Teardown: Microsoft Surface Studio PC
Microsoft brings out its first PC to be targeted at designers.
Microsoft’s Surface Studio extends the company’s tablet-centric brand to compete not so much against Apple’s iPad as the iMac all-in-one desktop PC.
The two products initially look very similar: large, heftily specified displays sit elegantly on base units with no hint of a beige box. But the Studio brings something new to the market. You can pivot the screen to lie on the desktop almost flat, though typically Microsoft sees usage being at around 20 degrees.
This is a PC as drafting table, aimed at customers in creative industries ranging from graphics to architecture. To that end, the Studio can interact with other recently introduced Microsoft Surface peripherals such as Surface Pen and an ergonomic mouse again optimised for use with design software. However, Studio’s launch also coincides with the introduction of a third Surface peripheral, Dial.
Dial is a hockey-puck sized accessory that works with all Surface products. You can either click or spin a wheel, which allows users to control certain functions with the Dial hand (a colour wheel, or scanning through planes in a 3D drawing) while simultaneously annotating or changing an image with Pen in the other. For the Studio specifically, the Bluetooth-based Dial can also be applied directly to the screen or used alongside it (Microsoft says a firmware update to Surface tablets will soon add the same capability).
Apple has historically been the leading platform for design; it is one of the few commercial sectors that the company has targeted since the launch of the Macintosh. Windows, though, has never been totally shut out of the field – far from it – and Studio marks its most dedicated play for that business to date, also leveraging the capabilities of the Windows10 OS.
Specifications on the Studio are strongly focused on commercial use. This is not a cheap PC, ranging in price across various specifications from $2,999 to $4,199, all with a 28-inch PixelSense screen. An entry-level 27-inch iMac with comparable Retina display is $1,499.
The Studio features a 4,500 x 3,000 pixel display (192dpi), against the 27-inch Retina iMac’s 4,096 x 2,304 pixels. Both use Intel processors, with the Surface combining an i5 or i7 Core processor with Nvidia’s GeForce dGPU graphics and up to 8GB of RAM. An entry-level Studio has 1TB of storage alongside an i5 and graphics supported by 2GB of GDDR5 memory. At the top end you can have an 8GB, Core i7-powered machine. There are up to 10 multipoint touch options.
The main physical design difference between the Studio and an iMac is that Microsoft has placed all the computing muscle in the base unit, rather than sealing it behind the display. This has allowed it to slim down the screen to 12.5mm, making it much easier and lighter to fold down as a designer prefers.
An iFixit teardown raises a few serious questions over Microsoft’s configuration choices given the price premium it is seeking – and typical demands from the design market. Most important of these is that the RAM, CPU and GPU are all soldered to the board, limiting upgrade options (although the SATA hard drive and SSD storage can be replaced as modules).
The base is similarly tightly packed, so buttons, sensors and speakers might also prove difficult to repair or change.
More positively, replacing the display unit itself – which given the target market should be subject to heavy usage – does appear relatively uncomplicated.
Interestingly, given that the computing side of Studio is in the base, removing the screen exposes some asymmetrical butterfly wing weights that help to balance the moveable display.
The hinges on the Zero Gravity platform are also worthy of comment. “The top bar features a couple of tightly wound springs and a calibration screw in the centre, along with the termination of four display-interconnect cables that run inside of the hinges and press onto the back of the display,” iFixit’s team discovered.
“Inside the foot, the other ends of the arms are each tensioned by a pair of extension springs, similar to what you’d find in a garage door.”
Despite such “burgeoning engineering prowess,” iFixit still scores the Studio at a very middling 5 out of 10 for repairability. There is still perhaps too much glue holding the product together.
“It’s not the overkill tar we saw in the Surface Pro,” iFixit says, “but it’s also not slice-it-down-the-middle clean iMac adhesive. It’s in between. A bit of a struggle, but not impossible.”
The next important factor is software. At launch, five applications have been fully optimised for use with the entire set of Surface peripherals, including Dial: design tools Sketchable and Mental Canvas; animation studio Moho 12; PDF annotators Bluebeam Revu and Drawboard PDF; and music composition software StaffPad.
There are some well regarded names from the design software world on the list, but potential buyers might well note the absence of Autodesk or Adobe software. There is some basic dial functionality for their tools also (Dial-based zoom on Photoshop, for example), but Microsoft will hope that its partners are ready to go much further, particularly once Dial’s capabilities are fully extended to the Surface tablet line.
A small number of Studio PCs have already made their way into the market, and volume shipments are expected soon in the US. However, at the time of going to press UK pricing had yet to be announced and, unlike its US counterpart, Microsoft’s UK site had no pre-order option for the Studio.
Microsoft Surface Studio PC
1 Display assembly
2 Zero Gravity hinge unit
3 Power supply cooling fan
4 SATA II hard drive
5 Power supply
6 SSD memory module
8 Headphone jack
9 SD Card reader module
12 CPU cooling fan
13 Heat sink
14 GPU cooling fan
15 Flash memory, Winbond
16 GPU, Nvidia
17 Platform hub controller, Intel
18 Security modules, Infineon
19 DRAM memory, Samsung
20 CPU, Intel
21 Phase controller, ON Semiconductor