October 16, 2021

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Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review: A seriously powerful and versatile 2-in-1



CNN
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You could make a case that the Surface Laptop Studio is the best PC Microsoft has ever made. It’s got a versatile 2-in-1 design that elegantly shifts from laptop to tablet to stand-up display more smoothly than just about any Surface before it, and can be configured with some seriously strong specs for everything from heavy creative work to some moderate PC gaming. That’s not to mention its best-in-class keyboard, great display and robust pen support.

However, with a starting price of $1,599 that jumps up to $2,699 for our tricked-out review unit, the Laptop Studio’s excellent performance and feature set comes at a cost. Microsoft’s latest laptop has some major advantages over competing Windows laptops — and even the MacBook Pro — but is it worth the premium? Here’s what we think after spending a few days with this portable powerhouse.

A great 2-in-1 for power users

The Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is a great 2-in-1 for power users, offering a uniquely flexible display, great overall performance and an excellent keyboard.

Who it’s for: The Surface Laptop Studio is for power users willing to invest in a speedy 2-in-1 that’s great for drawing, video editing, heavy multitasking and even a bit of PC gaming.

What you need to know: The Surface Laptop Studio is Microsoft’s most powerful and versatile Surface yet, with a unique display that can be folded down into tablet mode or pulled forward for an immersive stage mode for watching TV or presenting. Its powerful Nvidia graphics make it ideal for demanding visual tasks, and it works great with the optional $129 Surface Slim Pen 2 for drawing or taking notes.

How it compares: The Laptop Studio is significantly more powerful (and versatile) than most other Surface devices, especially when it comes to graphics performance. You’ll still get more overall multitasking muscle — and longer battery life — out of the M1-powered MacBook Air, but the Laptop Studio is the way to go if your priority is visual work and gaming. If you want a similarly great keyboard within a slimmer design and don’t need as much power, the $999 Surface Laptop 4 is a good mainstream alternative.

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The Surface Laptop Studio kind of looks like a Microsoft MacBook Pro at first glance — and that’s not a bad thing. This notebook’s silver metal frame, dark gray chiclet keys and slim edges laden with USB-C ports all bring Apple’s laptops to mind, though the similarities end once you get your hands on its uniquely flexible display.

The Laptop Studio sports a 14-inch screen that you can fold down to turn the laptop into a tablet (aka Studio mode) for drawing and sketching, or pull forward in Stage mode to use it as an angled touch canvas for taking notes, playing games or watching movies. This is all made possible thanks to what Microsoft is calling a “Dynamic Woven Hinge,” which felt sturdy and made it easy for us to flip the screen into its various modes.

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Microsoft’s new laptop isn’t the first 2-in-1 with this type of design, but it just might be the most elegant attempt at it yet. Notebooks such as the HP Elite Folio and Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 also have folding screens, but you’ll have to deal with either a bulky hinge in the back or a somewhat uncomfortable design that makes you grip the keyboard in tablet mode. By comparison, the Laptop Studio mostly looks like a regular ol’ notebook in laptop mode, and you won’t feel a keyboard on your fingers when you’re using it as a tablet. It mostly lays flat when you fold it down in Studio mode, though there is a very slight incline that we didn’t really notice when sketching away.

While the Laptop Studio has one of the best 2-in-1 designs we’ve seen so far, it’s not without its flaws. The laptop’s underside has a slight bump to it — likely to house its many high-end components — that keeps it from looking and feeling quite as sleek as a MacBook Pro or a Razer Blade. The 4-pound device also gets pretty bulky and heavy in tablet mode, so we’d recommend using it on a flat service rather than holding it in your hands when drawing or browsing the web.

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The Laptop Studio is also pretty thin on ports, with just two USB-C inputs, a headphone jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connect port for using the included charger (you can also charge via the USB-C port with a compatible power cable). The good news is that you’re getting the latest Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports, which are ideal for connecting to external 4K monitors and quickly transferring files from hard drives. The MacBook Pro isn’t much better in terms of connectivity, but you at least get a total of four Thunderbolt inputs.

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The Surface Laptop Studio just might feature Microsoft’s best laptop keyboard yet — and that’s saying a lot. The keyboard’s satisfying depth and snappy responsiveness brings the excellent Surface Laptop 4 to mind, except this time our fingers had even more space to work with, thanks to the Studio’s larger design. Its travel and feedback even feels slightly better than our MacBook Pro’s Magic Keyboard, which we find to be one of the best laptop keyboards around.

