Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio Does It All

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio Does It All
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Even among 2-in-1s, Microsoft’s Surface Book was kind of a unicorn. You can open up its wings and use it like a typical laptop, but then with the push of a button, its screen can detach and fly away, becoming a standalone tablet floating through the wind. OK, I may have overdone the unicorn analogy, but you get the point: The Surface Book’s design was one of a kind.

Unfortunately, the Surface Book paid a price for its eccentric build, because trying to stuff all the components you need to make a computer inside its tablet half results in a clever but cumbersome hinge, a heavy body, and a difficult upgrade path for future generations. But with the Surface Laptop Studio, Microsoft has created an evolved convertible that carries on the Surface Book’s legacy. It’s a mobile artist’s dream machine.

Surface Laptop Studio

WHAT IS IT?

A convertible Surface for digital artists

PRICE

Starts at $2,399 (2,700 as reviewed)

LIKE

Gorgeous, unique design, good battery life, surprisingly detailed speakers, first-class stylus experience, excellent touchpad and keyboard, 120Hz display, strong performance, support for Thunderbolt 4

DON'T LIKE

Pricey, heavy, could use a couple more ports, Windows 11 could use a bit more polish, tilting screen only has a few set positions, no AMD CPU option, Slim Pen 2 doesn't come included

A Digital Easel for the 21st Century

The biggest difference between the Surface Book and the new Surface Laptop Studio (simply the Studio from here on out) is that instead of featuring a 2-in-1 design, the Studio utilises a 14.4-inch 2400 x 1600 touchscreen that opens like a normal laptop, but also tilts forward like an easel. This is something we’ve seen before on other creator-focused laptops like Acer’s Concept D9, but on the Studio, Microsoft has refined that idea to a super sleek conclusion. The only thing that gives the Studio’s unusual design away is the thin panel gap that runs across the centre of its lid, while the effect that hinge has on the system is profound.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

For general use and productivity, the Studio functions just like any other laptop. But when you want to draw or brainstorm some ideas on a whiteboard, you can simply pull the Studio’s display forward into what Microsoft calls Stage mode, creating a perfect surface (pun intended) for all sorts of content creation. And then if you want a more low-profile drafting table setup, you can press down again to turn the Studio into a big tablet, giving you another angle to work with while also keeping the spirit of the Surface Book alive.

All in all, it’s a quite an experience. The Studio also sports a lovely 120Hz screen, excellent brightness (upwards of 450 nits), and rich, accurate colours, making it feel like it’s ready to help you work or create, regardless if you’re at home or on the road. One area where I think Microsoft may have stopped short though is that the Studio’s tilting screen only has a few preset resting points. You get laptop mode, Stage mode, and tablet mode, but if you want anything in between, you better have a light hand, because the Studio’s hinge isn’t really designed to hold its posture outside of those three main modes. This is a bit of a bummer, because if my memory serves me right, this is the same weak point a bunch of early Surface Pros suffered from until Microsoft upgraded their kickstands to support a stiffer hinge that could maintain its position at any angle.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

Holding the entire system together is Microsoft’s gorgeous magnesium and aluminium chassis, which features a rather unusual overhang that runs around the perimeter of the system and serves a few different purposes.

The most useful function the Studio’s lip provides is that it serves as a spot to stash Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 (which sadly does not come included) when not in use, clipping magnetically to the bottom of the lip for easy storage and charging. Another handy advantage of the Studio’s overhang is that it keeps the laptop’s recessed vents pushed back from the sides of its frame, so you’re less likely to get blasted by a gust of hot hair. However, I suspect one final bonus of the overhang that Microsoft might not admit is that it ensures the Studio doesn’t look too much like another line of premium notebooks from a certain fruit company, because if the Studio had straight sides, it would invite a lot more comparisons.

One last note about the Studio’s design: While it’s rather compact for a 14-inch laptop with this kind of flexibility, it’s still somewhat hefty, weighing in at 3.83 to 4 pounds depending on if you opt for the Core i5 or Core i7 model. That’s only a quarter to half a pound lighter than the 15-inch Surface Book 3, so there are some weight savings when compared to its predecessor, but it’s still not exactly ultraportable light.

A Haptic Stylus You Can Feel

If you’re simply looking for a laptop for general productivity, the Studio is a lot more than you need, because what really sets it apart its stylus experience. That’s because while styluses with force feedback are available in more specialised systems, they’re still rather niche. But now the Studio is bringing haptic styluses into the mainstream.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

When combined with the Surface Slim Pen 2 and its built-in G6 chip, the Studio is able to provide rumbles, vibrations, and even tactical bumps in supported apps — basically any app that supports Windows Inking or has specifically integrated Microsoft’s force feedback platform. This adds a completely new dimension when drawing on a screen. It even works in productivity apps like Word and OneNote, giving you handy little confirmation rumbles when you circle a word to highlight it, or draw a line through a phrase to delete it.

