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