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Hands On With the Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Microsoft Surface Studio

For digital artists who have learned to use an electronic stylus like the Microsoft Surface Pen or the nifty Surface Dial as their creative tools, it doesn’t get much better than the Surface Studio as a replacement for a physical easel.

But as an actual PC, the Studio has never been cutting edge, thanks to Microsoft’s decision to bestow it with sixth-generation CPUs and Maxwell-based Nvidia GPUs at its launch two years ago. Perhaps it comes as little surprise, then, that for the second generation of this all-in-one desktop, Microsoft decided to make the parts that give it its street cred as a digital canvas even better while quietly making overdue component upgrades that still don’t position it as a cutting-edge PC.

I spent a few minutes with the Surface Studio 2 this week at Microsoft’s launch event, and it became quickly apparent that as long as you don’t need as much raw processing muscle as you can get, it is a beautiful, flexible canvas whose unique input options make it far more versatile than competitors from Dell and Apple.

Microsoft Surface Studio 5

There’s really only one noteworthy update in the Surface Studio 2: its display. The 28-inch screen is the same size as before (positively ginormous, given that the already-huge Apple iMac Pro and Dell Precision 5720 use 27-inch screens), and it contains the same resolution (4,500 by 3,000) and pixel density (192 ppi) as its predecessor. It’s not exactly 4K, given its 3:2 aspect ratio, but it’s essentially equivalent to 4K.

The differences lie in contrast, luminosity, and the range of colors the new screen can offer. Microsoft says that thanks to the new liquid crystal technology, the Surface Studio 2’s display is 38 percent brighter and has 22 percent more contrast than its predecessor does. When you combine this improvement with the individual color calibration and support for the P3 color gamut, you get a brilliantly vivid display that’s also unapologetically bright, as if to say that pixels are just as worth a canvas as actual canvas.

Microsoft Surface Studio 3

Whether or not that’s the case is up to individual artists, of course, so Microsoft brought a few of them along to its event in New York City’s already artist-filled Greenwich Village to demonstrate how they use the Surface Studio 2. For example, one UK-based artist demonstrated how he used the Surface Dial to quickly create an impromptu kaleidoscope of adding and subtracting pre-created layers to an image.

Microsoft Surface Studio 18

A quick flick of the dial added color and shading to a night scene depicting an outdoor restaurant. Slowing down the dial’s rotation a bit, I could clearly see how each layer added complexity to what was otherwise a simple image that any DSLR-toting tourist could have snapped. It’s a nifty way of showing a client the amount of work that went into editing the image, the artist explained, and far more effective than simply clicking through layers with a mouse to add them.

All of this is quite possible with the first-generation Surface Studio, and the Surface Dial and Surface Pen aren’t any different. But I did get the sense that the colors in the Surface Studio 2 demo were more well-defined and the screen was brighter than before. We’ll have to wait until we get a Surface Studio 2 into PC Labs for formal testing before we know for sure.

Microsoft Surface Studio 4

The other upgrades Microsoft bestowed on the Surface Studio are really little more than bandages to make sure that its components are reasonably up to date. Even with the upgrades, however, the CPU and GPU are still a generation behind the cutting edge. The Surface Studio 2 uses a seventh-generation Intel Core i7-7820HQ, despite the fact that Intel introduced eigth-gen chips a year ago and ninth-gen chips will likely appear this year.

Likewise, the GPU choices now consist of an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or GTX 1070. These are plenty powerful graphics processors, especially if you’re primarily using them to apply filters to images instead of play graphics-intensive games. Still, they’re a generation behind now that Nvidia is selling its GTX 20-series chips.

Finally, Microsoft removed the dual-drive configuration option for the Surface Studio 2. Your storage options now consist solely of SSDs: either in 1TB or 2TB capacities.

From a component perspective, then, the Surface Studio 2 lags far behind the Precision 5720 and iMac Pro, each of which offer workstation-class Intel Xeon CPUs and GPUs. So the Surface Studio 2’s main strengths are its breathtaking display, which is even better now, as well as its unique input options. Do those make it worthy of an upgrade if you already have a first-gen model? We’re eager to find a definitive answer, so check back soon for our full review.

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