Computers / Hands-on Review

Testing the Microsoft Surface Studio

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There was a time when Apple held sway over all creative professionals. It was almost impossible for you to find a creative department that didn’t have a core group that was Apple-specific. In almost every workplace, the designers, artists, photographers, and videographers worked exclusively on Mac-based systems. The soft glow of iMacs and sleek design of Mac Pro cylinders were part and parcel of every creative team.

All that may be changing. Right now. With Microsoft—specifically, the Microsoft Surface Studio.

Microsoft 28" Surface Studio Multi-Touch All-in-One Desktop Computer

A lot of the appeal in the love affair between creatives and Apple had to do with Apple’s operating system, which was designed from the ground up to be clean, error free (for the most part) and intuitive. It also helped that the design of Macs and the Mac ecosystem was elegant and aesthetically pleasing; creatives love their aluminum housing and discreet and effective melding of form and functionality. But there has been an almost paradigm shift in the way that Windows now imitates some of the best parts of the Mac OS and even surpasses it. Check any Mac website forum and you’ll see the comments disparage how Windows is “copying what Apple has been doing for years.” You may even find a begrudging compliment on how Windows improves creative workflows. Maybe.

But at their core, Windows workstations have still been ugly, monstrous behemoths that most designers would find embarrassing to have on their desktops. It’s hard to impress your clientele when your workstation looks like a NASA storeroom circa 1990. In the Windows world, the power and performance needed for design work has always been hard to contain in a smaller footprint. Some companies have found ways to get a better-looking workstation (the flood of all-in-one computers in the last couple of years) but the power and performance have never really been able to meet the demands of creative professionals.

The Surface Studio changes the game by using the Surface aesthetics (clean, simple, functional) and expanding them to a desktop. It’s basically a Surface Pro for artists, and combines the intuitive nature of creative work with a powerful engine. I was excited to have the opportunity to get hands-on with this computer, as I have been a fan of what Microsoft has achieved with the Surface Pro line.

We’ll start with the unboxing and setup. The Surface Studio is so simple to set up that it makes you suspicious. The unit comes in five components: the all-in-one monitor and computer, wireless keyboard, mouse, Surface Pen, and power cord. Connect the power cord and you’re off—that’s right. There’s no rat’s nest of wires to deal with, no complicated hookups, and no extra cords that you have to hide away later. The slim footprint of this computer is one of its most powerful selling points.

The screen is a marvel in itself. At only ½ inch thick, the 28" 10-point multi-touch PixelSense display with a resolution of 4500 x 3000 and 192 ppi is the Studio’s other selling point. This is one of the best screens you’ll find for creative work, and rivals the high-end 5K Retina offerings from Apple. Both the Apple 5K display and the Surface Studio display feature 10-bit color, and both meet the DCI P3 color metric that is used in film production. But the edge here goes to the Surface Studio, which, on top of being a touchscreen, should be a standard on all monitors used in creative design—it can also tilt to a nearly flat layout, allowing you to lean over the display, edit, and append your work from a more intuitive standpoint. An iMac screen will only tilt slightly. This is the other superb selling point of the Surface Studio: while not a gimmicky tablet hybrid, it does allow you to work on your art/photography/design in a way that most creatives will appreciate. The feeling is more organic; the canvas is conformable to your needs and not set by the limitations of the hardware’s design. Once you’ve experienced this new aesthetic, you will soon find yourself unable to function without it. It becomes as much a part of your workflow as keyboard shortcuts do.

As for the hardware itself, it is as loaded as the price tag suggests. Options include 6th-Generation Intel® Core™ i5 or i7 quad-core processors; 8, 16 or 32GB of RAM; and storage that includes 64GB SSD with 1TB HDD, 128GB SSD with 1TB HDD, 128GB SSD with 2TB HDD options. Fortunately, the Studio also includes a dedicated GPU, an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM or a 980M with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM, depending on which processor you pick.

Additionally, you’ll find a front-facing 5.0 MP camera with 1080p HD video, dual microphones, and integrated stereo 2.1 speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium. You’ll also notice that the significantly productive Surface Pen is included. The Surface Pen helps transform the Surface Studio into a fully functional design solution by adding an input tool that works like a real pen. With 1,024 pressure points, a smooth natural feel with no lag, and stunning precision, the Surface Pen may be the one tool that convinces you to switch. With so many designers and artists already inured to pen and stylus operations (thanks Wacom!) the Surface Pen is a smart tool to add to this platform. Please note: this is the older Surface Pen, and not the new 2017 version.

