Not long after Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he laid out his plan for the company. “We want to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows,” he said.
Microsoft Surface Studio
As good-looking a desktop as you’ll find. Everything about this screen is excellent—the drawing, the movie-watching, everything. The super-flexible hinge is basically magic.
You’re paying a lot of money for middle-of-the-road specs, with no way to upgrade. This isn’t quite a gaming rig, and it should be. The Dial needs more to do before it’s worth $100.
Microsoft is competing against its decades-old reputation as the company that makes stuff you hate but need, next to Apple as the creator of lustworthy hardware that inspires cult-like devotion. That’s hard to reverse in one device, especially when that device costs three grand.
But a funny thing kept happening in the weeks I spent with a Surface Studio, Microsoft’s love letter to creative types. People would walk over to my desk, sit down, and play with the convertible desktop PC for a few minutes. They’d draw with the pen, tug and pull on the 28-inch screen, play a YouTube video. As they walked away, everyone said almost the same thing: I love this thing. Then, after a big, existential pause: I can’t believe I love a Windows computer.
The Surface Studio is a complicated, complex spin on a desktop computer. It’s not perfect, and it’s probably not for you. It’s not for me, either. I love it anyway.
The Ups and Downs
I suspect it’s no accident that the Surface Studio fits nicely in a row of iMacs and MacBooks in an open-plan office with cold brew on tap. The glossy aluminum, the brushed metal, the gentle curves and slim profile—it’s all so Apple-y. I found the Studio’s slick austerity stunning.
But all you’ll really notice is the screen. People halfway across town will notice the screen. Microsoft made it 28.125 inches, 4,500 pixels tall and 3,000 pixels wide, absurdly bright and preposterously crisp. (The 3:2 aspect ratio makes it a little more square than your average display, closer to a sheet of paper than a television.) It’s an excellent touchscreen, a nice surface for pen input, and high-res enough for fine-point drawing. It’s also one of the more accurate displays you’ll find so long as you don’t accidentally press a button that’s too easy to accidentally press and change the color profile. A few Windows apps remain unprepared for this high-res world, but whatever you’re doing looks great on this screen.
Microsoft stuffed all of the Studio’s computery bits into the base of the 21-pound machine, rather than behind the display like an iMac. That brings aesthetic consequences—the base consumes about 9 inches on your desk, but gives the Studio that svelte profile. Microsoft clearly did this to keep the screen light, and thus easy to move around. The whole reason you’d buy a Surface Studio is to move the screen around.
It appears the solution to the gorilla-arm problem wasn’t to get rid of touch, but to move the screen.
With the screen at 90 degrees, the Surface Studio looks like any other desktop. But grab the bottom of the display and pull it, or push the top edge, and like magic the screen gives. It goes all the way down to a 20-degree angle, and holds steady at any point in between. (Microsoft did some serious hinge engineering, folks.) Fully reclined, the Surface Studio feels more like a drafting table than an all-in-one. It’s ideal for drawing, working with two hands in a modeling app, or doing anything with a pen or fingers instead of a mouse and keyboard. Microsoft spent a long time developing this, and it shows. Palm recognition is fantastic, and while it doesn’t feel as good as paper it’s closer than any touchscreen I’ve tried.
The $100 Surface Dial accessory adds yet another dimension. The Dial doesn’t come with the Studio, but the two were made for each other. In certain apps, you can plonk the Dial right on the screen and spin its knob to change brush sizes, choose paint colors, or tweak settings without taking your pen off the screen or even looking up. Or you can leave it on your desk and use it to control the volume in Spotify, which is fine too, I guess. Not nearly enough apps support the Dial, and even the ones that do are too basic right now, but I love that Microsoft is thinking through all the ways it can support lots of inputs at once.
Microsoft’s vision for the future of computing focuses on transitions, devices that do many different things many different ways depending on what works to you. The Surface Studio is a perfect example. Remember when Steve Jobs called reaching out to touch your computer screen, ET-style, a bad idea? “Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical,” he said. He was half-right. I almost never use the Studio’s touchscreen when it’s upright. But when you can grab the screen and put it under you like a sheet of paper, touch feels exactly right. It appears the solution to the gorilla-arm problem wasn’t to eliminate touch, but to move the screen.
For a week or so, I left the Surface Studio at a desk among the folks in WIRED’s art, photography, and video departments. People would sit down, grab the pen magnetically attached to the side of the screen, and start playing around. No instructions or warnings necessary. They found some bugs, like one in Illustrator where the box judders before settling into place whenever you try to resize something while maintaining the aspect ratio. But nearly everyone who tried the Studio enjoyed it. They found something almost irresistible about the direct input, the position under your hands, and the sheer volume of space available on a 28-inch screen. I can’t draw to save my life, but I want to learn just to enjoy more ways of using the Studio.
The Sum of Its Parts
I almost wish Microsoft would sell the Surface Studio as a super-versatile (and probably equally expensive) monitor. The screen looks fantastic and the design feels considered and correct. But as a computer—processors and memory, circuit boards and USB ports—I can only call the Surface Studio pretty ordinary.
The Surface Studio’s base price of $3,000 isn’t necessarily crazy: you’d spend far more on a Wacom Cintiq tablet and a MacBook Pro, which are standard tools in many creative trades. What’s frustrating is that money buys you a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a one-terabyte “hybrid drive” that is part solid-state storage and part spinning hard drive. Those are thousand-dollar laptop parts, perfectly adequate for most things and most people, but hardly what you’d expect for three grand. The only universal advice I give people buying new computers is to get solid-state storage, which will keep your computer fast for years. Even if you spec the Studio all the way up to $4,200, with 32 gigs of RAM and a Core i7, you’re still stuck with the hybrid drive.
And here’s the worst part: no matter what you buy, you’re getting a last-generation graphics card. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX cards can handle your Photoshopping and 4K YouTube-ing, but won’t give you an awesome VR experience. They can’t even handle heavy games at high resolutions. I could play at 1080p and medium settings on my top-spec Surface. Ratchet up the fidelity and I found myself playing a stop-motion version of Overwatch. I can’t help but worry I’d want to upgrade in a couple years—for another $4,000. Maybe I’ll just wait.
I hope Microsoft sticks with the Surface Studio long enough to make it a little more powerful and a lot less expensive. More likely, other companies will take up that mantle, and you’ll be buying a Dell Canvas or something like it instead. (Wonder if Dell was inspired by the Studio? I mean, come on, the name alone!) The original Surface spawned a thousand copycats, and I expect the Studio to do the same. Think of the Surface Studio as a brilliant concept car: impractical, expensive, less concerned with cupholders and gas mileage than mind-blowing new gizmos. Give it a year or two, and you find yourself driving something just like it. Until then, deep longing and wallet-throwing are perfectly acceptable.
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