MICROSOFT SURFACE STUDIO REVIEW

HIGHS

  • Beautiful design
  • Simple, intuitive hinge
  • The best PC touchscreen, ever
  • Respectable performance, for an all-in-one
  • Solid bundled peripherals

LOWS

  • Extremely slow hard drive
  • Last-generation graphics hardware
  • Dial is a $100 add-on, of questionable use

No one knew what to make of Surface Pro when Microsoft launched the Surface line four years ago. It was an unprecedented move, and one that lacked an obvious end. The Surface Pro seemed built to nudge the design of Windows 2-in-1s in the right direction, but what came next? Would Surface really become part of Microsoft’s brand?

The answer, surprisingly, was yes. Instead of treating Surface as a side project, Microsoft went all-in, debuting three Surface Pro updates and the new Surface Book. Now the line-up has again grown with the Surface Studio, a system that, by its mere existence, proves Surface is here to stay.

Frankly, the Studio is a system that’s of no consequence to most PC owners. While the Surface Pro and Book move 2-in-1 design forward in a way that’s applicable to everyone, the Studio’s intent is focused. It’s not even for professionals, as a group, but is instead built for creative professionals – artists, designers, animators, photographer, video editors, and so on.

That makes the Studio a niche. It’s not for everyone – if the design didn’t tell you that, the base price of $3,000, and as-tested price of $4,200, should make that clear.

But let’s be honest: You’ll end up wanting it anyway.

Would you look at that?

Apple has enjoyed a stranglehold on high-end, all-in-one desktop design for years, maybe decades. Until now. The Surface Studio shrieks premium from the moment it’s taken out of the box, in a way even the Surface Pro and Book have never achieved.

The display, and its hinge, have a lot to do with this. Aside from its technical excellence, which we’ll address later, the massive 28-inch PixelSense touchscreen cuts an impressive profile. The 3:2 form factor means it’s closer to a square than most large displays, and strikes a nostalgic cord. This is how computer displays used to look before they all decided to emulate HDTVs, a move that not everyone thinks was beneficial. The screen also has slim bezels, and a very thin profile, both of which make the Studio look thoroughly modern

Behind the screen is Microsoft’s geeky “zero-gravity” hinge, a feature that the company seemed proud of at the unveiling keynote. While a hinge may not seem exciting, it’s rather important here, because the Studio’s touchscreen is meant to be used at a variety of angles. It might be left upright for typical desktop use, set at an angle for standing use, or leaned at a steep tilt for use as a virtual drafting table.

The hinge makes this possible by allowing movement with just one finger while also providing enough resistance to keep the screen in place when a user is writing. And it does exactly that. The entire screen can be moved from its steepest incline to bolt-straight with a fingertip, and back again. Yet it’s also stiff enough to keep in place while touching, or even drawing on, the screen.

Move below the hinge, to the computer itself, and…there’s not much to say. Everything inhabits a small, elegant, non-descript base that’s about 10 inches wide, 9 inches deep, and a bit more than an inch tall. It’s subtle. Which is perhaps for the best, as it keeps attention focused on the Studio’s sweet, sweet pixels.

Plenty of USB, and an SDcard too

Though the base is small, it has room for four USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a Mini-DisplayPort connection, a headphone jack, and a full-sized SDcard reader. The lack of USB Type-C support feels a bit old-fashioned, as it does on the recently updated Surface Book with Performance Base, but it’s good to see a card reader and plenty of USB ports available.

Wireless connectivity is the usual combination of 802.11ac with Bluetooth 4.0, but there is a bonus. The Studio has Xbox Wireless built in. While the Studio is not designed to be a gaming system, this will help if you want to sit back with an Xbox One controller and play a game, or connect to your Xbox One console.
The best display we’ve seen yet
The Studio comes with a unique 28-inch PixelSense display with a resolution of 4,500 × 3,000. That works out to about 13.5 million pixels, which isn’t as many as Apple’s iMac with Retina, but quite a bit more than a 4K display, which has 8.2 million pixels. The Studio packs 193 pixels into every inch, while the Apple iMac with Retina crams in 220 pixels per inch.

Frankly, it’s hard to see a difference in clarity. Fine text and detailed images can look aliased on close inspection, while they’ll look perfectly smooth on the Retina display. But you must be searching with a skeptical eye to notice.

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There’s more to a display than pixel density, of course. And that’s where the Studio shines. Our testing recorded a maximum contrast ratio of 1,010:1, which is excellent for a monitor. Dell’s Ultrasharp P2715K monitor, with 5,120 × 2,880 resolution, had a contrast ratio of 620:1.  Samsung’s U32D970Q, a favorite of ours, had a contrast ratio of just 460:1.

Microsoft hasn’t pulled any tricks to accomplish this. The display’s maximum brightness of 464 lux is higher than average, but its black levels are deep and inky, which gives images a realistic sense of depth.

Color is great, too. The Studio hit 100 percent of sRGB, and 91 percent of AdobeRGB, while delivering a default color accuracy reading of 0.97. An error of less than 1 is generally unnoticeable to the human eye, so that’s impressive, even if it doesn’t quite beat the most accurate monitors we’ve tested, such as Samsung’s U32D970Q and HP’s DreamColor Z32x. The accuracy is backed up by a gamma reading of 2.2, which is dead-on ideal.

And the Studio has a trick most monitors don’t. Users can switch between the sRGB and DCI-P3 color space with the tap of a button in the Windows 10 Action Center. We’d like to see even more color space options, but as it stands, it should prove a useful feature for Studio’s target audience.

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.

Everything adds up to an outstanding experience. Drawing on the Studio looks natural and lifelike, with bold yet realistic colors. And while this PC isn’t designed for movies or gaming, its provides amazing detail to both. Civilization VI looked like a painting come alive.

The speakers are there, just

Speakers are bundled into the Surface Studio. And as you might expect, they’re not great. They do the job you’d and can be quite loud at maximum volume. Yet a muddy quality predominates, and becomes worse as volume comes closer to maximum. Also, like every all-in-one sound system we’ve ever heard, stereo staging is a problem. There’s just not enough space between the speakers to generate convincing stereo sound.

Users who aren’t too discerning will be fine with what’s bundled here. Anyone who cares about audio quality will want headphones or external speakers.

The Studio’s quad-core is a mobile chip, but still pretty quick

The base Surface Studio comes with an Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. Our review unit, the most powerful model, arrived with a Core i7-6820HQ processor and 16GB of RAM. The processor model might cause geeks to raise an eyebrow, since it’s from Intel’s mobile lineup, rather than its desktop stable.