Apple iMac 27-Inch With 5K Retina Display (2019)
Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Intel Core i9-9900K
Intel Core i7-7820HQ
Apple macOS Mojave
RAM (as Tested)
Storage Capacity (as Tested)
AMD Radeon Pro Vega 48
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
5120 x 2880
4500 x 3000
Apple iMac 27-Inch With 5K Retina Display (2019)
Gorgeous Retina display. Sleek styling and extreme attention to detail. Top-notch computing performance. Solid sound quality. Excellent software bundle.
Expensive as configured. Small storage capacity. No HDMI or dedicated DisplayPort output. Lacks height adjustment. No touch screen.
With a newly available Intel Core i9 CPU and updated AMD Radeon Pro graphics, the 2019 reboot of the 27-inch Apple iMac all-in-one is now as powerful as it is beautiful.
Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Elegant all-in-one digital creation solution. Snappy performance. Super-thin, spectacular display that reclines. Accurate touch input for art/design work. USB-C support. Bundled Surface Pen.
Expensive. CPU could be beefier, considering separated base. Video out via USB-C, not a dedicated port.
Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 is a beautiful, pricey all-in-one desktop for artists, content creators, and professionals wedded to pen input. It packs components peppier than the original’s, and a downright stunning screen.
Digital artists, photographers, and other creative professionals trying to decide between the Microsoft Surface Studio 2 and the Apple iMac Pro now have an intriguing third option: the 2019 reboot of the 27-inch Apple iMac. Apple transformed this iconic all-in-one into a mighty content-creation powerhouse last month when it added the option for an Intel Core i9 CPU and more powerful Radeon Pro Vega 48 graphics.
Now, let’s be clear: This refreshed iMac can’t match the astonishing power of a maxed-out, Intel Xeon-powered iMac Pro configuration, nor is it as physically flexible as the touch-enabled Surface Studio 2. But many digital artists don’t need Xeon CPUs or touch screens. They just want a beautifully designed PC that offers decent performance per dollar.
The new 27-inch iMac certainly offers that. If the $ 5,000 starting price of the iMac Pro is too high for you, but you can afford an entry-level $ 3,499 Surface Studio 2 or a Core i9-powered $ 3,449 (as tested) 2019 Apple iMac, you might be tempted to narrow your search to the last two machines. Both earned Editors’ Choice awards, but for very different reasons.
Let’s break down how the configurations of the Surface Studio 2 and the 2019 27-inch iMac we just reviewed compare, beyond the basic specs cited above.
First, Design and Component Differences (They’re Big)
At first glance, there is just one clear similarity between the iMac and the Surface Studio 2: Both all-in-ones have screens of nearly the same panel size. But their displays, while both great, aren’t at all the same.
The Surface Studio 2’s panel has a unique 3:2 aspect ratio, instead of the much more common 16:9 widescreen ratio you’ll find on the iMac. With a 3:2 ratio, the onscreen image better mirrors physical work in a digital space for industries like print publications, which helps some artists create or translate their work more easily. The 3:2 ratio also affords more space in the margins for editing palettes and toolbars, if you’re working with media onscreen that is in the more common 16:9.
Touch and pen input are also huge differentiators between these screens. You can touch the Surface Studio 2’s screen, write on it with the optional Surface Pen, and control tool selections and other functions by placing and rotating the optional Surface Dial right on the panel. Its stand is even flexible enough to allow you to lay it flat on your desk. You can’t do anything of the sort with the iMac; as ever, it’s a resolutely non-touch, no-pen panel with a tilt-only stand. Both screens have incredible clarity, brightness, and wide color support, however, so the better one largely comes down to whether or not you need the touch input as part of your workflow.
The Surface Studio 2 we reviewed has an SSD with twice the capacity as the one in the iMac we tested, and that’s just the base level of local storage. The only option is to double the capacity (to 2TB), an extremely expensive upgrade. Meanwhile, you can configure the 2019 iMac with a host of different storage options, including a single conventional hard drive (not recommended, if you can help it), an Apple Fusion Drive (which combines a small SSD with a large hard drive), and a single SSD in several capacities. It’s nice that Apple offers all of those options, though professional content creators should exclusively focus on the SSDs; platter hard drives and combo drives like the Fusion are much slower.
