In its time, the original Microsoft Surface Studio was the most elegantly realized vision of a swift all-in-one desktop and a digital, pen-enabled drawing board combined. Digital art creation, engineering, architecture, and other professions that employ touch displays often rely on multiple products in their workflows—graphics tablets, secondary displays for palettes and timelines, specialized input devices—and the Surface Studio wrapped up much of this into one package. Its Surface Studio 2 sequel (starts at $ 3,499; $ 4,199 as tested) refines it with faster internal components packing more grunt for demanding workloads: a lightning-fast M.2 solid-state drive (SSD), a newer processor, and a potent Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 graphics chip. It’s a pricey proposition, and not in the class of workstation-grade PCs, but for the pros and creatives who need its specific touch-centric talents, this is a killer machine.
Refining an Innovative Design
In terms of the physical design, very little has changed from the original Surface Studio, which was innovative when it launched and remains so. Microsoft has again opted to store all the components in the base, rather than behind the 28-inch display, allowing for an extremely thin display panel.
No doubt, some of the visual inspiration is from the Apple iMac, but the difference is in the emphasis on touch input, and that is reflected in the rear hinge. Two metal arms extend from the base to hold up the screen, meeting in the middle at a hinge that allows you to use the screen vertically or flex it down horizontally.
It’s a simple idea, but essential in making the Studio a unique, elegant touch-screen desktop solution. (I’ll go into greater depth on the hybrid design and its uses below.) On a more general level, it’s this combination of a speedy desktop and a giant, pen-equipped slate that makes the Surface Studio line so appealing.
The base portion measures 1.3 by 9.8 by 8.7 inches (HWD). The hard-to-miss display comes in at a whopping 17.3 inches high by 25.1 inches across, while the panel portion is just 0.5 inch thick. That puts that panel at 28 inches diagonally, a huge screen by any AIO PC standard. The larger of Apple’s two iMacs comes right up near that at 27 inches, but most AIO displays are far smaller. As with the Surface Studio family on the whole, the Surface Studio 2 is made with a narrow audience in mind. Designers, media editors, and other professionals that ply visually centric work are the targets, though I can’t think of anyone who would not appreciate a nice, big screen like this one.
The display’s shape and resolution also cater toward that demographic. As on the original, the screen has an unusual, near-square 3:2 aspect ratio, rather than the much more common 16:9 widescreen ratio you’ll find on almost every modern laptop and monitor. With a 3:2 ratio, the onscreen image better mirrors physical work in a digital space for things like print publications, which helps some artists create or translate their work. It 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.
The 4,500-by-3,000-pixel native screen resolution remains the same, a greater-than-4K PixelSense display that works out to a fine-grained 192 pixels per inch (ppi). The Apple iMac With 5K Retina Display, by comparison, has a 27-inch screen with a 5,210-by-2,880-pixel resolution, though comparing the exact pixel count isn’t an apples-to-apples thing, given the different aspect ratios. The Dell XPS 27 also boasts a 27-inch display, with a standard 4K (3,840 by 2,160) native resolution.
The Surface Studio 2’s display is stunning, with a super-crisp, bold picture when set on the default Vivid color profile. It’s extremely bright on the maximum setting, as well, and of course features 10-point multitouch. You can flip from the Vivid profile to the DCI-P3 or sRGB color gamuts in the Windows 10 settings, which could prove essential to some artists and designers who need to work in one or the other for different projects.
Your Personal Studio
As the hinged design suggests, the Surface Studio 2 is more than just a pretty screen. I extolled the virtues of the collapsible design in the original iteration, and since much hasn’t changed and the benefits are clear, I won’t go into too much detail. When you’re using the Studio 2 as a standard high-end desktop, you can keep the display upright and not even think about its convertibility or touch features. That said, if you’re never going to use the machine with the screen reclined, I’m not sure you actually need the functionality I’m about to describe, nor need to pay the premium for it; plenty of very capable Windows-based AIO desktops on the market won’t charge you for the convertibility.
If you need to draw, design, or mark up work, though, simply pushing down on the top edge of the display or pulling the bottom edge toward you will slowly recline the screen. The so-called “Zero Gravity” hinge is fully adjustable, meaning no preset detents to ratchet through—you can stop reclining or raising it at any angle.
