Microsoft Surface Studio review: An extraordinary all-in-one PC with a price to match
A fantastic, enormous all-in-one that's much more than an iMac wannabe
Originally launched in the US last Christmas, Microsoft's own-brand all-in-one PC is finally on sale in the UK. It's been a frustrating wait, in an age when we've come to expect near-simultaneous availability - but once you lay eyes on the Surface Studio it's understandable. This is the very definition of a boutique system, and that's not just down to the decidedly exclusive price tag.
The first thing that strikes you is the display - an enormous 28in touchscreen that's even larger than it sounds, thanks to Microsoft's signature 3:2 aspect ratio. We're big fans of this near-A4 shape, versus the widescreen format found on most laptops and all-in-ones these days. However, the sheer size of it may feel a bit overwhelming: the screen itself measures 594mm wide by 396mm high, and once you factor in the stand and the bezels, the whole thing towers more than half a meter above the desk.
Indeed, the first thing we tried to do was lower it, so we could see a bit more of the world beyond. Annoyingly, it turns out that this isn't possible. To be fair, you can't do this on an iMac either, but we had higher hopes for the Surface Studio, especially since Microsoft makes a point of advertising its unique "Zero-Gravity Hinge". Alas, no: this mechanism doesn't adjust the height of the screen, but rather swivels it down into a near-flat position, to serve as an oversized tablet - an interesting idea that we'll talk about in more detail below.
While the screen may not be as flexible as we'd have liked, its quality is hard to fault. Images really leap out at you: we measured a maximum luminance of 424cd/m2 with a contrast ratio of 1,056:1, which means it's superbly vibrant. Thanks to a 10-bit colour controller, it also achieved 99.6% sRGB colour coverage and an average Delta E of 0.76 - making it one of the most colour-accurate displays we've seen. If you need to work in a wider colour space, you can switch to the larger DCI-P3 gamut, and enjoy an impressive 98.5% coverage.
You won't be short of desktop space, either. The Surface Studio's unique 4,500 x 3,000 resolution provides room enough to view and edit 4K video at native resolution, and while its 192ppi pixel density is a little coarser than the 218ppi of the 5K iMac, it has the advantage of what Microsoft calls "True Scale", so at 100% magnification, text and documents should print at exactly the size they appear onscreen. And in case you're worried, it's still extremely sharp: you have to stick your face right up to the screen before individual pixels become visible.
In light of the size of the screen, Microsoft has wisely kept the bezels small. Behind the glass front, a perfectly symmetrical black border of 21mm surrounds the screen. At the top, an inset pair of cameras and microphones let you capture 5-megapixel stills and 1080p video recording, as well as login via Windows Hello.
It's an elegant design, and when you see the Surface Studio from the side you'll also notice that the display unit has a constant thickness of just 12.5mm. No doubt about it, it's a classy computer.
To make the display unit this thin, the Surface Studio's core components have been shunted into the base unit. This isn't obtrusively large by any means, but it's a less stylish arrangement than the way the iMac hides everything directly behind the screen. Then again, it also means that all of the Surface Studio's physical connectors are located at desk level. That's certainly neater than having cables hanging down from the back and sides of the display unit.
It's just annoying that Microsoft has seen fit to put all of the Surface Studio's ports at the back: sure, it makes sense to have power, Gigabit Ethernet and mini-DisplayPort connectors tucked out of the way, but the SD card reader and 3.5mm headset connector ought to be at the front, or at worst at the side. It would have been nice to have easy access to at least some of the Surface Studio's four USB 3 connectors, too.
The base unit also includes the Surface Studio's integrated 2.1 loudspeakers. At moderate volumes, these sound impressively clear and detailed, if predictably lacking in bass. Pumping things up quickly introduces nasty distortion in the mid-range, however. If you want to watch films on the Surface Studio - not an unreasonable ask, since it's as big and bright as many televisions - you'll want to invest in some external speakers.
The Surface Studio comes in a choice of three configurations. We tried out the premium model, which comes with a Core i7-6820HQ CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics.
If you're adept at reading Intel model numbers, you'll notice that that CPU is an older sixth-generation chip, and both CPU and GPU are mobile designs to boot. Presumably that's because Microsoft didn't want to deal with the heat-dissipation demands of a full-power desktop chip. In fact, even with this more energy-efficient CPU in place, we couldn't help but notice that the Surface Studio's internal fan was audibly whirring for the entire time we were using the system. It's not an obnoxious noise, and you'll quickly tune it out, but it's certainly louder than an iMac.
Still, it evidently keeps the Core i7-6820HQ running at full speed. In our standard application benchmarks, the Surface Studio achieved a very respectable overall score of 120. This includes an impressive score of 123 in our multitasking test, thanks to the quad-core, Hyper-Threaded processor; the enormous 32GB of 2,133MHz DDR4 RAM that's included probably doesn't hurt either.
It's worth noting that this GeForce chip is classed as a gaming GPU, and isn't certified for serious applications such as AutoCAD or SolidWorks. That's normal for all-in-one PCs, but since the Surface Studio is marketed as a high-end tool for design professionals, it would have been nice to see an Nvidia Quadro option.
A final point to note is that the Surface Studio comes with a one- or two-terabyte "Rapid Hybrid Drive". In fact this is two drives: a 2.5in mechanical SATA hard disk and a second M.2 SSD set up as a cache drive. It's an arrangement that leads to weird benchmark results: we saw a sequential read speed of 1,349MB/sec, but a write rate of just 328MB/sec.
Windows 10 felt nippy enough, but it would have been nice to see a pure SSD option for those who need consistently fast performance. In theory you can open up the base unit and upgrade both drives, but that's a fiddly and warranty-voiding operation.
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