I can’t recall a device ever receiving such universal--and nearly uniform--praise like the Microsoft Surface Studio has since its unveiling.
I got my unit only two nights ago and normally I’d say that that’s too soon to make a proper evaluation. But after reading and watching countless reviews over the last month-and-a-half, and even playing with Studios a couple of times at the Microsoft Store, I already knew exactly what the product’s strengths and weaknesses are. And you probably already know them too:
- Gorgeous, humongous display that you want to dive into. Check.
- Great pen performance. Check.
- Spectacular design and craftsmanship. Check.
- Middling specifications, bound for premature obsolescence. Check.
- Bank balance-depleting, starving artists-need-not-apply price tag. Check and mate.
So as I sit here tonight writing this review, I struggle with telling you something more than what you already know. I’m tempted to just leave it at this: the Surface Studio is the best Surface ever and, if you can afford it or can talk your company into buying you one, don’t hesitate.
But you want to know more, so here are my observations after 48 hours of close contact.
The Surface Studio is big. If you’ve seen it in person at the Microsoft Store, you may be under the impression that it’s not too much bigger than the 22-inch monitor you’ve got sitting at home. But let me set you straight: six inches and a 3:2 vs. 16:9 aspect ratio is a HUGE difference.
Assuming your desktop is big enough to accommodate it, you’ll need to be conscious of how far back you push the stand. If you set the Studio too far away from you, reaching for the File menu when the screen is reclined is sure to cause shoulder strain for right handers.
Tapping the close gadget or notifications icon might pull your shoulder out of its socket for left handers.
You’ll want to set the base just far enough so that the bottom of the Studio is flush with your desk’s edge when it’s reclined. And if you have short arms, you may need to place the base flush with your desk and have the display overhang it by about four inches (see right). This really works better than it sounds and allows you to cradle your work in your lap like you’re accustomed to with tablets.
If you plan on using the keyboard when the Studio is reclined, you’ll want a keyboard tray for your desk (see right), so it can still be centered as you type. Otherwise you will need to use it on either side of the display, which may be uncomfortably far for using hotkeys.
While following my recommended checklist of installing updates before attempting to run any software, I checked in on Twitter to announce the new toy’s arrival. Like many sites, Twitter wastes a ridiculous amount of screen space on either side of the feed. Running a full screen browser is totally inefficient on the Studio. Its display is made for split screen use and the 4K resolution invites you to scale everything to at least 200% without sacrificing any real estate.
As I began testing the Studio with a vertical format drawing in Clip Studio Paint, it was obvious that I was wasting a good portion of the display and working inefficiently by having to reach over for the toolbar. I was reminded that Tweetdeck still exists and is far more compact than the Twitter website or app because it always displays your feed alongside notifications and messages in three narrow columns. And as an added bonus, it auto-refreshes for round-the-clock hands-free feed monitoring.
So I sized up the Edge browser and Tweetdeck to occupy the left third of the screen and resized Clip Studio Paint to take up the rest (see above). Remarkably, a 10x15 canvas is only slightly reduced on the Studio, perhaps to 9x13, leaving plenty of room for Clip Studio Paint’s efficient UI.
Having Tweetdeck open may be too distracting for you, but you can easily think of other more productive ways to use the extra space. For example, I was able to load up a sub-view image to 100% alongside my file (see below). Imagine trying that on your 10.6-inch Surface Pro 1 or 2!
The Surface Studio display is bright. So is the display on my Surface Pro 4, which I often use at 25% brightness at night time. But given its size, the Studio’s display is positively blinding in typical indoor lighting.
Since my shipment arrived at night, I had to set the display to 15% brightness in sRGB mode. The following day, despite the daylight streaming into the room through a translucent window shade, I kept the brightness at 15% and haven’t moved it since. I caution all users to protect their eyes and lower the brightness whenever possible, raising it only for color evaluation. As much as you may want to, staring in to a white hot canvas as you lose yourself in your sketching cannot be good for you! You’ve been warned.
The Surface Pen works really well. Maybe it’s because I’m an inker and not a painter, but I’ve never had the issues that some have with the Surface line’s relatively high initial activation force. But Microsoft has definitely been tweaking its Ink response and the improvements are plainly evident with the Studio.
iFixIt’s recent tear-down of the Studio revealed that the display contains a new ARM chip that many speculate may be assisting in the ink processing. Microsoft hasn’t said if this is correct, but I also have seen marked improvement in the Surface Pro 4’s inking since the release of Insider Build 14986.
I’ve mostly worked with Clip Studio Paint so far, but even Photoshop brushes feel silky now.
One change that I’ve made in my workflow is that I’ve adopted the hard 2H nib from the replacement tip pack. The standard tip that ships with the Surface Pen is the HB nib. The slight tack that I used to enjoy seems to contribute to the occasional stroke skipping that many users report. As the 2H tip glides more smoothly along the glass display, I’m not missing any strokes at all.
