Surface Dial Review

Microsoft's Surface Dial is a new accessory that non-creatives may not much need, yet it intrigues anyone who sees it. The Windows 10 add-on has a ton of potential for artists, engineers, and maybe even you soon.

Why is it so cool? I look at what the Surface Dial can do today with an eye on the future.

What it is

The Surface Dial is a small, Bluetooth-enabled…well, dial. Think of it as an accessory, or a secondary – or even tertiary – level of input while using Windows 10.

Who can use it?

The Surface Dial is compatible with any Windows 10 PC running the Anniversary Update. Microsoft introduced the world to Surface Dial as an accessory for the Surface Studio but the device pairs and works on any computer with a Bluetooth connection.

Microsoft Surface Dial

The one current limitation involves using the device physically on the screen. Only the Surface Studio can do that although Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 should also get a firmware update early next year to allow users to place it on their display.

If you do not have a Surface Studio – aka most you – you just put it near your keyboard (preferably the left side if you're right-handed and use a mouse).

What does it do exactly?

The million-dollar question: Why would you need this? Surface Dial is primarily aimed at artists, engineers, and graphic designers. The device lets users call up pen, paint, brush, and measuring tools without lifting and moving the pen off the display. In short, it's an aide for drawing or creative shortcuts.

The kicker is that any app can support Surface Dial. Microsoft has open APIs for the device so that a developer can add support and specific functions unique to their app. That means there is a lot of potential here that will take a few months to be realized.

What apps support it?

Right now, Surface Dial supports the following apps:

  • Bluebeam
  • Drawboard
  • Mental Canvas
  • Sketchable
  • Smith Micro
  • Spotify
  • Staffpad
  • Windows (limited system interactions)
  • Word, PPT, Excel (desktop versions)
  • OneNote (UWP version)
  • Windows Maps
  • Plumbago
  • Sketchpad
  • Groove Music
  • PewPew Shooter
  • Microsoft Photos
  • Paint

For instance, I'm using Surface Dial on my main PC as I write this review in Word. The Dial lets me scroll the document using my left hand with ease. I can also change functions and enable Zoom, Undo, or control the system volume (good for music).

Some of the options for Surface Dial that work even in Word

Some of the options for Surface Dial that work even in Word

To change features, you just press down on the Dial for one second. The device vibrates and displays an on-screen radial dial with a choice of function.

In Groove Music, you can switch tracks, scrub the track, control volume, or skip to the next track. In Microsoft Edge, you can scroll the web page, zoom, etc. Surface Dial instantly adapts to each app that is currently active with new choices set by the developer.

The Surface Dial settings let you configure default functions and add custom ones

Obviously, for artists Surface Dial does a lot more useful things like pick the paint color, set brush width, zoom, undo, and more.

So, what's the big deal?

You may be wondering why is the non-artist stuff even interesting? Good question. Here is what I can tell you: Surface Dial allows for very fine-grain movement that is more sensitive and accurate than a mouse, keyboard arrows, volume buttons, etc.

The Surface Dial's bottom has a laser-etched rubber pad for optimal tackiness

The Surface Dial's bottom has a laser-etched rubber pad for optimal tackiness

Surface Dial feels like a luxurious knob for Windows 10 that lets you gently scroll, undo, navigate and more. While not an essential tool it's one of those 'nice to have' features for your high-end PC setup. In other words, you can make use of it every day for little tasks.

Worth the $99?

I don't need to convince the artists, engineers, and designers out there that they want to buy Surface Dial. There are other similar devices on the market already for those fields, and Surface Dial is just a new take on an old idea for those who draw on their PC or Surface.

At $99 Surface Dial is a simple add-on that takes two AAA batteries and easily pairs with any Windows 10 PC. For the quality of the device (it's made from aluminum) with its gentle, haptic-enabled feedback $99 seems fair for the Surface line, which has never been cheap or affordable.

Speaking of batteries MIcrosoft estimates that the two AAA batteries will last one year assuming 4-hours-a-day of regular usage. Some question why the Dial is not rechargeable and I think the answer is just really long battery life.

If you do not plan to draw on your PC or use Surface Dial in a professional creative manner, the $99 is harder to justify. I would not classify it as a must-have accessory that will revolutionize your daily activity – and Microsoft is not promoting it as such anyway.

Nonetheless, like a lot of Surface technology, it's just damn cool and fun to use even if you don't' draw.

Developers are just getting started with Surface Dial; there's no reason why we couldn't see support added to non-drawing apps or even light-action PC games. While I doubt there will be a required use for Surface Dial, there is a lot of potential here for this genre, and I'm excited to see what people can do with it.

Artists, get it now. Non-artists, you should only plunk down the $99 if you have nothing better to spend your money on, but keep an eye on what happens next.

