Hardware

Microsoft Surface Studio: An all-in-one PC aiming to steal Apple's design crown

Microsoft unveils a PC aimed at professional designers, a machine with what it says is the 'world's thinnest LCD monitor'.

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The Microsoft Surface Studio.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft took the fight to Apple today, revealing an all-in-one PC targeted at professional designers using Apple Macs.

The Surface Studio attaches a high-end desktop computer to what Microsoft claims is the world's thinnest LCD monitor, with a pin-sharp 4,500 x 3,000 resolution.

Panos Panay, corporate VP of devices at Microsoft, pitched the machine as competing with the Apple iMac as a drafting table for designers and sketchpad for artists.

"We built it for creators, for professionals," he told the crowd at a launch event in New York today.

"We want it to transform the way you create and think about creating."

He highlighted the machine's high resolution, ability to display more than one billion colors, and present drawings and documents at 1:1 scale with their paper equivalents, saying these features gave professionals the ability to see how their creations would look in the real world.

The 28-inch, touchscreen display has 13.5 million pixels, which Microsoft claims is equivalent to about 60 percent higher resolution than a 4K TV, with 192 pixels per inch and a 3:2 aspect ratio.

Despite weighing 13 pounds, the 12.5mm thick display feels 'weightless' to move, according to Panay, because of the support and flexibility provided by its counterbalanced hinge, made up of 80 custom parts. The display can be tilted from sitting at a right angle to about a 45-degree angle to a desk's surface, as seen below.

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When pushed almost flat, the Surface Studio is suited to being used with a Surface Pen, Microsoft's digital pen for writing and drawing on touchscreens, and in the demo at the launch event was shown being used by artists to draw and architects to annotate plans.

Helping drive the display is an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, up to 32GB of DDR4 memory, a 1TB or 2TB 'rapid hybrid drive' and up to an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M - which Panay says benchmarks around 12,000 on 3D Mark.

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The Microsoft Surface Dial being used with the Surface Studio

Image: Microsoft

Complementing the Surface Pen is a new control device called the Surface Dial, which was shown being used with the Studio. The rotatable, brushed-silver dial was shown performing various tasks.

Pushing down on it brought up a wheel on the Surface Studio's desktop, from which Panay showed how the dial could be turned to rotate an image on screen or to select a new color while drawing with the Surface Pen.

It can also be used to zoom, scroll through documents and for other functions. The Dial can be bought separately from the Studio and is available for $99 for the Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book.

The Surface Studio runs Windows 10, and has a linear mic array in the screen to allow the OS' built-in virtual assistant, Cortana, to hear users from across the room, as well as an HD video camera and 2.1 surround sound speakers.

Designed to create minimal clutter, the Studio has a single cable extruding from its aluminum case, which has four USB 3.0, an Ethernet, Mini DP, SD card and 3.5mm audio ports and packs a 270W power supply.

The Surface Studio is available to pre-order now from $2,999, with Panay saying they would be available in "limited quantities" over the Christmas period.

Richard Edwards, principal research analyst with Ovum, praised the machine for being proof that Microsoft could replicate the eye-catching design of its Surface Book and Surface Pro devices, important when appealing to professionals.

"Microsoft still hasn't captured the trendy coffee shop, but it's clearly working on it."

He said Microsoft would be hoping to build on the momentum it had captured with its Surface, with Microsoft reporting that both the number and size of deals in the commercial segment for Surface had increased by double digits year on year.

However, the high price of the Surface Studio - roughly twice that of the 27-inch Apple iMac - has left Microsoft vulnerable to being undercut, he added.

"With Surface Studio, Microsoft has created a new device category - something that Apple is aching to do. At a starting price of $2,999, this premium device leaves lots of room for other PC manufacturers, such as HP, Dell, and Lenovo, but it's clear whom Microsoft is wooing with this device: the creative pro."

Edwards also cast doubt on its sales outside of a relatively small group of high-end design professionals.

"A visit to the Dell online store points to the real issue: Windows 7, not Windows 10, is what business and corporate buyers are specifying," he said.

"Like the iMac, Surface Studio is an exceptional device, by which I mean that the purchase of this device will be the exception rather than the rule. The Surface Studio is without doubt a stunning piece of kit, but city traders, software developers, and CAD engineers are likely, for the time being at least, to stick with the multimonitor display rig connected to Windows 7 PC."

While also praising the Surface Studio's design, Mikako Kitagawa, principal research analyst with Gartner, said that even creative professionals, such as graphics designers and architects, may be reluctant to switch to Microsoft's all-in-one PC.

"An all-in-one device is not the most cost effective device, as the users pay for both the computing unit and monitor at the same time," she said.

"Creative professionals have already invested heavily in hardware and software. For instance, many professional illustrators use a high end drawing tablet and high resolution monitor at the same time."

If those same professionals exclusively use macOS, as is the case in some creative outlets, then the high cost of switching to Windows will also be a deterrent, she said.

It's also a difficult time to be entering the desktop computer market, with PC sales having been flat or falling for years and forecast to drop a further three percent in 2016.

Even sales of Apple Macs, the family of devices home to the iMacs that Microsoft is challenging with its all-in-one PC, were down 500,000 units in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the year before.

But with Microsoft warning the Surface Studio would only be available in limited quantities, concerns over the long-term prospects for the hardware may be premature.

Microsoft fired more shots over Apple's bow, with the release of the Surface Book i7, a more powerful version of its laptop, with three times the graphics performance of the 'highest end MacBook Pro 13', according to Panay - a title that may not last long if Apple release a new MacBook Pro as expected on Thursday.

Panay again talked up the device's appeal to professionals, claiming it would allow designers to run CAD tools 'without lag'.

The new Surface Book has, Panay said, twice the graphics performance of its predecessor and a 16-hour battery life, 30 percent more than the previous Surface Book. A thermal redesign and new fan helps prevent the additional graphical processing power from overheating the device.

He claimed the device, available for pre-order now from $2,399, is 'pound for pound, the most performant laptop on the market' and will be available in November. The laptop has a sixth-generation Intel Core i7 processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M with 2GB GDDR5 memory and up to 16GB of RAM.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took to the stage to drive home the message that Microsoft was focused on empowering 'creators'.

"I believe the next 10 years will be defined by technology that empowers profound creation," he told the audience.

"At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person on the planet to achieve more. We are the company that stands for the builders, the makers, the creators."

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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