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As posted on The Microsoft Surface Studio is an illustrator’s dream

For the two weeks that the Microsoft Surface Studio sat at my desk, it attracted a lot of attention. I’m an illustrator and I work with a lot of other creatives, and artists love to look at something beautiful. There were plenty of “Oohs” and “Aahs,” and the beautiful simplicity of the device was demonstrated when, for about 15 minutes, five co-workers gathered around my desk as we went on a tour of the world via Google Maps.

Navigating a 3D satellite view of New York City became a magical experience. Swiping a single finger on the screen allowed for rotating vistas that looked incredible. Was this a high point of artistic achievement? No. Was it insanely fun and beautiful, just because it was on the Studio? Yep.

3D Google Maps on the Surface Studio is an insanely fun and beautiful experience.

3D Google Maps on the Surface Studio is an insanely fun and beautiful experience.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Let me back up for minute: I’m Mashable‘s senior illustrator — my job is to create the art and graphics that accompany our stories on our website and across our various social channels. In other words, I’m exactly the kind of person Microsoft is trying to appeal to with the Surface Studio, the company’s sleek and powerful all-in-one PC.

In a splashy press event last fall, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Studio and showed off its arsenal of tools and toys for drawing, drafting and painting on its large digital canvas. The news immediately piqued my interest since I spend almost all of my time at work on a Wacom Cintiq 22-inch touchscreen tablet, making things like this:

Image: bob al-greene/mashable

The Cintiq is a top-of-the-line device and allows artists to draw directly on the screen almost as if they were working on paper. I’ve worked on various models from Wacom over the years, and the experience on the Cintiq is closest to the feeling of “traditional” tools of pen and ink. However, it functions as a second screen that I use solely for art creation; my everyday tasks, like web browsing and email, I do on an iMac.

The author's Wacom Cintiq tablet workstation.

The author’s Wacom Cintiq tablet workstation.

Image: Bob Al-Greene/Mashable

That would change with the Surface Studio, which puts all of your tools in one machine. I’d been thinking about the device’s promise — an enormous, beautiful screen housing an all-in-one creative suite — so I jumped at the opportunity to switch out my 27-inch iMac and Cintiq for a week or two and work exclusively on the Studio.

At the same time, I was apprehensive: I haven’t owned or regularly used a Windows device in more than five years. But the transition from macOS to Windows 10 was smooth, and with the exception of some hot-key confusion (curse that Ctrl button!) I was able to focus entirely on the hardware — which is a good thing, because there is a lot to take in on the Surface Studio.

Elite Studio

The Surface Studio is a remarkably simple and elegant device. The massively immersive 28-inch screen is attached to the rectangular base by a pair of dual-hinged struts — what Microsoft calls the “zero gravity hinge.” The base has to be heavy so you don’t inadvertently shift your entire workstation every time you adjust the reclining screen. Ports are in the back of the base — four USB 3.0, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort, a headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet — along with the lone power cord.

The Surface Studio makes for an impressively austere workstation.

The Surface Studio makes for an impressively austere workstation.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

I tested the fully tricked-out Surface Studio with an Intel Core i7 processor, 2TB of storage, 32GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX980M graphics card with 4GB of GPU-dedicated RAM. All that power means a price tag of $4,199, up from the base model at $2,999. The high price might be a turn-off for some, but consider that a 22-inch Wacom Cintiq retails for $1,799 — and it needs a separate computer to function.

All the ports in back: 4 x USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, microSD, headphone jack.

All the ports in back: 4 x USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, microSD, headphone jack.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

As I disassembled my usual workstation, I was frustrated by the tangle of cords and adapters connecting my Cintiq to power and to my iMac. Despite my best efforts to keep them organized, they’d become tangled, making unplugging a chore. Replacing it all with the Surface Studio doubled my extra desk space instantly and made my whole area feel cleaner and more organized. All I had to plug in was one cord, for power. I booted it up, and within minutes I was creating art. 

