Microsoft Surface Studio 2 review

If the Surface Studio 2 can't win over Mac fans, nothing can

The ambitious Surface Studio 2 is a true Mac killer.
The ambitious Surface Studio 2 is a true Mac killer.
The ambitious Surface Studio 2 is a true Mac killer.

Highs

  • Exceptional design, build quality
  • The best screen we’ve ever tested
  • Great graphics performance
  • Super-fast SSD
  • Starts at 16GB of RAM

Lows

  • Overpriced for an older processor
  • Niche appeal

Despite the love for the Mac in the professional creative community, Apple has left the door open as of late. With updates to beloved products like the iMac and Mac Pro few and far between, some are wondering if they should turn elsewhere for their creative needs.

It’s the perfect time for Microsoft to fully embrace the Pro community in a way that keeps their needs in mind. The Surface Studio 2 is just what they need — or at least, it desperately wants to be. With a beautiful 28-inch display, an updated processor and graphics card, and the same impressive tilt functionality for comfortable sketching, it has a lot of things going for it.

With a starting price of $3,500, it’s not for the faint of heart. But in return you get a computer unlike any other.

Move over, iMac

When the original Surface Studio came out in 2016, no one saw it coming. Microsoft making a desktop PC? It felt a little backwards at the time (though we did like the original). In retrospect, it made a lot of sense. The Surface line had always been about touchscreens and stylus integration, so why not bring it to an all-in-one PC that can transform into a digital drafting table? It feels like the kind of concept Apple would have gleefully made in the early 2000s.

Two years later, Microsoft has updated the device. And while it’s considered a sequel, not much has changed on the outside. It has the same glossy, 28-inch screen, the shiny hinge still swings down effortlessly, and the silver aluminum of the cabinet and base is rock solid. Speaking of the base, that’s where a lot of the internals are housed — which is how the screen remains so thin.

When it comes to look and feel, the Surface Studio 2 is the complete package. It stands toe-to-toe with the iMac Pro and would fit perfectly into the office of a creative studio or design agency.

When it comes to look and feel, the Surface Studio 2 is the complete package.

As for ports, you receive a solid selection, all lined up at the back of the Surface Studio 2’s base. It’s not the most convenient place to reach, though it does keep your desk clean. Your choices are as follow: a USB-C port, four USB-A 3.0 ports, an ethernet jack, and a headphone jack. The USB-C port replaces the mini-DisplayPort this time around, which was an excellent decision, as was the plethora of USB-A ports. While the iMac features more Thunderbolt 3 ports, we found that the Surface Studio 2 balances the options of old and new almost perfectly.

The best screen we’ve ever tested

As with most all-in-ones, the display is the centerpiece of the experience. As it was with its predecessor, the Surface Studio 2’s screen measures 4,500 × 3,000 pixels and 28 inches diagonally. It’s an odd screen resolution if you’re used to 1440p or 4K, but trust us, you won’t be concerned with the numbers once you see it with your own eyes.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The taller 3:2 aspect of the screen has become standard in Surface products, and we’ve come to prefer it over 16:9 displays. Though you’ll see serious letterboxing in movies, the extra screen real estate is perfect for multitasking. Having two windows open side-by-side gives you a full view of documents and websites, and even provides a fuller view of the map in games like Civilization VI.

Microsoft also uses a technology it calls PixelSense behind the display, which produces some of the most vibrant colors and deepest blacks we’ve ever seen.

These test results are excellent across the board, whether it’s the 524 nits of brightness, the 1140:1 contrast ratio, or the 90 percent coverage of the Adobe RGB color space. Those are all impressive figures, beating the 5K iMac in a some key categories like brightness and contrast. Fortunately, the screen is also extremely color accurate, producing a very low average rate of error. That’s exactly what you want to see in a display made for photographers, animators, and videographers.

The extra screen real estate is perfect for multitasking.

When it comes down to it, this is simply one of the best displays we’ve ever reviewed — and a jump up from the previous version, which was already excellent.

