PCWorld (USA)

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio: Windows 11’s flagship feels like the future

Microsoft pretty much nails both content creation and consumptio­n with the Surface Laptop Studio, though it’s a little rough around the edges.

- BY MARK HACHMAN

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio feels like a glimpse of the future. Microsoft’s new pull-forward design arguably improves upon the Surface Book 3, its spiritual predecesso­r, offering you a light menu of gaming, content creation, and everyday computing capabiliti­es to choose from.

Tell us if you’ve heard this before, though: The Surface Laptop Studio doesn’t come cheap, and its excellent new inking capabiliti­es require the separate purchase of a

$130 Slim Pen 2. You can opt for Windows 11 (see page 25) to power this new 2-in-1 PC, though the new hardware, software, and drivers may make this a bit of a bumpy road to begin with. You’ll also have to decide whether this arguably niche device is worth the investment, versus general-purpose notebooks that may offer more value. Neverthele­ss, this is the most intriguing Surface of the last half decade.

SPECS

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio is available in a variety of configurat­ions, ranging in price from about $1,600 on up to over $3,000. Essentiall­y, you’ll have a choice between an 11th-gen Core i5 and Core i7 chip, specifical­ly the H35 version that Intel launched ( fave. co/3pfxwxp) this past spring. You can also choose from between 16GB and 32GB of RAM, as well as between 512GB, 1TB, and a whopping 2TB of SSD storage. (The SSD is technicall­y upgradable by a “skilled technician.”) Finally, the Core i7 models ship with Nvidia’s Geforce RTX 3050 Ti graphics, a moderately powerful raytracing-capable GPU for content creation and light gaming.

Keep in mind that one of the standout features that

Microsoft is highlighti­ng in the Surface Laptop Studio—inking—requires the separate purchase of a new Surface Slim Pen 2 ( fave. co/3jfy6zc; $129.99), which can fit underneath the Surface Laptop Studio in a little receptacle. Selling the pen separately is by now a Surface tradition, though the Pen 2 feels like less of a prerequisi­te with the Studio than it does with the Surface Pro tablet lineup.

Display: 14.4-inch Pixelsense Flow touch display (2400×1600 (201 PPI), 120Hz)

Processor: Intel Core H35 i5-11300h, H35 i7-11370h (Core i7 as tested)

Graphics: Iris Xe (H35 i5-11300h), Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti W/4GB GDDR6 DRAM; Commercial: RTX A2000 with 4GB GDDR6 GPU (RTX 3050 Ti as tested)

Memory: 16GB/32GB LPDDR4X RAM (32GB as tested)

Storage: 256GB , 512GB, 1 TB, 2TB SSD (all removable; 1 TB as tested)

Ports: 2 USB-C (Thunderbol­t 4/USB 4.0), 1 Surface Connect, 3.5mm headphone jack

Camera: User-facing 1080p

Battery: 56.3Wh (design), 57.8Wh (full capacity, as tested)

Wireless: 802.11 ax (Wi-fi 6); Bluetooth 5.1

Operating system: Windows 11 Pro/home, or Windows 10 Pro (Windows 11 Home as tested)

Dimensions (inches): 12.7x9.0x0.7 inches

Weight: 3.83 pounds (Core i5), 4.00 pounds (Core i7)

Color: Platinum

Price: Starting at $1,599; $2,699 as reviewed

CONFIGURAT­IONS, PRICES

Core I5/16GB memory/256gb SSD/ integrated GPU: $1,599.99

Core I5/16GB/512GB/IGPU:

$1,799.99

Core i7/16gb/512gb/geforce RTX 3050 Ti: $2,099.99

Core I7/32GB/1TB/ RTX 3050 Ti:

$2,699.99 Core I7/32GB/2TB/RTX 3050 Ti: $3,099.99

PULL-FORWARD: THE HOT TREND IN 2-IN-1 PCS

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio will remind you far more of a Surface Laptop than of the Surface Studio all-in-one ( fave.co/3pgylti) when it emerges from the box. Upon opening, you may be a little shocked by the vast expanse of the new haptic trackpad that dominates about half of the keyboard tray, seemingly squishing the keyboard into the upper half. Fortunatel­y, that’s more of an illusion than a reality, as the space allotted to

the keys remains the same as on the Surface Laptop—about 12 inches wide and 6 inches back toward the screen.

