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Microsoft Surface Studio review: Extraordinarily expensive but an intriguing iMac alternative

Nathan Spendelow
5 Sep 2017
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
2,999
inc VAT

A fantastic, enormous all-in-one that's much more than an iMac wannabe but the price means it’s for professionals only

Pros 
Glorious 3:2 True Scale display
Neat fold-down design
Speedy performance
Cons 
Laptop-grade graphics
Surface Dial not included
No pure SSD option
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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, in an age when we’ve come to expect near-simultaneous availability – but once you lay eyes on the Surface Studio it’s understandable. This is the very definition of a boutique system, and that’s not just down to the decidedly 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 personally a big 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 a bit overwhelming: the screen itself measures 594mm wide by 396mm high, and once you factor in the stand and the bezels, the whole thing towers 544mm above the desk.

Buy the Microsoft Surface Studio now from the Microsoft website

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 that this isn’t possible. To be fair, you can’t do this on an iMac either, but I had higher hopes for the Surface Studio, especially since Microsoft makes a point of advertising its unique “Zero-Gravity Hinge”. 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 – an interesting idea that I’ll talk about in more detail below.

While the screen may not be as flexible as I’d have liked, its quality is hard to fault. Images really leap out at you: we 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 enough 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”, so at 100% magnification, text and documents should print at exactly the size they appear onscreen. 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.

Microsoft Surface Studio review: Physical 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 5-megapixel stills and 1080p video recording, as well as login 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 unit has a constant thickness of just 12.5mm. No doubt about it, it’s 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. Then again, it also means that all of the Surface Studio’s physical connectors are located at desk level.

That’s certainly neater than having cables hanging down from the back and sides of the display unit. It’s just annoying that Microsoft has seen fit to put all of the Surface Studio’s ports at the back: sure, it makes sense to have power, Gigabit Ethernet and mini-DisplayPort 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 at 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 also 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, however. 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 some external speakers.

Buy the Microsoft Surface Studio now from the Microsoft website

Microsoft Surface Studio review: Performance

The Surface Studio comes in a choice of three configurations. I tried out 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 in place, I couldn’t help but notice that 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 certainly 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 very respectable overall score of 120. This includes an impressive 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 probably 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 very much 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 rather 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.

A final point to note is that the Surface Studio comes 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 just 328MB/sec. Windows 10 felt nippy enough, but it would have been nice to see 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 warranty-voiding operation.

Microsoft Surface Studio review: The Surface Pen

As I’ve mentioned, the Surface Studio’s party trick is its ability to fold down into a lectern-style drawing board, angled at a comfortable 20 degrees 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 your 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 haven’t 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 itself works well too: it recognises 1,024 pressure levels, so you 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. 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.

To complement the Surface Pen, 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.

Buy the Microsoft Surface Studio now from the Microsoft website

It’s a neat idea, and it makes working with a stylus much 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, and it remains to be seen what sort of future it has.

The second is that it isn’t included with the Surface Studio, but is sold as a £90 extra. As with the Surface Studio itself, it’s very hard to justify the cost unless you fall squarely into the niche it’s aimed at. Frankly, when you consider how much the Studio costs, and how the Dial unlocks the full potential of its headline feature, it really ought to come in the box.

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 are addicted to OneNote, and funky Windows 10 features such as annotating web pages, you probably won’t want to bother to fold the screen down just for that.

Microsoft Surface Studio review: Verdict

When the Surface Studio was originally announced nigh on a year ago, I dismissed it as an uninspired me-too device. But it’s actually much more than an iMac knock-off for people who need to use Windows. With its colour-accurate 3:2 True Scale display, Surface Pen and neat fold-down design, it’s a very credible alternative – indeed, 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 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 just £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 admitted 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 as much.

Microsoft Surface Studio

ProcessorQuad-core 2.7GHz i7-6820HQ
Processor socket
RAM32GB
Memory type2,133MHz DDR4
Maximum memory32GB
Ports and expansion
Front USB portsNone
Rear USB ports4x USB 3
Other portsmini-DisplayPort
NetworkingGigabit Ethernet
Case typeAll-in-one
Case dimensions (WDH)544 x 594 x
Memory slots (free)0
Storage
Total storage2TB "Rapid Hybrid Drive"
Memory card readerSDXC card slot
Optical drive typeNone
Graphics
Graphics cardNvidia GeForce GTX980M
Graphics/video portsmini-DisplayPort
Display
Display28in PixelSense Display
Native resolution4,500 x 3,000 (192dpi)
InputsNone
Other hardware
KeyboardSurface Keyboard
MouseSurface Mouse
ExtrasSurface Pen
Software
Operating systemWindows 10 Pro

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