It comes with extra toys

The Surface Studio 2 comes with the Surface Pen bundled in, which shows how serious Microsoft is about people using the two products in tandem. The pen is the same as it’s always been and it’s still the best touchscreen stylus you can buy. Drawing, sketching, and writing all feel eerily smooth, mimicking natural handwriting. If you’ve ever drawn on a Surface tablet, the experience is similar here — of course, enhanced by the massive screen and tilting hinge.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Other included peripherals include the Surface Keyboard and Surface Mouse, both of which are wireless and automatically pair with the desktop. Neither do anything unusual, but they have a clean, minimalist design that feels like a good fit with the aesthetic of the Surface Studio 2.

The one peripheral that was left out of the package is the Surface Dial. The unique accessory, specifically built for applications like Adobe Illustrator, helps make the large canvas of the screen a bit more touch-friendly, providing quick access to buttons and menus that you’d otherwise have to dig through menus for. Though it’s still supported on the Surface Studio 2, it’s sold separately.

A strange choice in processor

The oddest thing about the Surface Studio 2 is the processor choice. There’s only one available this time around, and it’s the Core i7-7820HQ. That’s right — a 7th-gen mobile processor is powering what is supposed to be a high-powered $4,000 workstation. It’s not one we’ve benchmarked before, but it’s an update of the Core i7-6820HQ that appeared in the original Surface Studio. That left us concerned heading into our benchmarks, worrying that this might be this PC’s Achilles Heel.

Admittedly, this older processor held up better than we imagined. Microsoft gets more mileage out of these quad-core, mobile chips than laptops using the same hardware. Single-core performance is on par with laptops with 8th-gen Core i7 processors, and when you’re dialed into a single application like Illustrator or a game, things clip along at a snappy pace.

The choice of an outdated processor is strange, the Surface Studio 2’s one major flaw.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact this is a 7th-gen mobile processor in a $4,000 computer. Small gaming PCs with updated processors like the Lenovo Legion C730 Cube (Core i7-8700K) run circles around the Surface Studio 2 — and even compact machines like the Mac Mini (Core i5-8400B) make it seem outdated. The Surface Studio 2 does beat out the aging 27-inch 5K iMac, but that hasn’t been updated since mid-2017 and also has a 7th-gen processor.

The choice of an outdated processor is strange given Microsoft’s close relationship with Intel. The Studio is a unique product with very specific demands, but we wish Microsoft had crafted a better solution than this — especially with a two-year gap between iterations. For an expensive workstation that professionals will want to rely on for not just in demanding applications, but also intensive multitasking, that’s disappointing. Even an 8th-gen mobile processor like the Core i7-8750H, with twice as many cores and a higher Turbo Boost speed, would have made a significant impact in performance.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Fortunately, Microsoft saw it wise to update the storage technology on the new Surface Studio. The original used a hybrid HDD, which we bemoaned at the time for its slow write and read speeds. The Studio 2 has a full NVMe Toshiba XG5 solid state drive (SSD), meaning you can expect files to open quickly and applications to boot with lightning speed.

Configuration options have changed significantly in the new model. Microsoft has cut out the $3,000 base model configuration, meaning every system now comes with the Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and a TB of SSD storage. While the $3,500 starting price is tough to swallow, it does ensure that every Surface Studio 2 is a performer.

A secret gaming machine?

The Surface Studio 2 doesn’t look like it was made to play games, but don’t judge this computer by its looks alone. Microsoft has bumped the graphics from Nvidia’s 9-series GPUs up to the GTX 1060 or 1070, depending on configuration. Ours came with the more powerful option, and we were impressed at how well it performs in the Surface Studio 2.

