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Microsoft Surface Studio 2 review: Improves an incomparable all-in-one

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Microsoft's enhancements to its 2-year-old Surface Studio -- an all-in-one desktop distinguished by a huge touch display that can be tilted back and down like a drafting table -- provide essential component upgrades that bring it up to speed for 2018. But given the system's price, Microsoft could have gone further with the changes, so you'd feel less like you're sacrificing flexibility to get the unbeatable monitor.

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8.5

Microsoft Surface Studio 2

The Good

The Microsoft Surface Studio 2's combination of a huge, color-accurate display with excellent pressure-sensitive stylus responsiveness and tiltable hinge design still leads in its class. And the updated graphics card delivers notably better performance than the older model.

The Bad

The new USB-C connection doesn't support Thunderbolt 3 for fast external storage, daisy chaining or an external GPU. It's also stuck in the past (for this class of system) with a quad-core CPU. The otherwise excellent display doesn't support hardware calibration profiles, just the Microsoft factory-calibration profiles, which don't include Adobe RGB.

The Bottom Line

Remaining the leader for intensive stylus input, the Microsoft Studio 2 seamlessly melds form and function for professional art and design. But it has a few weaknesses that might be deal breakers for people who need a lot of fast storage or more power.

Don't get me wrong: The Surface Studio 2 is by far the best desktop available at the moment for folks who spend the bulk of their day drawing, sketching, painting, coloring or otherwise engaged in pressure-sensitive stylus-intensive activity. Though it doesn't support the 8,192 pressure levels or optional styluses optimized for tasks like airbrushing -- top-of-the-line Wacom devices such as the Cintiq Pro 32 do -- using it feels just as streamlined and it's better as a plain old computer.

You could also use an iPad Pro -- if you don't need to physically attach devices or run full-fat-OS applications -- or go the traditional route with a similarly color-accurate iMac and less fancy external Wacom tablet.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2's design still hasn't been surpassed

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The new Studio gets a processor bump to the seventh-generation Intel Core i7-7820HQ, a more powerful graphics card in the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 and switches from slow hybrid SSD/HDD storage to fast NVMe SSD. The display is brighter -- the electronics that control the pixel states are smaller, allowing for increased light emission. Since it delivers roughly the same black level as before, the result is also an increase in contrast.

Microsoft still offers the old Studio top configuration with the sixth-generation Core i7, 32GB RAM and 2TB hybrid drive for $4,200, which is now the price for the middle configuration of the Studio 2. So for the same money, you choose between a slower system with more storage and a faster system with 1TB less.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Price as reviewed $4,199, £4,249, AU$6,599
Display size/resolution 28-inch 4,500x3,000 PixelSense touchscreen (192 ppi)
PC CPU 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ
PC Memory 32GB DDR4 2,400MHz
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
Storage 1TB SSD, SD card slot
Ports 4x USB 3.0, 1x USB-C, 3.5mm headphone
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, Xbox wireless
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

The base $2,500 configuration comes with a 1TB SSD and 16GB RAM, the middle $4,200 configuration jumps to 32GB RAM and the top $4,800 model increases that to a 2TB SSD. In the UK, those versions run £3,549, £4,249 and £4,749. In Australia, they're AU$5,500, AU$6,600 and AU$7,499. 

When choosing a configuration, there's a big factor to consider: according to Microsoft, it's not upgradable. "The system performance has been qualified and tuned for best performance and stability and we do not support any upgrade." We didn't open it up to see if the SSD was now soldered to the logic board along with the CPU and RAM (as they were in the old model) or if Microsoft just chooses not to sanction upgrades. Either way it's an important factor.

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Microsoft swapped the Mini DisplayPort connection for a USB-C with DisplayPort support for driving an external monitor -- but no Thunderbolt 3 high-speed data transfer. And the SD card slot is still inconveniently located around back.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's extra important because supplementing storage with external drives isn't as convenient an option as it really should be for a system in its class: Microsoft replaced the Mini DisplayPort connector with USB-C, but the new connection doesn't support Thunderbolt 3 data transfer rates or daisy chaining. So you might have to shell out for the 2TB model if you anticipate a need for fast local storage.

