Microsoft Surface Studio review: Pricey Surface Studio can teach iMac a few good tricks

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The Good The Surface Studio has a fantastic 28-inch screen with excellent color, mounted on smooth hinges that fold down to an artist-friendly angle. The excellent Surface Pen stylus returns and the new Surface Dial shows promise. Every model has good-to-great dedicated graphics hardware.

The Bad Surface Studio is extremely expensive, and doesn't include the flashy Dial accessory by default. It skips newer graphics chips that support VR hardware. Support for the Dial is limited right now, and even compatible programs don't always use it in a practical way. A couple of front-mounted USB ports or a Thunderbolt connection would've been nice.

The Bottom Line Microsoft's ambitious love letter to creative professionals is the touchscreen iMac of your dreams -- albeit crazy expensive and running Windows.

8.5 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Everyone likes an underdog, and in the case of computer hardware, tech giant Microsoft is the dog at the bottom of the pile. After years of letting hardware partners like Dell, HP and Lenovo build an army of Windows laptops and desktops, Microsoft is finally showing the world how to make cool PCs, first with the Surface Pro tablet (now in its fourth iteration), then with the Surface Book ($800 at Walmart) laptop, which debuted in 2015.

Now comes the Surface Studio, the company's first desktop PC. Surface Studio is easily the most attention-grabbing new PC design of the season, even if most of its individual ideas -- external control knobs, tabletop PCs -- have been seen before in different contexts.

The Studio is a 28-inch all-in-one Windows PC, with a screen that folds all the way down to a low drafting table angle of 20 degrees. Its better-than-4K 4,500x3,000-pixel resolution touchscreen can display a very wide color range (Adobe sRGB or P3 color spaces). It works with the same Surface Pen that came with last year's Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, but a new optional wireless knob input device -- dubbed Surface Dial -- is what really made the Surface Studio feel different.

Sarah Tew/CNET

After a week of testing -- and seeking the input of two creative professionals -- we found the Surface Studio to be a promising artistic tool, albeit a pricey one that still needs a bit of polish on the software front. And at this price, we'd like to see a few hardware compromises eliminated, too. But if you ever wanted the Windows equivalent of an artist-friendly touchscreen iMac, the Studio deserves serious consideration.

The Studio debuted just a day before Apple unveiled its the new MacBook Pro and its Touch Bar -- and the reactions seemed diametrically opposed. Many longtime Apple fans felt, at least from afar, that the new Macs were full of compromises for power users: just a tiny touchscreen strip above the laptop's keyboard; Apple's shock therapy conversion on ports -- only Thunderbolt-enabled USB-C; and no updates to the long-neglected iMac and Mac Pro lines.

Microsoft's totally new Studio and Surface Dial ($70 at Amazon) provided a stark, inventive contrast, especially for graphic designers, artists and video editors who scooped up new Macs without question in years past.


Using the Surface Dial on the Studio screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, both the new MacBook Pros and Surface Studio shared one common trait: sticker shock. The Surface Studio, which costs anywhere from $2,999 to $4,199 in the US, doesn't even come with the $99 Surface Dial in the box. That reminds me of the keyboard cover for the Surface Pro line, which is an extra $129, no matter what configuration of Surface Pro it's paired with. Note, however, that through December 1, anyone who preorders a Surface Studio from the Microsoft Store will get the Dial included with their system.

The Surface Studio is not available to even preorder yet in most other countries, but that works out to £2,400 or AU$3,950 on the low end, and £3,365 or AU$5,525 for the high-end, plus £79 or AU$130 for the Dial.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We tested the $4,199 model, which includes a sixth-generation Intel Core i7 processor (the same generation as in the new MacBook Pro), plus 32GB of RAM and a 2TB hard drive. The new MacBook Pro models have been criticised for offering a maximum of 16GB of RAM, while power users working on things like very large 4K video files prefer the flexibility of 32GB, which can make those files more responsive. The high-end Surface Studio also has an Nvidia 980M GPU, which is a generation behind the latest graphics hardware, but still great for video editing and even gaming. The entry level Studio has an Nvidia 965M GPU, which is still a very good mainstream graphics chip.