For the last several devices I’ve reviewed, I’ve been inking the same artwork, a very tightly penciled cover for All-American Western drawn in 1951 by Gil Kane. Ironically, when that cover was published, it was inked by Alex Toth who took massive liberties with Kane’s work. It also was colored garishly, effectively ruining the original (see above).
By carefully trying to reproduce Kane’s original line work, I’m able to evaluate the accuracy of the digitizer and exactly compare its performance vs. other devices. Completing the page often takes several days on other devices. For instance, I had a heck of a time completing it when I first got the iPad Pro because there was no software at the time that had acceptable ink brushes. On the Surface Studio (see right), I was able to complete the page in about six hours, and with very minor brush stabilization (for me) of about 15%. I probably could have dialed it down further, but it’s difficult for me to get rid of the training wheels completely. On the Surface Pro 3, I often had to dial up stabilization to 45% in Clip Studio Paint (any higher produces unacceptable lag).
The bottom line is that at least for comics illustration, the Surface Studio is a winner. I suspect that any artist who does not require tilt support or extremely light IAF will be very satisfied with its performance.
The Surface Studio will chain you to your desk. After all the strides the Surface and Microsoft teams have made in bringing full pc performance to mobile devices, it’s a little ironic that those tablet PCs will feel a lot less desirable after you’ve spent some time working on the Studio. Work that you might have taken with you to the couch or coffee shop may just sit and wait until you can complete it on the big screen.
Now for some of the drawbacks.
The Surface Dial is a bit of a gimmick. As I wrote in my standalone review, the Dial points the way to an interesting new interaction paradigm, but as it is currently implemented, I don’t see myself using it very often.
Placing it on screen in Sketchable is very interesting but it requires a level of coordination to operate while drawing that I’m not yet up to managing.
The Dial also has the annoying habit of gradually sliding down the screen, which is very distracting and could be costly if it ends up falling on the floor.
If you get your Dial bundled for free, it’s worth learning to use for timeline manipulation and undo/redo functionality, but I don’t advise paying $100 for it at this time.
The Surface Mouse and Surface Keyboard could be better. The Apple-like keyboard doesn’t have a palm rest, so it could be hard on the wrists over time. The numpad and other various keys are grouped very tightly along the right side of the keyboard and will take getting used to to avoid accidentally hitting them. Key travel is decent. The keyboard is too wide to use comfortably on either side of the display. I would have preferred a more compact design, perhaps without a numpad.
The Surface Mouse feels a little retro in my hands. I’ve definitely owned more ergonomic Microsoft mice. The scroll wheel is a little too mechanical, and offers a bit more resistance while scrolling than I’d like. The buttons also need some effort to depress.
The Surface Studio isn’t silent. While not as loud as the Wacom Companion 2, the Studio’s fans run constantly and since the base sits on top of your desk, it’s impossible to ignore them.
Fortunately, some of that fan noise can be drowned out by the Studio’s speakers, which are surprisingly loud. Watching YouTube videos at 50% volume was still too much.
The hard drive is slow. I haven’t performed benchmarks yet, but one of the easiest ways to tell is during the initial update process. Devices with slow drives always take longer than those with SSDs. Save times in Clip Studio Paint are also a little slow.
I can’t say how the GPU performs yet, but I haven’t noticed any issues redrawing or manipulating full-screen images. I’ll run and post benchmark results as soon as I can.
It will be painful when Microsoft releases the inevitable hardware refresh. This unit cost $3500 for an Intel i7-6820HQ with NVidia 965M GPU, 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB hybrid drive. There are already better parts on the market and for its premium price, it’s very disappointing that Microsoft didn’t opt to use the latest and greatest.
The reality is that I will have a hard time pushing the current hardware with 2D drawing applications. It’s only video editing and rendering that should push this configuration to a breaking point, but as a device designed for creative users, adequate power should never have been a question mark.
All I can selfishly hope is that the Surface Studio 2 is at least a year away and that by then Microsoft has figured out a way to upgrade just the base without replacing the display, which is clearly the most expensive component in this PC.
(I’m also holding out hope that the Surface Book’s Performance Base is eventually sold separately from the Clipboard. Come on, Panos Panay, you know this is just a marketing decision!)
Regardless of its limitations, I’m in love with my Surface Studio. And I don’t expect the feeling to fade anytime soon. As I wrote after its unveiling, this is the device that I’ve dreamed of owning since I saw my first Cintiq and all-in-one. In fact, my yearning for this device goes all the way back to my first creative computer, the Commodore Amiga.
The interest and enthusiasm the Studio has awakened in creatives and tech enthusiasts around the world makes it clear that many of us shared that vision and that the world was ready for a PC dedicated to the creative spirit.
As I wrote towards the top, if you have the resources to buy the Surface Studio today, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.
But if you can’t afford it now, start saving your pennies, because it’s a sure thing that the next generation Surface Studio will be even better.