Some of our hands-on impression­s ( fave. co/3jco9y3) still hold true: The Surface

Laptop Studio is a sort of hybrid of other Surface devices, combining elements of the Surface Laptop, Surface Studio, and Surface Book. Physically, it’s a bit heavier than either the 13-inch or 15-inch Surface Laptop 4 ( fave. co/3jfyvii; 3.4 pounds), but not as heavy as the Surface Book 3, which tops out at 4.2 pounds ( fave.co/3n9atli). It’s a bit thicker than the Surface Laptop and a bit thinner than the Surface Book. In fact, it looks very much like the Acer Conceptd 7 Ezel ( fave.co/3vms3jc), which was first introduced in January 2020 and has been upgraded since then.

What sets the Surface Laptop Studio apart, of course, is the Ezel-like folding display, which transforms the Laptop Studio from a clamshell notebook to a presentati­on device, and then to an inking platform. To be honest, the Laptop Studio is almost too good as a clamshell laptop. Unlike the Surface Studio, whose entire display folds forward, the Laptop Studio’s display nestles tightly into the structural backing that allows it to fold forward and back, supported by what Microsoft calls a “dynamic woven hinge.”

I took a minute or two trying to pry it loose from its backing before rememberin­g that you can simply push either of the top corners of the display to push it back and then angle it forward, a bit like a lounge chair. You can even flip it entirely backward. The SLS doesn’t feel quite as sturdy as the Conceptd 3 Ezel we received for review, which offers the ability to ink in almost any direction. It’s a bit deceptive, though, as the Ezel’s stiff hinge

doesn’t quite provide all the support it promises.

In clamshell mode, the Surface Laptop reclines to 125 degrees. Pull it forward into what Microsoft calls Stage mode, and the screen rests at an angle just in front of the keyboard for streaming video or presentati­ons. This completely prevents you from typing with the keyboard, but allows you to navigate around using the trackpad and touchscree­n. You can also flip it backward to reverse the screen, similar to the Surface Book, or you can fold it flat into Studio mode to ink on it.

We need to emphasize this point: Microsoft nails the Stage mode experience. The Surface Laptop Studio thrusts the video forward, right into your immediate field of view, creating a theater-like atmosphere that’s reinforced by the excellent Dolbyaugme­nted speakers mounted inside the palm rest. In my experience no laptop has offered anything close to the experience of a living-room TV, let alone a movie theater. The Surface Laptop Studio nearly does. It’s surprising­ly impressive.

Unlike the screen of the Surface Book, at no time does the screen ever detach. The Surface Pro, with its more accommodat­ing, folding kickstand, can support the tablet at practicall­y any angle from 90 degrees to nearly flat. But from a flexibilit­y standpoint, the Surface Laptop Studio is surprising­ly adaptive to whatever you’d like to do with it.

Throughout the last few generation­s of Surface devices, Microsoft has seemingly clocked down its laptops and tablets, shipping them in a mode that rarely turns on the fan. The Surface Laptop Studio follows suit. The additional thickness is used for, in part, additional cooling and venting. A grille

runs up and down each side of the laptop.

But the fan rarely turns on, even when the system was running benchmark software. It’s far, far quieter than I would have expected, except when gaming. Then fan noise rises to a breathy but very neutral hiss, with no coil whine. The consequenc­e? The Surface

Laptop Studio is also much more thermally sensitive than we expected, which affected its performanc­e, as you’ll see later.

A BEAUTIFUL, LOWERRESOL­UTION DISPLAY

The Surface Laptop Studio takes a step down from the extreme resolution offered by the Surface Book. There, Microsoft shipped the 15-inch Book 3 with a 3,000x2,000 15-inch display. The Surface Laptop Studio is available in just a single 14.4-inch display option, with 2,400x1,600 pixels. That’s about 75 percent of the pixel density of the 15-inch Surface Book 3 and also less than the new Surface Pro 8—though at least to my eyes, it’s not a particular­ly noticeable downgrade on the smaller screen, either. What Microsoft calls the Pixelsense Flow multitouch display is available in either a

Vivid or an SRGB mode at a bright 483 nits of luminance, which is suitable for a brightly lit room.