Getting Immersed

The Surface Studio boasts an expansive 28-inch display, and, at 192 pixels per inch (ppi), everything on it looks and feels crystal clear. The experience of using it is incredibly immersive: The screen is so large that it hides the heavy base and hinge from view, so the display seems to float on its own, magically just “there” in front of your face. In the words of one of my animator colleagues, five minutes after sitting down with the Studio: “I feel like I’m in my art.”

I’d never worked on a touchscreen computer before now. I have an iPad at home and I’ve experimented with the iPad Pro and Surface Pro, but the ability to touch a screen and manipulate programs with my fingertips on a desktop computer seemed extraneous and unnecessary. 

The Surface Studio's 28-inch screen bestows the feeling of getting immersed in your art.

The Surface Studio’s 28-inch screen bestows the feeling of getting immersed in your art.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

The Surface Studio taught me the exact opposite was true. I quickly eschewed the mouse in favor of the more direct interaction offered by the Surface Pen and the five styluses on my own right hand.

With 10-point multitouch, you can really do anything you need to on the Studio with your fingers. Pinching to zoom or rotate an image, scrolling with two fingers, tapping a link quickly with the pad of my index finger, all of this quickly became second nature, as the Studio recreates the feeling of manipulating flat paper on a desk. The ease and simplicity also makes switching between programs — a necessity when working on one screen rather than two — less of a chore.

After you work on the Surface Studio, you'll want to touch all your screens.

After you work on the Surface Studio, you’ll want to touch all your screens.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

In fact, when I did some work on my home workstation later that evening, I caught myself intermittently trying to tap my iMac screen and wishing I had touch capability on my 13-inch Cintiq (a smaller version of my work tablet). I turned this function off within a week of setting up my Wacom tablet, but now I want to give it another try. I suspect the palm rejection on the Surface Studio is more advanced than on the Cintiq, and I’ll probably find myself missing the intuitive interface of this gorgeous device. Apple, give us a touchscreen iMac already!

Using the Surface Studio mouse — a cheap-feeling, dull gray, plastic blob with a scroll wheel — felt unnatural and often unnecessary compared with the touchscreen. That’s partly because the mouse is overly sensitive and twitchy compared to the Apple Magic Mouse I’m used to. But also, when a device features five input mechanisms — a keyboard, a mouse, a stylus, a dial (more on that in a minute) and your own hand — you’re bound to start ignoring one.

One sleek all-in-one

Two things about the Surface Studio can’t be overstated: the crystal-clear display and the thinness of the screen. At only 0.34 of an inch (8.6mm) along the edge (and 0.49 inch at the center), the Studio puts the bulging back of the iMac to shame. And the ridiculously high resolution (4,500 x 3,000) means 4K videos look next-level gorgeous (heck, I was thrilled enough with a 4K desktop wallpaper). 

The Microsoft Surface Studio is an unbelievably slim all-in-one.

The Microsoft Surface Studio is an unbelievably slim all-in-one.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

As loyal as I am to my Cintiq, it’s worth noting that the color display has never been perfect. No matter how many times I’ve adjusted the RGB settings on both devices, they never quite match their accompanying iMacs in terms of color saturation and tone. This means double-checking and adjusting every piece of art I make on two screens. But by using just one screen with an sRGB  display, this problem disappears on the Surface Studio.

I would be remiss without mentioning two other functions the Studio boasts over my usual work setup: Cortana and Windows Hello. The former, an easily accessible voice-controlled desktop assistant, I found competent but superfluous. I’d expect to use it about as much as I use Siri on desktop, which is to say: not much. But Windows Hello — which uses face-scanning technology to recognize me and automatically log me in every time I sat down at the Studio — was easy to set up and felt pretty cool every time. Again, the word I keep coming back to with the Studio is magical.

Call it a draw

I’m ambivalent about making the switch from a Wacom stylus to the Surface Pen. On one hand, it’s a fine-looking instrument: Sleek and silver, it’s slimmer and shorter, yet heavier, than the Wacom stylus.

