The Microsoft Surface Studio is the company’s first move into the world of stand-alone desktops. And it’s very pretty.
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The screen is held up by two movable arms that take it from vertical to almost flat on your desk (and every position in-between). Whatever engineering went into these arms resulted in a smooth and firm motion that needs only light pressure to adjust.
The transition to a near-flat surface is because the Surface Studio is, like other Surface products, meant to be drawn on. By using the Pen tool, the Studio becomes a drawing board.
I have little artistic skill but my wife is a designer (and owns a Surface Pro 4 laptop) and tried out Adobe Photoshop. She found the program, used in conjunction with the Pen, excellent and intuitive for drawing and painting, an opinion confirmed by Consumer’s design team.
Despite it being a touchscreen, Photoshop on the Studio is smart enough to take drawing commands only from the Pen or mouse. This means you can lightly lean on the screen without smudging your work.
An optional extra for the Studio (and other new Surface computers) is the Surface Dial. The puck-sized Dial can attach to any part of the screen via magnets or be used on your desk. When you press the Dial, a digital circular menu pops up around the edge allowing you to control several functions. The functions change depending on the app you’re using.
For example, in Sketchable (a free art app from the Microsoft store) it can be used to control colour, brush thickness, and hue.
Presently there aren’t many apps with specific controls for the Dial, but this will increase over time. Another downside is the Dial’s magnets aren’t strong enough to keep it from slowly sliding down the screen, even with the Studio at its flattest. The Dial won’t stick at all when the screen is more vertical, so I found myself using it from the desk instead. It’s an annoying fault in a $160 peripheral.
The screen’s angle also presented problems for posture. When upright you can sit and use it like a regular computer (the Studio comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse). However, when you lay it down, the Studio is suddenly at the wrong height, even for drawing. Everyone who used it found they either had to stand and lean awkwardly or pull the whole unit closer to the edge to comfortably work on it. I came to realise an adjustable standing-desk would be the perfect accompaniment to the Studio.
The Studio has no problems with power. It ran Photoshop extremely well with no noticeable lag from the Pen. I also played several fairly graphically intensive games that ran perfectly.
The main “guts” are housed in the base, the only issue is all the USB and other ports are at the back. So plugging in something like a USB thumb drive means fumbling blindly while you reach around the screen.
The Studio is clearly aimed at designers who like using Apple’s iMac desktops but also want the ability to draw directly on to the screen. From the Mac users I spoke to, Microsoft may steal some away.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the Studio. It’s a beautiful machine and an impressive piece of engineering. It can easily be a new desktop in a family home or for a designer who likes drawing with the Pen, you just need to find the right place to put it.
First Looks are trials of new and interesting products from the perspective of our product experts. Our lab-based tests offer truly objective product comparisons. This computer was loaned to the writer by Microsoft.