See at the Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Microsoft is taking pre-orders now for Surface Dial for December 15 ship date although your local Microsoft Store may have some already in stock.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • I love the Visual Studio extension for debugging - May seem like a little bit of a novelty to some but shows how versatile it is as an input device, not just for visual tasks. And it was quickly hacked together in a very short time which makes me confident that it'll be easy to support in any app
  • Yeah, that is a nifty trick and a great example of how Surface Dial can serve as a general usage tool.
  • I can see it being good for gaming. Especially a Steering wheel accessory much like the Wii had with their wii-motes. You pop it in the center and drive away. Great for Forza 3.
  • Perhaps, but $100 for a knob? Wouldn't it be simpler just to make one's own with an off-the-shelf knob? Probably worth waiting for the $1 third party alternatives which must surely be incoming imminently.
  • You think you can get that sort of precision sensor for $1? nice.
  • Perhaps I exaggerate a bit with the $1 thing, but so have MS. So OK, Microsoft are claiming to have the most impressive knob at the party are they? Well, perhaps, but there are plenty of knobs in this world. I've seen some damn impressive knobs in my time, and some of those have indeed been rather cheap. Quality knobs are everywhere. For $100 this has got to be one impressive knob. I mean, this knob will have to come with... well, knobs on. I suppose it will be worth it if we get to ask the question, does Microsoft or Apple have the most impressive knob? Could WC have a review? A head-to-head knob-off perhaps? It's been a long time coming.
  • The fact that you have no up votes is indicative of the lack of humor here today. Congratulations, commenter, you did well in my book.
  • "You've seen plenty of damn impressive knobs in your time"
    Not sure I'd be admitting that on a public forum.
  • The other alternatives are priced above 199$ for artists this is great pricing for consumers
  • Played with one of these at an MS store over thanksgiving break. (side note, that display on the surface studio is so incredible)
    There's definitely a learning curve with it, and you won't pick it up and be able to use it immediately. Also, I think stickier rubber will improve it, because if you let it go while on the surface studio, even on the lowest angle, it will slowly slowly slowly slide down the screen (you can see reviewers on youtube accidentally return the screen to vertical with the dial on it and it'll go flying off, which is pretty amusing to watch, probably less so if you spent $99 on it). Really cool product though, and the vibration motor is perfect.
    I can't imagine putting it on my surface pro 4 screen. It is rather large, and you don't notice it on the Surface Studio because of the size of that display, but I feel that it would take up a huge amount of space on anything smaller and might be better served sitting next to it. But guess will have to wait and see.
  • I also played with one and bought a Dial and new Mouse. I have to say, they had a Surface Studio on display at the MS Store, and have them show you the "GoPro Video" on it, it really shows off the great screen and awesome hardware. I love the Studio, but like most, can't afford one. I'm hoping they release a cheaper (perhaps, smaller?) version for "the rest of us."
  • I think the price is fine and no more than other peripherals of a similar build quality - Obviously it's down to the individual whether it's worth getting but I don't think people can complain
  • Will be cool as an additional input device for Revit or Civil 3d. Both have used radial mice in the past.
  • I was hoping to see Adobe software like Revit or even Sketchup on the supported list. Would have made a great Christmas present for my Interior Designer daughter. Oh well, as they say in the Microsoft world, maybe next year.
  • Adobe showed off some of the rolls they are developing for the Dial at adobe max a couple weeks ago. They showed them with the Dell version
  • Daniel Rubino, where are your clones available for purchase? I'd like to follow your offer and keep a you to track these things for me.
    If that's not planned, I guess you should correct "(...), but keep an I on what happens next." to "(...), but keep an eye on what happens next.".
    ​(Feel free to delete this message when corrected, I couldn't find a "report error" link to notify articles errors)
  • Fixed, thanks.
  • I wonder if it can zoom and scroll along timelines in programs like Adobe Premiere Pro and Cakewalk Sonar.
  • Does it support AutoDesk's Sketchbook?
    'cause like Mark I thought this would be as useless as the Macbook stripe but after seeing how it interacts with the drawing program you used I completely changed my mind. And Sketchbook is my program of choice so I'd like to know if it's supported before I buy it in vain.
  • Re: aka DJCBS,
    Great idea but I think AutoDesk is slow to adopt ease of use ideas. It seems they are focused on increasing subscription fees right now.
    Just my opinion.
    Best Wishes
  • I guess it will depend completely on AutoDesk.
  • I'd love to use this to scrub in Premiere Pro or Sonar.
  • Well, can u use it for autodesk inventor?
  • Thanks Daniel, this is the first place I've heard that firmware would allow the Dial to be used on screen with Surface Book and Surface Pro. I have both the SP4 and 3 in use. As I recall SP4 is the one with the newer digitizer tech chip, so I wonder if the Dial will work only on 4?