In 3DMark, we saw a 37 percent increase over the previous generation, matching the scores of other machines with this chip. That wasn’t too surprising. But the deal sweetens in actual gameplay performance. Because of the 3:2 aspect ratio, we tested games in both 4,500 × 3,000 and 3,000 × 2,000 resolution. In our testing, we found that only lighter games can be played at maximum resolution, though bumping down to 3,000 × 2,000 makes most modern games playable

Playing Fortnite with the resolution set to 3,000 × 2,000 was no sweat, averaging a steady framerate in the mid 50s. Battlefield 1 hummed along at an average of 77 frames per second with resolution set to 2,560 × 1,440. The biggest surprise was in Civilization VI, where the Surface Studio 2 is punching way above its weight limit. In its max resolution, the game managed 60 FPS with settings on Ultra.

Gamers should note, though, that the 3:2 aspect ratio can cause trouble. Games sometimes find it difficult to detect the proper aspect ratio, which can make graphics look out of proportion. The Surface Studio 2 is certainly capable of gaming – but be mindful of the potential for incompatibilities with the very nice, yet unusual, display.

Giving Windows 10 a serious chance

We wouldn’t normally talk much about the software behind the Surface Studio 2. It’s just Windows 10 Pro, as with most other top-tier desktops. However, because Apple has such a squeeze on this demographic, it’s worth mentioning.

The benefits of the Windows ecosystem today are obvious. It offers the largest variety of desktop applications and games available, and the software support of Microsoft. Those who’ve grown up in their professional and creative careers on the Mac platform might balk at the idea of switching over to Windows 10. We know this is an issue, because it’s the first thing our own designers mentioned when asked if they’d consider working on the Surface Studio 2 full-time.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Yet Windows has come a long way in the past ten years. The operating system has taken a lot of cues from Apple in terms of aesthetics, all without losing familiar elements of the Windows design language. A lot of the benefits of MacOS that made it the go-to platform for creatives have been swept away of late, especially as Windows 10 has matured. Even things like swipes, gestures, and key commands are every bit as helpful as they are on MacOS.

Pen support is the perfect example. It’s baked right into Windows 10 and works extremely well. You can use a digital pen with a Mac too, of course, but you must buy an expensive third-party device — and definitely can’t draw right on the screen.

We do have one hang-up about software on this Windows 10 machine. Although drawing in applications like Photoshop and Illustrator works brilliantly, navigating around in it is less convenient. A quick undo or a color swap will require tapping around or taking your hands off the screen and stylus to find the mouse. The Surface Dial aids in this, though we still wish the applications were more touch-friendly in the same way the iOS apps are. Those small changes make working on an iPad more of a serious alternative to drawing tablets than the Surface products.

Our Take

The Surface Studio 2 is meant for a very specific group of people, namely creative professionals who’ve been dissuaded by Apple’s recent moves. Though it looks the same on the outside, the updated components and display make for a much-improved overall experience. Microsoft might still have work to do convincing Apple fans to switch sides, but it now has a serious iMac alternative.

Is there a better alternative?

In specs and price, the Surface Studio 2 fits squarely between the iMac and the iMac Pro. Microsoft’s all-in-one starts at $3,500 and tops out at $4,800. Our review unit was $4,200, which included 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.

That makes it difficult to compare them apples-to-apples, especially in terms of performance. The iMac Pro is by far the more powerful system with its Intel Xeon processors and Vega 64 graphics, but all three have world-class displays and build quality. Though the 27-inch iMac might be a better value, it lacks the tilting hinge, stylus support, and graphics performance that make the Surface Studio 2 stand out.

There are other great all-in-one PCs available today, but none are in the same class as the Surface Studio 2.

How long will it last?

The Surface Studio 2 is incredibly well-built, meaning the hinge isn’t going to suddenly stop working, nor is the SSD going to give out. With the addition of a Thunderbolt 3 port, it’s a bit more futureproofed than the original. The 7th-gen processor might begin to feel stale in a few years, especially as six-core systems become more and more common.

Microsoft has had some support issues in the past with other products, which is certainly a legitimate reason to favor Apple’s iMacs. The Surface Studio 2 does come with just a one-year warranty. That’s not great, especially considering you can’t open it up and try to diagnose it yourself.

Should you buy it?

Yes. It’s a unique product for a very niche group of people, but it’s great at filling that need.

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