Another Laptop Studio feature taken right out of the Apple playbook is the haptic touchpad, which ditches physical buttons in favor of a touch-sensitive pad that vibrates to simulate a click. It worked really well in our testing, as everything from clicking between browser tabs to pinching to zoom into webpages felt responsive and natural. And unlike a traditional click-based trackpad, the Laptop Studio’s pad responded equally well to our inputs no matter where on the surface we clicked.

It’s not as robust as Apple’s Force Touch trackpads — which can respond to multiple levels of pressure to let you quickly look up text or scroll through videos faster — though you can adjust the intensity of the Studio’s rumble or turn it off completely. Overall, the haptic trackpad feels like a nice little upgrade to the Surface Laptop line, and one that didn’t take much getting used to.

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The Surface Laptop Studio’s display doesn’t just contort itself in all kinds of cool ways — it’s also a real looker, offering vibrant colors and sharp detail whether you’re churning out work, doing some drawing or bingeing Netflix.

The Studio’s 14.4-inch, 2400 x 1600 screen was an excellent canvas for watching an 8K nature video on YouTube — the blue skies and lush grass popped off the screen with rich and lifelike hues, and we could make out every whisker and scar on a lion’s face during a close-up. This impressive image quality is complemented by a zippy 120Hz refresh rate, which essentially means the display is twice as smooth as what you’ll find on many cheaper mainstream laptops.

There are lots of benefits to a 120Hz display — scrolling through webpages and doodling in Microsoft Whiteboard felt noticeably smoother and more responsive than it did on our 60Hz Surface Go 3, and we were able to enjoy silky 120 frame-per-second gameplay in the fast-moving shooter action of Splitgate.

And as with all Surface laptops, the Laptop Studio’s screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is uniquely tall compared to most notebooks and lets you see more of a webpage or document without having to scroll. The difference in real estate was pretty noticeable when we put it next to our MacBook Pro, and the extra vertical space may be useful for folks who spend lots of time in spreadsheets.

Rounding out the Laptop Studio’s multimedia chops are an impressively loud set of quad Dolby Atmos speakers, which filled our bedroom with clear-sounding audio. The guitar rock of Tigers Jaw sounded bright and clean with only a bit of distortion at full volume, and it was easy to pinpoint enemy gunfire when trying not to get gunned down in our favorite first-person shooters. The Laptop Studio also allowed our colleagues to come through clearly during conference calls, and we got no complaints about our own voice when we used the built-in dual microphones.

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We tested the Surface Laptop Studio with the new $129 Surface Slim Pen 2, which seems like a must-have for artistic users and a nice extra for everyone else. The coolest thing about this pen is its detailed haptic feedback — when doodling around in Whiteboard, we felt distinct vibrations meant to mimic the feel of using different pens, markers and highlighters every time we switched drawing tools. It felt much more like drawing with actual pens on real paper than it did with the standard Surface Pen we used on our Go 3, and delivers more of a tactile sensation than what the Apple Pencil offers.

Even if you’re not an artist (we’re certainly not), the Slim Pen 2 doubles as a handy tool for editing and presenting. For example, in Microsoft Word, we were able to delete sentences by simply crossing them out, highlight entire sections by circling them and create line breaks by drawing an “L” shape in the middle of a paragraph.

Some of these features — which work similarly in apps like PowerPoint and Excel — took us a few tries to get right, but we could see this being useful for someone who wants to quickly edit a document in tablet mode without having to touch their keyboard. On top of being optimized for Microsoft’s own apps, this pen is also designed to work well with third-party programs like Adobe Fresco and Photoshop.

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The Slim Pen 2 snaps magnetically to the little groove under the Laptop Studio’s trackpad for charging and storage. It works so smoothly with Microsoft’s laptop that we’re bummed it’s not included by default, though folks who do lots of drawing and note-taking will get a very versatile and tactile pen for the money.

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The Surface Laptop Studio is being positioned as Microsoft’s most powerful Surface yet, and based on our tests, that’s not hyperbole.

This portable powerhouse handled every task we threw at it without a stutter, and delivered some very impressive performance scores that crush previous Surface devices while revealing this system’s chops for serious creative work and even some PC gaming. Armed with an 11th Gen Intel Core i7 processor and 32GB of RAM, the Laptop Studio allowed us to jump between 12 different apps — including Word, Slack, Discord and a Chrome window loaded up with more than 30 tabs — without any signs of slowdown. It also proved handy for more demanding visual tasks, exporting a five-minute 4K video down to 720p in about three and a half minutes.

