Review: The Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Michael Alba posted on June 03, 2019 |
The Microsoft Surface Studio 2. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Microsoft Surface Studio 2. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

The Microsoft Surface lineup has always tried to push the boundaries of how we interact with computers. From the Surface Pro, which blurs the line between laptop and tablet, to the Surface Book, which converts seamlessly from one to the other, Surface’s consistent push for novel user experiences has won me and many others over.

The crown jewel of that push is the Microsoft Surface Studio 2, the only desktop in the Surface lineup. The Studio is a beautiful 28” 4500x3000 touchscreen display that, in true Surface style, can fold down into a near-horizontal position as a canvas for the Surface Pen. The engineers at Microsoft call it “a floating sheet of pixels,” and that’s exactly what it feels like.

That feeling is enabled by the novel design of the Studio: a slim chassis for the internals, which doubles as a base; the impressively thin 28” touchscreen display; and a hinge that connects them, which Microsoft dubs the Zero Gravity Hinge. As unnecessary as this moniker is, I must admit, it’s fitting. The hinge manages to keep the 13-pound display remarkably stable while also allowing users to effortlessly adjust it across a 60° range. It’s smooth as silk to go from an upright monitor to a digital drafting table and back.

Illustration of the Surface Studio’s Zero Gravity Hinge. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)
Illustration of the Surface Studio’s Zero Gravity Hinge. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)

We had a chance to test out the Surface Studio 2 to see how it can fit into the workflow of engineers, product designers, and other professionals.

A Look at the Surface Studio 2

(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

The Surface Studio 2 has nearly the same design as the original Studio, with a single USB-C port on the Studio 2 to distinguish it. The internal specs, however, have been upgraded, giving the Studio 2 better processor options. Here are all the processors available for the Surface Studio 2 (asterisk denotes our review unit):

  • CPU
    • *Intel Core i7-7820HQ (4 core, 8MB cache, 2.9GHz up to 3.9GHz Turbo, 45W)
  • GPU
    • *NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 (8GB GDDR5)
    • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB GDDR5)

That’s an incredibly short list of processors, and the options are both outdated and underpowered. A six- or eight-core CPU would have been great, as would a choice of a Quadro card instead of GeForce (or better yet, any of the new RTX cards).

You’ve got two options for memory (16 or 32GB) and two options for storage (1 or 2TB SSD) on the Studio. Your memory options determine which GPU and storage options you get—16GB goes with the GeForce GTX 1060 and 1TB storage, and 32GB goes with the GeForce GTX 1070 and your choice of 1 or 2TB. Thus, there are only three different configurations of the Studio altogether.

The ports on the Studio are a bit underwhelming: there’s one USB-C, four USB 3.0, an SD card reader, RJ-45 Ethernet port, and a headphone jack. An extra USB-C or two would have fit in well. And despite the huge display of the Studio, an HDMI or Mini DisplayPort for an external display would also have been nice to see. The port location is also a bit awkward. All the ports are on the back of the base, so you have to shift the computer and reach around to access them. This is ultimately an aesthetic choice—don’t want those ungainly ports marring the beautiful look of the computer—as one of the tenets of the Surface lineup is strong industrial design.

The ports on the back of the Surface Studio 2. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
The ports on the back of the Surface Studio 2. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

The Surface Studio 2 does not come cheap. Here’s what you’ll pay for each of the three configurations (asterisk denotes our review unit):

1TB storage, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1060: $3499.00

*1TB storage, 32GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070: $4199.00

2TB storage, 32GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070: $4799.00

The Performance

We ran the Surface Studio through our standard gamut of benchmarks, starting with SPECviewperf 13. This benchmark tests a computer’s graphical processing capabilities using viewsets from standard CAD packages like CATIA, SOLIDWORKS, NX, and Creo, as well as industry segments such as energy and healthcare. Here’s how the Studio 2 compares to three laptops we’ve recently reviewed:

*Data unavailable
*Data unavailable

It’s no surprise that the Studio 2 handily outperforms the Surface Pro 6, which is the weakest of the computers we’ve reviewed this year. The Studio compares favourably to the HP ZBook Studio x360 with an NVIDIA Quadro P1000, besting it in all categories save for Siemens NX. Unfortunately we don’t have any desktop workstations to compare the Studio to, but we do have the Eurocom Sky X4C, a powerful gaming laptop. With an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080, the Sky X4C beats the Surface Studio 2 in all viewsets.

