Digital art creation, engineering, architecture, and graphic design are complicated, and often require multiple computers and peripherals. Microsoft sets out to change that—and to bring more creatives to the Windows platform—with the Surface Studio (starting at $2,999 as tested), a touch-screen all-in-one (AIO) PC that can stand upright like a traditional desktop display or recline to serve as a digital canvas, letting designers draw, sketch, and edit as they would on a dedicated drawing tablet or physical medium. It’s all wrapped up in a thin, thoughtfully designed package, making it equal parts attractive, innovative, and useful. It’s expensive and lacks cutting-edge components, but the Surface Studio still manages to easily earn our Editors’ Choice endorsement for high-end AIO PCs.
Digital Drafting Board
First, a quick rundown for the uninitiated: The Surface Studio is an all-in-one PC, the first desktop in Microsoft’s hit Surface line, which has set the benchmark for convertible laptops. In keeping with that spirit, but tying it squarely to your desk, the Studio’s super-thin 28-inch touch screen can tilt from an upright setup (what Microsoft calls Desktop Mode) to a reclined, canvas-like state (Studio Mode).
The screen is just 0.44-inch thick, while the components and ports are all housed in a base that measures 1.26 by 8.66 by 9.84 inches (HWD). Our other top pick AIO, the 2017 HP Envy 34 Curved All-in-One, takes up even more desk space with its incredible ultra-wide screen, but there’s no touch functionality.
The Studio’s design and build are gorgeous. The look is undeniably iMac inspired, but the convertibility and glinting metal legs attaching the screen to the base give the Studio its own distinctive look. The “gravity hinge” can stop at any point between fully upright and reclined. It slides effortlessly between modes, and it’s satisfying to push the screen down or up with a single finger.
As for the display itself, it bears a PixelSense resolution of 4,500 by 3,000, which includes 63 percent more pixels than a 4K television (192ppi). The Apple iMac With 5K Retina Display, by comparison, has a 27-inch screen with 5,210-by-2,880 resolution, though it’s tough to compare directly because the Studio’s aspect ratio is also different than standard wide-screen. Its 3:2 ratio was chosen with designers in mind, as one inch on the screen represents one inch in reality, better mirroring physical work in a digital space.
The screen shines, with an incredibly crisp and vibrant picture that suits the work many creative types will use it for. The colors are bold and bright, as the display uses 10-bit color depth and supports the P3 and SRGB color gamuts, which you can swap between on the fly. It’s brilliantly bright on the default Vivid color profile (so much so that the maximum setting hurt my eyes up close at times, driving me to lower it down a notch). You won’t have to worry about images appearing too dim. Fingerprints do smudge up the screen, but you can really only see them when it’s powered off.
Of course, exceptional screen quality alone is not what will have designers flocking to the Surace Studio en masse. Its convertibility is what makes this high-end all-in-one desktop a real artist’s workstation. With the display folded down, it becomes infinitely easier to draw directly on it compared with a traditional upright monitor, and that’s what gives the Surface Studio its unique value.
Microsoft is aggressively targeting the creative demographic, which has been Apple’s bread and butter with the iMac and MacBooks for years. This vibe was unmistakable in its debut presentation of the Studio, and is doubly obvious with additions in the Windows 10 Creators Update like Paint 3D and upgrades to Windows Ink.
By embracing touch capability on the hardware and software fronts (while Apple continues to relegate touch to iOS only), the Surface Studio could feasibly become the go-to one-stop-shop for designers and artists. More importantly, it continues the transformation of Windows and PCs as stodgy and business-centric to stylish, versatile platforms for a new generation of professionals, creatives, and students.
That brings us to the topic of price, which will likely have many potential buyers balking. The Surface Studio is clearly an expensive product—even the starting configuration costs $2,999—but it’s priced relatively competitively when you look at what you’re getting. Comparably sized drawing displays don’t double as powerful computers, or feature the Studio’s engineering, but still cost upward of $2,000 or more. For example, Wacom’s 27-inch QHD Cintiq is $2,799, and while you can hook it up to a PC or Mac for digital creation, you’ll still need to buy that computer. When accounting for graphics, processing, storage, and a super-high-resolution display, the Studio’s price actually starts to look reasonable.
Ports and Peripherals
All ports are located on the back of the base. They’re a bit difficult to access, particularly when the screen is reclined, since you have to reach around it or turn the whole machine around. But it’s not terribly frustrating, and keeps the flush, sleek look intact. There are four USB 3.0 ports (one is a high power port), an SD card reader, a mini DisplayPort connection, and a headset jack. USB-C connectivity is notably absent here.
The Studio comes with a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse, both of which connect via Bluetooth 4.0. These are also very iMac-like in look and feel, and they get the job done. I don’t find the low-profile mouse particularly comfortable, but Apple faithfuls likely won’t mind it. The keyboard is satisfying to type on.
The Surface Pen stylus is also included. It works well with the Studio, and there’s little to no latency between strokes and response on the screen. The “eraser” is a customizable button, as is a skinny strip along the side you can set as right click, paste, or something else depending on your workflow. By default it brings up the Windows Ink Workspace software for quickly launching into note-taking and drawing. There are magnetic strips on either side of the display, like the Surface Pro, to attach the Pen when not in use.
We also tested the Surface Dial ($99), though it isn’t included. The Dial is not an instrument for drawing or editing in and of itself, but an aid for tool and menu selection. You can press and spin the Dial to scroll through various on-screen options, which feels very satisfying. (Stay tuned for a full review of the Dial.)
