Microsoft Surface Studio: Australian Review

Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.

I’m not joking when I say the Microsoft Surface Studio makes this sentence — pulled from the incredible video that Microsoft wrote to promote its new super-luxury, all-in-one PC, in the words of Willy Wonka’s fantasies — come true. When you get face to face with the Surface Studio, and when you see what it can do, you can’t help but think of all the possibilities of what you can do with it. It’s incredible.

What Is It?

The $4699-plus Microsoft Surface Studio is an all-in-one PC. At least at first glance. It’s a massive 28-inch, 3:2-ratio display attached with a chrome stand to a weighty rectangle, finished in the same anodised coating that defines the look of Microsoft’s entire Surface family, from the 12.3-inch Surface Pro 4 to the 13.5-inch Surface Book. It’s understated, in a way — it’s grey, for god’s sake — but that somehow manages to make it even more striking. It’s a monolith of computing hardware in the way that a modern iMac just isn’t.

Then you press the top of the Surface Studio and the neck of the stand tilts. It tilts all the way from vertical to nearly horizontal, bringing the Surface Studio’s display almost down flat to the table or desk that the PC itself is sitting upon. That’s the Studio’s party piece — almost its entire reason for being, if you’re being cynical. And it’s not neccessary, either — if you happen to own a Surface Studio, I’m betting it’ll spend most of its time in the read-and-type-and-browse-the-net vertical orientation. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s extremely, extremely cool.

And it’s gorgeous. For the fortnight that it was in the Gizmodo office, the Surface Studio attracted curious onlookers like bees to a particularly beautiful flower. I’m not joking when I say that almost everyone that walked past it made some kind of comment. Plenty of the comments were “is this an iMac?”, sure, but they were comments nonetheless, in an office where the vast majority of people — including us — don’t take a second glance at the latest and greatest piece of technology as it comes and goes. The Surface Studio is a genuine conversation stopper. People want to come up to it, to push and pull the hinge, and to doodle away on that massive, bright, colourful 28-inch multi-touch paperlike display.

Under the hood, the Microsoft Surface Studio doesn’t stand out from the crowd of other all-in-one PCs and laptops that it’s competing with, even though that’s not really its key selling point. You’ll get yourself either a Core i5 or Core i7 CPU, anywhere between 8GB and 32GB of RAM, a 1TB or 2TB hybrid hard drive, and graphics by Nvidia — a GeForce GTX 965M or 980M mobile GPU which gives a massive dedicated bump to performance when it comes to video editing, 3D rendering or any other graphically-intensive app. Considering that the Surface Studio is ostensibly aimed at artists and creatives, that last part is a welcome and neccessary inclusion.

What’s It Good At?

Everything about the Surface Studio’s design is incredible. Everything. The hinge is a work of art. How it looks in Microsoft’s demo video is exactly how it operates. You place one finger gently against the top of the 28-inch display’s bezel and push, just slightly, and that screen moves from the vertical orientation you’re familiar with all the way down to a drafting table’s wrist-friendly angle that you’re almost certainly not familiar with. An equally gentle tug with a crooked finger returns it to desktop mode. It’s effortless, and that lack of effort is testament to the stunning industrial design and engineering that has gone into creating the Surface Studio.

When it’s in drafting mode, the entire point of the Surface Studio changes. Dramatically. It goes from being a single-user all-in-one PC — one of relatively limited and pedestrian use, as beautiful as it looks — to a much more complex piece of technology. It becomes a collaboration tool that you can share content with and around and from. It becomes an artist’s canvas. Even if you’re not an artist. You can still use keyboard and mouse, but it’s so much more tempting to use the touchscreen, to scroll by swiping and to type on the on-screen keyboard. This is what touchscreen all-in-one PCs should have been all along.

The Surface Dial is a fascinating piece of input hardware. On the surface — pardon the pun — it’s so simple; it’s just a dial. A dial that you can click. A dial that you can click and hold. A dial that you can click and hold and place on the screen and see a live graphical representation of exactly what you’re changing and what options you’re flicking between. For art — drawing with different brushes, different sizes and opacities, it’s a godsend. It does with a twist what would have required hotkey presses and trips to contextual menus. It makes art understandable and accessible to a Luddite like me that barely understands stick figures. The Dial doesn’t come with the Studio, but you’d be insane not to buy one.