Pixelsense Flow supposedly involves what Microsoft calls Dynamic Refresh Rate, which varies the screen’s refresh rate between 60Hz and a new 120Hz refresh rate. The latter was a feature Microsoft promised for the Surface Laptop Studio, but it didn’t make the final cut. Instead, the display refresh rate is locked at 120Hz by default—great for performanc­e, but it puts a hit on the battery life, too. Somewhat weirdly, Microsoft promised us that the display would include HDR support, including Dolby Vision, but the Windows 11 Settings menu doesn’t indicate the display is capable of HDR.

A SHIFT TO THUNDERBOL­T

From a connectivi­ty perspectiv­e, the greatest change that the Surface Laptop Studio introduces is the Thunderbol­t 4 port—in fact, it has two. Thunderbol­t is essentiall­y a supercharg­ed USB-C port, capable of throughput that allows for everything from displays to highspeed external devices ( fave. co/3n5nlmc) to be connected. Microsoft rather smartly included both its traditiona­l Surface Connector (capable of charging the Surface Laptop Studio) as well as the two Thunderbol­t 4 ports, which are also capable of charging the laptop. This allows the Surface Laptop Studio to use the small but growing ecosystem of Thunderbol­t docks ( fave.co/3vta0be), while it can also use existing Surface chargers and the Surface Dock 2 ( fave. CO/3LTNG5J). There are no older USB-A ports on the Surface Laptop Studio, however.

There’s a catch, though: The Surface Laptop Studio uses Microsoft’s 102W charger, and most

Surface devices (save for the Surface Book 3) use a 65W charger or less. These legacy Surface chargers don’t supply enough power for the Surface Laptop Studio, especially while gaming.

INKING IS A PLEASURE WITH THE SLIM PEN 2

Inking with a stylus is a real pleasure on the Surface Laptop Studio. Microsoft said the screen digitizer has been made more efficient, reducing the ink latency, and it was specifical­ly designed to work with the Surface Slim Pen 2. The laptop supports the Microsoft Pen Protocol. The palm rejection works effectivel­y, and Microsoft reduced the e-ink latency down to just a tiny smidge below perfect. There’s no line offset that I can detect, but there is a bit of jitter, especially when drawing diagonal lines slowly.

The Slim Pen 2 fits within…well, not exactly a cubby, but a charging well underneath the laptop that magnetical­ly holds it in place and charges the pen. It seems a little weird, but it doesn’t seem like it would jar loose, either. A short review period didn’t allow us enough time to measure how long the charge lasted.

Microsoft still hasn’t convinced me about the appeal of the pen’s haptic feedback, which provides a tactile response to certain inputs. It felt gimmicky in my hands-on and still feels less useful than perhaps Microsoft intended. That, plus the fact that you can only really ink on the Surface Laptop Studio in Stage or Studio mode, are slight knocks on an otherwise solid experience.

THE KEYBOARD MEETS SURFACE’S STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE, ALMOST

Microsoft’s Surface Book has remained one of my favorite laptops to type upon for the last few years, but its luxurious 1.5mm of key travel hasn’t been replicated across the other Surface PCS. The Surface Laptop Studio continues this trend, with just 1.3mm of key travel. That’s such a fine difference, but it’s very noticeable! Fortunatel­y, the Surface Laptop Studio’s keys feel springy and resilient, and there’s a marked improvemen­t over those of the Surface Laptop, whose key travel is also 1.3mm. Keyboards made by HP remain on my personal Mount Rushmore of laptop keyboards,

but the Surface Laptop Studio demands considerat­ion, too. Otherwise, the keyboard looks just like those of any other recent Surface, with no changes in the keys. There are three levels of backlighti­ng.

The touchpad, though? Wow. The Surface Laptop Studio is Microsoft’s first touchpad with haptic feedback, meaning you’re not mechanical­ly clicking a touchpad so much as the touchpad is clicking you. Haptic feedback is what smartphone­s like the iphone already add to provide tactile feedback, but it feels so much better as a trackpad than as a smartphone feature. The absolutely massive touchpad is smooth and absolutely uniformly clickable over the entire surface area.

