Let’s get straight to the point: the Microsoft Surface Studio is one of the most desirable objects to have passed through the Stuff team’s hands in years. We love it, and if you’re a serious illustrator it should be near the top of your shopping list.
We love it not because it is perfect. It isn’t - not by a long shot. Fortunately for the human race, desirability rarely relies on technical perfection - think back to the original iPhone for proof of that.
No, we love the Studio because it is outlandish, beautiful, tactile and quietly unique. If Werner Herzog went into the PC business, he’d make something like this.
But before you rush off to grab one, let me put some flesh on the bones of that verdict. After all, I’d hate you to part with between £2999 (S$5360) and £4250 (S$7600), only to find that our love affair translates into your years of regret.
The display: as beautiful to look at as it is to use
For those of you not already familiar with the Surface Studio, it's best described as a Surface Book that's been through some kind of comic-book radiation beam and emerged Bigger! Stronger! Better! It's technically a desktop PC, but its glorious 28in touchscreen can flip down on a clever hinge so you can use it flat, like an illustrator's tablet. Or indeed, like a Surface Pro.
The screen is the first thing you'll see upon unpacking, and it dominates the entire Studio experience. Now I’ve seen a lot of screens, including the very best that Apple has to offer, but to describe this one as glorious is no mere hyperbole. It is truly stunning.
Having spent the wrong side of S$7000, you have every right to expect the initial set-up to be impressive, and the Studio doesn’t disappoint. Log in for the first time, and I defy you not to feel a mini rush of glee and wonder at the 28in 3:2 screen’s size, colour depth and sharpness.
I could bang on about specs - the 4500 x 3000 native resolution, the 192 DPI, or the 10-bit colour depth. Also, I could mention that the rival 27in 5K iMac’s 218 DPI has the Studio licked, on paper at least - I didn’t have a 5K to hand for a real-world comparison.
Instead, let’s stick to what you’ll actually experience day on day. Own a Studio, and you’ll be staring at a big screen that’s crazy sharp. Text looks as though it has been intricately etched into the glass with a surgeon’s scalpel. It’s fantastic, and the novelty will never wear off. Promise.
Colours are well calibrated and attractive, without ever straying into gaudy. Besides, if you do find them a little saturated on the default ‘Vivid’ setting, you can always switch it to a more restrained sRGB mode, which I found more natural and much easier on the eyes.
As I unboxed the Studio, I briefly wondered how many of my favourite Windows apps would be thrown into an ugly mess by its ultra-high resolution. But I needn’t have worried - everything scales well and looks razor-sharp, from Adobe Creative Suite to Spotify to Steam. So be assured that your 28in PixelSense display will be a joy to look at, and will probably stay that way for years to come.
Design and build: immaculate, but not dainty
So the display is superb, but if you’re one of Studio's target market of designers and illustrators, you’ll care just as much about how easy it is to use. The good news is that the Studio’s a pleasure to work with.
This is a beast of a machine that’s happy in its own skin. Even the product’s box is huge, more akin to the packaging for some self-assembly weapon that’ll bring down satellites than the wrapper for a desktop computer. Once out of that box, the Studio isn’t the kind of industrial design that will fade into the background in time. It’s big. The chrome screen support struts are chunky, and the aluminium base is plain but solid.
Although Microsoft makes much of the display’s relative thinness, there’s nothing flyaway or flimsy about the Studio - which isn’t a bad thing at all. The Studio feels as well built as my Surface Book, and that's meant as a compliment: I’ve punished the hell of my i5 Surface in the last year, and it still runs like a clock. But then, you’d expect craftsmanship and reliability for the best part of £4250 (S$7600).
That impression of solidity isn’t dented once you start using the Studio in anger. It’s the few places where you’ll constantly interact with the Studio that really matter, and pleasingly, Microsoft has done a great job with them. The chrome screen hinges move their heavy load smoothly; the screen’s fit and finish is perfect, with no sign of light bleed or any errant pixels; the accompanying Surface Studio keyboard has perfectly weighted keys; the Surface Mouse looks good and feels well engineered.
If we have a grumble, it’s with the Studio’s noise under load. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve used high end gaming PCs that even when idle sounded more like jet fighters. No, the problem with the Studio is the pitch of the noise - feed it a decently chunky game and the fans kick in at a slightly droning frequency that’ll grate a little in a quiet room.
