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5 things I'd fix with the Surface Studio

Last week I gave my review of the Surface Studio. There's still more to the story as I now have the high-end version with the NVIDIA GTX 980m GPU in the office. That version doubles the video memory from 2 to 4GB and gives a nice boost to graphics.

We'll have a showdown in gaming and benchmarks between the two as well as the SSD upgrade, but for now, I just want to share a few things that Microsoft should do for the Surface Studio 2.

Preface

In my review, I noted how the overall concept of the Studio was a hit. I think Microsoft spent a lot of time agonizing over detail, quality and making a 'wow' product and they 100% succeeded. The issue I have is some of the internal hardware seems a bit of an afterthought.

Of course, it's not without reason why the Surface Studio's guts are those of a high-end laptop. Cost, thermal considerations, size, overall design, and general engineering constraints limit what Microsoft can do with the goals they sought to achieve.

Nonetheless, I reserve the right to complain about what I think are some drawbacks from what is otherwise an engineering marvel – just one of the perks of my job! This article is not so much second guessing either as I am confident that the intended audience of this product – creative professionals – will also want these improvements.

1. USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3

My number one thing I would change with the Surface Studio would be the omission of a USB Type-C port supporting Thunderbolt 3.

Why prioritize that over other things in this list? It's simple: Type-C with Thunderbolt 3 is very powerful – yet relatively cheap. With it, you could, in theory, you can use an external GPU (eGPU) of your choice. That means you can buy the Studio and continually upgrade its graphics card based on your budget and needs whenever you want. That kind of future-proofing passes the costs on to the consumer but also breathes a few extra years into the Studio.

Thunderbolt 3 would also be enable use of the Surface Studio as just a display. For now, you cannot do that as it only does display out and not display in.

The Microsoft-provided options of an NVIDIA 965m or 980m are anemic for a desktop PC designed for animators, artists, and creatives but with an eGPU, you could, in theory, boost the Studio up to a GTX 1080. You'll lose some of that juice with the Type-C cable, but it would still be a massive jump in performance. You can't just throw Type-C though on to any system as you need a modern motherboard and processor to support the technology. That's where it gets a bit complicated.

External GPUs are still very new and quirky, which is likely one reason Microsoft held off on it for the Studio. A Surface Studio 2 though with USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 3, and an eGPU could be a lot of fun, though!

2. Offer a pure SSD option

Obvious confession here, but… I'm a bit of a hardware snob. I feel sorry for those who must use a hard disk drive in 2017, especially the slow 5400 RPM SATA II utilized in the Surface Studio. Microsoft makes this situation a bit better by using a faster SSD for the OS with some extra storage to boot. This setup is what's called an Intel Rapid Hybrid Drive as it's basically like a RAID 0 setup, but with two different storage technologies. The OS sees it just as a single C: drive, but performance can vary from somewhat quick to slow depending on where what is stored.

I get why companies use Rapid Hybrid Drive setups: cost. It's literally in between a straight HDD installation and an SSD one, but you can also get a lot of storage space. It's certainly better than a pure HDD solution.

iFixit reveals the Surface Studio 5400 RPM HDD

iFixit reveals the Surface Studio 5400 RPM HDD

Dell learned their lesson with their all-in-one the XPS 27. That too had a hybrid drive years ago, and it still does for the new 2017 version. The difference is Dell is now offering just a full SSD option for those will pay for it. I like that approach. Pass the cost on to the consumer that is willing to shoulder that cost.

The thing is the Surface Studio starts at $3,000 and goes up to $4,200. That's absurd, but fair for the product. If you're already pondering dropping $4200 on a PC getting you to "splurge" for a high-end SSD is an easy sell.

Ironically, going with just a pure SSD would have saved room in the Studio's tightly packed base. They could have used that for better cooling or an improved GPU.