Screens and storage are important considerations, indeed crucial for graphic artists and others who employ sketchwork or touch into their workflows. But for many users, these considerations are secondary to choosing a robust-enough CPU and graphics chip. This is one area where the iMac, with its optional Intel Core i9 CPU, is unquestionably better if you need to render video or perform other similar CPU-intensive tasks frequently. With eight cores, 16 threads, and a maximum boost clock speed of 5GHz, the Core i9-equipped iMac is superior to the four-core/eight-thread CPU in the Surface Studio 2, which has a 3.9GHz maximum boost clock speed and a lower power consumption that means it’s more commonly found in laptops than in huge all-in-one desktops.
In the Surface Studio 2, Microsoft offers only a single CPU option—there are no upgrades, even if you have the money and the jones to splash out for them—further cementing the iMac’s advantage on this front.
The iMac’s Radeon Pro Vega 48 graphics processor is excellent at performing many graphics-accelerated tasks or playing some video games, as is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 GPU in the Surface Studio 2. Neither machine is meant for gaming, but graphics-accelerated apps like those in the Adobe Creative Suite are common tools for photographers, video editors, and other creative professionals.
The Surface Studio 2 PCMag reviewed has twice the memory of the iMac we tested, but the iMac can be ordered with 32GB or even 64GB of RAM should you be inclined to keep dozens of browser tabs open at once or perform other memory-intensive tasks.
Peripherals and Ports
Both the iMac and the Surface Studio 2 come bundled with wireless peripherals. In the Surface Studio 2’s case, the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse are basic in functionality but handsome and better than your average bundled fare. The same is true of the Apple Magic Mouse 2 and Apple Magic Keyboard that come bundled with the iMac—they match the iMac’s stylish looks, but they’re not very comfortable to type on or navigate with for long.
Casual users may find these peripherals just fine, and for a lightly used machine in a public space where looks and minimalism matter more than productivity, they are ideal. In either case, though, if you need to do real work on the machine (and given the price, we suspect you will), you’ll want to choose your own third-party keyboard and mouse for better typing and pointing comfort.
The Surface Studio 2 includes four USB 3.0 ports (one is a high-power port for fast charging), as well as a single USB Type-C port, a full-size SD card reader, an Ethernet jack, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Rounding out the connectivity and input features is a TPM 2.0 chip for enterprise security, Windows Hello facial-recognition login support (via the 5-megapixel camera, which incidentally is also capable of capturing 1080p video), dual microphones, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0. The system also has built-in wireless Xbox controller support.
The iMac closely matches the basic I/O complement of the Surface Studio 2. It also comes with four USB Type-A ports, a full-size SD card reader, an Ethernet jack, and a 3.5mm headphone port. The iMac has double the Surface Studio 2’s USB Type-C ports, though, and both of them include Thunderbolt 3 for lightning-fast data transfers and display output that supports up to two external 4K displays.
The iMac’s webcam isn’t as capable as the Surface Studio 2’s. In addition to offering a lower resolution (720p), it lacks the infrared-camera capabilities necessary for the facial-recognition tech that lets you unlock your Windows PC or your iPhone. And while the iMac also includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it of course lacks the Microsoft-specific support for wireless Xbox controllers.
The final major deciding factor between the iMac and the Surface Studio 2 is software. The iMac runs macOS Mojave, while the Surface Studio 2 runs Windows 10. Both are excellent operating systems, and like the PCs they run on, both received Editors’ Choice awards for different reasons. If you’re OS-agnostic, choosing one is a task just as important—if not more so—than choosing a machine to run it.
Many users have already developed a preference or an unshakable training- or workflow-related requirement for Windows or macOS, of course, which could tip the scales heavily in favor of either the Surface Studio 2 or the iMac. Countless photography and movie studios have been using macOS for years, and they aren’t planning on switching to Windows, while many game developers wouldn’t dream of making a Mac their primary workhorse.
While the 2019 Apple iMac is using the latest and greatest graphics and CPU silicon, the Surface Studio 2, introduced last year, is a generation behind. If performance is the most important factor and you can delay your purchase by a year or so, it may be worth waiting to see what Microsoft comes up with next.
If you’re mainly interested in aesthetics, input options, and other similar features, on the other hand, both all-in-ones offer enticing prospects that, for the most part, do not overlap. The Surface Studio 2 has a flexible stand, diverse touch-enabled input options, and an excellent display. The iMac also has excellent display quality, and what it lacks in the form of touch input and physical flexibility is partially offset by a time-tested, classic design.
Ultimately, whichever all-in-one comes out on top in your book, don’t forget that there are many more alternatives out there. That’s especially true if you’re willing to broaden your scope to a tiny desktop attached to a 4K monitor, a setup that could be an ideal and more flexible alternative to an all-in-one like the iMac or the Surface Studio 2.