Gestures worked as expected, even the four-finger gestures needed to swipe back and forth between virtual desktops. Using it brings to mind how Windows Hello face logins transforme­d the Pc—it seems so intrinsica­lly obvious. I can tell I’ll miss this touchpad when I go back to other laptops.

The only quirk I encountere­d was that when I selected a configurat­ion option in a game using the touchpad, the game interprete­d it as a double click, inputting my choice and a confirmati­on of that choice. The Windows 11 Settings menu includes controls for both haptic feedback and touchpad sensitivit­y to help solve problems like this.

WEBCAM IMPROVES, JUST NOT AS EXPECTED

Microsoft only includes one user-facing camera on the Surface Laptop Studio, but it’s best of class. The colors and white balance do look better than those of the Surface Book 3, Microsoft’s previous high-water mark for camera quality. (The on-screen image also looks sharper, too, though that could be an artifact of the slightly lower-resolution screen.) Though it’s unlikely that many people take photos with their user-facing Surface camera,

the available resolution options have diminished considerab­ly, to a maximum resolution of 1920×1080.

Microsoft also promised us that the camera would use Windows Hello 2.0 technology, which would include the ability to log you in even wearing sunglasses, a beard, or a surgical mask. That latter scenario isn’t true, as the laptop couldn’t recognize me while wearing a mask, and it wouldn’t let me create a facial profile while wearing a mask, either.

EXCELLENT AUDIO, TOO

Microsoft believes that the Surface Laptop Studio offers one of the best aural experience­s on a laptop, and I’m inclined to agree. Microsoft’s “quad Omnisonic” speaker system includes both a tweeter and a woofer on either side, with the bass tones pushed out of the side grilles. The volume is utterly bombastic, to the point where I dialed down the volume just to pick up the nuances of my recorded audio. Microsoft uses Dolby Atmos (for speakers and headphones) to augment the audio, though Microsoft hasn’t included an onboard Dolby app to fine-tune the highs and lows.

When we connected the Surface Laptop Studio to a first-generation Surface Dock, Windows 11 suddenly couldn’t find an audio source. A reboot solved that problem.

PERFORMANC­E

Our review unit shipped with Windows 11 installed, which will likely be the preferred option. For whatever reason (a clean installati­on or synergy between hardware and software?), Windows 11 felt far less laggy on this new Surface hardware than on our separate test PCS. Speaking of performanc­e, some have wondered why Microsoft didn’t opt for a six- or eight-core processor (or an AMD Ryzen) instead of the quad-core H35 chip Intel debuted ( fave.co/3pfxwxp) this

spring for ultraporta­ble gaming.

Still, the Surface Laptop Studio seems like it was tailor-made for content creators who would normally be driven up the wall by loud, noisy fans cooling a powerful GPU. The Surface Laptop Studio isn’t fanless, but for the vast majority of tasks you’ll hear hardly a whisper from the Laptop Studio’s cooling system, as set in the default Recommende­d mode within the Windows 11 power/performanc­e settings. It’s only when we tried gaming with the Laptop Studio that the fan really dialed up.

That can make a difference where performanc­e is concerned, though. Normally we rerun our benchmarks several times to generate consistent results, but the scores don’t vary by that much. In places, the Surface Laptop’s scores deviated significan­tly, leading us to believe that something is going on, whether it be new hardware, new firmware, or some interactio­n within Windows 11. There simply are too many variables to be absolutely sure.

From a practical standpoint, however, the Surface Laptop Studio streamed 4K video without even a single dropped frame, offering a seamless experience. Our review unit also shipped with an Nvidia Geforce RTX 3050 Ti graphics chip with 4GB of GDDR6 VRAM inside. Nvidia’s RTX hardware is commonly associated with PC gaming, and its hardware raytracing capabiliti­es can be seen in real-time reflection­s on damp roads in Forza Horizon 4. Forza, for that matter, hit a solid 60 fps at 1080p resolution on the Ultra quality preset, indicative that the Surface Laptop 4 can be used for gaming and content creation alike.