3. Get a better GPU

File this under obvious, but the GPUs used in the Surface Studio are…underwhelming. Sure, a GTX 965m for the Surface Book is one thing, but in a full desktop for creatives? Try doing 3D anything with a GTX 965m and 2GB of video memory. The GTX 980m with 4GB of VRAM is a step in the right direction, but still a bit weak for what is a 4.5K display.

Again, Microsoft was dealing with timelines and thermal constraints. Re-engineering the Surface Studio for NVIDIA's Pascal 10 series GPUs is not something you just do overnight. Nonetheless, talk to any tech person or creative professional, and they will tell you that at least a GTX 1060 would have been the bee's knees for the Surface Studio.

For now, unless you don't care about performance I would steer clear of the 965m altogether and just for the 980m option. Too bad that means you are forced to buy the top-end $4,200 Surface Studio to get it.

4. Desktop CPUs

This recommendation goes under the same explanations for the GPU, which is heat and cost consideration. The Surface Studio uses an Intel quad-core processor (good), but they are the ones designed for laptops (bad).

Heat dissipation map of the Surface Studio under load

Heat dissipation map of the Surface Studio under load

Is it too much to ask to have a Surface Studio with a Core i7 and 65W to hit that 4GHz range? It was likely a problem with the small base of the Studio, so Microsoft will have to rethink it for the Surface Studio 2 – maybe make the base bigger to fit in better thermal management bits?

I'm not even talking about having to wait for the 7th Generation Intel Kaby Lake processors, as a Core i7-6700 would have been just fine.

5. Make it modular

The original patent for the Surface Studio hinted at a modular system. The benefit of this would be clear for an all-in-one: future upgradability. All-in-ones are amazing because they're so clean and minimal.

The downside is you cannot upgrade them so after a few years they begin to wane. Being able to swap out the CPU, GPU, RAM, or even add new features lets Microsoft offer it for lower prices and lets the user have some control.

Making the Surface Studio modular – or any all-in-one for that matter – is not easy. That's why no one else has done it yet. Not to mention modules bring their own issues, including future-proofing, availability, etc. Microsoft would have to lock-in to a system and stay there for it to work and that's a significant risk. But hey, we can dream, right?

The bottom line

The Surface Studio is a fantastic creation, but there is a lot of room for improvement. That's fine. It's a Gen-1 product with purposefully limited availability. Microsoft will learn from what people want and adjust going forward. I also get how the Surface Studio is more iMac than Mac Pro, but even the iMac offers pure SSD storage and a Core i7-6700K solution to consumers. That's all I'm asking for here: some choices when purchasing.

See at Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Did I miss anything? Am I being too harsh? Let me know what you think in comments!

