Last year, Microsoft made a splash with its Surface Book and Surface Pro 4. This year, Redmond is simultaneously updating its Surface Book lineup and pushing its hardware in new directions. To-date, all of the Surface hardware has been focused on the laptop and ultraportable market (well, assuming you don’t count the original Microsoft Surface). On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled several Surface systems — an updated Surface Book with a Core i7 processor starting at $2,399, and a 28-inch AIO (all-in-one) that’ll start at an eye-watering $3,000.
Let’s start with the Surface Book, since that’s most similar to existing hardware on the market. According to Panos Pinay, the new Surface Book will have twice the graphics performance of its predecessor (which used a custom Nvidia GPU) and 30% more battery life. It uses an Intel Skylake chip, not the newer Kaby Lake, but the difference should be fairly small. Other features of the system, like its two-in-one design, custom hinge, and PixelSense touchscreen are identical between the two Surface Books. Microsoft is promising up to 16 hours of battery life — and that’s no small achievement for a laptop. Outwardly the new Surface Book looks much like the old Surface Book, but Microsoft has added a second cooling fan (this may also account for most of its performance improvements).
Microsoft was willing to share more details about the 28-inch Surface Studio. This AIO packs a screen with 4,500×3,000 pixels in a 3:2 aspect ratio and a jaw-dropping 13.5 megapixels. That’s nearly 1.63x more pixels than you’d find in your average 4K monitor — though if I’m being honest, I’d question the need for such a high-resolution display. My own rule of thumb is that if you need to use screen magnification to use the panel, it’s resolution is too high already.
5K panels may make sense if you intend to edit 4K video, since the aspect ratio is the same, but a 3:2 aspect ratio doesn’t cleanly match a 16:9 source, even if the total number of pixels on the Surface Studio is slightly lower than in a 5K (5,120×2,880) panel. The system’s display is just 12.5mm thick (there are entire laptops much thicker than that). It can be manually adjusted to lie nearly flat if you want to use it for drawing or art, or can be mounted in a more traditional fashion.
Microsoft is shipping a new hardware peripheral alongside the Surface Studio, dubbed the Surface Dial. The Dial can be used as a forward-and-back tool to step through a drawing. It can also be used to apply filters, change colors, and adjust other aspects of an image. The Surface Dial doesn’t have a dedicated UI interface of its own, Ars Technica reports — instead it seems to detect where it’s been placed and offers contextual options based on where it is on-screen. The Dial is also available for purchase as a stand-alone $99 device, and supports the Surface Pro 3, Pro 4, and the Surface Book. The Studio comes with a Dial packed in, alongside a Surface Mouse and Surface Keyboard.
Unlike the new Surface Book, we actually know a number of the specifications for the Surface Studio. At the highest-end, the system will use a 270W integrated PSU, a 2TB “rapid” hard drive (implying either the use of a hybrid cache drive or at least a solid state hybrid drive), an Nvidia GTX 980M, 32GB of RAM, a Core i7 Skylake CPU, integrated 2.1 speakers, and a front-facing 5MP camera. In addition, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth, an SD card reader, 4x USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, and a mini-DisplayPort connector are standard on all models.
Over at Penny Arcade, Gabe has spent some time testing one of the lower-end Surface Studios, with a Core i5, Nvidia GTX 965M, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB drive. That’s the system Microsoft is debuting at $3,000. If you want the full fat configuration, it’ll cost you just over $4,000. Gabe, however, seems quite taken with the hardware.
When Microsoft announced the Surface RT and Surface Pro, the company was straightforward about its goals: Microsoft didn’t feel its various OEM partners had created solutions that showed off Windows 8 or RT to their best advantages, and it wanted to take the lead in building hardware that consumers would want to buy. Four years into that experiment, the results are decidedly mixed — especially if you factor in Microsoft’s habit of orphaning relatively new devices. Windows Phone 7 users got shafted by Windows Phone 8, and a number of Windows Phone 8 devices weren’t eligible for Windows 10 Mobile. Surface RT and Surface 2 both used ARM processors, and both were hung out to dry when Microsoft killed Windows RT. Nokia fans didn’t exactly get gentle treatment, either.
Then there’s the hardware problems. From initially poor hinges on the Surface Book to issues with the Surface 4, to multiple rounds of battery trouble on the Surface Pro 3, the Surface products simply haven’t been quite as robust as Microsoft implied they were. Microsoft’s refusal to honor Panos Panay’s promise to replace dead Surface Pro 3 batteries for just $200 is particularly grating, given the old adage about waiting for Microsoft’s third version of a product before adopting it. Based on the company’s battery problems, I wouldn’t recommend a mobile Surface to anyone who plans to use the device for more than two years. Bill Belichick isn’t exactly a fan, either, though it’s not clear whether that’s the result of poor software, unreliable hardware, or user error.
Granted, none of these problems are as serious as Lenovo’s decision to catastrophically break Windows security (on multiple occasions), or Samsung’s decision to block OS updates to protect its USB driver. But these issues shouldn’t still be plaguing a multi-billion dollar company with complete control of its own software stack and at least five years into designing its own hardware (while Microsoft announced Surface a bit over four years ago, development would’ve begun at least a year before that). There are plenty of happy Surface users out there, but the long-term issues that keep cropping up make it impossible for me to unilaterally recommend the product line.