We’ve compared the Surface Laptop Studio to several laptops, including its spiritual predecesso­r, the Surface Book 3 ( fave.co/2zbbnin), highlighte­d in orange. We haven’t formally reviewed the $1,499 Acer Conceptd 3 Ezel, but we were able to run our suite of benchmarks on it as a close and less expensive competitor. The HP Spectre x360 14 ( fave.co/3lvuik6) and Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310 ( fave.co/3jgxeuy) aren’t designed as much for pen-centric content creation as the Surface Laptop Studio, but they’re among our favorite laptops, too. The HP Envy 14 ( fave.co/30gdb3v) traditiona­l clamshell targets content creators, too, but for an incredibly good price of under $1,000.

Finally, the odd Asus Zenbook Pro Duo 15 ( fave.co/3n9tft8) is a massive powerhouse of a content-creation machine, but in a category of its own.

We apply several benchmarks to test laptops. The first, Pcmark 10, applies several real-world tests, from videoconfe­rencing to app startup to light gaming to CAD work, and generates a final score. This generally tests just the CPU, but graphics work like CAD asks something of the RTX graphics chip, too.

The Cinebench R15 test was a bit of a headscratc­her, as we saw an unusual divergence of results in these results. Cinebench R15 asks the CPU to render a scene, using all of the cores and threads to complete the task. We shouldn’t expect that much, since the H35 chip inside the Surface Laptop Studio is just a quadcore processor. (The single-thread result was 187.) We reran these tests several times and saw results ranging from 615 to 880. Really, though, it didn’t matter: The highest score Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio produced at default settings wouldn’t have moved the needle in our product rankings.

We use the open-source Handbrake tool to transcode a Hollywood movie. The test measures how well the laptop can cool itself and preserve a high clock rate and

performanc­e throughout the task.

It’s worth noting that we used a second check to see if the Surface Laptop Studio thermally throttled itself, running Cinebench R23 once, and then looping it repeatedly for throughout a ten-minute cycle. If the laptop was thermally constraine­d, its looped result should have been significan­tly less than the single run. At a single-run score of 4,750 versus 4,746 for the test loop, that simply isn’t the case.

Our final performanc­e test uses the 3Dmark Time Spy test for mainstream PCS. Naturally, we’d expect that the Surface Laptop Studio would outperform most of its competitio­n, since the RTX GPU propels it upward into the territory of gaming laptops. It sure does.

Battery life, naturally, is important as well. The Surface Book 3 slipped disappoint­ingly here, and we anticipate­d Microsoft returning to form with an all-day workhorse. We were not let down, but there are some caveats. By default, the Surface Laptop Studio will adjust the screen brightness as well as tweak the content to improve battery life. (Turn off those tweaks and battery life plunges to 543 minutes, or just over nine hours.) We adjusted these options to create a scenario in which we turned off the brightness sensor for repeatabil­ity, but left the content options unchanged. We perform our battery test by looping a 4K video repeatedly until the laptop shuts itself down.

BOTTOM LINE

What I referred to once as the “Surface Laptop Book Studio” around the office still feels true. This is the niche product that, counterint­uitively, tries to do it all. Microsoft has never shied away from asking for a premium price where Surfaces are concerned, however, and so you’ll pay a little more versus another notebook. If you’re OK with not actually detaching the tablet, the Surface Laptop Studio does everything else that the Surface Book 3 does, functional­ly and arguably more elegantly. Pull-forward two-inones feel like they might end up dominating the category in a few years.

Overall, the Surface Laptop Studio is a good laptop—if you’re thinking of it as a

laptop, that is. It’s much more than the sum of its parts, offering a superior content-creation and content-consuming experience, plus some light gaming capabiliti­es. It has some bugs to work out; New hardware plus a new operating system plus new firmware inevitably generates glitches. And again, you’ll also have to decide whether this arguably niche device is worth the investment versus general-purpose notebooks that may offer more value. But Microsoft is definitely onto something with this radical do-it-all notebook.

Yes, it’s a niche product for now, but the Surface Laptop Studio seems to be offering us a glimpse of the future.

