Microsoft has announced the Surface Studio: a new 28-inch touchscreen PC aimed at professional graphics users, and designed to work with the firm’s Surface Pen stylus.
The device continues Microsoft’s push to win over the hearts and wallets of digital artists: a process begun with the original Surface tablets, and evident in some of the company’s recent ads.
Microsoft describes the Studio as “a whole new class of device, one designed for the creative process”.
But be that as it may, a lot of people will be comparing it to existing classes of devices: notably mobile graphics workstations and pen display tablets. So how does the Surface Studio stack up?
A massive 28-inch screen with above-4K resolution
The most eye-catching feature of the Surface Studio is the sheer size of its screen. The 28-inch LCD display is capable of 4,500 x 3,000 resolution with a pixel density of 192ppi.
Despite the unusual 3:2 aspect ratio, that’s higher than the broadcast DCI 4K standard (4,096 × 2,160 pixels) and way higher than the UHD-1 standard used for most 4K monitors (3,840 x 2,160 pixels).
(For comparison, Wacom’s largest pen display, the Cintiq 27QHD, has a resolution of ‘just’ 2,560 x 1,440.)
Despite its size, the slimline 12.5mm display means that the Surface Studio comes in at pretty much the same weight as an equivalent-size pen display (9.56kg, compared to the Cintiq 27QHD’s 9kg).
It comes with a ‘zero gravity’ hinge, enabling the screen to stand vertically or in a conventional drawing-board-type orientation. Microsoft says the hinge is strong enough to hold the screen at any angle.
And, as the connection to the PC’s hard drive, the hinge is built in: it isn’t an added extra, like a Cintiq stand.
Adequate, but not spectacular, pressure sensitivity
Where conventional pen display tablets score over the Surface Studio is the pen itself.
Microsoft’s current Surface Pen is more of a writing and sketching tool than a full-blown graphics device, with 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity.
Most Wacom devices support 2,048 levels, and its recently announced MobileStudio Pro pen displays will support a whopping 8,192. Wacom also offers a range of dedicated pen types, including a digital airbrush.
On-board controls versus the new Surface Dial peripheral
Where Wacom devices provide the firm’s trademark ExpressKeys and scroll wheel, the Surface Studio doesn’t have any dedicated on-board controls.
Instead, users can buy the optional $100 Surface Dial, an interesting new peripheral that can be used for anything from colour picking to scrubbing through audio or adjusting a 3D view.
When the Surface Studio detects that the Dial has been placed against the screen, a radial menu appears beneath it – which means that your software needs to support it actively.
At the minute, the only applications that do are Microsoft’s own, plus a limited number of sketching and drafting tools, shown in the video above: the one closest to a standard DCC app is animation package Moho.
That doesn’t mean that tools like Photoshop or ZBrush won’t run on the Surface Studio – despite its unusual shape, it’s a standard Windows 10 workstation at heart – it just means that you can’t use the Dial with them.
Internal hardware: similar to current mobile graphics workstations
In terms of internal hardware, there is a choice of three default configurations, all based around sixth-generation Intel Core-i5 or Core-i7 CPUs.
That’s still more or less current-gen hardware: although Intel announced its seventh-gen chips in August, they’re still trickling out to the market.
The GPUs are one generation behind the current releases – and interestingly, they’re gaming cards rather than workstation cards: Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 965M and GTX 980M.
However, they come with 2GB and 4GB of GDDR5 graphics memory respectively, which puts them on a par with Nvidia’s mid-to-high-end Quadro mobile workstation cards.
System RAM is comparable to a typical mobile graphics workstation – 8GB to 32GB, depending on which configuration you choose – and there is a choice of 1TB or 2TB hybrid SSD drives for primary storage.
In terms of connectivity, you get four USB 3.0 ports, one Mini DisplayPort, 1GB Ethernet, a headphone jack, wireless and Bluetooth; plus a 5.0MP front-facing camera.
Pricing: expensive, but not unrealistic
As you might expect, the Surface Studio won’t come cheap, but it isn’t uncompetitive, either.
The Core-i5 configuration, which comes with the GeForce GTX 965M GPU, 8GB RAM and 1TB of storage, will cost $2,999.
The Core-i7 configuration with the GeForce GTX 965M GPU, 16GB RAM and 1TB storage costs $3,499; the configuration with the higher-end GeForce GTX 980M, 32GB RAM and 2TB storage will cost $4,199.
That isn’t far off what you’d pay for an equivalently-specced mobile graphics workstation like HP’s ZBooks or Dell’s Precision series – and that would be for a much smaller screen with no touch input.
Surface Studio vs Wacom pen display: probably a matter of taste
It’s harder to make comparisons with Wacom’s pen displays, particularly with those like the Cintiq 27QHD, which are designed to be used with a workstation, rather than being one in their own right.
For what it’s worth, the highest-spec 16-inch MobileStudio Pro, which will also cost $2,999, will have a Core-i7 CPU, a Quadro M1000M GPU with 4GB graphics RAM, 16GB system RAM and a 512GB storage drive.
In that comparison, the Wacom display wins out on CPU, GPU (or graphics RAM, at least), system RAM and pressure sensitivity; the Surface Studio on system storage, screen size and screen resolution.
Either way, both are impressive-sounding pieces of kit – and given that neither is actually shipping yet, it’s probably safer to reserve judgement about which suits you best until the reviews are in.
The Surface Studio is currently available for pre-order. The Core-i5 configuration is currently due to ship on 15 December 2016; the Core-i7 configurations in “early 2017”.
Tags: Cintiq 27HD, connectivity, CPU, Dell Precision, GPU, graphics tablet, graphics workstation, HP ZBook, microsoft, mobile workstation, MobileStudio Pro, pen display, pressure sensitivity, price, RAM, release date, resolution, screen size, shipping date, specifications, storage, Surface, Surface Dial, Surface Pen, Surface Studio, tablet