Microsoft Surface Studio 2 Review: A Brawny, Shape-Shifting PC
Clear your desk: Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 is here. Actually, you might want to get a new desk. That’s what I had to do, because the Surface Studio’s 28-inch display didn’t fit well on the cluttered desk where I normally sit. All week, WIRED people walked by my (new) desk and said one of two things: Why are you sitting over here? Or, Oh wow, look at that screen.
The Surface Studio 2 is a personal computing workstation, a glossy hulk of a display with a sleek aluminum frame, a minimal base, and a hinge that lets you tilt the touchscreen display so that it hovers, nearly-flat, above your desk. It’s the second-generation Surface Studio—the first one came out in the fall of 2016—and most of its updates are internal. It runs Windows 10 Pro. This is a performance PC, designed for people who do a lot of heavy multimedia work. To an extent, it’s for people who enjoy playing PC games too.
It also costs $3,500. Or really, for a configuration with the maximum amount of memory, $4,200. That price does include the keyboard, mouse, and a Surface Pen, but not the $99 Surface Dial, a puck can you place directly on the Studio’s giant display and turn and press and click to interact with apps. (You really don’t need this dial, though it’s a fun tool to take for a spin, pun intended.) While the Surface Studio 2 isn’t as costly or as powerful as Apple’s $5,000 iMac Pro, the machine that Microsoft is taking direct aim at with this, the price still puts it in the category of you-really-need-to-justify-it computers.
But just look at this thing! (You can’t, because you are not here, staring at the screen alongside me; you’ll have to trust me.) It’s the kind of computer that makes you believe you’ll make great things with it when you’re not, you know, playing Forza or watching Netflix. You’ll be so productive! Think of how much you can fit on the screen, and more importantly, the detail you’ll be able to see. But really: You will work on your life’s oeurve on this computer.
Like the first Surface Studio, the main attraction on the Surface Studio 2 is its 28-inch PixelSense display. That’s Microsoft’s trademarked phrase, and what it means is that there are roughly a bajillion pixels. 13.5 million pixels, to be exact, with a resolution of 4,500 by 3,000 and a brightness level of 515 nits. It has a 3 by 2 aspect ratio, which Microsoft starting using in its Surface computers back in 2014 and has stuck with ever since. (The iMac Pro, in comparison, has a 16:9 aspect ratio.)
But the Surface Studio 2’s display is a touchscreen, which means you can move fluidly between the Studio’s Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and actually touching the screen when the mood strikes you. And the mood will strike you: The screen is so luminous, you’ll want to reach for it. No matter that you’ll smudge up the Gorilla Glass that coats it. You’ll want to tap and swipe your way across it.
The display isn’t dramatically different from the one on the original Surface Studio. It even has the same, inch-thick bezels. But Microsoft has made some improvements. The brightness and contrast have been bumped up. While I didn’t have the two Surface Studio models set up side-by-side for comparison (I would surely need another desk for that), colors showed well in photos in Lightroom and in Adobe After Effects, which my WIRED colleague Paul Sarconi usually works in and which he volunteered to use on the Surface Studio 2.
At the top of the display there’s a Windows Hello facial recognition camera, which, again, was on the first Surface Studio. It’s been working more smoothly than Windows Hello has ever worked on a Surface laptop for me, although let’s assume I’m opening laptops at weird angles sometimes, whereas this is set in position. The display is enclosed in an aluminum chassis, which is attached to the base via two stainless steel arms.
And then there’s the “zero gravity” hinge, named as such because of the way the display appears to hover above the base when you’ve tilted the screen way back. Some of you might recall that Lenovo tried to do this years ago with a 27-inch “tabletop PC” called the IdeaCentre Horizon. Things got awkward, more awkward even than its name suggested. Somehow, when Microsoft first introduced the Studio, it made tilting back a giant touchscreen look sexy. I can tell you in all honesty that I felt almost no need to actually use the Surface Studio 2 in this mode. But I wanted to. Sort of.
The base, which houses all of the Studio’s most critical components, is a nondescript gray box. All of its ports have been positioned on the back of the base, which means you’re reaching far behind the display to do something as simple as plug in your headphones. Along with that headphone jack, you get an SD card reader, an Ethernet port, four USB 3.0 ports, and one USB-C port. The USB-C port is both a positive addition and an imperfect one. Microsoft has left USB-C off of some of its newer Surface computers, so I’m thankful it’s represented here. But this USB-C port doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, which would let you connect a variety of different devices to the machine.
The biggest update to the new Surface Studio 2 is its internals. The first Surface Studio shipped with a sixth-generation Core i5 processor in its base model, along with a Nvidia GeForce 965M graphics card. This new Studio ships with a seventh-generation Core i7 chip and GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card, the latter of which is a significant upgrade.
It’s worth noting, though, that the seventh-gen Intel Core processor is already a generation behind, and Microsoft won’t say why it has gone with this chipset rather than using newer, more powerful Intel chips. But Microsoft is standing by its claim that the Surface Studio 2 is the fastest Surface computer it has ever shipped, likely because of the way the CPU and GPU are coupled and because of the change from a slower hybrid disk drive to a full solid-state drive. It’s also offering up to 2-terabytes of storage, and has bumped the base RAM from 8 gigabytes up to 16.
This makes it a PC that’s very capable of supporting power-hungry media projects as well as console-level gaming, even if it’s not the most powerful workstation on the market. It easily handled Forza Horizon 4, which I was lucky enough to play for my job, and Paul said the Surface Studio 2 was a dream to work on for an afternoon using AfterEffects. The program was responsive when he called up multiple source files, and his project rendered quickly (“way faster” than it would on his MacBook Pro, he said, though that’s his day-to-day machine that’s been loaded with apps and files at this point.)
Do you need the Microsoft Surface Studio 2 for your day-to-day work? Probably not, unless you’re a serious multimedia professional. Even then, you’ll have to make a critical choice between the Mac and Windows ecosystem, and for some people, that’s a deal-breaker—especially at this price. And as a workstation, it’s not as though the Surface Studio 2 is unparalleled. There is, of course, the iMac Pro.
But in six short years, Microsoft has gone from making accessory hardware to making its own laptops to making a powerful workstation that is an absolute thing of beauty. That’s something I can get behind, impractical for me though it may be.