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio in clamshell mode.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio in clamshell mode.
 ?? ?? Microsoft doesn’t really tout this fact, but you can flip the Surface Laptop Studio’s screen backward to reverse the display, just as the Surface Book allowed you to do.
Microsoft doesn’t really tout this fact, but you can flip the Surface Laptop Studio’s screen backward to reverse the display, just as the Surface Book allowed you to do.
 ?? ?? Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio (left) and the Acer Conceptd 3 Ezel. The Ezel feels a little clunkier, but it has a more powerful 10th-gen H-series processor inside it, too.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio (left) and the Acer Conceptd 3 Ezel. The Ezel feels a little clunkier, but it has a more powerful 10th-gen H-series processor inside it, too.
 ?? ?? There’s something about pulling the screen toward you, combined with the Surface Laptop Studio’s superb audio, that makes movies pop. (Video shown is Tears of Steel, sharable via a Creative Commons Attributio­n 3.0 license. Source: (CC) Blender Foundation | fave.co/3vqce4c).
There’s something about pulling the screen toward you, combined with the Surface Laptop Studio’s superb audio, that makes movies pop. (Video shown is Tears of Steel, sharable via a Creative Commons Attributio­n 3.0 license. Source: (CC) Blender Foundation | fave.co/3vqce4c).
 ?? ?? The color gamut of the Surface Laptop Studio, as measured by the Datacolor Spyderx colorimete­r. The Vivid mode covers 100 percent of the SRGB color space and 80 percent of Adobergb. The SRGB setting only covers 98 percent of the SRGB color space.
The color gamut of the Surface Laptop Studio, as measured by the Datacolor Spyderx colorimete­r. The Vivid mode covers 100 percent of the SRGB color space and 80 percent of Adobergb. The SRGB setting only covers 98 percent of the SRGB color space.
 ?? ?? A pair of Thunderbol­t 4/USB 4 ports are located on the left side of the Surface Laptop Studio.
A pair of Thunderbol­t 4/USB 4 ports are located on the left side of the Surface Laptop Studio.
 ?? ?? Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio, with its 3.5mm headphone jack and the Surface Connect port. You can also see the how the laptop vents hot air via the grillwork at the bottom.
Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio, with its 3.5mm headphone jack and the Surface Connect port. You can also see the how the laptop vents hot air via the grillwork at the bottom.
 ?? ?? The Surface Slim Pen 2, inking lines on the Surface Laptop Studio using a straight edge within Whiteboard. Ideally, these lines would look perfectly straight. There’s still a bit of a wavy effect, or jitter, while inking slowly and at a diagonal angle.
The Surface Slim Pen 2, inking lines on the Surface Laptop Studio using a straight edge within Whiteboard. Ideally, these lines would look perfectly straight. There’s still a bit of a wavy effect, or jitter, while inking slowly and at a diagonal angle.
 ?? ?? The Surface Laptop Studio’s keys feel springy and resilient.
The Surface Laptop Studio’s keys feel springy and resilient.
 ?? ?? While the photo and video is softer than I might like, the color balance and lighting on the Surface Laptop Studio’s webcam is better than most. This shot was taken in a deliberate­ly dimmed room, and yet it looks pretty well lit.
While the photo and video is softer than I might like, the color balance and lighting on the Surface Laptop Studio’s webcam is better than most. This shot was taken in a deliberate­ly dimmed room, and yet it looks pretty well lit.
 ?? ?? We picked two games to check how well the Surface Laptop Studio plays games: Microsoft-owned Forzahoriz­on4, which yielded a solid 61 frames per second (FPS) at 1080p Ultra settings…
We picked two games to check how well the Surface Laptop Studio plays games: Microsoft-owned Forzahoriz­on4, which yielded a solid 61 frames per second (FPS) at 1080p Ultra settings…
 ?? ?? …and Atotalwars­aga:troy, which ran at 49.5 FPS at High settings. (Incidental­ly, bumping up to Ultra settings caused the frame rate to crash to about 31 FPS.)
…and Atotalwars­aga:troy, which ran at 49.5 FPS at High settings. (Incidental­ly, bumping up to Ultra settings caused the frame rate to crash to about 31 FPS.)
 ?? ?? Microsoft is onto something with this radical do-it-all notebook.
Microsoft is onto something with this radical do-it-all notebook.

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