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

78 Comments
  • I think the gpu is the biggest issue I have. You can just replace the drive with a better one (sadly limited to the SATAII speeds) and the intel laptop chips do ok with the current gen stuff, but I agree fully it should at least have been a desktop chip even if it had to run slower due to heating.
  • Nar, sounds like the issue is why does your awesome monitor come with a GPU, would be great as a monitor then you have whatever pc you want.
  • The Studio should be able to take advantage of SATA III speeds, as the Studio has connectors for SATA III.  The issue is that the hard drive that comes in the Studio is a SATA II.  I have a 2 TB SSD with SATA III arriving tomorrow that I will be putting into my Studio this week.  Here's hoping that it gives the performance boost I'm expecting.
  • Just selling the display as a standalone unit with a universal docking station as the base.  Let users worry about the upradability of their PC boxes.
  • How about the puck not sliding down?
  • That is not a universal experience and can be alleviated by cleaning the puck and or display. Yes, it could be better, but I consider the 5 things here of higher priority.
  • But the puck is 'the unique experience', every other hardware aspect you mention is just a performance thing like with every device on the planet. The next surface studio will obviously get more powerful and you can always wish for faster equipment. The real area where the surface studio needs to shine is in its unique experience. The puck and pen experience should be perfected. Otherwise it's just another desktop pc.
  • But the Surface Dial does not even come with the Studio. They could do a version 2 of the Surface Dial and problem solved so I do not see how that fits here at all.
  • Well that is exactly the first thing they need to fix. Include it.
  • So you think either they should eat the cost (not likely), or make everyone pay for a Dial, whether they want it or not (more likely).
  • If you can pay 4000 euro you can pay for a freakin dial.
  • You haven't made the case as to why Microsoft should force the Dial on anyone. It's an accessory, not required. They could even forgo the Pen.
  • The dial isn't really meant to sit on the screen anyway, surely. You just pop it on to use it then pop it off again. It does absolutely nothing without you interacting with it, does it? Like a compass or a rule, you only put them on the paper when your are using them, then they go off to the side. If you're really hung up on the fact the dial slides down the screen, I would say that you haven't really gotten the point of the dial.
  • Thing is they actually encourage and advertise you to put it on top of the display. Also I think having the Dial on the display gives more direct interaction and feeling on using the peripheral. But yeah, I think the point really is to address the grip of the Dial on top of the display. It's really annoying when it kept sliding even on your peripheral vision. Not to mention that the On-Screen Dial UI doesn't smoothly track the Dial position on the display, you get this choppy feeling that gives more attention.
  • [Duplicated Comment]
  • Though I think its still worth to mention that Dial grip should be improved, that also includes the software which the Dial UI doesn't even smoothly track, thus you get the choppy motion of sliding down continuously. In regards to Pen experience there is still few things needs to get addressed such as the lack of tilt support which is way more beneficial than pen-pressure, and the bitter that is still bit apparent especially on certain apps. Though it was said its tiny bit improved from Surface Book.
  • True Dan. A version 2 (which I expect from that nagging slide feedback) would find a way around that because the Dial needs to be able to stay on the Studio's screen (no-limit creativity).
  • 6. Allow me to use it as monitor. At LEAST let other MS devices like the Surface Pro/Book use it as a second display.
  • That falls under #1 with USB Type C port and I specifically mention that.
  • Well damn, I missed that little part.
  • although this technically works and i think this is also possible on a mac i was wondering if you are sure that this also works with a windows 10 device that was not setup to receive input video meant as direct monitor video input? i also would prefer this device as a monitor only setup btw.
  • It's a mixed bag of specs. It's expensive, and the screen is ultra premium, but that can all be negated by the slower internals. It's a tough investment to make knowing you have few upgrades available with most of the internals. When it comes down to workstations, price is a relatively easy concession to make if the hardware is right, and SS seems like it would be an absolute lock if they had made it modular. That display is good enough to last a few generations beyond the internals, but the SS is basically dead in the water once user demand exceeds the hardware. I would definitely wait for Gen 2, when I bet most of these issues will get resolved. 
  • Oh, and thank you for the very honest reviews of SS. Your points are well thought out, and the concerns are completely valid on a premium product like this one. 
  • Thanks, cheers.