Microsoft Surface Studio

Price as reviewed $4,199
Display size/resolution 28-inch, 4,500x3,000-pixel touch display
PC CPU 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ
PC Memory 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz
Graphics 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M
Storage 2TB HDD / 128GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)

Looking through a giant window

The Surface Studio is meant to be a big, bold statement product, both for the company behind it, and for anyone who buys and uses one. Microsoft's first desktop PC is a huge slab of glass and metal, perched on two shiny chrome arms connected to a squat matte gray base. It has a certain amount of iMac DNA in its design, with similarities in color, the glossy black screen bezel and the minimalist one-cable (for power) design.

The big difference in design philosophy between them is that Apple builds its computer components into the back of the display itself, which is tapered at the edges, but expands into a shallow bowl in the center. Microsoft packs the computer hardware into its square base, allowing the display itself to be uniformly thin, at 12.5 mm, which is thinner than most laptops.


An Apple iMac next to the Surface Studio.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple calls its better-than-4K iMac screen a 5K display, while Microsoft calls its very high-res screen PixelSense. It has 4,500x3,000 pixels, which makes it great for very high-resolution photography, big design projects or 4K video editing. The display is incredibly bright and bold, and includes support for three color profiles, sRGB, DCI-P3 and a "vivid" mode, which seems to overdrive the brightness and color slightly, but it makes for an eye-catching effect. The standard for most people will be sRGB, but 4K content, either streaming or from a 4K Blu-ray player, is usually in DCI-P3, so it's an important option for video professionals to have.

A desktop that hugs your desk

Dial aside, the big feature that separates the Surface Studio from other all-in-one PCs is its zero-gravity hinge. This means it operates with very little force, and will stay in any position you move it into. The display sits on two chrome arms that Microsoft says operate like the spring-loaded arms of a desk lamp. Give it a gentle tug from the top or bottom, and it effortlessly glides into a new position.

The screen starts a bit past 90 degrees, which puts it perpendicular to the table, then goes all the way down to 20 degrees, where it looks like a drafting table, which is exactly the feel Microsoft is going for to appeal to stylus-loving digital artists.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't go all the way flat, which was a look we encountered several times in systems we referred to as "tabletop" PCs -- essentially big-screen tablets with folding hinges that allowed them to lie flat on a surface, or be propped up like a big all-in-one PC. That category was briefly active a few years ago, but we haven't seen any new models in some time.

When the Surface Studio is folded down to 20 degrees, you're at a great angle to work on the screen with the optional Surface Dial and the included Surface Pen accessory. The Pen is the same smart stylus from last year's Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, which has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and an eraser/click button at the top end. Clicking that button brings up Microsoft's Windows Inking apps, including sticky notes and a sketchpad, and in other stylus-enabled Windows systems, I've found those to be handy if simple tools.

More ports, not fewer

In some ways, Microsoft is taking the exact opposite approach as Apple. Where the new MacBook Pro is rigorously minimalist, with only USB-C Thunderbolt ports, Surface Studio has multiple USB-A ports, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort and even an Ethernet jack. One complaint: all of those ports are on the rear of the Studio's base -- how about moving one USB and the SD slot to the front?

Sarah Tew/CNET

And while the new MacBook Pro offers AMD Radeon discrete graphics in its 15-inch version, Microsoft is aligned with rival Nvidia. The Surface Book has the Nvidia 965M as a GPU option, and the Surface Studio goes from the 965M all the way to the 980M, a mobile GPU usually seen in laptops that cost at least $2,000.

But, it's also potentially a sign of just how long the Surface Studio has been in the works. Nvidia has moved on to a new generation of graphics chips, the new 10 series (the equivalent would be the Nvidia GeForce 1060 or 1080), which does away with the line between desktop graphics and mobile graphics, previously marked with the "M" designation. The new GeForce 1080 is more powerful than the old 980M, sure -- but the real advantage the Surface Studio misses out on is the ability to officially support virtual reality headsets. For a device targeted at visual artists, a category which could include 3D modelers or game programmers, that seems like a real missed opportunity.

The Surface Studio model we tested is the high-end configuration with the Nvidia 980M graphics chip. While the specs don't meet the official guidelines for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, some VR experiences may run, but your mileage may vary.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Note also that there's no HDMI output here, only a Mini DisplayPort. You'll need a dreaded dongle to connect to an HDMI, DVI or VGA display. Likewise, these ports do not appear to support the latest Thunderbolt 3 standard (unlike those new MacBook Pro models), so moving giant video files from outboard drives won't be as quick as it could be.