In terms of graphical capability, the Studio 2 is about as good as a middling mobile workstation. That’s not what you would hope for from a desktop, but it’s powerful enough for light CAD work.

The next benchmark we ran on the Surface Studio 2 was SPECworkstation, which goes beyond graphical capabilities to uncover a computer’s overall capabilities as a workstation. This test covers industry segments including Product Development, Life Sciences, Financial Services, and more. Here’s how the Studio performed against the same three laptops as above:

Here, the Surface Studio is more level with the HP ZBook Studio x360, alternating wins and losses down the industry segment list. The Sky X4C still has them both beat (except for the ZBook in General Operations) and the Surface Pro 6 still lags behind all. Again, this benchmark indicates that the Surface Studio 2 performs at about the level of a mid-range mobile workstation.

The third benchmark, Passmark PerformanceTest, confirmed the same. PerformanceTest is another general examination of a computer’s capabilities, but with less of a workstation focus. Here’s how the Studio 2 did:

In the overall Passmark rating, the Studio 2 falls a little shy of the ZBook. However, it still manages to compete in most categories, especially 3D graphics. The GeForce GTX 1070 in the Studio performed much better than I expected it to, and it shows that the Studio is suitable for graphics-heavy tasks like CAD.

Next, we tested the display of the Surface Studio 2. To my eye, the display is fantastic—it’s huge, bright, and high-res. But according to our tests with the Spyder5ELITE colorimeter, there’s some room for improvement. While the Studio covers 100 percent of the sRGB color space, it only hits 89 percent of Adobe RGB. That’s not bad, but for anyone with professional color requirements,a larger gamut external display may be necessary.

The brightness of the Studio 2 display was great, averaging 482.6 nits at 100 percent brightness. Black levels on the Studio were a bit brighter than other displays we’ve looked at, coming in at 0.42 nits at 100 percent brightness, but the high luminance means the Studio has an impressive contrast ratio of 1170:1.

Color accuracy on the Studio 2 was also great, with an average Delta-E of 1.08, meaning colors look faithful to the human eye. But as with most displays, there are variances in both color accuracy and luminance as one moves around the display. At 100 percent brightness, the color accuracy deviates by up to a Delta-E of 5.6 and the luminance deviates by up to 12 percent. The bottom left corner of our display was the most problematic, but the variations weren’t noticeable (to my eye, at least) outside the scope of a colorimeter.

One display problem I did notice, however, was backlight bleed. This happens on monitors when the backlight source isn’t sufficiently blocked by the LCD panel, and it results in bright spots around the edges of the monitor when they should be black. It’s only noticeable under certain circumstances (dark visuals in dark lighting), but it can be a bit annoying. I’ve noticed backlight bleed on every single Surface device I’ve used, so chances are it affects most units.

Overall, the Surface Studio got a 4/5 monitor rating from the Spyder5ELITE.

Using the Surface Studio 2

Undoubtedly the best part about using the Surface Studio 2 is just that: using the Surface Studio 2. The sleek form of the Studio has sparked envy in all those who’ve seen it, and the 28” display has already spoiled me for my 13.5” laptop. The Studio 2 is one of the few review units I’ve received that I was genuinely sad to send back.

I enjoy mixing up my work modes. I like to alternate between using a mouse, trackpad, stylus, and touch input; switching between typing and handwriting; and adjusting the computer’s position, such as laying the display flat on a table when reading PDFs. What I love most about the Studio 2 is that I can switch between all these modes effortlessly, and on a massive 28” display. Other Surface and Surface-inspired products offer flexibility, but none in a self-contained desktop form.

