Hold your fire! Hold your fire! I have a rational explanation for my opinion that Microsoft’s new Surface Studio is perhaps not quite as exciting as initial reports suggested. I paid a visit to my local Microsoft store the other day to check out the behemoth touch-enabled desktop computer, and while my initial impression was very positive, I eventually walked out of the store feeling a little let down.
To be sure, the Surface Studio is a fine machine. After all, being overhyped is not a problem with a product itself. In this case, it’s a problem of overeager tech journalists yearning for something to come along that scares Apple straight. Many people see Apple as having lost its way with creative professionals (I don’t disagree with this view), and a solid product from Microsoft might set Cupertino back on course (profits be damned!).
I believe the Surface Studio was so well received by the press not because everyone truly loved it in its current form, but because they saw something they haven’t seen in a desktop computer in many years: potential. By playing it up, they signal to the industry that this is the type of thing they want to see, even as Microsoft may not be their brand of choice. The message isn’t so much, “Good job, Microsoft,” as it is, “Are you listening, Apple?”
Microsoft did one thing very well with the Surface Studio: the monitor. The 28-inch, 13.5-million-pixel touchscreen is drop-dead gorgeous. With just a single finger, it glides effortlessly up and down on its desk-lamp style hinges. I love that it’s a 3:2 aspect ratio, as opposed to the wider 16:9 ratio that grew increasingly common on desktop machines over the past half decade or so. In my opinion, 3:2 is a better distribution of digital real estate when it comes to getting things done. 16:9 is great for games and movies, but that’s about it.
But there are also some oddities with the screen. Despite how integral the articulation is, it’s strangely limiting. It can lay almost flat like a tabletop, but not quite. This would have been great in a a collaborative environment with a group of people huddled around it, where everyone could look at a completely horizontal monitor as if it were a large print laid out a desk.
Additionally, when in desktop position (when the monitor is fully upright), there is no way to adjust the angle without also lowering the display. That is to say, tilt and height are not independent of each other, which makes it difficult to set the viewing angle just right.
The glass screen is also very glossy and reflective — you could basically use it as a mirror. It may have looked worse in the brightly lit environment of the Microsoft store than it will in a home or office, but a high-gloss screen is never a good thing for creative pros. It was also covered in fingerprints, so, you know, we still haven’t figured that one out.
But the overall design of the Surface Pro is, inarguably, a thing of beauty. It’s the type of machine that you just want to interact with. And the Surface Dial gives you an entirely new way to do just that.
The Surface Dial is a wireless knob that freely rotates to allow control over a number of context-sensitive settings. It can select a hue of paint or raise the volume, rotate the canvas or scroll through a video timeline. You can place it anywhere on the screen and click it to bring up a contextual menu specific to the current application. It is probably the most innovative hardware interface that’s been introduced on a desktop computer since the mouse.
It’s not quite as cool as I thought it was, however. Based on my misinterpretation of Microsoft’s launch video and product photos, I had thought the Surface Dial could magically hold itself at any position of the screen. It cannot. Let it go, and it will slide down the screen, a victim of gravity. Only with the screen in its flattest, lowest position will the dial stay in place. Otherwise, you have to keep your hand on it constantly, or bring it up to the screen when you want to make an adjustment, and then put it back on your desk after said adjustment is made.
Next to the gorgeous display, the Surface Dial is still my favorite thing about the Surface Studio, but I do wish Microsoft had worked some magic so that it would hold itself to the screen when you removed your hand.
Unfortunately, I can’t offer the same praise for the stock keyboard and mouse. Both feel like cheap plastic, and the mouse, in particular, seems like a child’s toy next to the Surface Dial. I know, most users will probably replace the mouse and keyboard anyway, but including such shallow peripherals with such a high-class, confident computer just seems wrong.
The final accessory is, of course, the Surface Pen. I don’t have any complaints about it, but it’s also not really my wheelhouse. I would use it for the occasional spot retouching in a photograph, but I actually prefer a separate pen tablet for this kind of work. I know, I’m a weirdo, but I like to see the actual pixels I’m affecting, rather than having my hand and pen blocking my view.
Finally, there’s the price. At $3,000 for the base model, this is not a computer for everyone. Most of that money seems to be going toward the monitor, which makes sense, because it’s an incredible display. However, that does mean other specs aren’t quite up to par with what you’d get for similar money spent on PCs with more lackluster physical designs.
The base model comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, eight gigabytes of memory, a one terabyte hybrid drive, and 2 GB of video memory. You’ll need to shell out an extra $500 for the midrange model, which gives you a Core i7 chip and 16 GB of RAM.
To put this in perspective, I spent $2,800 on my nearly maxed-out 27” iMac in 2012 (the same machine I still use today). It also came with a Core i7 chip, 16 GB of RAM, a one terabyte hybrid drive, and a video card with 2 GB of VRAM.
Yes, the components in the Surface Studio are much newer and faster, so it will obviously outperform a four-year-old iMac. My point is simply that this is an expensive machine, and that will put it out of reach of many users.
I’m not an illustrator, and I imagine the Surface Studio would appeal to me much more if I were. In fact, it seems somewhat narrowly focused on that crowd, although Microsoft has demonstrated its potential for everything from architecture to music composition. As more app developers embrace the Surface Dial and figure out how to realize the full potential of that giant touchscreen, the Surface Studio will likely become better.
As it stands, there was nothing about the machine that inspired me to consider it for the work that I do (writing, photography, and video editing). Whatever benefits I would receive from a touchscreen would be mitigated by having to use a high-gloss display covered in fingerprints. The Surface Dial is great, but for my needs, continually reaching for it and placing it on the monitor wouldn’t really be any faster than using the keyboard shortcuts I already know and use now.
And finally, I can’t justify spending three grand on a computer with arguably weak base specifications, no matter how impressive that 13.5-megapixel monitor is.
But I, like other creative pros and tech journalists, wish to reward good behavior and inspire a reinvigorated passion for desktop computer design throughout the industry. To that end: Good job, Microsoft — and are you listening, Apple?