To put the Surface Laptop Studio’s power into perspective, this machine nearly doubled the Surface Laptop 4’s benchmark scores on tests such as PCMark10 Extended and Geekbench 5. For example, its Geekbench 5 multi-core performance score of 5,108 is about on par with the likes of the Dell XPS 13 (5,372) and Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 (5,509), and behind those of the M1-powered MacBook Air (7,553) and MacBook Pro (7,628).

But it blew all of those machines out of the water (including the new MacBooks) when it came to graphics performance, with an OpenCL score of nearly 52,000 that more than doubled all of those competitors. And it’s all thanks to the dedicated Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU packed inside our review unit.

In fact, that added graphics muscle makes the Surface Laptop Studio a pretty capable gaming machine. When we fired up Splitgate, we were able to shoot and teleport our way through the game’s colorful arenas at up to a silky 120 frames per second. And on the more demanding Shadow of the Tomb Raider benchmark — which we use to help suss out the best gaming laptops — Microsoft’s notebook turned in a highly playable 47 frames per second with all of the game’s graphical settings cranked up.

That’s nowhere near what you’ll get from a dedicated gaming laptop (by comparison, our top pick in the Asus ROG Strix G15 cranked out a much smoother 100 fps), but it’s still dependable. We wouldn’t recommend buying the Laptop Studio solely for gaming, but the fact that it can play mainstream titles moderately well is a nice bonus. This laptop turned into a nice little gaming station when we paired an Xbox controller via Bluetooth and pulled the display forward into Stage mode, and it should run the majority of your Xbox Game Pass library just fine.

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The Surface Laptop Studio doesn’t just perform like a beast — it also has enough battery life to get you through a typical workday unplugged. Microsoft’s notebook lasted through eight hours and 14 minutes of continuous 4K video playback at 50% brightness on our battery test, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the display was in 120Hz mode. We’ll be running our test again with the display at 60Hz (which tends to suck up less battery life) and will report back if we see any improvements.

The Laptop Studio’s runtime is on par with what we got from the Surface Laptop 4 and beats the Dell XPS 13 OLED by a couple of hours, though it’s not quite as strong as the excellent 12 hours we saw on the latest MacBook Air. Still, the Studio should get you enough juice to last through a typical day of hopping on video calls, jumping around Slack chats and emails and doing some editing work.

For a laptop that does most things superbly well, the Laptop Studio’s webcam is just OK. The notebook’s 1080p shooter captured our face with decent brightness and lifelike color, but our shots were noticeably pixelated. In fact, we found the much cheaper Surface Go 3 to capture slightly more detailed shots with its 5-megapixel camera in certain environments. The Studio’s camera will still be fine for most folks, but if you’re a content creator or want to look extra clear during meetings, you’ll want to spring for a dedicated webcam.

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The Surface Laptop Studio is, without question, one of the most versatile and powerful Windows 11 laptops you can buy right now. But with such a high price tag, it certainly isn’t for everyone.

Microsoft’s highest-end Surface is best suited for those who do lots of demanding visual work. It’s got plenty of muscle for video editing, and its flexible 2-in-1 design and optional Surface Slim 2 Pen make it an especially great choice for drawing and sketching. The Studio’s superb keyboard feels great for everyday work use, and its 14-inch display is detailed and colorful — and really shines when you pull it forward to watch movies and play games.

The Laptop Studio holds up great for everyday multitasking and will last a full workday on a charge, but the M1-powered MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are still king when it comes to sheer processing performance and battery life. The Studio’s key advantage is its optional discrete Nvidia graphics for much better visual and gaming performance, though you’ll have to pay at least $2,699 for that kind of configuration. The starting $1,599 model gets you a more modest Intel Core i5 processor and integrated graphics, whereas even the cheapest $1,299 MacBook Pro packs Apple’s zippy M1 chip.

And while the Studio can play games decently, you can get a dedicated gaming laptop with much stronger graphics muscle — such as the $2,699 Razer Blade 15 or the $2,199 MSI GS76 Stealth — for a similar price. The Laptop Studio is also bulkier than a lot of rivals, and if all you want is a great keyboard and a good touch display, the sleeker Surface Laptop 4 makes for a good alternative for everyday folks who don’t need tons of power.

Still, if you’re willing to splurge for a Windows 2-in-1 that can do just about anything, the Surface Laptop Studio offers a whole lot of functionality and seriously strong performance for its high price tag.

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