The Studio 2 comes with a full-sized wireless keyboard, wireless mouse, and the latest generation Surface Pen. The Surface Keyboard is well-made and matches the aesthetic of the Studio, but the keys aren’t backlit, so it’s hard to use in low light. The Surface Mouse also matches the look of the Studio, but there’s nothing special about it, and I swapped it out for another I had on hand.Microsoft makes a nicer mouse called the Surface Precision Mouse, but that’s a separate purchase for $100.

The Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse come in the box with the Surface Studio 2. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse come in the box with the Surface Studio 2. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)

The Surface Pen is phenomenal. I’m used to the older generation Surface Pen, so the improvements to the new version that comes with the Studio 2 were immediately apparent. With 21ms of latency and 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity, the Pen feels quicker, more precise, and more natural than almost any other stylus I’ve used. It feels extremely satisfying to pull down the display, grab the Pen (it attaches magnetically to either side of the Studio 2), and scribble some notes in OneNote or doodle a masterpiece in Photoshop. Any user with a fondness for styli will love this aspect of the Studio.

Using the Surface Pen to modify a floor plan. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
Using the Surface Pen to modify a floor plan. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

And then there’s the Surface Dial. This is an input device that doesn’t come with the Studio 2, but can be purchased separately for $100. The Dial looks like a small silver hockey puck that you can place on the display of the Studio 2 or simply on your desk. Turning the Dial can have several effects, depending on the application: it can scroll, zoom, adjust volume,undo, or change properties of a digital brush like size, hardness, and opacity. The Dial seems most suited to art applications, where it pairs with the Surface Pen to give artists quick tactile control. Personally, I kept the dial on my desk and used it for scrolling when my right hand was preoccupied (usually with a mug of coffee). I probably wouldn’t pay $100 for that occasional convenience, but if it fits your workflow, the Dial is a nifty little accessory.

The Surface Dial can be used both on and off screen. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)
The Surface Dial can be used both on and off screen. (Images courtesy of Microsoft.)

One minor frustration I had with the Studio 2 was a slight inconvenience when pulling the display down. The way my keyboard and mouse were positioned on my desk meant that to lay the display flat, I had to move both the keyboard and mouse out of the way.I never found a comfortable place to put the keyboard where it was still accessible and not also in the way of my arm when using the Pen. A keyboard tray would have been a nice solution, but since I don’t have one, I often found myself rearranging my desk to position the Studio 2 properly.

Other than that tiny quibble, the fan in the base of the Studio 2 would occasionally start humming, but it was never too loud or distracting. The fan vents hot air out to the right, so I occasionally got a breeze on my mouse hand.I also noticed the occasional spurt of coil whine (a high-pitched tone given off by electrical components).

The Bottom Line

(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
(Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

Let me heap one last bit of praise on the Surface Studio 2: I love this computer. It looks phenomenal, it was a joy to use, and it truly embodies novel ways to interact with computing devices.It’s the perfect flagship for the Surface fleet.

And now for the downsides. The Studio 2 simply doesn’t have the horsepower of a true desktop workstation. If you’re looking to spend eight hours a day designing, modeling, rendering, and simulating on the Studio 2, you may find its performance a big limitation.You can buy bonafide workstations that are less expensive than the Studio 2 that will give you much more processing power.

But if your processing requirements aren’t as demanding, and you can see how the Studio 2 could benefit your workflow, it’s a great option as long as you can stomach the high price tag.It’s fantastic to be able to fluidly switch working modes, especially if you do a lot of sketching or annotating or design work.A Surface Studio for everyone on your product design team would probably be a mistake—but this computer can certainly boost the workflow of a select few, the ones who would truly benefit from the Studio’s novel form.If you’re in that group, you may just fall in love with the Surface Studio 2.

Pros

In the Middle

Cons

  • Big, bright, and versatile display makes the Studio 2 feel like a floating sheet of pixels
  • Surface Pen is excellent and feels natural to use
  • Beautiful industrial design
  • Optional Surface Dial could enhance specific workflows
  • Included keyboard and mouse could be better
  • High price tag with few configurability options
  • Middling specs on par with a mid-tier mobile workstation

Video review: The Microsoft Surface Studio 2 Video Review


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