As technology becomes more and more advanced, it also becomes more catered to specific needs. If you specialize in design, photography, fine art, or any field of creativity and production, the new Microsoft Surface Studio is for you. Below you can read PCMag’s report on what it has to offer–and decide if this is an investment for you!
By Matthew Buzzi. Click here to view source.
The growth in computing power and battery life of phones and tablets have left traditional PCs searching for an identity as their roles diminish, filled by these increasingly powerful mobile machines. This has challenged manufacturers, forcing them to reexamine the form, functionality, and overall purpose of desktops in particular. If even a tablet can perform the everyday services that once required the power of a larger system, do desktops even have a place in the market?
Indeed, PC sales in general continue to decline, so it’s perhaps natural to write off the category as a whole. Longer product life spans, increased reliability, and a higher performance floor have reduced the need for users to buy computers frequently, as has the fact that more tasks than ever can be completed on the always-on-hand phone or tablet. But this leads manufacturers down a reasonable line of thinking: Specialize desktops to capitalize on their size and power advantage, aiming at specific tasks and audiences to give these traditional systems a reason to stick around. They may not reach the raw sales numbers in terms of units moved that they did in the golden age of PC buying, but the business is there.
Enter the Microsoft Surface Studio.
Designed for use in creative environments, the Surface Studio uses touch in a way that—for now, at least—will set it apart from the Apple computers that have long ruled in this space, like the iMac and even the new Touch Bar–equipped MacBook Pro. It is a stunning, 28-inch desktop that does not simply include a touch screen but embraces it as a core part of its design. Not only does it look gorgeous, with an all-aluminum body and the world’s thinnest display (undeniable inspiration was drawn from the iMac itself), but it goes right for the jugular in terms of audience. It’s available for preorder right now, and will begin shipping in early 2017.
New Direction for PCs
Just what may Microsoft be trying to accomplish with the Surface Studio? Apple claimed skilled creators—photographers, graphic designers, artists, engineers, and animators—early on, by making its hardware appealing to them. Even if they’re a niche compared with the average consumer, many occupations and users require big-screened, lightning-fast systems for creative and data-crunching work. Particularly, the combination of design and performance in the first Intel-based iMac in 2006 cornered the market on professional and home-office use, giving Apple desktops a slice of the market but leaving less of it for Windows systems. Surrendering that demographic to Apple and making it synonymous with creative types is not a winning strategy for keeping PCs afloat.
While I’m fairly confident that Microsoft and the big PC manufacturers were and are acutely aware of this situation, they’ve only just begun to respond. Windows systems have long been seen as stodgy and business-facing, but that’s a trend that has been reversing itself over the last few years, at least in the laptop space. Microsoft’s Surface line has become a big part of that trend more recently, but the other mainstream manufacturers have made increasingly slim, sleek, and generally attractive systems as well. Despite the addition of some impressive all-in-ones, non-Apple desktops are still waiting for their savior.
Apple, though, has not actively been working to maintain its position, and could be accused of stagnation under Tim Cook. While I’m not so quick to blame the man himself, you can make a case that we’ve mostly seen iterative upgrades through his reign. As such, the Cupertino giant’s control of the personal computer space is waning, with the lack of real innovations to the product line compounded by decelerating sales.
The MacBook Pro line has been notoriously slow to update, and for the most part, the once-revolutionary iMac has merely decreased thickness and increased screen resolution for several generations. Apple has drawn a clear line between its touch-based mobile operating system, iOS, and its computer OS, macOS, and as of now has shown no intention to combine the two. They might work together, share a payment system, and take advantage of top-notch integrated software, but the company clearly sees them as two separate platforms. The Touch Bar is perhaps a step in that direction, but if anything, it feels like a statement of intent to relegate touch functionality to a corner of the experience. By contrast, those sleek Windows all-in-ones do often incorporate touch control, although it adds relatively little to their capabilities.
The Surface Studio’s Magic Touch
I was in attendance as Microsoft devices lead Panos Panay debuted the Surface Studio. He especially wowed the crowd with the big reveal: Its arm is a flexible hinge, allowing you to fold it down nearly flat to serve as a natural drawing surface. In this way, the touch screen calls out to designers and artists, offering not only something that is inherently cool but is also a product that’s genuinely useful for their work. The Surface Studio is an elegant combination of the discrete parts needed for digital creation.
As such, it serves as your large high-res monitor, powerful processor, and digital canvas all in one. This has advantages. For one, you don’t have to buy multiple devices to do the same job, and you may in fact end up saving money despite the Surface Studio’s high price. At [US]$2,999 for the main SKU, it’s obviously not cheap. But a fast desktop and drawing tablet could approach that price as well—and you’d also have to buy a monitor.
In short, the Surface Studio is a remarkable achievement in engineering and could very well be the innovation needed to revitalize the market. Apple’s comparative lack of imagination is surprising (and disheartening for longtime users, to be sure), and it might just lose them a large number of creative customers. It’s easy to see the appeal of the Studio—being tied in to Apple is the most concrete reason for artists to stay, but with the hardware advantage rapidly switching Microsoft’s way, an ecosystem switch is not an insurmountable obstacle.