This allows the creative-minded users of the world to use the Surface Studio 2 as a digital easel within seconds, taking that standard vertical desktop orientation for email, chatting, and web browsing down into a sloped, nearly horizontal drafting board. It’s useful, intuitive, and frankly feels very cool and satisfying. It’s not the only convertible desktop out there, but no other is as elegant or has such a primo display attached.
This is exactly where the Studio 2 earns its keep, and as a full Windows desktop, any Windows-based program you need for work is available to you. Of course, some prefer to (or only can) work in macOS, but Apple offers no touch-panel options for Apple’s iMac AIO computers. Any penning-about will have to be done on a separate pen tablet.
The Surface Pen, thankfully, is included (unlike the somewhat less necessary, but still intriguing, Surface Dial), as you’d hope given the cost of and the overall concept behind the Surface Studio 2. If you’re going in for this type of desktop and are unfazed by the price, you’re almost definitely planning to use the reclining, pen, and touch features for design work of some kind, so making you buy the stylus separately would make little sense. (In contrast, it is sold separately from the tablet Surface devices such as the Surface Pro 6.)
The “eraser” end is a customizable button, as is a skinny strip along the side that you can set as right-click, paste, or something else depending on your workflow needs. By default, it brings up the Windows Ink Workspace software for launching quickly into note-taking and drawing. Magnetic strips on either side of the Surface Studio 2’s display let you attach the Surface Pen for ready access when you’re not using it. It grips well, and palm rejection works like a charm when you lean your hand on the screen.
Extras and Configurations
One physical aspect of the Surface Studio 2 that sees changes from the original is the port selection.
It’s not a huge difference. 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. The original had all of these things, barring the USB-C port. It instead had a mini DisplayPort connection; now, all video output will be handled through the USB-C connection. The exclusion of USB-C on the first-generation Surface Studio was a drawback, so it’s good to see it included here for faster data transfer and modern USB-C peripherals (even if it would be nice to also have a dedicated video-out port).
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. (That might seem a quirky addition, but not so much when you consider the graphics chip in this thing; more on that in a bit.)
The desktop also comes with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo. The two products are basic in functionality but better than your average bundled fare.
Now, as for the internals: Microsoft offers only three models of the Surface Studio 2, and the components don’t vary much among them. That makes choosing one pretty straightforward. All three include the same 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070 graphics, and an M.2 NVMe solid-state drive in one of two storage capacities. RAM is also a two-option variable.
This $ 4,199 review unit is the mid-tier model, and it comes with the GeForce GTX 1070, 32GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD. The $ 3,499 option below that (the “entry level” model) is the only one with the GTX 1060, and it includes 16GB of memory and the same drive, while the priciest of the three, the $ 4,799 option, comes with the GTX 1070, 32GB of memory, and a 2TB SSD. Opting for an extra 16GB of RAM isn’t a bad idea for media professionals, while the 2TB may be tempting (but very expensive) for those with a lot of high-definition video files and games.
Not Quite a Workstation, But Still Plenty Fast
For PC Labs’ formal performance benchmarks, I compared the Surface Studio 2 and its results to a slate of machines that are either comparably priced or equipped. I should note here that at PC Labs, we recently began testing with a new, revised suite of benchmarks and so, for the time being, have a limited set of data to compare the new results against. This is especially true for all-in-one desktops, which is a thinly populated category of systems of which PC Labs has not seen many of lately. So, for my comparisons, I chose those a few relevant traditional or small-form-factor PCs to illustrate CPU and GPU differences. After all, without the big screen, the Surface Studio 2’s square base would essentially amount to a mini desktop.
In this case, I compared the Surface Studio 2 to two HP desktops (the low-cost, AMD-powered Pavilion Gaming Desktop 690, and the Z2 Mini G4 Workstation), and a small-form-factor gaming machine, the MSI Trident X. You can see their key specs in the chart below…
All have desktop-grade CPUs from AMD or Intel, as opposed to the mobile-grade one in the Surface Studio 2.
Productivity and Storage Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet use, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score.
The PCMark 8 suite, meanwhile, contains a specialized PCMark 8 Storage test that we use to assess the speed of the PC’s subsystem. This result is also a proprietary numeric score.
The Studio 2’s CPU is a mobile chip, generally less robust than some of the competition here, which included workstation and desktop chips. As such, it fared well in comparison on the less strenuous PCMark 10 test, where the more powerful chips will excel on the straining multithreaded media tasks to follow. Still, this means the Studio 2 is a snappy desktop, good for powering your general office jobs and multitasking without breaking a sweat. Its M.2 SSD is also very fast, which is great news for boot times and application loading.
