Price: From $3,000 (around £2,400) to $4,199 (£3,365) including VAT
The Microsoft Surface Studio is 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).
I got some hands-on time with the Surface Studio recently at the Adobe Max conference in San Diego – as well as interviewing designers and artists who also tried out Microsoft's innovative desktop. While I'm reserving full judgement for when we get a review sample into the Digital Arts studio for proper testing, my initial impressions are that the Studio offers a lot for creatives for a relatively modest price.
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 5510 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, which seemed appropriate for being in California.
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 Microsoft’s own software, as there’s no 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. This could quickly change though, as support for Dial-type devices is being built directly into Windows 10 from the free Creators Update that Microsoft is launching early next year – and Microsoft expects other computer manufacturers to produce their own devices.
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 Style
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.
Surface Studio review – conclusion
After not spending much time with Surface Studio, I’m obviously reserving judgement until we get a review unit into the Digital Arts studio to 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.