  • Thanks for this article too. It is undeniably a great product (most reviews was quite positive despite the shortcomings), but yeah it deserves to have constructive criticism hoping that MS will hear loud and clear and address the shortcomings and issues next version. The points are indeed something needs addressing, though I kinda wish there was bit more like the Memory Card placement which should be at the front, even a single Type-A USB also sould a front at least, Surface Dial grip needs improvement, and Pen Tilt which many artist was asking for a long time, especially that it is more obvious than mere pen-pressure.
  • In terms Daniel of what would provide most bang for the buck I would argue that your first two suggestions are by far the most important. The USB type C port is a no-brainer for the reasons you mention and no other single change to the hardware other than fitting an SSD (m2, natch) would have such an immediate and comprehensive effect on the total performance of the system.
  • Indeed, a Type-C Thunderbolt should be a standard among premium PCs these days. Especially when this PC costing at least 3,000 USD and could be more on other countries. I think it is just right to ask for more with this kind of pricing, despite to let's say "specialized userbase". Artist also deserve something more on the specs too that values the cost. What it bothers me most is not just really about including a Hard Drive on this expensive PC, but choosing a slower 5400 RPM drive instead of 7200 RPM. If they want to go with Hard Drive, they should at least choose the fastest out there as far as I know. But yeah, thtey should just at least go with full SSD for higher tier model. Even working with digital art and still photos requires fast I/O drive which benefits to the workflow and saves time. Especially that files were dealing with would be quite large in size and tons of them.
  • The article misses the main problem, why is there a computer attached to this wonderful monitor?
  • I think there are complications in making it a stand alone display and still have the G5 co-processors for touch/inking working consistently. I think they really wanted an "all in one experience" with guaranteed performance. I see the point, of course, I just think there are some other issues.
  • Seriously?? WTF is the point of creating an AIO with no computer? 
  • To plug in a beefier computer that doesn't use laptop parts
  • In short it will be just a graphic display, not a PC. I think we should just pass it along to hopefully have OEMs that already makes monitors to make a standalone graphic display based on Surface Studio tech (that if MS will license it). On the other hand, we should wish that Surface Studio must be beefier and have more updated specs to actually worth its value given its high asking price. Thing is, the this PC is just even bit anemic for what it does since they put 4.5K display that is focused on digital media, which is still more demanding than typing couple of reports using Word.
  • The main issue is the size of the base. If the base was 1 inch higher (thicker) and a few inches wider, and had pure ssd interfere upgradable to Samsung 960 pro, and had a raised angled slot on its motherboard for a discrete graphic card I would buy one immediately!
  • Problem with the height is it interferes with the display coming down; the height is kind of the max right now to get that 20 degree angle. But wider, sure.
  • Make it too wide and you might have to tweak the hinge and the support assembly. Make it really wide and it just looks fugly.
  • Also harder to swivel the base when you want to present it or adjust another angle.
  • I don't think so, with the display so huge, the proportion should be just right. It will still look great as I imagine it and I personally quite critical in terms of look and feel with products (I simply don't like working with not-so-good looking things both hardware and software, which is why I critic the Windows 10 design iconsistencies and odd aesthetic choices at times).
    ​Also it doesn't have to be too wide, just wide enough for better components and cooling allowance to fit.
  • Yeah they should just increase the width instead. You can spread out the components to accomodate more. The new HP Spectre AIO for example have very wide base (though the reason is most likely for speakers) and still quite slim. ​With this display so huge, I think the base can be bit wider shouldn't hurt. It doesn't really cost so much space even with wider base.  
  • They should just release a version that doesn't have a computer built into the base and just has DisplayPort IN and USB (for touch) ports. And A USB-C port that does both DisplayPort and touch data. 
  • Display wouldn't be so slim then, right? You'd have to include the hardware components for the ports and it would change/muddle the standard of the 20-degree drafting feature (remember the core audience are artists).
  • It kind of sound like everything is good except the specs, which is a rather large portion.  I can't imagine spending a few thousand on a computer and felling like it is under powered.
  • I believe you are right everything comes down to the high price you are paying for. Definitely. Hopefully next year prices might cut into half so I can get one. Hahaha.
