Microsoft's Surface studio is my favorite computer of 2017. I do not recall any computer since the sunflower iMac sparking this much joy in me. There is nothing else quite like it, and where other Surfaces have felt like great ideas were it not for a thousand little things, the Studio is great right now and will only get better as little things are polished. I wish I had a reason to buy this machine, I want to use it for pretty much everything, and I will miss it when I send it back to Microsoft.
The rest is details. Here they come.
When Microsoft offered to send me the Surface studio for testing I was excited but had rather muted expectations. The Surface book felt like an amazing machine in many ways, but it just never gelled into a whole. I felt like I could never use it to its potential, and I did not miss it after sending it back. I was hoping for more with the Studio, but I was expecting a similar experience. I had watched their presentation unveiling the Studio, and my memory was that it gave a good impression but one that was a lot to live up to.
The main draw for me was to have such a large canvas to draw on. I have always dreamed of larger digital drawing surfaces so I expected to have quite a bit of fun there even though I also recalled drawing on the Surface book as feeling notably less good than on my Ipad pro. I was also, as always, looking forward to playing some games even though I had no real idea what to expect in the way of gaming performance.
This is the Surface studio:
It is what the categorizers of the world call an all-in-one desktop PC, but never mind that. Let me put it in a more relatable way: the first impression is that 13.5 million gorgeous pixels are floating in the air in front of your eyes. The Studio draws eyes and impressed comments from everyone, regardless of technical knowledge or interest.
But what really sets it apart is that this is also the Surface studio:
Grab the bottom edge of the screen and pull it toward you, and it all smoothly lowers and tilts into a drawing table. A huge, inviting drawing table. When I was talking to a friend, I guesstimated the screen to be about A3 sized. In reality, it is very close to A2. The canvas feels huge, super inviting, and of course it supports both finger and stylus input.
One thing I was more surprised than perhaps I should to hear was the fan. The fan is always running, sucking air in on the left side and blowing it out on the right. It is by no means loud, and I have never heard it need to really spin up, but it is always there, always reminding me how rarely I hear the same sound from the various types of Macbooks and tablets I mainly spend my days with.
The Studio, just like the Surface book, supports face-based login. It was pretty nice on the Book, but on the Studio it is so good I want every other computer to have it right now. I press the power button to start it, it boots really quickly to the login screen, and before I have finished sitting down it has recognized my face and logged me in. I have trained it wearing glasses, so it tends to fail when I am not wearing them (which is extremely rare), and that is the only failure case I have had. Apple, what is taking so long bringing Face ID to computers?
The Studio comes with Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and the Surface pen. Microsoft also sent the sold-separately Dial along for the ride. It is basically a programmable knob along the lines of Griffin's Powermate. Developers can add support for it both sitting on the screen and when it is used on the table next to the Studio.
Microsoft also gave it some smart functionality right out of the box: you can use it to adjust volyme, scroll, zoom, undo and adjust screen brightness. And you can switch between these functions by simply pressing and holding the Dial for a second or two, so you can easily adjust its function depending on the app you are currently in.
Living on the Surface
Life on the Surface is a life on that fantastic screen. Because it is meant to be touched and drawn on, it is natural to keep it closer than you otherwise might. All the talk in the launch presentation about sucking you in an things like that was completely serious. The interface is set to 200% scaling by default, giving that retina-type beauty to everything and providing comfortably sized targets for both devices and fingers most of the time. I really enjoy tapping the screen, in particular scrolling using my fingers when the screen is tilted down feels great.
Setting the scale to 100%, while super-fun for the shock value, is not really useful.
