Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review: back to the drawing board

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Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop Studio is both familiar and unique at the same time. If you don’t peer too closely, you’ll see what appears to be a standard, clamshell laptop. The similarities to Apple’s MacBook Pro designs are undeniable — the rounded corners, the layout of the keyboard and trackpad on the deck, even the port layouts all scream Apple.

But in typical Surface fashion, there’s something different going on when you look closer. Though you can use the Laptop Studio just like a standard laptop, you can also pull the screen forward to bring it closer to you for touch interaction, or lay it flat to write on it like a tablet. Microsoft is not the first manufacturer to deploy such a design, but the Surface Laptop Studio is certainly the sleekest laptop yet with it.

The company envisions digital artists using the screen in its various positions to draw on it, or lay it flat when docked to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard for digital note taking. It’s an evolution of what Microsoft did with the Surface Book line, but without that computer’s compromises in performance and portability. The Laptop Studio works just as well as a standard laptop as it does as a device for making digital art.

That evolution doesn’t come cheap, though. The Laptop Studio starts at $1,599.99 for a basic model — equip it with a faster processor; more RAM and storage; and a discrete GPU, and you’ll easily add a thousand dollars to that number. And even then, the Laptop Studio doesn’t have access to the most powerful chips or graphics cards available today. With so many excellent creator-focused laptops to choose from, many of which offer more power for considerably less money, you really have to want the Laptop Studio’s pivoting screen or head-turning design to justify its cost.

The “tent” position of the Laptop Studio’s screen blocks the keyboard but provides access to the trackpad.

The Laptop Studio’s top half is only a little bit thicker than a normal laptop lid, but otherwise is completely normal when using it as a typical laptop. The main hinge is stiff and doesn’t wobble — a common problem with Microsoft’s older Surface Book design — but you can still open it with one finger easily. The magnesium and aluminum chassis is sturdy and well made, with nary a flex to be found.

The Laptop Studio’s design is also sturdier-feeling and more stable than the typical convertible laptop with a 360-degree hinge. It has options for more powerful components than you typically find in a convertible laptop or Microsoft’s own thin-and-light Surface Pro 8, as well.

The screen is a 14.4-inch touch display, with 2400 x 1600 pixels and a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s bright and color accurate, just like other Surface displays, and it’s large enough to comfortably split the screen between multiple windows using Windows 11’s new Snap layouts. The 120Hz refresh rate provides much smoother scrolling with the cursor, better touch interactions, and reduced latency with pen input. The Surface-signature 3:2 aspect ratio makes working with documents and browsing websites more comfortable, but it also gives the Laptop Studio a footprint that’s almost as big as a 15-inch laptop. At over four pounds and 0.7 inches thick, this isn’t exactly an ultra-portable laptop, but it’s not a huge chore to lug around, either.

Pulling the screen forward is a bit awkward — you have to reach up and bend the top half backward until the magnets holding the bottom half in place release, and then you can bring it closer to you. You can then park it halfway across the deck, tenting it above the keyboard, but still providing access to the trackpad. Magnets in the deck grab the edge of the screen to “lock” it in place. I struggled to find a good use case for this mode other than watching movies on an airplane tray table or poking around on the touchscreen, as the angle of the display is still too vertical to comfortably write on it with a pen.

From the “tent” position, you can then lift the screen up and flatten it down entirely, turning the computer into an awkward and heavy tablet. This mode makes sense for drawing or writing — the screen is flat and it’s easy to lean over it and start working with a pen. But you’re not going to want to use it in place of an iPad or other lightweight tablet for watching movies or reading in bed, it’s just too bulky and heavy to practically do so.

A side view of the Surface Laptop Studio in tent mode.

The flat position of the screen is ideal for note taking or drawing with the Surface Pen.

Around the screen are relatively large bezels, at least compared to Dell’s XPS computers. The corners of the screen are aggressively rounded — so much so that they sometimes cut into the window of an app that’s docked to the side of the screen. The bezel also houses a 2-megapixel 1080p webcam with Windows Hello facial login. This camera is not as nice as the 5-megapixel sensor in the Surface Pro computers, and it made my face look red in video calls.

The bottom half of the Laptop Studio also has some unique features, but you have to actually lift the machine up to see them. Hidden below the deck is a platform of sorts that raises the laptop up a few millimeters. Though it makes the Laptop Studio noticeably thicker than a Surface Pro, it allows for one of Intel’s more powerful (and hot) processors and a discrete GPU, plus the cooling systems needed to make those parts run efficiently. I thought this platform would make typing on the keyboard awkward, but in actual use it’s nearly invisible and doesn’t require lifting my wrists up any more than normal.

