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Microsoft Surface Studio review round-up: Creatives love it

Reviews of Microsoft’s Surface Studio popped up today, and the general consensus from the Internet is that this is one sharp piece of hardware. Microsoft wanted to build a platform that would appeal to creative types — the sort of market Apple used to target — and by all accounts, it succeeded brilliantly. The Surface Studio is being universally acclaimed as an impressive piece of technology, but not necessarily one with universal appeal.

CNet, Digital Trends, Engadget, and the Verge have all published reviews of the new hardware. First up, there’s the 28-inch display. Everyone agrees, it’s incredibly gorgeous — one of the best displays you can buy outside an OLED according to multiple reviewers, with the option to seamlessly swap between SRGB and the DCI-P3 specifications with the touch of a button. The display slides up and down on the base and can be tilted down to an angle of about 20 degrees (according to Microsoft, the reason it doesn’t lay flat is because they didn’t want someone to spill coffee into a $3,000 computer). The 3:2, 4500×300 resolution monitor sits between 4K and 5K resolutions as far as total pixel count, and is powered by either the GTX 965M in the cheaper model or the GTX 980M in the more expensive $4,200 system. While the 980M family is older, this GPU should still provide plenty of horsepower for gaming — though frankly, no one is going to buy a system like this to play games on it.

Touch and pen support are implemented by default, and both work extremely well. The Verge handed the device over the freelance illustrator Lawrence Mann, who had this to say: “Because of the different technologies in use between Wacom and Surface, the Surface Studio does not suffer from the same cursor-to-stylus offset parallax that affects the Wacom Cintiq range,” Mann told The Verge. “It’s something that has never been of major importance to me, but I know many others might find it important when they next open their wallet. The Studio’s offset parallax was virtually nothing.”

Microsoft’s design may echo the iMac, but it’s also distinct from it. The image above, from CNet’s coverage, shows how Apple packs components into the back of the iMac, creating a curve at the rear, while all of the Surface Studio’s hardware goes into the base of the device. The integrated connectivity options are solid, with four USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a mini-DisplayPort, a headphone jack, and an SD card reader. All of the ports are on the rear of the machine, which can make it a bit less easy to set up, but no one reported any issues (at 21 pounds, the machine is movable, but not really portable).

The Dial was a major component of the Studio’s unveil. Microsoft is pitching it as a context- and application-sensitive device that you put directly on the monitor and then turn to access predefined menus or options. Feedback on the Dial was generally positive, though it’s not always well-implemented depending on the application. There’s general hope that Microsoft will continue to refine what the hardware can do in partnership with companies like Adobe.

Audio quality from the system is acceptable, but not great — if you want to hook this thing up to a real sound system you’ll need to provide that yourself. Performance is similarly good, but again, not top-notch. If you want a high-end conventional workstation, you can build a $4,200 system that runs rings around the Surface Studio. The argument here is that the integration of pen support, Dial, and the tilting screen make the machine a unique value to creative types that can’t be easily duplicated by another hardware on the market. The Surface Studio relies on a mobile quad-core CPU, mobile GPU, and a hybrid hard drive instead of a full SSD — and all of these choices have performance impacts that range from subtle to significant. You may not notice the mobile CPU or GPU much, but the hybrid hard drive can’t deliver true SSD performance, and several publications took note of it as a negative.

Digital Trends doesn’t think the Surface Studio has much competition, apart from equally expensive systems with standalone Wacom Cintiq tablets, but was concerned about its longevity given that MS is using older hardware in the platform to start with. While I normally keep these round-ups as free from personal opinion as I can (I’m not the one reviewing the hardware), I am ExtremeTech’s hardware editor. In this case, I’m not concerned about the fact that a desktop system is using Skylake-derived mobile CPUs rather than Kaby Lake. The performance benefits Intel has been able to offer year-on-year are extremely small, and it’s not uncommon for desktop CPUs to last 4-6 years these days. Similarly, the mobile GTX 980M may not be a graphics power-house, but the Surface Studio isn’t marketed as a gaming platform, accelerated applications don’t tend to be nearly as sensitive to GPU architectural improvements as games are, and the 980M is more than enough horsepower to drive the 2D side of the Surface Studio for years to come. Whether or not the platform is worth $3,000 to $4,200 will depend on how much you need its specific features, but the components themselves should be perfectly adequate for the life of the hardware.

Of all the reviewers, Engadget was probably the least bullish on the system. While they appreciated the design, they felt high prices and the lack of expandability could limit the hardware to a very niche market. The Verge declares that this could be hardware that compels Apple users to switch camps, Digital Trends thinks it could be a must-have for creatives, and CNet thinks it’s great, though it may be hard to convince people to give it a shot thanks to Apple’s entrenched dominance and the high price tag (the Surface Studio starts at $3,000).

Still, if you can afford one, consensus seems to be extremely positive — and that’s got to sting for poor Apple, whose MacBook Pro revision and recent 450-page, $300 picture book don’t seem to have gotten the praise the company expected it would receive.

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