Once upon a time, Apple was king of hardware design, be it the desktop, laptop, or tablet. No longer. Microsoft is now the one to watch as it hones in on designing high-end PCs for power users, with the Surface Studio its best piece yet. The rest of the PC manufacturing world has yet to catch up, but it may not have to if the company continues to focus exclusively on elite design.
Announced on October 26, Surface Studio is Microsoft's first all-in-one desktop, but not aimed at the traditional all-in-one niche of consumers. Instead, Studio is targeted directly at creative professionals, such as graphic artists – once Apple's go-to buyers. The new machine boasts a 28 inch touchscreen display with 13.5 million pixels and 10-bit color depth, better than 4K TV resolution at 192 ppi. The display uses a "zero gravity" hinge, so it can be easily moved from a standard upright display into Studio Mode, a slanted angle that can be written on with a Surface Pen. One could argue this feature alone makes Apple's efforts over the past three years look lame.
If using a Surface Pen for creation on a high-resolution 28 inch workspace isn't impressive enough, Microsoft added a new control widget, Surface Dial, to complement the traditional Pen, keyboard and mouse. Surface Dial is a round, puck-shaped device than can be used besides and directly on top of the Studio's screen. Press and hold Dial to get a radial (circle) menu of tools to dial through or put it on the screen and see what software options are available. For example, artists can more easily and quickly change a color or style by using Dial, rather than lifting up the Pen and having to sort through a set of menus; there's no interruption of drawing workflow. Depending on the app, Dial can be used to rotate or scale a canvas, tilt in 3D, adjust the volume on music, and access other tools. The $99 Bluetooth accessory can also be used with the Surface and Surface Book in a number of applications.
Microsoft emphasizes "the creative process" throughout its descriptions of the Surface Studio, again, the sort of thing Apple used to have a monopoly on. You see a lot on ease of use and tools for working with media, while detailed hardware specs are submerged if they aren't needed.
But creative tools aren't going to be cheap. The basic Surface Studio with 1TB of storage, an Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM and 2GB RAM with a NVIDIA GeForce GPU will cost $3000 and be available on December 15. At the high end, a 2TB drive, Intel Core i7, 32GB RAM and 4GB graphics support will cost a whopping $4200. All versions include 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, wireless keyboard and mouse, 4 USB 3.0 ports, mini Displayport, full size SD card reader, 3.5mm headset jack, a 1 Gig Ethernet port, 5 MP front facing camera with 1080p HD video, dual microphones, , XBox Wireless Controller support, and stereo speakers with Dolby Audio Premium. If there are technical weaknesses in Studio, it's the lack of support for USB-C and WiGig.
Everyone is going to compare the Surface Studio with the best Apple desktop hardware, because there's nothing else in the PC world that even comes close, both in terms of design and the target audience. And maybe that's how Microsoft wants it, to be content with capturing mindshare among designers and other creative types, such as engineers, while the rest of the PC world makes lower cost commodity hardware for everyone else. You can find a similar pattern in the Surface Pro and Surface Book offerings, with marketing and specs geared to compete and best Apple products with higher-end pricing to reflect quality.
As strange as it sounds, we're less than three months from CES 2017. It will be interesting to compare Microsoft's Surface hardware with the rest of the PC world's latest and greatest, but I suspect there's a lot of catching up to do.
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