Sur­face Stu­dio

Full re­view of Mi­crosoft’s £3,000 all-in-one

PC Pro - - Front Page - NATHAN SPENDELOW

Orig­i­nally launched in the US last Christ­mas, Mi­crosoft’s own-brand all-in-one PC is fi­nally on sale in the UK. It’s been a frus­trat­ing wait, but once you lay eyes on the Sur­face Stu­dio that de­lay is un­der­stand­able. This is the very def­i­ni­tion of a bou­tique sys­tem, and that’s not merely down to the ex­clu­sive price tag.

The first thing that strikes you is the dis­play – an enor­mous 28in touch­screen that’s even larger than it sounds, thanks to Mi­crosoft’s sig­na­ture 3:2 as­pect ra­tio. I’m a fan of this near-A4 shape ver­sus the widescreen for­mat found on most lap­tops and all-in-ones th­ese days. How­ever, the sheer size of it may feel over­whelm­ing: the screen it­self mea­sures 594mm wide by 396mm high, and once you fac­tor in the stand and the bezels, the whole she­bang tow­ers 544mm above the desk.

In­deed, the first thing I tried to do was lower it, so I could see a bit more of the world be­yond. An­noy­ingly, it turns out this im­pos­si­ble. To be fair, you can’t do this on an iMac ei­ther, but with Mi­crosoft mak­ing a point of advertising its unique “Zero-Grav­ity Hinge” I’d had higher hopes for the Sur­face Stu­dio. Alas, no: this mech­a­nism doesn’t ad­just the height of the screen, but rather swivels it down into a near-flat po­si­tion, to serve as an over­sized tablet.

While the screen may not be as flex­i­ble as I’d have liked, its qual­ity is hard to fault. Im­ages leap out at you: I mea­sured a max­i­mum lu­mi­nance of 424cd/m2 with a con­trast ra­tio of 1,056:1, which means it’s su­perbly vi­brant. Thanks to a 10-bit colour con­troller, it also achieved 99.6% sRGB colour cov­er­age and an av­er­age Delta E of 0.76 – mak­ing it one of the most colour-ac­cu­rate dis­plays we’ve seen. If you need to work in a wider colour space, you can switch to the larger DCI-P3 gamut and en­joy an im­pres­sive 98.5% cov­er­age.

You won’t be short of desk­top space ei­ther. The Sur­face Stu­dio’s unique 4,500 x 3,000 res­o­lu­tion pro­vides room to view and edit 4K video at na­tive res­o­lu­tion, and while its 192ppi pixel den­sity is a lit­tle coarser than the 218ppi of the 5K iMac, it has the ad­van­tage of what Mi­crosoft calls “True Scale”. At 100% mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, this means text and doc­u­ments should print at ex­actly the size they ap­pear on screen. And in case you’re wor­ried, it’s still ex­tremely sharp: you have to stick your face right up to the screen be­fore in­di­vid­ual pix­els be­come vis­i­ble.

El­e­gant de­sign

In light of the size of the screen, Mi­crosoft has wisely kept the bezels small. Be­hind the glass front, a per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal black bor­der of 21mm sur­rounds the screen. At the top, an in­set pair of cam­eras and mi­cro­phones let you cap­ture 5MP stills and 1080p video record­ing, as well as log in via Win­dows Hello.

It’s an el­e­gant de­sign, and when you see the Sur­face Stu­dio from the side you’ll also no­tice that the dis­play has a con­stant thick­ness of only 12.5mm. No doubt about it, this is a classy com­puter.

To make the dis­play unit this thin, the Sur­face Stu­dio’s core com­po­nents have been shunted into the base unit. This isn’t ob­tru­sively large by any means, but it’s a less stylish ar­range­ment than the way the iMac hides ev­ery­thing di­rectly be­hind the screen. It also means that all of the Sur­face Stu­dio’s phys­i­cal con­nec­tors are lo­cated at desk level. That’s neater than hav­ing ca­bles hang­ing down from the back and sides of the dis­play unit. It’s an­noy­ing, though, that Mi­crosoft has put all the Sur­face Stu­dio’s ports at the back: sure, it makes sense to have power, Gi­ga­bit Eth­er­net and miniDis­playPort con­nec­tors tucked out of the way, but the SD card reader and 3.5mm head­set con­nec­tor ought to be at the front or, at worst, the side. It would have been nice to have easy ac­cess to at least some of the Sur­face Stu­dio’s four USB 3 con­nec­tors too.