The Surface Pen feels natural in my hand, and I was surprised to learn that many of my colleagues dislike the fatter Wacom stylus, which does feel like a fat kindergarten crayon by comparison. To me, both are more than fine.

The Surface Pen was very capable, but lacked the same precision and tools as a Wacom stylus.

The Surface Pen was very capable, but lacked the same precision and tools as a Wacom stylus.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Where the Surface Pen loses out is functionality. To start off, the Pen touts 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity — precisely half of the Wacom Cintiq’s 2,048. So expect less pressure control right off the bat. I do a lot of drawing and often need to vary line width based on how much pressure I’m applying, so I want the highest level of pressure control possible. The Surface Pen is just not that.

The Surface Pen touts 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity — precisely half of the Wacom Cintiq’s 2,048.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of customization. Every Wacom stylus I’ve used has two buttons on the side that can be programmed to suit the user. I personally use one button as a Pan/Scroll shortcut, and the second to right-click. The Surface Pen has only one button on its side, with only one programmable action: a right-click function I found sluggish.

The Pen’s shortcut button, located where you would find an eraser on a pencil, offered more promise to me as a first-time user. Its Eraser function not so much — it’s quicker and easier to just use a keyboard shortcut than to constantly be flipping the Pen back and forth in my hand — but the Windows Ink Workspace allows for some cool tricks.

A double-click, for instance, brings up Screen Sketch mode and instantly creates an editable screenshot that I can draw on, crop, and save. I take a lot of screenshots on my Mac, so having this function programmed right into my Stylus was refreshing.

Another big feature of the Surface Pen is that it can be magnetically attached to either side of the Studio’s massive screen at any time. I’m a bit absent-minded and I often misplace my Wacom stylus or let it roll underneath my tablet, then have to scrounge around my entire desk looking for it. Not so with the magnetic Stylus Pen. Kudos, Microsoft!

The power of gravity

A lot of the Surface Studio’s reputation as a revolutionary device hinges on one element: namely, the “zero gravity” hinge. Because it’s been designed as a multi-purpose creative tool for artists, photographers, designers, videographer and musicians, the Studio’s screen can be tilted and readjusted almost instantaneously based on what you want out of it.

The Surface Studio's "zero gravity" hinge.

The Surface Studio’s “zero gravity” hinge.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

So if you’d prefer to work on a nearly flat 20-degree incline in Studio Mode, or the more traditional 90-degree Desktop Mode, or somewhere in between, the choice is up to you.

Angling the screen is effortless and cool every time — the ease of adjustment makes it a cinch to find your preferred angle instantly. I typically grabbed the screen by its left and right edges to adjust, but you can lift it from the bottom with one hand or press it down with a single finger. It’s that easy. The process is smooth and virtually silent, reinforcing the illusion that this is not a grounded device but a levitating screen.

This light-touch adjustment is both a great strength and one of the Surface Studio’s few apparent flaws. I prefer to have my screen closer to a 45-degree angle when I’m drawing. The Studio accommodated me and it was easy to find my perfect position and begin drawing… but I found that applying too much pressure with the stylus would push the screen down slightly, changing the angle.

This happens because the hinge was designed without the locking mechanism seen on devices like the Wacom Cintiq. Of course, the absence of a lock also makes the experience intuitive and smooth, but it’s a trade-off. I hope Microsoft can incorporate some kind of locking mechanism into a future model of the Surface Studio while keeping the adjustment process smooth, simple and elegant.

Dial me out

The other big star of show, if less central to the Surface Studio’s function, is the Surface Dial. Microsoft has hyped it as a “completely new way to interact with technology,” though third-party dials have been available for years. This Dial is sold separately from the Studio, retailing for $99.99.

I found it to be a confounding little device. 

