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Microsoft Surface Studio review: An appealing all-in-one for creatives, but the price is high

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Written by Cliff Joseph on
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7.5/10

Microsoft Surface Studio

Very good
$4,027.64 at Amazon
Pros
  • Attractive high-res display with 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Touch-screen controls, and 'drawing-board' mode
  • Good performance for graphics and design software
Cons
  • Very expensive
  • Limited build-to-order options
  • Limited upgradeability
  • Surface Dial not included
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Microsoft has been making much of the running in laptop design in recent years, thanks to the success of its Surface tablet-laptop hybrids, yet this solitary desktop member of the Surface range has had a curiously low profile since its launch just over a year ago. And, in some ways, the Surface Studio all-in-one still seems more like a proof-of-concept design, rather than a genuine attempt to bring the Surface range to a desktop environment.

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The 28-inch Surface Studio starts at £2,999 (inc. VAT) for a configuration with a (6th-generation) Core i5 processor, GeForce GTX 965M graphics, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hybrid drive.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft has always been top dog in the business market, but the Surface Studio is clearly an attempt to prove that Windows devices can appeal to creative users as well -- the very people who have traditionally been Apple's most loyal users. With that in mind, the Surface Studio makes a striking first impression with its 28-inch display, which provides an attractively bright and colourful image with '4.5K' resolution of 4,500 by 3,000 pixels (192dpi). The display also supports sRGB and DCI-P3 colour space standards, making it suitable for a wide range of graphics and design applications, as well as professional-level video editing.

Microsoft claims to have chosen the size and resolution for the display to match the 3:2 aspect ratio of a traditional graphics drawing board. The display is also touch-sensitive, and Microsoft bundles its Surface Pen stylus, for sketching and note-taking. And, to take the drawing-board metaphor even further, the display is mounted on a 'zero-gravity' hinge that can quickly be adjusted with just light finger-tip pressure, to lower the screen right down to desktop level.

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The 10-point PixelSense touchscreen can be lain almost flat, allowing designers to work in 'drafting table' mode with the bundled Surface Pen.

Image: Microsoft
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The Surface Dial, an £89.99 (inc. VAT) option, adds another level of user interface control to the Surface Studio.

Image: Microsoft

The stylus is included in the price, but Microsoft also introduced a new type of input device for the Surface Studio, called the Surface Dial, which must be bought as an optional extra for £89.99 (inc. VAT; £74.99 ex. VAT, or $99.99). The Dial can sit on the desktop, alongside a conventional mouse, and can be used to quickly cycle through menus and other options in graphics and design software ( it's compatible with the Surface laptop range as well). However, it can also be placed directly on the screen and used together with the Pen stylus, providing additional controls such as the ability to act as a colour picker, or rotating 3D objects on screen. Adobe has added support for the Surface Dial to recent versions of Photoshop, and claims that it allows designers to work 'without looking away from the canvas' -- which would seem to be an endorsement of the Surface Studio's design approach.

In other respects, though, the Surface Studio is a more conventional desktop all-in-one system -- and a rather expensive one, at that. Microsoft's website only refers rather vaguely to '6th generation Core i5 or i7' processors, but a number of reports indicate that the entry-level model is based on a Core i5-6440HQ processor, along with 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hybrid drive and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M GPU with 2GB of video memory, priced at £2,999 (inc. VAT; £2,500 ex. VAT, or $2999).

We tested the top-of-the-range model, which costs £4,249 (inc. VAT; £3,540.17 ex. VAT, or $4,199) and steps up to a Core i7-6820HQ running at 2.7GHz (3.6GHz with TurboBoost) along with 32GB of RAM, a 2TB hybrid drive and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M GPU with 4GB of video memory.

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That configuration provides strong performance, and the Surface Studio will certainly be a good choice for graphics and design work. Even so, its performance is hardly exceptional when compared to other high-end all-in-one systems. Geekbench 4 recorded scores of 4,300 and 13,775 for single- and multi-core CPU performance respectively, and 102.5fps for graphics performance under Cinebench R15. Those are certainly respectable scores, but Dell's Precision Workstation AIO 5720 delivers comparable performance -- stronger in the case of Cinebench -- for barely half the price.

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At the back of the base there are four USB 3.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, an SD card slot, a Mini-DisplayPort and a 3.5mm headset jack. The whole system weighs 9.56kg (21.07lbs).

Image: Microsoft

The 2TB hybrid drive isn't a bad performer, with write and read performance of 544MB/s and 1,332MB/s respectively -- but at this price you're entitled to expect a dedicated solid-state drive. There are no Thunderbolt ports either, simply four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and a Mini-DisplayPort, so the Surface Studio's upgrade potential is fairly limited. Having said that, iFixit's teardown analysis suggests that it's not too difficult to open the unit up if you need to do a few repairs.

Conclusions

The distinctive 'drawing-board-display' is clearly the outstanding feature of the Surface Studio, and -- along with the optional Surface Dial -- could well have some appeal for creative users. But you're paying quite a premium for that versatile display, and the Surface Studio will need a serious price reduction if it's to compete with the latest high-end AIOs on the market.

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