  • Fan noise and related thermal constraints are huge considerations when you're going to be leaning over this thing in drafting mode, pen in hand, face close to the Studio.
  • Absolutely. To solve that the base could have been wider to accommodate larger, slower fans. I get it though they had goals for its design e.g. small, tight, minimal, etc.
  • Some would say MS has too many large, slow fans.
  • No they would not...
  • That seem exaggerated. I don't think people wouldn't even care if the fans are still pretty silent anyways. Especially for its price, you get something a bit more to justify the overall cost. You really need something more beefier to drive that 4.5K resolution while working on some huge projects. It's a fine balance between fan noise , heat and raw power. So I see its a bug challenge. Though I don't think people were really asking for such a small base to begin with. A slightly a wider one wouldn't hurt and probably isn't even that noticeable.
  • If they got it perfect the first time, we armchair engineers would have nothing to complain about. ;)
  • 😊
  • And as usual, 99% of the people commenting here wouldn't have a thought one way or the other if the article didn't offer an opinion. But it will be described as "honest" (not saying it's not) simply because it's not 'praising' a Microsoft product.
  • Ram was my issue, being limited to 32 gigs of ram would kill my productivity.  I have used 32 gigs of ram for over 4 years now.  I ended up building a system to put in 64 gigs.  If I am going to be doing heavy audio/video multi tracking, plus I run a bunch of vms I can see the system dragging in a year with all the new updates coming out.  
  • Well to begin with the CPU and GPU isn't even much of a horse power to benefit the such higher RAM. Though don't get me wrong, if there is a bigger option, the better. But yeah it needs to be paired with other components to really benefit the higher memory even better.
  • My changes would be, Pure SSD of 2TB, audio Subwoofer out, HDMI in, so you could use other devices on the sweet monitor, and change the 2 of the USB C to USB A, I have a lot of equipment that use USB A. Other than that....GOOD TO GO! Oh, yes, and MAX ram at more than 32.
  • USB-C changes everything, it's essentially necessary in a product >2016.  I suspect we'll see 2 C's and 2 A's. Better GPU yes, and will make external GPU less necessary.  I wonder if an AMD solution would be relevant to coincide with the Xbox Scorpio? Desktop CPU.. not sure.  Heat.  Noise.  I think they will have to consider a different base design, but they migh thave shoehorned themselves becasue of the monitor tilt.  It should probalby be thicker with better thermal management if they upgrade the CPU. HDD / SSD.. well with no cost restrictions it would be great to see EVO 950 PRO or equivalent, I just don't suspect that will be the case.  It would be nice to see it at least match the MBP speeds.  The EVO 960 is better value/speed but a serious hit to longevity and that would be very bad PR in a couple years when power users see their device failing.  Apple is apparently going to come out with a new MAC for ludicrous money no doubt, I think MS should take the lead and just offer everything a person could want at highest configuration, price be damned.
  • I've mentioned it in other SS articles but it really does look like the Studio was a device designed last generation and released this generation. Hopefully when they release the inevitable version 2 they ensure it is current so that heavy professional use (outside of photography and auto cad) can become viable.
  • "Making the Surface Studio modular – or any all-in-one for that matter – is not easy. That's why no one else has done it yet.​"
    Yeah, I can't wait for 2012 to come around and HP to introduce a modular and field-upgradable all-in-one workstation.
    ​http://www.hp.com/go/z1
  • I agree with all five points, but lets be real here, it's really just one opint. Surface Studio needs to become a proper desktop PC if Microsoft markets it as such. It can keep the lustre and still be a viable long term solution.
  • I guess the GPU could be better. The CPU too. But to be honest, not every machine can be ultra-cutting edge. There's always a compromise and that compromise is part of design. I understand the Studio is a great device that delivers performance power for what it was designed for. Now, it's not a PC for anybody and it's not for any use either. So not being ultra powerful in terms of raw processing (CPU) or not having the fastest GPU or SDD ever for gaming is not really something negative. Again, not every computer can have the 100% peak specs.
  • The problem is that the Studio is designed for professionals, but Audio and Video (especially video) would be much better suited elsewhere. I'm sure its great for drawing, CAD and photography, but that's a smaller market than those who actually want, or could benefit from, a device like this.
  • I think they did shoot for that smaller market, and likely succeeded. If anything, got the right tech attention. Perhaps gen 2 device will cater to a larger general use market. They don't want to fail like surface RT again and eat 1 billion loss. By all accounts, i think they succeeded with SS in demonstrating innovation, creating a new category, improved company reputation, generated a buzz among tech industry, and made a profit.