The Microsoft Surface Dial

The Microsoft Surface Dial

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Smooth, sleek and silver, the Dial feels heavy in your hand, like a paperweight, and at first it seems far more impressive than the Surface Studio’s mouse. The Dial’s high-friction rubber underside allows it to “stick” to your screen (sort of), but most of the time I left it sitting on my desk behind the keyboard. In this default mode the Dial has five basic functions (with two extra programmable slots): Volume, Play Next Track, Scroll, Zoom and Undo. Users can switch between these functions by pressing and holding on the dial, which brings up a circular pop-up menu.

The main functions stay the same, but some programs grant the Dial extra powers. Placing it on the screen makes it even more powerful; in the drawing program Sketchable, for instance, the Dial becomes a super-charged homebase for brush controls. Line weight, opacity, brush shape, color and more are all editable, on the fly, while you’re drawing. It makes for some eye-catching demonstrations, but I’m not convinced it’s useful in my day-to-day workflow.

The Surface Dial lets you change the color of your brushstroke on the fly.

The Surface Dial lets you change the color of your brushstroke on the fly.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

The Dial started to frustrate me when I realized it didn’t truly stick to my screen. I had assumed, based on the demo videos I’d seen, that its sticky base would allow it to cling to the screen wherever I placed it, like a phone on a car dashboard. Even on a tilted screen, I expected the Dial to hold on (at reasonable angles anyway).

Instead, I found that the Dial immediately starts to slide down the screen when you place it, no matter how gentle that angle is. Even at the Studio’s flattest setting — 20 degrees — the Dial’s slow creep downward is visible, made more obvious by the way the device’s circular menu lags behind before following the Dial downward every few seconds.

At the 20-degree setting, with a freshly cleaned screen, the Dial takes about 6 minutes to slide from the top of the screen to the bottom. It moves twice that speed when the screen has been in use; it seems the oils from my fingerprints and smudges make the screen slicker. Such is touchscreen life.

All of this simply means that the Dial cannot be placed onscreen and left until you need it again — if you want to use the Dial onscreen, Microsoft wants you to hold it there. It’s not an oversight or flaw on their part; this is how the designers want you to use it.

This essentially confirms one of the biggest fears I had about the Surface Studio: that using the Dial would be a constant routine of picking it up, placing it on screen, then placing it back on my desk. For what the Dial offers, this extra work isn’t quite worth the payoff.

But the sliding was only the beginning.

Mo’ Dial, mo’ problems

I found the Surface Dial to have problems in almost every way I used it. Let’s take a look at its five core functions:

Volume: This is probably the most intuitive of the dial’s “main” functions. Using a dial to control volume is not a strange concept to anyone, and the fine-tuning of the dial allows you to quickly and naturally find the perfect volume. If you’re listening to music while you work, it makes the most sense to leave the dial in volume mode.

God help you, though, if you then decide to use the Dial for something else: If it’s in a different mode and you want to change the volume with it, you’ll have to hold down the Dial for a moment, navigate to the volume control function, click it, and then rotate to change the volume. That’s four steps to do something I can do now by hitting one key at the top of the keyboard (or by using the volume buttons on the righthand side of the screen).

The Surface Dial is often more trouble than it's worth.

The Surface Dial is often more trouble than it’s worth.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Play next track: Brings up a widget with Play, Pause, Next and Last Track and Volume controls. I found tapping the screen more intuitive than using the Dial to skip tracks.

Scroll: Scrolling with the dial is a pleasant and smooth experience, but just marginally more pleasant than the mouse’s scroll wheel. I’d still rather use my iMac’s Magic Mouse or Trackpad — both of which allow for side-to-side panning, not just vertical scrolling.

Zoom: Working in art programs like Photoshop and Sketchable, I found myself far more likely to use the pinch-and-zoom capability of the touchscreen, which is more intuitive and precise, and allows for rotation at the same time.

The Surface Dial and the Surface Studio mouse.