Where you see and feel the changes

The huge 28-inch 3:2-aspect display is still exceptionally color accurate out of the box, from the tiny sRGB gamut through wide D65 P3. Now it's brighter than ever, capable of hitting almost 600 nits peak luminance as tested compared to about 430 nits for the original model. Since I had a limited amount of time to test the system, I didn't run a full battery of display tests. But some quickie tests of color accuracy, brightness, contrast, gamma, white point and so on (with Portrait Display's Calman 2018 software, and lots of snacks) showed that it matched the older model within a reasonable degree.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Razer Blade 15 (2018) 1,7923Dell XPS 27 (2017) 1,5750Microsoft Studio 2 1,4929Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 1,4128Microsoft Surface Studio 1,3868
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

That means over 99 percent coverage of the D65 P3 color gamut (the Vivid color profile), DCI-P3 and sRGB and an average color error of 1.7 Delta E (the white/gray errors were a little higher, between 2 and 3 Delta E). I retested the previous model for comparison and it did seem to have slightly tighter tolerances, but the panels were from two different manufacturers -- the old one used Samsung, the new one Sharp -- and I didn't have time to narrow down the source of any discrepancies. The changes made to increase brightness may have introduced some variation. (Microsoft didn't answer my request for clarification about panel sourcing.)

Overall, though, it's certainly solid for color-critical work -- as long as you don't need to calibrate to another space. The system doesn't support hardware calibration profiles and for some reason, Microsoft doesn't supply one for Adobe RGB.

The switch in GPUs makes a big difference in performance when working in high resolution. The GTX 980M in the old system is not only a couple of generations old, it's also a mobile processor. And though I didn't test disk throughput, SSD is usually vastly better than anything that spins.

But the processor upgrade from the sixth-generation i7-6820HQ to the seventh-generation i7-7820HQ delivers less than 10 percent improvement in performance. That's not a surprise: The newer chip allows for faster memory and slightly faster clock speeds, but it's still a four core/eight thread chip. (We retested the old system with the current version of Windows for comparison.)

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Watch this: Art and architecture on the Microsoft Surface Studio 2

This is a huge disappointment, since most systems focused on the creative market are now switching to hexacore eighth- and ninth-generation processors, and software is increasingly being optimized to take advantage of extra cores. In our performance charts you can see how moving to a more recent CPU intended for similar uses -- the mobile-focused i7-8750H -- could significantly impact performance.

Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, for example, expands to fit the available bandwidth when importing photos and generating smart previews. Creating smart previews for about 1,000 42-megapixel photos and videos took 100 percent of all eight threads, making task switching arduous. With a few more threads, it would still be arduous, but for a shorter amount of time.

For other less CPU-intensive operations it's fine, however, and the GPU carries more of the burden now. For instance, large, complex Illustrator files became a little more fluid to work with by toggling in and out of the application's GPU Preview setting.

My guess is that as we've frequently seen with unnecessarily tiny systems, limited space and heat dissipation issues mean it's never as powerful as you want it to be. Microsoft did not reply to my request for clarification about the decision, but did say, "We are proud that it is the fastest Surface we've ever made."

The design remains the same

For both good and bad, the fundamental design is unchanged. It comes bundled with the same Surface Pen, Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse, and it still works with the Surface Dial, for whatever that's worth.

The drafting board-angle stand design is still one of my favorites, though I wish it could raise and lower independently from the tilt to compensate for overhead lighting reflections. And as the artist/architect we worked with commented, I wish it could lie flat (like the Dell Canvas 27, for example). The size makes it awkward to find a place to rest your arm when working at the top of the screen.

We also agreed that the Pen feels very fluid when you're working with it, but gets detected too far above the screen and seems to get confused between touch and pen in that gap, even if you have touch disabled when the stylus is in use. And it could really use some operational sensitivity adjustment options independent of the pressure-related choices.

But mostly, I wish Microsoft would just ship it as a standalone monitor so it could be attached to a more beastly machine.

Performance tests

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Razer Blade 15 (2018) 1,7923Dell XPS 27 (2017) 1,5750Microsoft Studio 2 1,4929Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 1,4128Microsoft Surface Studio 1,3868
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU (multicore)

Razer Blade 15 (2018) 960Dell XPS 27 (2017) 873Microsoft Studio 2 764Microsoft Surface Studio 703Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 591
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 OpenGL (fps)

Dell XPS 27 (2017) 114.9Razer Blade 15 (2018) 112.1Microsoft Studio 2 109.2Apple iMac (27-inch, 2017) 106.2Microsoft Surface Studio 99.7
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

Microsoft Studio 2 3,893Razer Blade 15 (2018) 2,593Microsoft Surface Studio 2,317Dell XPS 27 (2017) 2,250
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Apple iMac 27 (2017) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.5; 3.4GHz Intel Core i5-7500U; 8GB 2,400MHz DDR4 SDRAM; 4GB Radeon Pro 570; 1TB Fusion Drive Journaled HFS+
Dell XPS 27 (mid 2017) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Core i7-7700; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133Hz; 8GB AMD Radeon RX 570; 512GB PCIe SSD
Microsoft Surface Studio Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ, 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz, 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M; 2TB HDD + 128GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Studio 2 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ, 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz, 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 2TB SSD
Razer Blade 15 (2018) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,660MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD
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8.5

Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8