Placing it directly on the display and pressing down brings up a digital radial menu around the physical Dial with options like Volume, Brightness, and Undo, which looks and feels very futuristic. It doesn’t take long to learn, and I was flipping between settings and changing tools with ease within a few minutes. Whether or not this will speed up your process depends on your workflow, but it definitely helped me save time shooting up to the toolbar and back to my canvas. Future software will better integrate with the Dial, giving you more options like a radial digital color wheel, and we’ll test those features when they are available.
The bottom of the Dial is rubber to help grip the screen, but I found that it slowly slides down when the Studio is at any angle other than fully reclined. This shouldn’t be a problem most of the time—the Dial will most likely be used alongside the Pen in Studio Mode. Keeping the bottom clean helps grip, and the Dial also works if it’s simply sitting on your desk.
Outside of the peripherals, the Studio integrates 802.11ac Wi-Fi and wireless support for Xbox controllers (connecting them to a PC typically requires you to purchase Microsoft’s Wireless Adapter). You also get two front-facing cameras. One is a 5-megapixel cam for Windows Hello sign-in. When you set up Hello, it will scan your face once and recognize you in the future, allowing you to log in by standing in front of the screen instead of typing in a password. The other 1080p camera is for video chats.
Speakers are also built in to the Studio, and have a loud maximum volume with good sound quality. They’re of better quality than most built-in speakers on standalone displays, though certainly not up to par with those on the room-shaking Dell XPS 27 AIO.
Under the Hood
While the design and functionality are worthy of high praise, I have a few reservations about component selection. The Surface Studio a fast system by any measure (see the performance numbers below), but for the high-stress workloads of creative users, some inclusions could be cause for concern.
Though generally speedy, thanks in part to 32GB of memory, the Core i7 Skylake processor and GTX 980M graphics card are a generation behind. This could be because the Studio has been in development through the launch of newer components (using a Kaby Lake CPU or Pascal graphics would have presumably delayed its release). Cost concerns or engineering obstacles could also be the culprits. Either way, the Surface Studio’s internal hardware isn’t quite cutting edge, which is disappointing for the price, and a (likely inevitable) refreshed version with newer components would really knock it out of the park.
Storage comes in the form of a hybrid drive similar to Apple’s fusion format. Our test unit includes a 2TB drive, while the base and midrange models each include 1TB. Rather than provide solid-state storage (it’s not an option on any of the Studio’s configurations), Microsoft includes a hybrid hard drive that utilizes an SSD cache, but data is stored on the 5,400rpm hard drive. In spite of this, and a bit to my surprise, load times were still on the level of solid-state storage. The computer boots very quickly, and programs launch with little or no delay, even if it’s not the ideal SSD solution you’d hope for.
This leads to the issue of expandability options, which are something you’ll have to live without if you buy the Studio. Like most all-in-ones, the machine is ready-to-go as ordered and will stay exactly that way, since you can’t open it up to add more RAM or storage. That might be enough to ward off some potential buyers, since it’s an expensive product you won’t be able to upgrade down the road, but that’s not anything new for the category, or for anyone who’s worked on an iMac for years. External and cloud storage will be your friends (as they likely already are for artists), even with the roomy drive.
Just how fast is the Surface Studio? It’s plenty zippy, especially since the gap between the Skylake and Kaby Lake processors is not nearly as pronounced as some generations past. The 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ CPU and 32GB of memory powered it to a strong score on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional productivity test, even at its demanding native resolution.
Multimedia test scores were also solid. It completed the Handbrake test in 1 minute and 3 seconds, Photoshop in 3:03, and scored 702 points on CineBench. These results were all faster than the 2015 5K iMac (1:15, 3:19, and 510 points), but not by the margin you’d hope for a newer, pricey desktop.
That extends to the last-gen graphics hardware as well, though it matters a bit less since this isn’t a gaming system. A 980M was among the best graphics hardware for laptops last generation, so it’s a capable 3D card and a lot better than integrated graphics. Gaming isn’t the Studio’s purpose, but 3D performance for model rendering and manipulation (say, for CAD, architectural, and medical use) is aided by the GPU, so high-powered discrete graphics fits the bill.
See How We Test Desktops
It is still a mobile card, though, so it can’t go toe-to-toe with gaming desktops like the Corsair One Pro or even the Digital Storm Aura, which is also an all-in-one. That said, the Studio is a capable performer at 1080p, averaging 55 frames per second (fps) on the Heaven and Valley gaming tests on Ultra-quality settings in HD. Don’t expect it to run much in native resolution, though few computers could do so smoothly, really, but you can definitely manage some high-setting HD gaming on the side. It’s not VR-ready, however, since the Pascal GTX 1060 graphics card is the recommended entry point for virtual reality gaming, and the 980M does not reach that mark.
Bold Concept, Excellent Execution
The Surface Studio delivers on Microsoft’s vision of creating a digital drafting board and an efficient desktop in a single package. On top of that unique proposition, it’s a beautiful and cleverly designed piece of hardware with a stunning display.
I have some misgivings about the component decisions, but it doesn’t mean the system is slow or not up to the task. Growing pains are to be expected as a new product type is introduced, yet the core concept is well executed. It’s a successful proof of concept in Microsoft’s bid for reinventing both the digital artist’s workspace and the perception and function of Windows as a creator’s platform.
You might want to wait for version 2.0 with newer parts if you’re concerned about performance. But I can assure you that in its current form, the Microsoft Surface Studio is a joy to use and work on. It’s a beautiful, innovative marriage of form and function, and an easy Editors’ Choice.