Microsoft Surface Pen

Another item that Microsoft sent to enhance our experience is the Surface Dial. This unique tool, while effective in some areas, seemed like a gimmicky add-on to an otherwise stellar computer. The Dial is a circular, well… dial, that can sit on the Surface Studio’s screen, or on your desktop, and functions as an alternate input tool. Need to see a wide range of colors when working on a design? Instead of a keyboard shortcut, you can program the Dial to serve up the palette selection, and then turn to find the appropriate color. It was neat the first time, interesting the second time, and then forgotten during other practical applications. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t have a wide range of apps or software to work with right now, but more are on the way, and we’ll revisit it when we get to that juncture.

Microsoft Surface Dial

Where the Surface Studio fell short, in my opinion, is the connections. With four USB 3.0 Type-A ports (including one high power port), a full-size SDXC card reader, Mini DisplayPort, Gigabit Ethernet port, and headphone jack, it sounds like it has almost everything you need, but wait… where are the Thunderbolt port(s)? It seems like such an essential detail to miss, and one that strikes directly at the heart of creatives. Thunderbolt is such an integral part of their workflow, and the omission of Thunderbolt (especially since Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB Type-C standard) may strike a blow to creatives adopting this platform. But don’t let it be a deal breaker—the perks of this computer outweigh the omission of Thunderbolt.

So, what does the Surface Studio offer that would win over die-hard Mac fans? In my short week with the unit, I found several benefits to the Surface Studio (and you have to know, I never strayed from my Mac devotion when designing or working on artwork). I think that the ease of use is a big bonus. The ability to tilt the screen into a drafting-type configuration lets you get more up close and personal with your creations. The Pen was also big on my list; I tinker with drawing my own comics from time to time, and the ability to create directly on the screen, and not use a graphic pad as a go-between, left me with a more visceral and honest interaction with my subject. I also edited a few photos on the Studio, and I found that the level of detail and intricacy was somehow much more fulfilling then when I performed similar functions on my iMac. This doesn’t just showcase Adobe Lightroom—it turns your screen into a virtual light table.

You have to make your own evaluation based on need, but as far as professional creatives go, I don’t think anything has impressed me this much since the arrival of the, well… of the iMac, really. This may be what the next wave of CPs will use for their work, and certainly impressed me as a computer that I would definitely like to see in my studio.

Fanboys and fangirls, attack! Tell us what you think, in the Comments section, below—and keep it to the subject of whether you think the Surface Studio is really a contender in the creative space, and what you would like to see it do (or what you think it might not be able to do). Go!

6 Comments

My only issue is with the screen being tied to the actual computer. Other than that, I think it is a step in the right direction. The old "Mac vs PC" argument is a reality from the 90's and is ungrounded and just plain silly these days...pick your poison and start creating. Competition is good. Apple has needed to step up their game for designers for quite some time and this might give them food for thought (If you want a phone that can sync with your toaster oven...then by all means...Apple all the way).

Oh, and if you are dazed at the price tag on this, consider that the upcoming iMac Pro has been reported to start at about 5 grand. It would be nice if they designed something cost effective for the rest of us. Artists are typically broke...right?

You are testing nothing, You are simply advertising the product. There are lots of graphic solutions for photographers and designers. Everyone chooses whatever best suits to him. I'm fed up of commercial terminology that offers the product like if they were the paramount of all software and speak with ignorance and paternalism about its competitors.  I assemble my pc's for graphic, photo and video design. It's not difficult to do. You only have to put money, the more, the better.  But I'm sure that my PC has cost me the half of that fashionable contraption.

I had heard good things about the Microsoft Surface Pro and went to try it out. Although very impressive because of its touchscreen, a boon to graphic artists and photographers, it crashed during the demo and the sales person was dumbfounded as to why. Which brings me to the point ignored by the author of this review, Apple was the platform of choice due to its interface and stable operating system, not its looks. The stability of the OS became legendary in the 90s with IT people. Microsoft DOS was a horror, and Windows, an obvious but poor  ripoff of the Apple look was always flawed. 

You mention nothing about video editing or anything about a DVD or cd burning capabilities or Iwire. Those are still important items that computers should have. And what about price.

External DVD burners are available at commodity prices

I've tried the Surface Pro.  The concept is smart and the aesthetics are excellent.  The implementation is terrible.  Using the Surface pen results in considerable lag that is intolerable for any creative professional that needs such a feature.  Any Wacom tablet or the Apple iPad Pro is far more responsive and accurage.  For the price the specfications are underwhelming.  Nice try Microsoft, but you are not there yet. I would not recommend it. 

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