Looking Toward the Future
Microsoft also made a very savvy move in its presentation and marketing: Kids and young teens were featured heavily. PCMag’s Sascha Segan has written about this in more depth, but children were shown a lot in the tied-in Windows 10 Creators Update portion of the show. Microsoft is not only aiming its premium desktop and entire operating system at creatives, but the company is also including tools and software meant for children. They’ll feel welcomed by Windows from an early age and won’t associate digital creation only with Apple. It’s a very smart strategy and key in linking the present to the future.
It remains to be seen whether the Studio will truly spark a sales turnaround and light a fire for the PC market. This isn’t entirely wishful thinking, though: The Surface Pro line had a measurable impact on the PC space. Convertible laptops (aka 2-in-1s) have consistently shown the best growth in PC sales even as overall numbers have declined, and that’s largely due to the appeal and success of Microsoft’s device. Other manufacturers have followed suit, putting out sleek convertibles and detachables of their own. Products such as the Lenovo Yoga 900S, the Acer Aspire Switch 11 V, and the HP Spectre x360 15t occupy different parts of the 2-in-1 spectrum in terms of price and functionality, but they aim for the appealing combination of portability, touch, and power.
Like Google with its Pixel phones, Microsoft—the major operating system creator—can also provide hardware to serve as a footprint, paving the way for a new wave of technology by example and setting the ideal picture of how hardware can work with software. So Microsoft would benefit even if its desktop were gaining competitors, because more users would be embracing its software platform.
The Surface Studio may succeed as the Surface Pro did before it, with the right execution. And its descendants would be adopted by a whole new generation of users, becoming the seamless, single-product workstation for the huge, business-driving swath of artists, graphic designers, modelers, animators, architects, and game designers. We’re looking forward to seeing how it shakes out.
If success could be judged on the product’s quality alone, my time with the Surface Studio at the announcement event left me confident. At first glance, the Surface Studio is a stunner, due in large part to that incredibly thin display. The body is sleek, shaped into a 28-inch screen with aluminum legs and a small base that holds most of the components and a variety of ports: audio, SD, Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet, and USB 3.0.
As mentioned, [US]$2,999 for the main SKU is very expensive. But the Surface Studio is a high-quality device intended for creative professionals; one of those pros, a comic artist, was on stage and in the demo room after the event to explain its benefits. So yes, it’s pricey, but the same people who currently use an iMac could make even better use of the Studio, and again, one expensive all-in-one may end up saving you money, since you won’t have to buy multiple products (a drawing tablet, a PC, and a display) to do the same job.
In theory, the Surface Studio merges a powerful artist’s work PC with digital drawing tools. Even my admittedly unartistic hands could tell that this is a tool dedicated professionals will see as worth its hefty price tag. It’s also conceivable that a design studio or architectural firm will purchase these devices for employees, mitigating the price.
The touch-screen display has a PixelSense resolution of 4,500 by 3,000, which includes 63 percent more pixels than a 4K television. The 5K 2015 iMac, for comparison, features a resolution of 5,210 by 2,880. Up close, the Surface Studio’s screen shines, with an incredibly crisp, vibrant, and responsive picture that’s clearly suited to creative types. The 3:2 ratio with 192ppi furthers this aim, with 1 inch on the screen representing 1 inch in real life, as Panay demonstrated by holding up a sheet of paper to the screen during the press conference.
Not using 16:9 might make it a little more difficult for the video editors out there, but the benefits for drawing and modeling, where the Studio seems focused, are clear. It leans back easily and folds down very smoothly—a seamless transition from an upright setup to a format more akin to a physical studio. This should help artists imagine and create designs, and it’s evident that drawing, sketching, and shading on this screen will be intuitive and useful.
The huge screen feels like a great canvas—some sketching software was pulled up for demo—and I also got to try out the Surface Dial. This $99 product (which, unlike the Surface Pen, does not come included) is placed on the screen and gives you intriguing physical control over a digital interface. A radial wheel appears around the Dial; twist to peruse and select options. This can be used for simple tasks like volume and copy, or for more complex interactions, such as a color wheel for on-the-fly adjustments. The Dial also works with any Surface devices from the Pro 3 and beyond, which is good news for anyone interested in the Dial and other Surface hardware who can’t quite afford the Studio.
The inclusion of a Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics processor strikes me as a little strange, given that it’s part of the mobile line and not a desktop card, but there’s not much space for a full-size card given the thin screen and small base. That said, Nvidia 10-series Pascal cards are available in laptops and desktops, providing more power than ever before so this is technically already behind the curve before it’s available. It should provide the power needed for most, as the 980M is a strong card, and it will be helped by a Core i7 processor and 32GB of memory, but I did see some slowdown while zoomed in on and rotating a detailed object. A GTX 1080 would probably be overboard for a portion of users, but a 1070 or 1060 would make this a nearly unbeatable (though even more expensive) desktop. The line has to be drawn somewhere in terms of price, and the system may have been in development before those additions were plausible.
The Surface Studio is really exciting and innovative as a whole, and though professional artists are a niche, relatively speaking, its features and high-quality design offer some clear advantages unmatched by other hardware.