surface Pro.

Think about it: the Surface Laptop Studio only has three positions, and something like the Surface Pro or the excellent ThinkPad X12 Detachable can be in all those positions as well. It can be a clamshell laptop or a tablet, and detaching the keyboard but leaving the kickstand up will serve the same use case as stage mode.

In short, while the Surface Laptop Studio may be a great device, it’s not a new laptop category.

The HP Elite Folio in easel mode, angled to the right, on an outdoor table with a river in the background.
This is the HP Elite Folio. Hmmm, look familiar?
Photo by Monica Chin / The Verge

And that’s okay! A laptop doesn’t need to be a new category to be a compelling buy. And the Studio certainly has some advantages over HP’s and Acer’s lines. It has a more powerful processor than the Folio, which is powered by a Snapdragon chip. And perhaps most crucially, it has a higher resolution screen than both of those models.

But I’m still not convinced that this laptop will court fans of either of those devices. They’re both targeting fairly specific audiences who are uniquely suited to this sort of convertible form factor, and they fit those audiences very well. It could have more success creating converts from the Surface Pro sphere, especially those who want a larger screen than those tablets offer. But those folks will also have to pay a bit more for that real estate. A comparable ThinkPad X12 Detachable (stylus and keyboard included) is a good $300 cheaper than this laptop as of this writing. The Surface Pro 8 is also a bit cheaper, even if you add the price of the type cover. The Laptop Studio’s extra inches of screen may not be worth it to everyone.

A bigger screen also means a heftier body — both of those detachable devices (with their keyboards on) are over a pound lighter than the Studio, which is also heavier than the Surface Book 3.

Best laptop 2021: Acer ConceptD 7 Ezel
This is an Acer ConceptD Ezel. Wee, look what this thing can do!
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

My best guess is that the Surface Laptop Studio is best positioned to appeal to people who were already fans of the Surface Book line. And as a member of this apparently small group, this is where I’m really hung up. Because while pretty much everything about the Surface Book was good, the reason I was willing to pay such a high price for it was the innovation behind it. It was an impressive device; Microsoft was the only company making it. It met a unique combination of needs that no other laptop in the world could meet. In my past few years as a Surface Book owner, I’ve considered switching to a Spectre or an XPS many times, but I just could never do it — I just couldn’t give up that detachable screen.

Sure, the Surface Book wasn’t perfect. But it was something different — and in the crowded and competitive laptop space, it’s rare to see a laptop that’s truly one of a kind.