The Surface Dial and the Surface Studio mouse.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Undo: This is a big one. The Dial becomes a full-on time machine in Undo mode. When activated, the onscreen Dial display shows your work progress as a percentage — 100% is your current stage (the present), and 0% is the first stroke you made (the past). By turning the wheel counterclockwise, you travel backward through your work at the pace you decide.

The Dial so sensitive that getting back to any specific point, even one or two steps backward, is a challenge bordering on impossible.

It might sound cool, but this function is the most frustrating to me. With the super-sensitive Dial, moving just one step at a time takes a light touch. In my workflow and that of the artists I talked to, the Undo command is usually used to go back only a step or two to fix an error. For anything more than that, I typically use the History panel in Photoshop. This panel displays dozens of previous steps and labels them, allowing me to quickly navigate to a point in time.

The problem with the Dial is it’s so sensitive that getting back to any specific point, even one or two steps backward, is a challenge bordering on impossible, and I found myself repeatedly getting stuck in loops — erasing too much, then jumping too far forward, then too far back, then too far forward.

Moreover, I frequently experienced lag when rewinding quickly or going backward more than, say, 10% at a time. This led to several frustrating moments spent helplessly watching my art unmaking itself far beyond what I intended, knowing I would have to immediately turn the dial back forward again. The effect of “rewinding” the creation of art makes for a flashy visual, but not when you can’t control it effectively. More feedback from the dial or a ratcheting effect within the mechanism could increase the precision, but for now, Undo is an monster you should never unleash on your work.

One last note about the Dial. Just like adding pressure with the Pen, pressing the Dial can occasionally cause the screen to tilt down. In this way, the two premier aspects of the Surface Studio — the Dial and the Hinge — work together to make the overall experience imperfect. Oh, well.

A Studio worth visiting

At the end of my time with the Microsoft Surface Studio, I did not want to give it up. Considering what a joy it is to work on my regular Cintiq, that’s saying quite a bit. Despite its few obvious faults — the lack of a locking mechanism on the hinge, and a Dial that I have all but given up on — it remains a compelling and undeniably gorgeous instrument.

One of the pieces of art the author created on the Surface Studio.

One of the pieces of art the author created on the Surface Studio.

Image: Bob Al-Greene/Mashable

As a graphic artist and designer, I was able to adapt the Studio to my daily workflow fairly quickly. An animator colleague of mine used it for an afternoon to create motion graphics and found it up to the task of her workload as well. I have no doubt that artists of all stripes — illustrators, musicians, filmmakers, architects, and more — will find uses for the Studio and create beautiful things with it.

As hard as I am on the Dial, I’m likewise sure some artists will find it an interesting and eventually an intrinsic part of their creative process, but it’s not the right device for me right now. Luckily, Microsoft isn’t pushing anyone to buy it — you certainly don’t need it to fully enjoy the charms of the Surface Studio.

The Microsoft Surface Studio.

The Microsoft Surface Studio.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

So, is this the next big thing for digital artists? After years of Apple being the default brand for young creatives, is Microsoft going to carve out some of that space with the Surface Studio? Well, your mileage may vary. If you’re a creative just starting out in your career, or if you don’t have a significant chunk of change to drop on it, then there are certainly more affordable ways to piece together your own creative “studio.”

But if, like me, you’re in a place where you can request devices from your employer for your professional work (wink wink), or if you’re ready to take a plunge and switch up your creative process at home, then you’ll find lots to love within the Surface Studio’s canvas.

Microsoft Surface Studio

The Good

Huge, gorgeous, immersive 4,500 x 3,000 display Easily adjustable hinge True color sRGB gives it an edge over Wacom Cintiq’s wonky color settings

The Bad

Sensitive rear hinge needs a locking mechanism Surface Dial is a clumsy peripheral High price tag and Windows 10 are a hard sell for Mac loyalists

The Bottom Line

Artists will love the immersive, creative workstation that is the Microsoft Surface Studio, but the Surface Dial is a poorly thought out accessory.

 

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