Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review: The screen is all
One of Microsoft's flagship Windows 11 launch devices, the Surface Laptop Studio is a big improvement over the Surface Book 3 it replaces.
Updated Oct. 5, 2021 6:00 a.m. PT
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Reviews ethics statement
Lori GruninSenior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
ExpertisePhotography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
The tablet positioning on this laptop is a lot more convenient than on a typical two-in-one
120Hz screen refresh rate
Good 1080p webcam
Stylus costs extra
Runs hot for very little power boost
Proprietary Surface Connect power adapter has a too-short cable
Fat screen bezels make the display look dated
Very limited upgradeability
goes for sleeker and more sensible rather than ground-breaking with the 14-inch Surface Laptop Studio, replacing the dated docked-tablet of its Surface Book 3 and its 2015-era design. Still targeted at creators and gamers, the Laptop Studio's distinguishing feature is its three-position 120Hz display: In addition to a standard clamshell, typing-oriented position, you can pull it out to angle over the keyboard for activities like
using a controller and video streaming or lay it down on the keyboard at a very, very slight angle for tablet tasks like drawing or handwriting. And it does a nice job highlighting the company's just-released Windows 11 operating system.
Prices for the Surface Laptop Studio start at $1,600 with a Core i5-11300H, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and integrated graphics. Bumping to a 512GB SSD adds $200. Beyond that, you jump to a Core i7-11370H with
GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. Upping to 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD brings the price to $2,700 -- that's the configuration we tested -- and with a 2TB SSD, it's $3,100. Add another $130 for the Surface Slim Pen 2; the laptop will work with any Microsoft Pen Protocol-compatible stylus, though.
It won't be available in the UK or Australia until 2022, and no prices have been announced yet for those regions. The US entry price converts to about £1,170 or AU$2,200.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio
Price as reviewed
14.2-inch, 2,400x1,600 120Hz
3.3GHz Intel Core i7-11370H
32GB 4,266MHz LPDDR4 (soldered)
4GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti
1TB NVMe SSD
2x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, 1x combo audio
Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200, Bluetooth 5.1
Windows 11 Home (21H2)
4.0 pounds (1.8 kg)
The Laptop Studio has a lot in common with its old, old big brother, the Surface Studio, from the repositional pen-tablet-optimized screen to its somewhat underpowered insides. Overall, I like the display positioning better than a typical two-in-one; it feels a lot less awkward to pull it down -- even though it does require two hands -- than to rotate the screen all the way around to put it in tablet mode, which I can never seem to do gracefully.
But despite the clever hinge design, I really miss the ability to position it at *any* angle like you can with some other competitors' articulated displays, such as the Acer Concept D Ezel models: specifically, the ability to let it hover over the keyboard so you can still get to the keyboard, or to be able to change the angle. Those designs are also easier to maneuver single-handed.
Plus, to minimize accidental touch operations, the screen bezels are really wide, giving it a dated appearance.
Even the ability to just leave it perched horizontally above the keyboard for some quick typing would help. As good as Windows' handwriting recognition is, both that and the onscreen keyboard don't cut it for me when, say, doing a quick search for files in explorer.
There also aren't any in-between positions. You can sort of raise the screen above the keyboard or increase the screen angle, but the way the screen is weighted and the abundance of really strong magnets all over the body make the positions unstable. The same goes for a presentation position, with the screen facing outward, and Microsoft hasn't even mentioned the outward-facing-screen.
The magnets pulling at the bottom of the screen also result in a scary scraping along the side sometimes when you're positioning the screen. I even scratched it a bit in just a few days, so shudder to think what it would look like after a month.
The laptop is also relatively heavy given its components and has an odd two-tier design; the bottom tier is dedicated to circulating and venting the hot air drawn flowing across the CPU and GPU. And it can run pretty warm when plugged in, even on its wrist rest area. Given its low-power
CPU and GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU, it really shouldn't run that hot.
The good news, though, is that you can charge it via one of the two USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports. I hate the Microsoft power cords, since they're always too short and frequently disconnect when I'm not looking. Plus, proprietary. Now it's time to replace that connector with an SD card slot, since everyone thinks that's what it is, anyway.
One potential drawback is the underwhelming upgradability. You can't upgrade the RAM, and SSD upgrades have to be done at an authorized service center.
A better screen
In addition to being a new 14-inch size for Microsoft, it's a new screen, joining the parade of choices adding support for a gaming-friendly 120Hz refresh rate. That's the "Flow" in Microsoft's PixelSense Flow branding for its displays. And it's definitely welcome, especially if you've gotten used to anything better than 60Hz or if you plan to play games on it.
However, refresh rate isn't the only determinant of game-friendliness -- I did see more motion blur than you'd see on a gaming laptop. And if you're streaming games from the cloud, motion blur will be the least of your artifacts. In order to drive the screen faster, Microsoft had to reduce the number of pixels it pushes. So the screen drops from around 260 ppi on the Surface Book 3 to around 200 ppi. Will you see the difference? Probably not. I really couldn't tell.
But I'm not a big fan of the display, the same way I wasn't a fan of the Surface Book 3's, which was also a Sharp panel. I can't put my finger on why; there's nothing particularly wrong with it, it just seems to look worse to me than its measurements would imply. However, it's still better than the Book's, brighter with less accuracy shift as brightness decreases and a very slightly larger color gamut. (All testing was performed with Portrait Displays' Calman Ultimate 2021 software and an X-Rite i1Display Pro Plus calibrator.)
Like every screen and its brother these days, it's factory calibrated. In this case, it's calibrated for sRGB, and hits it well when you've got the sRGB profile selected: 1.5 Delta E 2000, white point 6400K-6500K, gamma 2.2, and solid contrast of close to 1,700:1.
It measures at 477 nits peak brightness, which should help visibility in sunlight, and accuracy doesn't seem to shift a lot as you lower the brightness, though it does decrease a bit. But it only covers the sRGB gamut (99%) and doesn't support HDR for anything other than streaming video, including Dolby Vision (which doesn't necessarily mean your video will *look* like HDR, and in this case it won't because of the small color gamut).
Microsoft pairs the Laptop Studio -- for $130 extra, of course -- with the new Slim Pen 2. I like the new sharper nib on the pen, especially for fine strokes and writing, and like always it has the slightly toothier feel of Microsoft's (and many other Windows devices') styluses rather than the slickish feel of the Apple Pencil 2 I've gotten used to, but am not fond of.
The new haptics disappointed me, though. In theory, it's supposed to make the interaction feel like you're drawing or writing on paper. And it does. If the paper is a blackboard and the brush is nails. I think it feels like the equivalent of driving over rumble strips. But you can turn it off if you feel the same. And I still really hope that Microsoft expands the feature to allow art software developers to mimic different brushes and paper types.
Slow and steady
Although the laptop uses Intel H-series processors, the higher-power gaming series, these processors aren't what we've come to think of as H series; for instance, the i7-11370H has four cores instead of eight, and instead of running at a higher wattage and being able to drop down to 35w, it defaults to 35w and can boost to a higher wattage. It's really more of a higher-power version of the G7 variations, but designed to work better with discrete graphics.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you value battery life over speed. But for photo editing, video and 3D rendering and other common creative tasks, the lower core count can make a big difference that's not made up by the presence of the meh RTX 3050 Ti. It's not the slowest system with these components, but it's not the fastest, either.
I wish I could say I love or hate the Surface Laptop Studio, but I just kind of like it. It tries hard, and it's good enough for general work, lightweight gaming and art, but despite the sensible tablet aspect of the design, nothing about it screams "THIS! THIS is the laptop you want!"
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