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New teardown reveals Surface Studio packs ARM CPU core, upgradable storage

Microsoft’s new Surface Studio is an interesting foray into high-end premium hardware, but it’s clearly not intended as a user-expandable system. It’s always interesting to see how companies balance slim, cutting-edge hardware against basic repairability, and Microsoft’s track record in this area is pretty mixed. iFixit’s recent teardown of the Surface Studio found some expected downsides, but a few intriguing details and user-friendly options as well.

It’s not too difficult to open the bottom of the system, but there are some wire leads to watch and you’ll have to remove the midframe to access the guts of the machine. The cooling solution appears quite robust — Microsoft is using a multi-heatpipe system with dual fans, one for the CPU and one for the GPU. The larger fans are used for the GPU, while the smaller serves the CPU (the GPU also exhausts directly, while the CPU fan pushes air into a plastic channel).

Microsoft is using a hybrid cache solution, but earlier reports that implied the system used a Seagate SSHD were apparently invalid. There are two general ways to create a hybrid SSD platform: You can use a small amount of SSD storage to accelerate both reads and writes (we’ve covered this type of solution in previous reviews), or you can deploy an SSHD. SSHD’s contain both NAND flash and conventional magnetic media in the same 2.5-inch enclosure, and they typically have different caching strategies and less total NAND than hybrid solutions that pair separate NAND and magnetic media storage pools. iFixit’s Surface Studio has 64GB of storage total and could theoretically be expanded to 128GB if you have an appropriate workbench and the necessary expertise.

Unfortunately, anyone who dreamt of upgrading the onboard RAM or other components will be disappointed — all of the onboard DRAM is soldered to the motherboard, as is the CPU. There’s no upgrading the GPU, either; the GTX 965M / 980M isn’t mounted to an MXM-compatible PCB. It might one day be possible to perform a full mainboard swap by buying a Studio on eBay and tearing it down for parts, but that’s obviously not a cost-effective solution for most people and won’t be a realistic option for several years, if at all.

The display can be removed and replaced, but only by cutting through a glue layer and removing the rear hinge. iFixit rates this as a fairly straightforward repair if all you need to do is replace a cracked glass screen. The display includes a second motherboard with some Microsoft-branded chips, some NOR flash, and a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M7 processor. We don’t talk much about ARM’s embedded controllers, but the M7 is supposed to be a significant improvement over ARM’s previous embedded chips, as shown below:

Cortex-M-series-performance-graph

The Cortex-M7 is used as part of Microsoft’s PixelSense display, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen ARM controllers popping up in PC hardware. For years, conventional wisdom predicted that x86 and ARM were headed for an inevitable confrontation across the smartphone, tablet, and even the laptop market. That seems much less likely to happen now, but we’re seeing some interesting trends from companies that integrate ARM and x86 silicon side-by-side, whether that’s as an on-chip security solution (AMD’s TrustZone) or using an embedded ARM controller to handle specific tasks, as Microsoft has done.

Overall, the Surface Studio wins a 5/10 score for its repairability. The 8GB limit on the lower-end Surface Studio (to the extent that any $3000+ system can be called “lower end”) could give some buyers pause, given that there’s no way to upgrade the platform. Conventional desktop users can easily get by with this, but the content creation professionals that Microsoft is targeting really could’ve used a 16GB baseline configuration.

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