By Neil Bennett | on April 19, 2017
Price: From $3,000 (around £2,400) to $4,199 (£3,365) including VAT
We've finally got our hands on a Microsoft Surface Studio - five months after trying it out for the first time at the Adobe Max conference in San Diego. The delay in release is that it needs the Creators Update to Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system – which came out earlier this week. It's also not out in the UK yet, though American readers can buy it from Microsoft here, with prices starting at $2,999 (around £2,340). These are our initial impressions - expect a full review soon - bit so far the Surface Studio seems to offer a lot for creatives in a really well-designed form.
The Microsoft Surface Studio wants to be the new iMac. It takes everything that's great about Apple's all-in-one, and reimagines it with a 28-inch touchscreen and stylus for people who want to draw, paint, pull, push and scrub directly on the screen – just as many of have got used to with MS's Surface Pro (or Apple's iPad, or using a Wacom Cintiq plugged into our computers).
There are two main ways to use the Surface Studio. With the screen vertical, you can use it like an iMac (or any other all-in-one) – controlling it using a keyboard and mouse. You can use the touchscreen, but – as with touchscreen laptops like Dell's Precision 5520 or HP's ZBook Studio G3 – the need to stretch to tap the screen means you generally use it for broad gestures: pinch-&-zoom, scrubbing through a timeline, selecting windows.
Pull the screen down using its smoothly engineered hinges to a lower angle, and it sits on your desk more like a draftsman's table – ready for you to draw on it using the Surface Pen and control using the new Surface Dial (more on that later). You can't sit it flat – but considering the thickness keeps your drawing surface about three inches off your desk, a slight angle is more comfortable anyway.
Surface Studio vs Wacom Cintiq
The Surface Studio isn't the first all-in-one PC that can mimic the action of a draftsman's table – but it's the first that's really designed for drawing. HP's Z1 workstation used to offered something similar - though that's a lot chunkier despite having a smaller screen, its screen wasn't pressure-sensitive screen and the latest versions are more like iMacs.
Apple's iMac itself lacks the Surface Studio's touchscreen, but the tech that underpins it is a generation behind Microsoft's all-in-one.
The nearest real competitor to the Surface Studio is a desktop or laptop connected to Wacom's Cintiq 27QHD (below) – a 27-inch monitor that you can draw on and which also tilts down from near-vertical to almost-flat.
There are inherent advantages to this kind of multi-part setup: you can upgrade to a faster computer in the future without also having to dispose of your screen, if you get a laptop you can unplug it and take it with you, and you can use a Mac (whether this is an advantage is up to you). But there's one big disadvantage too – a Cintiq 27QHD plus a desktop to match the Surface Studio's internal specs will cost noticeably more than the Surface Studio.
While UK pricing hasn't been announced, the Surface Studio will cost in the US between $3,000 (around £2,400) and $4,199 (£3,365) depending on the configuration. The Cintiq 27QHD costs £1,900 on it's own – so add £1,000 to £2,000 for a decent PC and the Surface Studio gives you pretty good value for money.
The $3,000/£2,400 entry-level configuration – Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 2GB GPU and 1TB storage – isn't powerful enough for most creatives. The $4,199/£3,365 top-spec model has a Core i7, 32GB RAM, a 4GB GPU and 2TB storage – but most creatives will be happy with the mid-range model. That has the same Core i7 chip as the top-spec one, but 16GB of RAM, a 2GB GPU and 1TB storage – and will set you back $3,499/£2,800.
So what's the Surface Studio actually like to use?
Drawing on the Surface Studio is initially much like using Wacom's Cintiq 27QHD . There's an effortlessness to running your pen in broad strokes across the large screen, with a precision that's just not possible on a smaller drawing surface such as Microsoft's own Surface Pro 4 or Wacom's small Cintiq or Intuos tablets.
The Surface Pen has a reputation for being the poor cousin of Wacom's Pro Pen and Apple's Pencil. It lacks the level of pressure sensitivity of Wacom’s Pro Pen, which has 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity to the Surface Pen’s 1,024 (Wacom’s new Pro Pen 2 that comes with its smaller Cintiq Pro 13 and 16 offer 4,096 levels). You can also tilt Wacom’s and Apple’s stylii for side-shading and other effects. And both the Pro Pen and Pencil just feel better in your hand – they’re weighting feels more like a high-end fineliner or pencil to the Surface Pen’s biro.
However, this doesn’t mean that the Surface Pen is bad – it’s just good rather than great. You can still draw well using it.
The Surface Dial is a circular block that you put anywhere you like on screen and twist and/or hit like a big button to trigger certain effects. Pressing on it launches a circular menu that you can choose options from – essentially like right-clicking with a mouse. Twisting it affects the tool you’re in – which could adjust brush size or colour. I used it to paint strokes with a near-psychedelic shifting rainbow of colours.
As a control, the Dial is both better and worse than the Wacom Cintiq 27QHD's ExpressKey Remote. While the Dial lacks the Wacom Remote’s 17 buttons, twisting it to adjust settings like brush size was more precise than using the Remote’s circular Touch Ring that you run your finger around.
I tested the Dial using Autodesk Sketchbook, as there’s barely any support for it in yet in any of the major professional-level creative applications from Adobe's Creative Cloud tools – including Photoshop – to Painter or Sketch. You can use the Dial for zoom or undo in the likes of Photoshop and Illustrator - though this is because the dial is essentially replicating standard Windows commands here, rather than support added by Adobe.