Media Processing and Creation Tests
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters. Systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see an added boost.
As I noted above, this is where you see some separation between the Surface Studio 2 and the chosen competition. It’s easy to see the premium design and high price and assume it reflects workstation-grade performance, but the Studio 2’s components aren’t quite at that level. Much of the cost goes to the design and display. It’s a good machine, and one very capable of performing professional tasks, but there are faster and less expensive machines that focus mainly on performance. The HP Z2 Mini and MSI Trident X are built for speed, and so they excel on these multithreaded tasks.
Synthetic Graphics Tests
Next up: UL’s 3DMark suite. 3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets. These scores are reported in frames per second (fps)
Often when we test systems with discrete graphics cards, the synthetic graphics tests are less important than the gaming tests and frame rates. That’s not so with the Studio 2, which is more likely to be used for professional 3D and graphics-driven workloads than gaming. The exciting news is the GeForce GTX 1070 really is a potent card, and a marked improvement over the GTX 980M in the original Studio. Only the Trident X’s outsize inclusion of a GeForce RTX 2080 makes the GTX 1070 look anything less than top notch, but it’s really an effective graphics engine. Unless you really need a lot of 3D power for professional work, the GPU acceleration from this machine should be plenty.
Real-World Gaming Tests
While you’re less likely to use the Surface Studio 2 for gaming, given what it is, it’s certainly possible to play plenty on it. To illustrate, I ran Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider on this machine at multiple resolutions (which don’t match the standard 16:9 suite of test resolutions) at maximum and medium presets to see how it fared.
These are both modern, high-fidelity AAA game titles with built-in benchmarks, making them good fits for this job. Because of the newness of our current testing procedures, PC Labs doesn’t have comprehensive performance data from past machines to make comprehensive graphs, but it’s easy to see how the Studio 2 performed from its own numbers.
For starters: Its maximum 4,500-by-3,000 resolution is, by far, too much for the hardware. (Really, virtually no AIO machine should try to play games at that higher-than-4K resolution.) The Studio 2 averaged only 20fps in each benchmark at the maximum settings preset.
Lowering the resolution setting to 3,000 by 2,000 pixels saw more reasonable results: 40fps on Far Cry 5, and 44fps on Rise of the Tomb Raider. That isn’t sky-high, but it is definitely playable. The 2,250-by-1,500-pixel setting is likely the one you want for 60fps gaming, if you’re set on doing so; at that resolution, the Surface Studio 2 averaged 62fps and 66fps on these tests. You could also dial down some visual settings at the higher resolutions to boost the frame rates.
All told, the Surface Studio 2 is no high-powered gaming machine at its native screen resolutions, but the GTX 1070 makes it well more than possible to play leading-edge titles at lower resolution settings, should you want to fire up a session of a shoot ’em up or an RPG. And less-demanding online MMOs will run just fine.
A Compelling Mix of Beauty and Function
The Surface Studio 2 hasn’t changed too much from the original, and that’s a big point in its favor.
All that applied then applies now: It’s an elegant combination of a drawing display and a fast computer in one device. Now, the parts are faster and a bit better suited to the job, though the biggest thing I’d change would be to make the processor beefier for the price. After all, the base portion contains the motherboard and CPU, and could be thickened to house a more robust desktop-grade, rather than mobile, CPU. It’s not like the hottest-running parts need to fit in a narrow thermal envelope behind the screen.
The other concern is, of course, the price. In any configuration, the Surface Studio 2 is no-doubter expensive, with the premium down to the unique design and the ultrafine screen. That said, if you genuinely need the touch-input and pen functionality, know that dedicated, pro-grade drawing tablets alone, like those from Wacom, can cost thousands of dollars by themselves.
As a result, if you are considering the Surface Studio 2, you ought to need (or really want) that hybrid functionality. If you don’t, you can find more cost-effective AIO desktops out there: The Dell XPS 27 and its workstation-strength Dell Precision 5720 All-in-One brother are broadly similar, while, of course, the Apple iMac and iMac Pro are the picks if you prefer macOS and don’t need the touch/onscreen pen functionality before all else. That said, for the artists, architects, engineers, and creative professionals whose needs uniquely align with this superb AIO, there is no substitute.