Microsoft Surface Studio Review Roundup: Beauty And Innovation Paired With Outdated Internals

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The takeaways from two separate keynotes from Apple and Microsoft last month couldn’t have been any more different. Microsoft unveiled the 28-inch Surface Studio all-in-one and wowed those in the tech community with its articulating display and Surface Dial input accessory. Apple, on the other hand, drew scorn for its new MacBook Pro family, which the press (and even those in the Mac community) felt missed the mark. The backlash was so strong, in fact, the even Apple’s Phil Schiller was somewhat surprised.

Are we now living in a world where Microsoft is being seen as the innovator, while Apple is continually banging the “thinness at all costs” drum? Whatever the case, the engineering marvel known as the Surface Studio has been unleashed onto the tech press, and a few sites are beginning to give their thoughts on how it works in the real world.

But before we start, let’s give a brief rundown on what the Surface Studio has to offer: namely a 28-inch 4500x3000 resolution PixelSense display, Intel Core i5 or Core i7 Skylake processors, up to 32GB of RAM, 1TB or 2TB hybrid storage configurations (SSD + HDD), and your choice of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M or GTX 980M graphics.

Here are some thoughts on the display, which seemed to wow everyone that laid eyes on it…

The Verge: The heart of the Surface Studio is its 28-inch PixelSense display. It’s stunning to look at and it’s truly one of the best desktop monitors I’ve ever used. It makes things feel oddly lifelike because you can’t see the pixels — text, videos, and pictures just look great on this thing… I love extra vertical space for reading and writing, even if it takes a little getting used to on a display of this size. The display is glossy and reflective, but I didn't find that too troublesome in my own office space.

Engadget: Artists will likely appreciate the Surface Studio's ability to switch from SRGB and wider DCI-P3 color gamuts on the fly. Apple made a big deal about the iMac's support for the P3 gamut last year, and the same benefits apply here. Simply put, it'll let you view an even wider variety of colors. And since it's a standard backed by Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), it's particularly helpful for editing digital video. Typical consumers will likely just notice that some photos and videos will appear much richer than before.

Digital Trends: On balance, when all the pros and cons are tallied, the Studio has the best computer display we’ve ever seen. Its contrast is the best you’ll find without an OLED display, something that’s only available on laptops for now, and color performance is excellent.

On the Surface Dial, which gives creative types a new way to interact with apps…

The Verge: I prefer to use the Dial on top of the Surface Studio itself, but I did notice it doesn’t stick to the display very well. Even at the near-flat 20-degree drawing angle, the Dial gradually slipped down the display (perhaps because of oil marks left from using the touchscreen). I noticed it out of the corner of my eye when the radial menus kept bouncing down to keep up with the slipping dial, and it’s distracting and annoying.

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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.

The Surface Studio was too far along in development to adopt such modern niceties as Kaby Lake or NVIDIA’s powerful Pascal-based graphics cards, and that’s a shame. Given the $2,999 starting price of the Surface Studio, many of the reviewers wish they got a little bit more bang for the buck with regards to performance:

Digital Trends: The Studio’s performance will prove adequate for any photo editing, digital art, or document work, but it might feel lackluster if you’re doing a lot of video editing. This all-in-one is built for work, but it’s not a top-tier workstation.

The Verge: On the model I was testing there’s a sixth-generation quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM, 2TB Rapid Hybrid Drive, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics card inside. That’s actually some old tech for such a futuristic-looking PC. Microsoft has opted for last year's Intel and Nvidia chips, and its storage isn't all solid state. This is especially tough to swallow on the GPU front, because Nvidia's 2016 Pascal architecture is miles ahead of its predecessors.

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CNET: The new GeForce 1080 is more powerful than the old 980M, sure -- but the real advantage the Surface Studio misses out on is the ability to officially support virtual reality headsets. For a device targeted at visual artists, a category which could include 3D modelers or game programmers, that seems like a real missed opportunity… The Surface Studio model we tested is the high-end configuration with the Nvidia 980M graphics chip. While the specs don't meet the official guidelines for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, some VR experiences may run, but your mileage may vary.

In the end, all of the reviewers came away with an overall excellent impression of the Surface Studio. Sure, it’s an expensive PC, but it has a lot to offer to its intended audience, which just so happens to be content creators instead of the general public. The Verge perhaps summed up the Surface Studio the most succinctly, writing:

The fact that Microsoft is even being considered an alternative to Apple’s line of machines for creatives is not something anyone, not even Microsoft, was expecting for the Surface devices. The Surface Studio won't take over Mac-focused design houses just yet, but that it’s even a possibility is remarkable. The Studio is special because it knows exactly what it is and who it’s for — and it’s largely spot on. If Microsoft keeps developing its strengths here, some of Apple's most loyal customers might well be tempted to switch camps.

If you have the cash laying around to afford the Surface Studio and you can look past the graphics and storage deficiencies, it offers a one-of-a-kind experience that will likely leave you grinning ear-to-ear as you use it more. Stay tuned for HotHardware's review of the Surface Studio, which will be arriving shortly.