Better support could could come quickly though, as support for Dial-type devices is built directly into the Windows 10 Creators Update – and Microsoft expects other computer manufacturers to produce their own devices.
Autodesk Sketchbook turned the Dial into a colour wheel, with three rings for hue, saturation, and luminance. A tap moved between each ring.
I have to be honest, though: When drawing, using the Dial was sometimes less effective than simply tapping the colour I wanted using an app’s own colour pickers and the Surface Pen. In that case, using the Dial felt like choosing an Etch-a-Sketch over a mouse.
You can use also the Dial as a generic Windows navigation accessory to scroll, zoom in, go back and more. It’s surprisingly handy for web browsing. You can also configure extra key inputs into the Dial, which serve the same function as keyboard shortcuts.
Surface Studio screen
The 28-inch Surface Studio screen has a high resolution of 4,500 x 3,000 pixels. everything from photos or brushstrokes look wonderfully detailed. It’s slightly less than the 5K iMac’s 5,120 × 2,880 – also seen on 27-inch monitors from Dell, HP and Philips – but much higher than the Cintiq 27QHD’s 2,560 x 1,440.
However, this doesn’t necessary mean that the Surface Studio screen is better than the Cintiq’s. Colour capabilities and accuracy are as important as resolution. Microsoft hasn’t give much info about the Surface Studio’s colour capabilities beyond saying it supports the sRGB and DCI-P3 colour spaces. The Cintiq 27QHD supports an impressive 97% of the Adobe RGB colour space – which Adobe’s apps use – and in our tests proved to output incredibly accurate colours. We’ll have to reserve judgement about the Surface Studio’s screen until we receive a review sample.
Both the Surface Studio and the Cintiq 27QHD suffer from parallax, where the thickness of the glass on the screen means that there's a gap between where the pen touches the physical screen and where it 'touches' your document. The distance between the two appeared smaller than with the Cintiq – but I'll need to see both side-by-side to make a real judgement.
Surface Studio design
Much has been made of the Surface Studio’s design. On a practical level, the hinge is a brilliant piece of engineering – letting you move the screen from position to position with ease. Aesthetically, it’s rather stylish too – equalling, if not surpassing, the looks of the iMac and the Cintiq.
With just a gentle tug, the Studio’s thin (0.41-inch) display arcs downward on a chrome-plated "zero-gravity hinge.” At its lowest angle (about 20 degrees, with the bottom edge flush with your desk) it requires 16 inches of desk space from front to back. Even if you only adjust it sparingly, that’s still quite a footprint. (The Studio doesn’t offer the height adjustments of other high-resolution monitors.)
Using the display's touch capabilities was seamless. I never gave the Surface’s palm rejection much thought: I simply grasped the Studio’s included Surface Pen and began inking. I rested my arm on it, my wrist, my hand. It just worked. As with other Surface displays, the Studio supports 10-point multitouch, though I doubt most most users will do more with it than pinch and zoom.
Using the Surface Studio at its fullest incline provoked a small debate about whether it actually was ergonomic to use in that position. A colleague noted that a traditional writing desk is angled. None of the others here who used the Surface Studio this way experienced any discomfort.
I can’t knock the Studio for much, but it definitely sacrifices convenience for aesthetics. Every expansion port = four USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader, Gigabit Ethernet and the miniDP port - is relegated to the back of the base. If your work surface backs up to a wall or cubicle partition, you could end up turning the whole contraption around for something as simple as plugging in a USB drive.
The Surface tablets manage to put both the headphone jack and a USB port on the side of a small tablet; the Surface Studio, with over a foot of vertical space along the side of the display, does not. Somewhere, Apple’s Phil Schiller must be stroking his own headphone jack-less iPhone and quietly chuckling. Courage!
I was initially turned off by the Surface Studio’s wireless mouse and keyboard.
Oddly enough, the keyboard’s keys are slightly smaller than the Surface Book’s (0.609 inches versus 0.627 inches). Microsoft also reorganised the top row of function keys and added a second Windows key at the bottom. I never felt hindered while using the Surface Studio keyboard, but my fingers felt more comfortable on the Surface Book. Ditto for the mouse: It felt generic and a bit out of place with an expensive desktop computer , but served its purpose.
Surface Studio performance
For all the Surface Studio's external distinctions, inside it’s just a collection of the same components you’ll find in other all-in-ones and gaming laptops. For performance testing we chose to compare it to another recent AIO, HP’s Envy Curved All-in-One 34, as well as several gaming laptops based on similar mobile quad-core CPUs and a range of GPUs.
We decided to exclude Microsoft’s Surface Book and Apple's iMac (which is also built from laptop components). While we enjoyed the concept of a Surface-to-Surface comparison, the dual-core 6th-gen Skylake Core i7-6600U found in last autumn's Performance Base update lagged far behind the other systems in our sample. And the iMac is just outdated.
The first benchmark we've run is Cinebench's rendering test, which tells you how fast the processor is (about the same as most top-flight AIOs and laptops).
More benchmarks will follow.
Surface Studio review – conclusion
After not spending much time with Surface Studio, I’m obviously reserving judgement until we do a long-term test. From what I’ve seen, it’s a definite step-up from the iMac – but if you’re serious about drawing you might want to consider paying extra for a desktop (or laptop) and Wacom’s Cintiq 27QHD.