  • Hey someoneinwa, I have a Dial (bought through Best Buy online) and while a firmware update so you can use it onscreen might be nice, the reality is you probably won' use it that way on a smaller displayt. You get all of the same functionality when using it off screen, but it takes up much less real estate because your hand and the dial aren't blocking the screen. Also, because the interface circles the Dial when you have it onscreen rather than utilizing a smaller visual core, you take up more screen real estate to accommodate it. I currently use an SP3, so I'm out of luck, but I really do think using it on the screen makes sense on the Surface Studio, but not so much on a smaller display.
  • Yes only on Pro 4 and Surface Book
  • Yes only on Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book
  • At the store they dog say it should work with surface pro 3
  • Can you have multiple dials on a single PC and assign different short cuts to different dials?
  • Better yet, just one Dial that you can tap to change from one configuration to another.
  • If you could that would make for one awesome Etch-a-Sketch! :)
  • The list of supported apps in the article appears to mirror the list currently on the Dial page in the Microsoft Store website.  Is there another resource to track supported Dial apps?  I work in GIS, data analytics and visualiziation; lots of potential uses of the Dial for these apps, but I'd rather wait to buy until there are apps I already use.
  • No other source; We'll just follow and post about apps that add support when we can.
  • Nothing that can't be done with a mouse and keyboard. Will stick to that.
  • Luddite
  • Sound practical but boring
  • How well does it work for quickly and precisely scrolling through large PDF files (300+ pages) in Drawboard or Acrobat?
  • Can this be used for MAME emulation of arcade games like Arkanoid?
  • Awesome question. Hope it can be made to be a HID for gaming. I thinks it might be up to game and emulator devs to support the dial and various HID.
  • I know the magnesium silvery gray color is the in thing again, but I wish it came in charcoal gray, black, or even white. Oh, heck, the perfect accessory to this accessory would be color/patterned covers.
  • Maybe some vendor (or even the Microsoft Store themselves) well offer a skin to place on the device. I think that's a smarter plan than committing more resources to build variants of a (currently) niche product.
  • My one question right now is, can it be set to alt-tab from rotation, and the shift-alt-tab in the other direction? Because that would be exceptionally useful when I have tons of docs open.
  • Yes
  • Does anyone know if the "Windows 10 - Wheel settings" are limited by Market? I would like to know that if I import one of these (to Australia), will Windows 10 with my country set to AU not work with the Dial? I would love to know as I got burned 2 year ago when getting the Microsoft Band. I brought the gen 1 but the only way back then to get "Microsoft Health" on my phone was to change every setting to US. Not ideal
  • A dial like device was shown on the new show Incorporated. Microsoft would be wise to air ads during it's TV run.
  • Can i have that WC Mug? (^_~)/
  • Let's hope video editing and animation software manufacturers like Adobe will support Surface Dial. That will make me sold to this.
  • I thought this should work great with music recording software (DAWs). It would even be interesting being able to use more than one of these at the same time, set to different tasks.
  • Check out palettegear .com
  • Great input method, ideally they should release a smaller version the size of a knob to use directly on Surface Book/Pro screens
  • It would be great to get support for the dial as an input device in MAME.  Ikari Warriors, anyone?
  • Great review! Spot on, too. I picked up mine at my local Microsoft Store (in Dallas) a few days before Thanksgiving. I also bought the new Surface Mouse which is greater than I expected. It's great to note that they will also give you your Educator/Student discount on these, and I also heard they would give anyone a discount when purchasing the new keyboard with either optional input accessory, up to 10% off. I'm a writer and artist, so I have already made great use of the Dial and new Mouse. A+! The sky is the limit, folks. I think it would be great if the Dial picked up additional features later on, such as hardware improvements that include a speaker/microphone.
  • "Forgive me for drawing outside the lines, Art teacher, I'm not that good." ~ Daniel Rubino LOL HAHA! That line made the video worth it and exemplifies how the average consumer may not have much use for the Dial just yet, but the cool factor, and high techery of the device along with hopes of future use may persuade some of us to buy it. It will be interesting to see how developers use the APIs for the rest of us that are not that good at staying in the lines as well. :)
  • lol that made me crack up as well. That Rubino, he's a funny guy.
  • Not worth it to me, BUT it's a neat device!
  • neat device alright at 28 secs into the video I see the batteries are both put in the same way ;) while the photos later in the aritcle shows otherwise. :D
  • This device really looks like it would be fun. I'm a application developer, so I don't tend to be too artistic, but I do use Blend for Visual Studio when designing XAML based apps. Does the Surface Dial work with Blend?