The Laptop Studio’s fan layout is rather strange, though. Unlike most laptops, which have their fans toward the back of the computer to blow air away from you, the Studio’s are in the front half of the bottom deck. They exhaust on each side of the computer — when it’s under load, you can feel quite a bit of warm air shooting out the sides. Most of the time, the fans are quiet and dormant, so unless you’re playing a game or running an intensive application, you won’t even notice them. Even under load, the Laptop Studio’s fans are nowhere near as loud as a typical gaming laptop, either.

The Laptop Studio’s keyboard and trackpad are both excellent.

Two of the Laptop Studio’s four speakers vent out of the sides of the platform as well, while the other two are under the keyboard. The Studio’s audio is better than average and works well for video calls, but it doesn’t quite have the punch or room-filling ability of a MacBook Pro 16.

That unique platform under the laptop also provides a place for the Surface Slim Pen 2 ($129.99, not included) to be stored and charged. Just under the front lip of the computer are magnets that grab the pen and hold on tightly, so it’s always there and charged when you want to use it. It’s a more stable system than the magnets on the side of the screen used to hold the pens on older Surface computers or the iPad Pro, yet it’s more elegant than the garages that other laptop makers provide to store a stylus.

An aside on the new Slim Pen 2: it’s got a similar shape and weight to the Slim Pen introduced a couple of years ago, but it has a finer point and a new haptic system that provides subtle vibration feedback as you write or draw on the screen. My colleague Tom Warren wrote about the pen separately, but I’ll add that it greatly improves the handwriting experience in apps that support the haptics, giving me more feedback and control than older Surface pens. Unfortunately, the haptics are only available in a handful of apps. Stranger still, popular note-taking apps like Microsoft’s own OneNote, Nebo, or Evernote don’t yet utilize them.

I am not an artist, so it’s difficult for me to speak to using the Studio and the new pen for creating art. If you are, I suggest checking out Brad Colbow’s videos on YouTube, he’s a cartoonist who tests tablets and styli to see how well they work for making digital art.

In addition to other design elements, Microsoft appears to also be taking inspiration from Apple with the Laptop Studio’s port selection. Instead of the multiple varieties of ports that were on the Book line, the Studio has just two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports, a headphone jack, and the Surface connector. It’s great that Microsoft is finally embracing Thunderbolt, which allows me to use my speedy external drive and dock with ease, but it’s frustrating that this computer, aimed at creators, lacks an SD card slot or any other I/O.

Like other Surface computers, the Laptop Studio’s keyboard is very good. It’s got 1.3mm of travel, is comfortably spaced, has a backlight, and is generally just very nice to type on. It’s closer to the keyboard in the standard Surface Laptop than the Surface Book’s, but I have zero complaints with it. Similarly, the new trackpad, which has a haptic system similar to what Apple uses on MacBooks, is large and very accurate. Clicking is easy no matter where I press; scrolling and multi-finger gestures are buttery smooth; and palm rejection is excellent. It’s perhaps the best trackpad on any Windows laptop right now.

The underside of the Laptop Studio has a unique platform that provides room for the components and cooling systems.

The Laptop Studio is available in a handful of configurations, starting with an Intel 11th Gen Core i5 processor and integrated Intel Xe graphics. Most customers will likely want to upgrade to the discrete Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti graphics option, which starts at $2,099.99 and includes an upgrade to the Core i7-11370H processor. My review unit has the Core i7 chip, the Nvidia GPU, 32GB of RAM, and 1TB of SSD storage and costs a staggering $2,699.99.

There’s no getting around it: that is a lot of money for what amounts to midrange performance. The processor is a 35W quad-core chip, not the six- or eight-core processors found in competitors like the XPS 15 or gaming-focused laptops that use AMD Ryzen chips. The RTX 3050 Ti is a midrange GPU that can work for casual gaming but isn’t powerful enough to really take advantage of the Laptop Studio’s fast refresh screen in modern titles.

Microsoft says the Laptop Studio is good for “weekend gamers,” which translates to “gaming is not really what it’s designed for.” I ran a battery of gaming tests on it anyway and the results were exactly what you might expect from this level of hardware. Shadow of the Tomb Raider managed 28 frames per second at the Studio’s native resolution and all the eye candy turned on. Red Dead Redemption 2 pulled 42fps at native res and details cranked up, thanks to the help of Nvidia’s DLSS tech (set to Auto mode). Even when lowering the resolution to 1920 x 1440, the Laptop Studio only eked out a couple frames more per second in either of those demanding games.

Forza Horizon 4 managed just 38fps at native resolution and ultra settings, while Fornite on epic mode averaged 40fps.