  • Which I think also the point and quite forgivable. For a first-gen, this is still pretty great product. Even reviewers who used to review high-performance computers especially with criteria of performance -to-price ratio praised it with few criticisms of course. This is why its so important to make it right by 2nd gen. Even Surface Book suffer from "first-gen" syndrome. The good thing is that they still get great first impression which is really important since it last a while and defines the brand. Hopefully they will address which can potentially make people truly impress to the product.
  • Good points.
  • yeah that was odd they didn't make the base slightly bigger and include an actual desktop class cpu, since it's a desktop
  • Daniel, I think you perfectly hit the top 5 things to improve the Studio. I only want to add that MSFT ist definitely playing a safe game here, and for a good reason: First gen product means issues for sure, so they made the best out of what they now, can handle, and send to production. Fail fast in mind, this is a reasonable descision, with a secure basis for customer satisfaction. Also, after/while finishing Studio they improved the Book's Basis because they achieved the knowledge to do so.
  • I also think why that they have to recoup the R&D cost making this product. It really feels like this was being design like 2 years ago based on the specs given. Type-C Thunderbolt, and Pascal GPU were indicative that these were not really the latest they can get. They even haven't addressed the lack of tilt support on Pen which is highly requested and fix the jittery issue. Which is maybe why the cost is so high especially with limited production.
  • So how come Daniel can afford a Surface Studio, but misery guts Paul Thurott can't and so keeps harping on about the price being too expensive. Too much time playing on Xbox I guess.
  • Could be that Paul has a mortgage, two kids and is unusually rational (for a tech writer) about the cost of stuff.
  • He wants MS to give him one, but they know he's probably going bash it, so funny they haven't done so yet. "Here, let me give you this product that you can rip to shreds in your review."
  • There are all in ones that you can upgrade actually. There's a few of them, but I think they all use the same shell(Samsung Screen and 450W power supply). There's the Omni, The Aura, Maingear Alpha, and the one I just ordered...The Arcus 34. I wished someone would've just sold me the shell, so I could've transfer my old system to the it, but alas, no cigar. It's the first of its kind and hopefully not the last. Everything in it is industry standard stuff.
  • Sounds reasoable. i wouldn't consider the surafce studio a gaming device though, but thinking ahead for device upgradability to me sounds like a positive attitude and challenging ring ro it for the surface line.
  • I think that this particular device is squarely aimed at being a digital drawing board with basic PC functionality on the side. for draughtsmen and digital art only. Maybe making 3D models, but surely if you need the level of detail that this provides, your going to have other dedicated computers for rendering and interpolating animations. Basically, it's not built to be your all-encompassing PC, but targeted more to those that have everything else, and just need a better surface to draw on. In which case, everything spec wise is more than adequate. By this time next year, half a dozen OEM's will have created a display that can connect to other computers and do all of the good stuff this can do. Again, with the modular thing and upgradeability. The main selling point is clearly the display, and in 2-3 years, you'll be looking at something 8-10k with probably some new display tech as well. The monitor will become as redundant as the rest of the parts would be my guess. Especially as every 6 months there seems to be something new coming to display technology.
  • Big item you missed: make the studio's display available *by itself* so people can buy that awesome screen and connect it to any PC they want.
  • Put two side buttons on the pen and make them programmable.
  • Only thing that bothers me is the GPU paired with that insane display resolution and the hard drive. Oh and the lack of USB C, every new device should be USB C only or include both types, not stick with the outdated.
  • Daniel, Thanks for giving honest, truthful reviews.  Your counterpart on imore, Rene, is the complete opposite.   If Microsoft screws up,  you call it.   He will come up with some wacky reason that it's exactly what apple tried to do and give silly reasons.    Thanks again for not being blind to the brand. 
  • Has anyone tried running a more powerful computer remotely through the Surface Studio? Could that be a workaround for the inability to connect it directly or would lag be an issue?
  • osean, There are no video input for the studio. I was already thinking about this when I was looking at new system for my home and work. That's part of the reason I am going with the dell canvas. I can put various devices into the monitor.
  • Wouldn't doing so remotely bypass the need for video input? I seem to recall a video of someone using the ARM powered Surface to remotely run apps over a wireless connection.