Drawing is of course a natural first thing to try. Drawing is great on the Studio. As far as I can tell, the technology is the same as in other Surface products but polished another notch or two. I still feel Apple's Ipad and pencil technology are ahead in feel and responsiveness. But that is almost beside the point, because drawing on the Studio is like nothing else I have ever drawn on. I grab the pen, pull down the screen, and launch a drawing app (I have mostly used Bamboo paper). Then I have this 28-inch bright paper to get lost in. It is so huge and stable I can rest my arm on it while I draw in one corner. And I can make notes on half the screen while I watch a Youtube video on the other, still having plenty of space to scribble on. (I do miss picture-in-picture-mode from Macos though, can we put that on the wishlist?) I wish I had a Studio as my work computer, so that I could make mental notes, mind maps and other scribbles over in a corner while working through the day. I also want to be able to draw quicker and more flexibly just about everywhere.
Watching movies gave another illustration of just how nice the screen is. I started watching Dunkirk on the Studio. The movie looks fantastic on any screen, but watching on the Studio looked so good that I tolerated my wifi causing periodic pauses for almost half the movie, and watching the rest on another screen felt just a little bit dull and muted.
Such good-looking code …
When it comes to productivity, Atom and Hindenburg are the two main applications I have used. Atom is Atom, a highly capable editor with all the plugins, plus the strange and bug reported quirk of not being able to scroll text by touch.
Hindenburg is my podcast editor of choice. It works just the same as on the Macs I am more used to, and it is again wonderful to be able to work with all this space on a single screen. However, the interface has some slight visual rough edges making it feel a bit more polished on the Mac (even though the interface as a whole is a very odd duck there too). More importantly, the audio engine seems to run smoother on my 12 inch Macbook than it does on the Surface studio. I get some more clicks and pops and even the odd stutter while editing. Something clearly feels as if it is having trouble keeping up, but I know way too little about audio software to even begin to make an educated guess. Editing definitely works, I get my job done without interruptions, but the feel is just that little bit less smooth.
On the side of more fun than useful, the Studio fully supports Windows tablet mode. So yes, you can use it without any peripherals all day with the screen tilted down.
The on-screen keyboard … could actually be the same size and layout as the hardware one if it wanted to. It works more than well enough if the hardware keyboard is too far away or something, but I would never use it for longer than necessary.
I am completely out of date when it comes to PC gaming, but I was happy to discover the Studio more than capable enough of running Brütal legend buttery smooth with all the visual goodies. The builtin speakers are of course underpowered for such a metal game (they are more than enough for the odd Youtube video though), but I am a headphone person anyway. So yeah, gaming on those 28 inches right in front of your nose: it looks awesome.
I am woefully untrained, but man does it look, move and sound great. I wish all my games and media lived on a screen like this.
Trying these two games led me to a nice discovery: how to get a Playstation 4 controller to work with Windows. There is a free driver and configuration application combination called DS4Windows and while it can be a little fiddly to get going (I think it crashed on me sometimes when launching a game) everything works great once there. Then, all you need to do is mentally re-map the Xbox buttons shown on-screen to the Playstation symbols. It came surprisingly easy to me. (Proof, I think, of just how much I played on my original Xbox back in the day.)
I was, perhaps, expecting the Surface to be Microsoft's first stab at making an Imac. What I actually got is more like the first true pro tablet, an amazing surface for work and play which should make the Ipad pro ashamed for that "pro" part of the name. This tablet is so pro that it is used stationary, connected to wall power. It is so pro it runs full Windows software and can do every business-type task you throw at it. And it is a dream to draw on.
Just like the other Surface machines I have tried, the Studio has a lot of details left to polish. There are so many things which can gel into an even greater whole with some iteration, and adding beefier hardware will be awesome. I want to jump ahead to where we can try a Studio with Imac pro-type power inside.
But the thing is, the Studio is great today. It sparks joy and it does things in a way no other computer I have seen does. I am reminded of the Ipod. There were thousands of other mp3 players out there, many of which were cheaper, had more storage or otherwise beat it along some axis of measurement. But it did not matter, because no other mp3 player did the whole thing the Ipod did. If you realized you wanted an Ipod, other mp3 players became meaningless. That is how I feel about the Studio too, and it excites me a lot that Microsoft is building a truly unique machine which is so much fun to use. It does not need another revision to be great, it is great now and can only get better.
It is great to feel excited about a computer again, especially a stationary one. More, please!