The base unit in­cludes the Sur­face Stu­dio’s in­te­grated 2.1 loud­speak­ers. At mod­er­ate vol­umes, th­ese sound im­pres­sively clear and de­tailed, if pre­dictably lack­ing in bass. Pump­ing things up quickly in­tro­duces nasty dis­tor­tion in the mid-range. If you want to watch films on the Sur­face Stu­dio – not an un­rea­son­able ask, since it’s as big and bright as many tele­vi­sions – you’ll want to in­vest in a pair of ex­ter­nal speak­ers.

Mo­bile sil­i­con

The Sur­face Stu­dio comes in a choice of three con­fig­u­ra­tions. I tested the pre­mium model, which comes with a Core i7-6820HQ CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graph­ics.

If you’re adept at read­ing In­tel model num­bers, you’ll no­tice that that CPU is an older sixth-gen­er­a­tion chip, and both CPU and GPU are mo­bile de­signs to boot. Pre­sum­ably that’s be­cause Mi­crosoft didn’t want to deal with the heat dis­si­pa­tion de­mands of a full-power desk­top chip. In fact, even with this more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient CPU the Sur­face Stu­dio’s in­ter­nal fan was au­di­bly whirring for the en­tire time I was us­ing the sys­tem. It’s not an ob­nox­ious noise, and you’ll quickly tune it out, but it’s louder than an iMac.

Still, it ev­i­dently keeps the Core i7-6820HQ run­ning at full speed. In our stan­dard ap­pli­ca­tion bench­marks, the Sur­face Stu­dio achieved a com­mend­able over­all score of 120. That in­cludes a a de­cent score of 123 in our mul­ti­task­ing test, thanks to the quad-core, Hy­per-Threaded processor; the enor­mous 32GB of 2,133MHz DDR4 RAM that’s in­cluded doesn’t hurt ei­ther. When it comes to graph­ics per­for­mance, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween mo­bile and desk­top sil­i­con is more sig­nif­i­cant. Try­ing to play Metro: Last Light Re­dux with max­i­mum de­tail set­tings at the Sur­face Stu­dio’s na­tive 4,500 x 3,000 res­o­lu­tion was a non-starter, with an av­er­age frame rate of 6fps. Switch­ing down to 1080p yielded a playable 36fps, al­though that res­o­lu­tion on a screen this size looks soft.

As well as be­ing un­der­pow­ered for de­mand­ing games, it’s also worth not­ing that this GeForce chip is classed as a gam­ing GPU, and isn’t cer­ti­fied for se­ri­ous ap­pli­ca­tions such as Au­toCAD or SolidWorks. That’s nor­mal for all-in-one PCs, but since the Sur­face Stu­dio is mar­keted as a high-end tool for de­sign pro­fes­sion­als, it would have been nice to see an Nvidia Quadro op­tion.

“The Stu­dio’s unique 4,500 x 3,000 screen pro­vides room to view and edit 4K video at na­tive res­o­lu­tion”

Fi­nally, when it comes to stor­age, the Sur­face Stu­dio ships with a one- or two-ter­abyte “Rapid Hy­brid Drive”. In fact this is two drives: a 2.5in me­chan­i­cal SATA hard disk and a sec­ond M.2 SSD set up as a cache drive. It’s an ar­range­ment that leads to weird bench­mark re­sults: we saw a se­quen­tial read speed of 1,349MB/sec, but a write rate of only 328MB/sec. Win­dows 10 felt nippy, but why not of­fer a pure SSD op­tion for those who need con­sis­tently fast per­for­mance?

In the­ory you can open up the base unit and up­grade both drives, but that’s a fid­dly and war­ran­tyvoid­ing op­er­a­tion.

Draw­ing com­pli­ments

The Sur­face Stu­dio’s party trick is its abil­ity to fold down into a lectern­style draw­ing-board, an­gled at a com­fort­able 20° from your desk, in­tended for use with the bun­dled Sur­face Pen. To switch into this mode, you sim­ply grab the lower edge of the screen and pull; the screen smoothly swivels for­ward with­out you hav­ing to move the base. The only slight ir­ri­ta­tion – an in­evitable con­se­quence of the oth­er­wise nifty de­sign – is that you’ll have to move the key­board and mouse off to the side first, or they’ll be knocked onto the floor.

The al­most-flat ap­proach works sur­pris­ingly well. I’ve not been won over by Mi­crosoft’s pre­vi­ous con­vert­ible con­cepts, nor by the gen­eral idea of jot­ting notes di­rectly onto a screen. But the shal­low an­gle of the Sur­face Stu­dio makes draw­ing and an­no­tat­ing feel im­pres­sively nat­u­ral. A big part of that is the screen’s fault­less abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween fin­gers and el­bows, which means you can com­fort­ably lean your arm across the vir­tual can­vas while draw­ing plans and prod­ding icons.

