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Is this half-price Surface Studio clone too good to be true?

Is this half-price Surface Studio clone too good to be true?

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The Apollo is a 4K all-in-one from $1,499... on Kickstarter

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Say what you like about Microsoft’s Surface Studio, but there’s no denying that it’s an aspirational computer. Starting at $3,499, it’s not meant to be for everyone. And even if you’re only interested in the primary selling point — the gorgeous monitor with its unique “zero-gravity” sliding hinge — Microsoft won’t sell it to you without the expensive PC parts as well.

So when I heard about a Kickstarter project from a small company called Sefree, with a pitch that basically amounts to a brazen but much cheaper Surface Studio knock-off plus an option for a standalone monitor version, I had to check it out. If the open-access Chinese supply chain can drive down prices on smartphones and laptops, why not ostentatious desktop PCs?

The Apollo, which starts at $1,499, is an all-in-one PC built around a 32-inch 4K touchscreen that slides down exactly like the Surface Studio. All models use an 8th Gen quad-core U-series Core i7 processor with various RAM, storage, and GPU options. I’ve tested a pre-production model with an Nvidia GTX 1050Ti GPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD paired to 2TB of HDD storage. 

There are 4 USB-A ports on the back, one more USB-C on the side, an Ethernet jack, and an HDMI output (not input). You get a bad plasticky mouse and keyboard in the box, as you’d probably expect but not want. The monitor-only version, the Apollo Lite, costs $599 and uses a 27-inch 4K panel with the same sliding hinge.

I was warned that the fit and finish on the prototype would not be awesome, and well, it was not. There were a couple of dents and dings in the case, and there’s no way I could review this thing as a shipping product. But the two things that mattered, the hinge and the screen quality, were actually pretty on point. 

I found the hinge action to be very smooth throughout the 15-95-degree range, and the screen looks great, if a little overly glossy to my taste. The panel’s casing is also impressively slim at just 11mm thick, though I would warn you that the rendered images on the Apollo’s Kickstarter page seriously understate the size of the bezels. The live-action GIFs (like the one below) are accurate. 

The Surface Studio uses a slightly smaller, higher-resolution screen that’s shorter in the diagonal (28 inches) but with a taller 3:2 aspect ratio, similar to most other Surface devices. I like 3:2 on tablets and laptops, but the Apollo’s 16:9 aspect ratio actually wasn’t a problem for me given the large overall size — I didn’t feel like I was compromising on vertical space. (The monitor-only Apollo Lite, which I haven’t seen, is quite a bit smaller, so that might be a different story.) 

The Apollo’s casing isn’t as sleek or slim as the Studio’s, and it still gives off audible fan noise at all times, though I never found it to get particularly hot to the touch even under heavy load. I put the GPU through its paces with games like The Witcher 3 and Doom, both of which ran well at 1080p on medium-to-high settings. This isn’t a PC that’s really designed for high-end gaming, obviously, but you’ll get better results than you would with the Nintendo Switch ports, at least on the $1,700 option with the GTX 1050Ti.

The Surface Studio is explicitly targeted at designers who’ll use it with Microsoft’s proprietary pen and dial tools, and the Apollo does ship with a generic-looking stylus, but you shouldn’t expect the same level of performance here. Although I’m not exactly the most demanding of stylus users, the Apollo clearly isn’t as responsive as more integrated solutions out there on the market, with noticeable lag when drawing lines. The pen support is useful for things like retouching in Lightroom, but even I can tell that it won’t be the best option for digital artists.

If you’re enamored with the Surface Studio form factor in its own right rather than having any specific professional need, and if you don’t have a good desktop setup right now, I can see why the Apollo would be an appealing option. The pricing is pretty good for what you get, assuming you need a large 4K monitor and find value in the hinge design. All-in-one PCs are never the most cost-effective option in terms of price-performance ratio, but the Surface Studio’s ratio is a lot higher than this. 

On the other hand, Microsoft is an infinitely bigger company with vast engineering resources and the ability to provide after-sales support. I personally would not recommend buying anything of this expense and complexity on Kickstarter from a company without a proven track record.

The Apollo campaign ends on Monday, but it’s already funded, so we’ll see if Sefree is able to deliver on final production in December. I’d wait for impressions of retail products as to both whether the manufacturing has improved, and whether it even ships at all. This pre-production unit is the only Windows 10 computer I’ve ever seen without a sleep mode. You should probably make sure the final version has that. (Or just wait and see if rumors of a standalone Studio-style monitor from Microsoft pan out.)

But what the Apollo does prove is that hey, it isn’t impossible to make a cheaper Surface Studio. Maybe one day we’ll get one. 

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