It’s not the kind of racket that will elicit complaints from the neighbours, and neither did it sound like something was about to fail - it’s just not the kind of sonics that you expect from a product at this price.
Chances are you’ll be switching the screen between its upright ‘viewing’ mode and laid-flat ‘sketch’ mode (sitting at roughly a 20-degree angle from your desktop) quite a few times during the average day. It’s reassuring then, that the Studio’s hinges are sturdy and well damped, with no sign of either stiffness or slackness in the movement.
Microsoft calls it the Zero Gravity Hinge, but we could never allow such marketing yabber in a Stuff review - so scrub those three words from your mind forever. The overall design is also well-balanced enough to take much of the physical effort from switching modes (no small issue, given that the Studio weighs in at a hefty 21lbs, seven times the weight of a Surface Book).
My partner’s just north of 5ft tall, of slight build and is a better illustrator than I will ever be. She was intimidated by the Studio on first acquaintance, but then delighted at how light it was and how easy she found it to adjust.
Performance: more than all show, but could do with more go
I suppose if you’re paying over S$7000 for a computing showcase, you have every right to expect actual performance. The Studio delivers, albeit with one significant flaw that may be a deal-breaker for many of you, plus a few other more minor missteps.
On the face of it, our range-topping £4250 (S$7600) Studio’s components look roughly appropriate for its price and size. The processor is the blazingly-fast Intel i7, albeit a 6th generation Skylake, not the latest 7th-gen Kaby Lake. Don't stress too much about the last-gen chip, though: the Kaby Lake does not represent a night-and-day performance hike over its predecessor.
You also get a meaty 32GB of DDR4 RAM, and 2TB of Rapid Hybrid Drive storage; in English, that's a 128GB SSD coupled with a 2TB 5400 rpm hard drive. So far, so good. However, the job of pushing the pixels around that 4.5K of screen real estate has been left to an Nvidia GTX 980M, complete with 4GB of GDDR5 memory.
Yes, Microsoft’s equipped its desktop flagship with a mobile GPU - a decision which may instantly put off any prospective buyers in the gaming fraternity. And it gets worse further down the range: the ‘cheaper’ two Studios come with the Nvidia 965M GPU, which has only half the 980M’s memory.
Sure, the 980M will make light work of the classics in the Steam catalogue, along with the the massive library of lightweight action / arcade games in the Windows Store. In our weekend with the Studio, the 980M treated the original Crysis with contempt, chomping through frames at 3000 x 2000 and everything set to high. But throw something more challenging its way, and the Studio breaks a light sweat.
I loaded up Dying Light, and needed to halve the native resolution and tweak the graphics settings for a good 15 minutes before getting playable frame-rates. Admittedly, that game is hard work for any graphics card - but for over S$7000, I was hoping that it would run smoothly without needing to dial down.
Industrial-strength gaming aside, the Studio is snappy, and as happy to flick between intensive applications as you’d expect given its 32GB of RAM and i7 processor. However, we did find a few hesitations in our time with the device, moments when the Studio sucked breath before taking on the next task. I even went to the length of reinstalling Windows to eradicate any inherited guff from our review unit. This did improve the overall experience, but our Studio still suffered the odd small hiccup.
Experience suggests that the culprit may be Windows 10 rather than the hardware - not lease because I’ve experienced plenty of delays at login on my Surface Pro 4 m3 and Surface Book i5. That being the case, I'd hope it would be flushed out by future updates.
As I said, I’m no illustrator. So for a verdict on the Studio's inking capabilities, I turned to Anthony Moore, creative supremo of Stuff’s sister site/mag, FourFourTwo.
"I really like it," Moore told me, "but I’m not sure I could justify spending that kind of money. It’s not the Studio or Microsoft’s fault, as such. It’s just that I have years vested in Macs, both software and hardware, so the switch for me would be a huge wrench. And at over £4000, it’s not something that you can play with then ditch if it doesn’t suit you. You’re making a major commitment, with a ton of stuff to switch over aside from just the hardware itself.
"That said, I really liked using it. I’d read that the drawing experience wasn’t quite up to scratch, but I thought it was really good. The Surface pen in particular gives really nice pressure feedback, better, I’d say, than my experience with the Apple Pencil… there’s just a better feel to it."
So there you go: a cautious thumbs up from the art guy.