And, just like every other Surface device review before it, I would be remiss to not mention the Surface Studio’s display. Microsoft puts an amazing amount of effort into calibrating its panels and making them every bit as good as they possibly can be, and the same is true of the Studio. Its 4500x3000pixel resolution is phenomenally crisp, and spoils any 4K video shown on it even without the crutch of HDR that today’s best 4K TVs have. Its colours are incredibly bright and vivid without being oversaturated. It’s touch sensitive. It’s probably the best computer display I’ve ever seen and used.

What’s It Not Good At?

There’s no getting around the fact that the Surface Studio is expensive. Very expensive. In the same vein as the Surface Book, you’ll pay a premium for that small extra level of utility over a comparable competitor’s product. The iMac tilts, sure — but you want the Studio’s almost-flat drafting table hinge, that’s gonna cost you extra. The cheapest Surface Studio that you can buy is $4699, and that’s the kind of price that’ll see it probably generally restricted to the desks of C-suites and executives around Australia. I worry that it might be priced outside the reach of all but the most dedicated and already-commercially-successful graphic artists.

And at the end of the day, you have to remember that Microsoft’s thin, svelte Surface Studio is effectively a powerful laptop. It has a CPU from Intel’s Skylake range, but a mobility-focused i5-6440HQ or i7-6820HQ that trades pure clock speed for a much-reduced thermal footprint. Its RAM options are not user upgradeable, as are its SSD-plus-spinning-disk 1TB and 2TB storage options, so you’d better be happy with whichever spec you settle for when you click that purchase button for the first and final time. On that note, the price bump to the top Surface Studio is pretty severe — you’re paying an extra $1900 on top of the Studio’s already painfully high price to get that top-spec graphics card and storage and RAM.

One more minor complaint about the Surface Studio’s hardware spec — like the Surface Book that I love despite its foibles, the Surface Studio is still only running Nvidia’s 9-series mobile graphics chipsets, the 2GB GeForce GTX 965M and 4GB GTX 980M. Both are efficient, relatively powerful laptop graphics chipsets, but Microsoft would have done well to hold off the Surface Studio to integrate the graphics maker’s 10-Series laptop chips, which are just as powerful as desktop cards and are a quantum leap in efficiency and processing power versus the now-outdated 9-Series. The Surface Studio can still handle modern games, just not at its massively high 4500x3000pixel native resolution. It might have been able with a newer GPU inside.

Should You Buy It?

I can’t recommend that you actually go out and buy the Microsoft Surface Studio. At $4699, it’s very expensive — for an all-in-one PC and for a PC at all, even considering its heavy emphasis on design and screen and touch interaction over outright computing power. The cheapest iMac for comparison is $1699, and the most expensive is $3599 — a full thousand dollar saving over even the cheapest Surface Studio. Comparing the two is apples to oranges, but the iMac is the closest parallel to the unique Surface Studio that exists at the moment. So you’re paying for the privilege of the Studio’s design and innovation.

The appeal of the Surface Studio, at least on paper, is that it’s made for artists and graphic designers to do beautiful work on. I’m not either, but that didn’t stop me trying — and I really feel like the scribbles and drawings that I made flattered my skill level as an artist. When you have such a big, detailed, hyper-crisp display and the combination of tactile, hyper-sensitive input from the Surface Pen and the Surface Dial, it’s hard not to make art. Everything that you do with the Surface Studio as a creator — even if it’s just these words — feels special. It’s so strange to say, but I really did fall in love with the Surface Studio in my weeks with it.

But all these things considered, the Surface Studio is hands down the most incredible piece of technology I have interacted with in all my time in this job. The screen is amazing. The Surface Dial is a revelation. And the hinge — my god, the hinge. It’s a perfectly powerful computer for anything you could want it to do, for anyone but the most demanding user — who wouldn’t consider it anyway. But it’s not just about power, it’s about a user-focused combination of design and versatility and new interfaces; the Surface Studio has all three in spades.

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