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

A fresh spin

The Surface Dial is a $99 add-on for any Surface product, but seems most at home paired with the large display of the Surface Studio. It's a wireless Bluetooth control device, made of brushed aluminum, with a rubberized bottom. On the larger screen of the Studio, you can actually place the dial on the display for additional control options, such as visually scrolling through a color wheel or selecting brush sizes.

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The Surface Dial offers app-specific support in only a handful of programs right now, plus a few general systems tools that work almost anywhere, such as volume control and scrolling for longer docs and webpages. Early adopter apps include Sketchable (an art app), Microsoft Office and Drawboard PDF. But popular programs like Photoshop will have to wait for expanded support. The Dial also continues Microsoft's inexplicable policy of taking the most interesting things about its Surface products and splitting them off to be sold separately.

While the collection of currently supported apps with separate Dial controls is small, Microsoft promises an expanded list in the near future, including important apps such as Photoshop. In the meantime, the company is promoting programs including Sketchable, an art program that's a Microsoft favorite for showing off Surface products; Plumbago, a Microsoft-made app for drawing, archiving and multimedia mashups (the company calls it a "digital notebook" and compares it to the Paper app); and even Spotify, which offers some basic play/pause and track-skipping functions mapped to the Dial.

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Obviously, the coolest way to see the Dial in action is pull the Studio screen down to its lowest 20-degree position and place the aluminum dial directly on the screen. It has a rubber non-slip surface on the bottom, which pulls off to access the dual AAA batteries inside, as well as the Bluetooth pairing button. Placing the Dial on the Studio screen when it's very close to that 20-degree mark works fine, but anything steeper and it starts sliding down the glass display, and even at the 20-degree mark, it may slip a bit if you jostle the screen.

Fortunately, you can also just place it on the desk next to you and it still works fine, in fact, better in some ways. When used on the desk, you control the Dial with your hand with its radial menu appearing on-screen.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Like Apple's Touch Bar in the new MacBook Pro, the Surface Dial works differently in different programs, which means there's a learning curve for each new program you try to use it with. The most basic level of consistent use is to give it a long press in the center, which will result in a small haptic buzz in the Dial and a radial menu appearing on screen. Turn the Dial to navigate whatever menu you're in, and give the Dial a quick press (shorter than the long press used to activate it) and it'll jump through different submenus.

In Sketchable, for example, the main menu has options for RGB color, brush tools, an undo command and more. Click into the brush tools, and several rings form around the Dial (or in its on-screen radial menu, if the Dial is placed on the table next to the system). Tap once for brush radius, again for opacity, again for feathering and so on.

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Navigating the menus and submenus is not as simple as Microsoft's promotional videos would have you believe, and you'll have to learn a new set of menus and tools for every supported app. That said, given some time, it could certainly be a useful and time-saving tool for artists, once you master its command structure. The actual feel of the dial is fantastic, with just enough resistance, and Microsoft says a set of batteries should be good for up to a year.

The artist test

We invited a pair of digital artists to come check out the Surface Studio and Dial.

Nick Cogan is a creative director and illustrator with a background in film, TV and advertising, and he's worked on the "Ice Age" and "Rio" animated film series, as well as the recent "Peanuts Movie." Thomas Pitilli is an artist who works on "Archie" comics, among other projects. He used the Surface Studio to draw some iconic characters for us.

Now playing: Watch this: Artist Nick Cogan puts Surface Studio and Surface Dial...
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Nick normally uses a Wacom Cintiq tablet, a touchscreen display that's one of the digital art world's most commonly used tools. It's a display only, so it needs to be hooked up to a laptop or desktop.

Testing the Surface Studio (as well as the new updated Surface Book) with Sketchable, Photoshop, Microsoft's inking apps and a few other programs, he came away impressed, but more by the Surface display and Pen than with the Dial.

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Artist Nick Cogan tried the Surface Studio and Surface Dial.

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"What's most important for most people who are looking at something like this, is that it feels like natural media, it feels like a pencil. I definitely like the feeling of the tip," he says of the Surface Pen.

But the Dial had a definite learning curve in the handful of apps he tried it in, including Sketchable. "The menu system is really ornate. There're so many options to this that I kind of am unintentionally selecting things that I didn't mean to select," says Cogan. "I'm sure after a couple of weeks of working in it I'd get the hang of it."

For Pitelli, the large screen and low angle were the big selling points. "This is nice, to have all this space," he says. "For an artist, it's never good to work flat, completely. You always want to have it at an angle, so it's cool that this is able to do that."

Dialing up the price

The Surface Studio is impressive in both design and functionality. But its price is also impressive, topping $4,000 for a higher-end build. Much of that is for the unique design and build quality, and the incredibly thin, high-res screen.

The biggest surprise from the Surface Studio was that the optional Surface Dial wasn't its most standout feature. Instead the easy display hinge, and how the large touchscreen worked in conjunction with the excellent Surface Pen was the best feature, along with the powerful graphics for both creative work and gaming.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Dial, sold separately but included with early preorders of the system, feels more like a work in progress. It'll work, to a limited degree, with any other modern Windows PC, so this expensive all-in-one desktop isn't the only way to check it out. Like Apple's MacBook Pro Touch Bar, it needs a much wider array of software support before it's more of a useful tool than a cool conversation piece.

The bigger challenge may be getting creative professionals to invest in such a high-end, high-price piece of gear, as many of them are creatures of habit, tied to familiar tools and hardware. As Cogan told us, "I think the big barrier is going to be that it's Windows-based, and so many people in the creative fields are really already decades down using Macs." But, he adds, "As a drawing tool, this is great, it's a lot of fun."

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Falcon Northwest Tiki
120
Origin PC Omni
137
Microsoft Surface Studio
171
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)
202
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
519
Microsoft Surface Book (2016)
610

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Falcon Northwest Tiki
24461
Origin PC Omni
15801
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)
14451
Microsoft Surface Studio
13648
Microsoft Surface Book (2016)
7377
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
6775

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

Origin PC Omni
7217
Falcon Northwest Tiki
4421
Microsoft Surface Studio
2341

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

BioShock Infinite gaming test

Origin PC Omni
256.64
Falcon Northwest Tiki
201.87
Microsoft Surface Studio
117.67
Microsoft Surface Book (2016)
62.41

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

System Configurations

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
Falcon Northwest Tiki Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 3GHz Intel Core i7-5960X; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHZ; 8GB Nvida GeForce GTX 980Ti; 512GB SSD + 6TB HDD 5700rpm
Microsoft Surface Book (2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M / 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520; 1TB SSD
Origin PC Omni Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz, 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 2TB HDD + 500GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016) Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB Radeon Pro / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530; 512GB SSD