Lighter fare, such as Civ VI or League of Legends, is able to run at much higher frame rates, but the gist is that you’ll want to utilize DLSS as much as you can and be willing to turn down both resolution and detail settings in your games to get the best experience. When I set Forza to 1080p resolution and medium graphics, I saw a stable 97fps, which was a great experience (and still looked quite pretty, as well). Running Fortnite at native resolution with details set to high produced a much more playable 75 frames per second.

The Laptop Studio may not be the best choice for gaming, but it does hold its own for creative work. It was able to export a five-minute, 33 second 4K video from Adobe Premiere Pro in five minutes and 35 seconds, about the same as an M1 MacBook Pro, but not as speedy as other laptops with more powerful graphics cards. In the PugetBench test, which runs Premiere Pro through a number of tasks to simulate actual editing work, the Laptop Studio scored 427, a bit lower than Razer’s Blade 14 that scored 593 or a well-equipped Dell XPS 15’s score of 665. Both of those computers are also considerably less expensive than the Laptop Studio when outfitted with similar amounts of RAM and storage.

The Studio’s cooling system did a good job no matter what tasks were thrown at the computer. It kept temps low enough to prevent throttling, and though I could feel warmth under my palms in the deck, it never got uncomfortably hot. The older Surface Books had problems staying charged when playing games for long periods due to underpowered power supplies — Daniel Rubino noted in his Surface Laptop Studio review on Windows Central that it suffers from a similar problem. If you plan on gaming a lot, you might want to pick up the 127W charger from the Book 3, which Rubino says solved the power drain problem on his Laptop Studio.

In typical productivity work, the Laptop Studio had no problems juggling many browser tabs, multiple virtual desktops, Slack, Zoom, email, and other daily work apps at the same time. I did initially experience some bad lag when moving windows around while on battery power, but a hard restart (holding the power button down for 15 seconds) appeared to resolve that, and I didn’t see it again during my testing. It’s not quite as snappy as an M1 MacBook Pro for this kind of multitasking, especially when it’s unplugged, but it’s not a frustratingly slow experience either.

Unplugging the Laptop Studio from power is where you’ll see the biggest problem with it, though. Under my normal usage, I averaged less than five hours per charge.

My normal workload is not that intense either. It includes the usual array of many browser tabs in Edge, Slack, email, Spotify, Twitter, Evernote, and a few other apps running across three virtual desktops and the display at 50 percent brightness. Five hours is less than virtually every other productivity-focused laptop you can buy now lasts, and considerably less stamina than the Surface Book 3 showed. Even some gaming laptops are lasting hours longer on a charge.

There are a couple reasons for this: the Laptop Studio’s 58 watt-hour battery is much smaller than the 15-inch Book 3’s 80 watt-hour cell, and Windows 11 doesn’t yet support the Dynamic Refresh Rate mode that was part of the original announcement. That means the 120Hz screen is running at 120Hz all the time, which consumes more power. You can dive deep into the display settings to set it to 60Hz, but even when doing that I only managed to eke out another hour of battery life. Dynamic Refresh Rate would allow the screen to automatically change its refresh rate depending on what you’re doing, which should theoretically save battery. Sadly, Microsoft has not said when it will be available.

Thunderbolt 4 ports allow the Laptop Studio to work with Thunderbolt docks and accessories.

It’s a perennial game among laptop reviewers to try to figure out exactly for whom Microsoft designs its Surface computers. The company’s marketing often shows off the computers in minimally decorated art studios with hip designers painstakingly crafting lines on the screens.

But the reality is that the market for digital artists is actually quite small, and the majority of people who are looking at a Laptop Studio or any of Microsoft’s computers are likely doing so for a different reason. Perhaps they are a video or photo creative pining for a MacBook-like computer that runs Windows and the offerings from Dell and HP just aren’t cutting it. Maybe they’re a Microsoft super fan who wants to buy into the company’s vision of what the future of computing might be, no matter the cost.

Those people have often been let down by the Surface line, either because the Surface Pro or standard Surface Laptop didn’t provide enough performance for their needs or the Surface Book had just too many compromises in the name of drawing to make it practical.

The Laptop Studio is perhaps the most appealing computer for them, then. Its list of compromises is much shorter — really, it’s the high sticker price and poor battery life and not much else — and it’s an enjoyable computer to use, even if you never draw a single digital brushstroke.

Still, even if you’re Microsoft’s ideal customer, you need to give up a lot of money and battery life to get this screen with all its flexibility. But if you’re willing to be flexible yourself, and don’t really need a screen that moves in unique ways, the Dell XPS 15 is a lovely computer that costs a bit less while providing a bit more power.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

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