Gorgeous • expansive 28-inch screen • Beautiful • minimal design • All-in-one digital studio • with touchscreen
Intimidatingly high price • Big change for Apple loyalists • Not a huge improvement from first gen
The Surface Studio 2 is a wondrous device that stakes a bold claim for Microsoft as a brand for artists and creatives, asking a high price in return.
A digital artist’s workspace is an expression of their creative process. The positioning of screens, layout of canvases and programming of shortcut keys reflect the personality and routine of the individual user. It’s a very personal thing, and finding the right fit is important.
As an illustrator working out of Mashable’s New York headquarters, my job is to create original art, photo composites, graphics and animation to accompany the stories on our website and across our various social channels. Most of the time you can find me immersed in one of Adobe’s suite of apps, be it Photoshop, Illustrator, or After Effects.
Typically I use a MacBook Pro hooked up to a 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt monitor, but I draw on a 22-inch Wacom Cintiq interactive display. The Cintiq is the closest experience to drawing on paper that I’ve seen a digital display provide, and as far as I’m concerned, Wacom runs the game on pen-input displays.
So it should say a lot that I jumped at the opportunity to leave behind my daily work setup (and macOS) for a chance to take the new Surface Studio 2 for a test drive. I mean, look at it. Wouldn’t you?
Is the new model a big step up? Not really, but it didn’t need to be. The Surface Studio — with its expansive touchscreen and versatile “zero gravity” hinge that lets you go from monitor to easel easily — was already Microsoft’s premiere desktop for creatives, and the latest model has faster processors to speed up workflow for designers and artists. Microsoft added a USB-C port to the rear, and the display has amped-up brightness and contrast settings. Gorgeous, meet more gorgeous.
The base model runs an 8th-gen Intel Core i7 processor; it has 1TB of storage, 16GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX card for graphics. That’s a step up from the previous model’s 8GB RAM base model, and it means a higher starting price tag of $3,499.
The midrange model I worked on, with 32GB of RAM, goes for $4,199, and a fully kitted-out 2TB Surface Studio will set you back $4,799. That’s the price you pay for VR capability.
At a price point like that, creatives better be sure this is the all-in-one device they need. So is it worth it? And is the experience revelatory enough to tempt artists away from Apple, which has long been the brand when it comes to creatives?
Same gorgeous hardware
Well, I’ll say this: It feels like the kind of device Apple should be making. The Surface Studio is beautiful. The 28-inch true color sRGB touchscreen is bright and vibrant, and the 3:2 aspect ratio makes it feel expansive and immersive. With a pixel density of 192 ppi, the screen is crystal-clear, and there’s still something staggering about zooming in on text and seeing it blow up to massive scale while staying razor-sharp.
Oh, also, did I mention it’s a 28-inch touchscreen? With touch, even mundane activities like sifting through files or scrolling Twitter become a tactile experience. Touch controls such as pinch-and-zoom feel effortless and natural in a program like Photoshop, where I tend to rotate the canvas a lot. I missed that kind of tactile control of my work when I moved back to my Cintiq.
That said, touch controls don’t lend themselves to Illustrator or video editing software quite so well. My animator colleagues were not as enticed as I was.
Meanwhile, the simplicity of the industrial design can’t be overstated. The single screen is held up by the elegant zero-gravity hinge that allows you to effortlessly adjust its angle to your liking. There’s no locking mechanism like on the Cintiq, but as long as you don’t press too hard with the Surface Pen, you should be fine working at different angles without inadvertently budging it.
The Studio is a great device to read the morning news on in its upright and vertical position, and it can also lie nearly flat on your desk in drawing-table mode. I preferred to work somewhere in between: around a 45-degree angle.
So yes, it looks great, but the magic of the Surface Studio is how the hardware seems to disappear once you’re using it. The screen is so thin and light, and so expansive, that it seems to levitate before you, occupying your full field of vision. It just draws you in.
It’s also worth noting the minimalism and (relative) cleanliness the Surface Studio brought to my desk. Between power cords, HDMI and DVI cables, dongles and USB-C adapters, I counted about six necessary cables cluttering my conventional workspace. Compare that to the single power cord protruding from the rear of the Studio’s heavy, flat gray base.
At the rear of the base you’ll also find four USB-2 ports, a USB-C port, a gigabit Ethernet port, an SD card slot, and — gasp — a headphone jack.
As for that Surface Pen, I’m not entirely sold. I still prefer the softer, chunkier build and programmable buttons of the Wacom line over slimmer styluses like the Surface Pen or even the Apple Pencil, but your mileage may vary.
I also found myself yearning for a different stylus tip, as the default Pen on the review model felt a little high-friction, causing some drag and jitter. Luckily, Microsoft sells a set of with variable levels of friction, and I’ll bet one of these could solve my problem.
One great thing: magnetizing both sides of the Surface Studio screen makes it easy to store the Pen so it doesn’t wind up lost or buried somewhere on your desk — which happens with my Cintiq more than I’d like to admit.
The Surface Studio’s mouse still feels cheap, light and plasticky, but the Bluetooth keyboard is nice. I found the best placement is to the side, so it doesn’t get squashed when the screen lies flat.
The first Surface Studio’s unveiling coincided with the hype for the Surface Dial. This newfangled peripheral was meant to be paired with the Studio, though it sold separately. I found the Surface Dial to be clunky and redundant last year.
This year the Dial was not part of my review process, and I’m happy to report I did not miss it. Part of the joy of the Surface Studio is its hands-on nature, so I find it works best with as few peripherals as possible. But again, your experience may vary, and the Dial has a lot of potential integrations that could make it a game-changer in the future.
Is the price tag a barrier? Maybe, but a top-of-the-line 21-inch iMac sells for $1,499, and a Wacom Cintiq Pro of comparable size to the Surface Studio (and with touch capability) is $1,999. And for now, if you want a touchscreen machine that runs macOS, the only option is to use a third-party dongle that will output your Mac’s display to an iPad Pro.
That said, the hardware doesn’t always make the artist and you can still put together a perfectly functional and affordable studio for less than the top-of-the-line from Microsoft or Apple.
But if you’ve saved up, find a way to spend some time with the Surface Studio. It’s immersive, highly performant, and puts all your tools in one machine. Five minutes could make you a believer.