The pen works well too; it recog­nises 1,024 pres­sure lev­els, so can dis­tin­guish be­tween ten­ta­tive sketches and bold un­der­lin­ings, with a click­able but­ton on top for quick ac­cess to Sticky Notes, Sketch­pad and other rel­e­vant apps ( see p86). The glass coat­ing on the Sur­face Stu­dio’s dis­play is thin enough to feel, more or less, like draw­ing di­rectly onto the screen, and things are helped along by the lit­tle tar­get that ap­pears when you hover the pen over the screen, so you can make sure your lines start and end in ex­actly the right place. For more con­trol, you can also part­ner it with a Sur­face Dial ( see right). This mode won’t be use­ful for ev­ery­one. For ar­chi­tects and artists, it’s a bril­liant fea­ture that other all-in-ones can’t match. The rest of us will likely be more pro­duc­tive with a key­board and mouse, and even if you’re ad­dicted to OneNote, and to funky Win­dows 10 fea­tures such as an­no­tat­ing web pages, you prob­a­bly won’t want to bother to fold the screen down just for that.

How much?

When the Sur­face Stu­dio was an­nounced nigh on a year ago, I dis­missed it as an unin­spired me-too de­vice. But it’s much more than an iMac knock-0ff for peo­ple who need to use Win­dows. With its colourac­cu­rate 3:2 True Scale dis­play, Sur­face Pen and neat fold-down de­sign, it’s a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive – and a su­pe­rior com­puter for some roles.

For all that, it’s not per­fect. Con­stant fan noise, lap­top-grade graph­ics, me­chan­i­cal stor­age and in­con­ve­niently lo­cated ports all count against it. And while those is­sues might not be deal-break­ers, they’re hard to for­give when you re­mem­ber just how ex­traor­di­nar­ily ex­pen­sive

LEFT The Sur­face Pen comes bun­dled but you’ll need to pay an­other £90 for the Sur­face Dial

Sur­face Dial

As Jon Honeyball dis­cusses on p110, Mi­crosoft also of­fers a novel lit­tle hockey-puck shaped con­troller called the Sur­face Dial. The idea is that you place this on the Sur­face Stu­dio’s re­clined screen, us­ing whichever hand you’re not us­ing for the pen; press it down and you’ll feel a lit­tle hap­tic buzz, and then a ra­dial con­text menu will ap­pear. Spin the Dial to cy­cle through the avail­able op­tions, and give the unit an­other click to se­lect.

It’s a neat idea, and it makes work­ing with a sty­lus more vi­able. It’s cer­tainly less fid­dly than try­ing to use the pen to nav­i­gate the stan­dard mouse-driven Win­dows in­ter­face.

There are two catches, how­ever. First, while the Dial can be used to scroll or zoom in most apps, any­thing clev­erer re­lies on devel­oper sup­port. Cur­rently it works in a de­cent range of ap­pli­ca­tions from Mi­crosoft, Adobe and oth­ers, and you get some choice of which func­tions ap­pear on the ra­dial menu. Over­all, though, its flex­i­bil­ity is limited.

The sec­ond is that it’s sold as a £90 ex­tra. As with the Sur­face Stu­dio it­self, it’s tough to jus­tify the cost un­less you fall squarely into the niche it’s aimed at. When you con­sider how much the Stu­dio costs, and how the Dial un­locks the full po­ten­tial of its head­line fea­ture, it ought to come in the box. the Sur­face Stu­dio is. Even the cheap­est model – with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 1TB of stor­age – comes in at three grand, while the 27in 5K iMac range starts at only £1,749.

Ul­ti­mately, then, the Sur­face Stu­dio comes down to a ques­tion of value. If your busi­ness is will­ing to pay an ex­cep­tional price for an ex­cep­tional com­puter then, to my sur­prise, I’m in­clined to say that the Sur­face Stu­dio out­classes the iMac. But for typ­i­cal home of­fice du­ties it’s not that much bet­ter than Ap­ple’s of­fer­ing – and cer­tainly not amaz­ing enough to jus­tify pay­ing twice the price.

BE­LOW The Sur­face Stu­dio’s party trick: it can fold down to 20 de­grees against the hor­i­zon­tal

ABOVE Mi­crosoft packs the com­put­ing power – and the ports – into the base unit



BE­LOW The screen is a beauty, with thin bezels and su­perb colour ac­cu­racy

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