Now I’ve never claimed to be a Picasso, but this added layer of feedback provides new depth to the Windows Inking experience, and even with my untrained hand it often feels like the Studio is encouraging me to type less and pick up its stylus more. It’s such a gratifying experience, and even though it doesn’t work across every app, a lot of the big ones are already covered — including the almighty Photoshop. So even without being a capital-A Artiste, the Studio gives me a newfound passion that encourages me to try my hand again and again, and I won’t be surprised at all when haptic stylus support gets added to pens and pencils from competing brands (I’m looking at you Apple and Samsung).

First-class Keyboard and Touchpad

Normally, the keyboards and touchpads on your typical Windows notebooks are barely worth mentioning, especially with the pervasive whiff of elitism you often hear from longtime MacBook fans who believe that Apple just does touchpads better. But on the Studio, Microsoft has provided a typing and mousing experience that’s every bit as good, if not better than what you get on pretty much any other laptop — Windows or otherwise.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

The Studio’s keyboard features three levels of backlight intensity along with a firm but not overly stiff keystroke, aided by Microsoft’s satisfyingly responsive Moving mechanical switches. But the Studio’s touchpad is the real treat, featuring a large glass panel with sophisticated haptic feedback and incredibly accurate gesture recognition. Frankly, it’s just damn good, and from now on, the Studio’s touchpad is my new high watermark that I’m going to compare everything else to.

Strong Performance, but Where’s the Support for AMD?

When the Studio was first announced, a lot of people took umbrage with Microsoft’s inclusion of integrated Intel Iris XE graphics or an optional Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU — the latter of which is what came on our review unit. But this is a mobile content creation machine, not a gaming rig, and in my testing, that 3050 Ti is more than enough to keep things feeling smooth and snappy.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Click through for more close-ups of the Surface Laptop Studio.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Instead, the choice that should really grind your gears is Microsoft choosing to go Intel-only for the Studio’s CPU. Don’t get me wrong, the Intel Core i7-11370H in our review unit is speedy, but when I look at other 14-inch laptops like the Razer Blade 14 and its Ryzen 9 5900HX CPU, I can’t help but imagine how much more powerful the Studio would feel with a modern AMD processor. In benchmarks like Geekbench 5, the Studio posted a multicore score of 61,617 versus 112,796 for the Blade 14. That’s a pretty significant gap, and one that shows up in real-world tests too, with the Blade 14 taking just 7 minutes and 26 seconds to transcode a 4K movie to 1080p, compared to a slower time of 11:21 for the Studio. And in Blender, it’s a similar situation, with the Studio’s CPU taking 7:07 to render an image, while the Blade 14 took just 3:48.

So while the Studio’s performance is good, I’m still a tiny bit salty knowing how much better it could have been with AMD (especially since we’ve already seen Microsoft embrace AMD on the Surface Laptop 4).

All the Extras

With a battery life of 11 hours and 44 minutes on our wifi video rundown test, the Surface Laptop Studio is firmly above average, handily beating out the Razer Blade 14 (6:41) and the Alienware m15 R5 (7:27), but falling short to lighter and less power-hungry ultraportables like the Galaxy Book Pro (14:46) and even the Surface Laptop 4 (12:21).

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

As for ports, the big upgrade for the Studio is support for two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4, which might be the real reason Microsoft went Intel-only, as it’s kind of a hassle for device makers to add Thunderbolt to systems with AMD chips. And with the Studio designed to be equally proficient on its own or when connected to one or more external displays, sticking with Intel to get Thunderbolt feels a lot less egregious.

Elsewhere, you also have a 3.5mm audio and support for Microsoft magnetic Surface power connector, which when paired with the Surface’s power brick comes with the benefit of adding a bonus USB 3.2 Type-A port. Though if I had my way, I would have axed the Surface connector altogether in favour of a third (or fourth) USB-C port with USB Power Delivery. High-end MacBook Pros gets four USB-C ports, and in a perfect world, the Studio would too.

And while the Studio is clearly aimed more at visual artists than musical magicians, the system’s quad “Omnisonic” speaker don’t fail to impress, and the Studio’s 1080p webcam captures sharp video, too.

Your Studio Awaits

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

Like its predecessor, the Surface Laptop Studio feels like a special creature, and even though I really like what I’ve experienced thus far, I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface of its potential. Microsoft has delivered a system with an excellent build, a vivid and super-smooth display, and a refined design that provides a wealth of tools and premium features across the board. Microsoft even tacked on a handful of clever tweaks, like the drawing menu that pops up automatically up whenever you remove the stylus from its magnetic perch.

However, the Studio’s biggest downside is that it ain’t exactly cheap, starting at $2,399 for a Core i5 CPU with integrated graphics, and going up to a minimum of $2,884 if you want that discrete RTX 3050 Ti GPU. A fully loaded model with a GPU, 32GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD costs a wallet-clutching $4,257. But for artists who can appreciate all of Microsoft’s subtle touches and fine details, the Surface Laptop Studio feels like a curated device that blends high tech with useful features.