Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Surface Laptop Studio 2 review: this could be so much more

Microsoft has refreshed its Surface Laptop Studio or, as I tend to call it in my head, “that big bendy, foldy thing.” It’s almost identical to its predecessor, 2021’s Surface Laptop Studio, with the unique fold-over hinge that allows the screen to stand in three different positions: clamshell, tablet, and tent (where the bottom edge of the screen rests right between the keyboard and the trackpad).

A variety of tweaks have been made. The trackpad has been redesigned, the screen now supports Dolby Vision HDR, some new ports have arrived, and hypothetical advanced AI stuff is coming at some point (but not now). The most significant updates are on the inside: the Laptop Studio now includes Intel’s 13th Gen Core processors and Nvidia’s RTX 4000 GPUs. 

But the core of this laptop, and its pitch, remains the same. Setting aside the detachable Surface Book (don’t bring that up around me — I’m not over it), the Laptop Studio is the closest thing to a MacBook Pro competitor that exists in the Surface line. And it had better be a damn fierce competitor because the RTX 4060-equipped unit I’ve been testing, with a price tag of $3,299.99, is only $200 off of a similarly specced MacBook Pro with M2 Max. (The cheapest Laptop Studio 2 is $1,999.99, and it has 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and integrated graphics — you can get an RTX 4050-equipped model starting at $2,399.99. Woof.)

The second-generation Laptop Studio does a lot to earn that steep price tag. It’s compact, it’s well-built, it has a touchscreen, and it bends and folds. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish the Studio 2 offered a little bit more to the artistic audience that it courts. I wish this exceptional chassis had exceptional performance and battery life to match, especially for the price it’s asking. 

The chips

The Surface Laptop Studio 2 unit I received for review has a Core i7-13700H, an RTX 4060 GPU, 64GB of memory, and 1TB of storage. This $3,299.99 model, if you can believe it, is only the third most expensive Studio 2 you can buy — there’s a $3,699.99 one with a 2TB SSD, and then there’s a $3,599.99 32GB / 1TB one with an RTX 2000 Ada GPU (which would be used for things like large-scale production design, calculations, and simulation and not for things like Blender and Premiere). A similarly specced MacBook Pro 14 with the M2 Max chip would be $3,499. 

microSD and headphone jack on the right as well as the slot for the Surface Connector.

Two USB-C and a USB-A on the left.

Now, the processor in this machine is not, at the moment, obsolete, but it will be in a few months. Intel just announced its “Meteor Lake” CPU generation, and we expect to see those laptops roll out around December. I am not trying to imply that Intel’s 13th Gen chips are bad chips now that a 14th Gen segment exists. But I do think that the decision to release them in this laptop, at this moment, is a bit confusing. 

Microsoft’s Surface line is often behind in this way. (I have a lot of questions about why Microsoft insists on doing this schedule every year and won’t just wait, but that’s for another time.) When the Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop hit shelves around this time last year, they were also using processors that were, by that point, getting on a bit. But that’s really not a problem because the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop are not serving a category of customer whose livelihood is heavily impacted by the speed of their computer and who’s willing to pay for every ounce of power they can get in a portable chassis.

The Laptop Studio ostensibly is. Even small differences in the time it takes to render or export or compile can absolutely add up for professional creators — and in just a few months’ time, they’ll be leaving significant processing power on the table by going for the Studio instead of a Meteor Lake machine. Yes, there will always be another more powerful chip on the horizon, live in the present, etc., etc. — but right now is a particularly not-great time to be buying a horrendously expensive 13th Gen laptop.

Unfortunately, the Studio 2’s benchmark scores were underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong: it’s certainly an improvement over the OG Studio. Whether exporting in Premiere or running Tomb Raider, it is faster. But these are far from the best numbers you’ll see among premium workstations today.

The MacBook Pro (and that is a primary competitor here when you look at that price tag — other non-gaming portable workstations like the Dell XPS 15 are in a wholly different category) is solidly outperforming the Laptop Studio 2 on multicore benchmarks, despite the fact that the Core i7 that powers the Studio has more CPU cores than Apple’s M2 Pro and M2 Max chips do. (The benchmarks we have here showcase the 16-inch MacBook Pro, but we’ve found that Apple’s 14-inchers generally score quite similarly to their 16-inch counterparts with the same specs — except when it comes to battery life, which we’ll discuss later on.)

That advantage shone through in our real-world testing. The M2 Max was close to a full minute faster on our Premiere Pro export, a CPU-heavy task. The Laptop Studio got a 543 on PugetBench for Premiere Pro, which is around where we’d expect the (much cheaper, as a reminder) M2 Pro MacBook to score and well below the M2 Max.

The discrete RTX 4060 certainly gives the Studio some extra raw graphics power, but how exactly that manifests will vary depending on the task. When running Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the Studio and the M2 Max were neck and neck. 

There’s Windows Hello facial login available, but no fingerprint login.

But then there’s the biggest problem for the Surface at this price, which is that its battery life is not anywhere near what Apple can offer. I only averaged four hours and 19 minutes of continuous use out of this device with Battery Saver on (and I wasn’t doing what digital artists and such would be doing — I was, like, typing in Google Docs). This is basically the same battery life we saw on the prior Studio, which had an RTX 3050 and cost $2,699.99 as tested. There are certainly people who don’t count all-day battery life as a high priority in their personal workstations, but the digital artist crowd that Microsoft is targeting here has myriad options in the desktop space if they’re looking for something powerful that will never leave their office. If you’re buying a laptop, you should be able to use it on the go.

I would expect to get well over twice that lifespan out of a 14-inch MacBook. This, of course, is not limited to the Studio 2 — it is a consistent problem across Intel’s offerings. Nevertheless, it underscores what a gamble it is to purchase this convertible rather than wait for a Meteor Lake workstation because Intel has specifically claimed that its next generation will bring substantial battery life improvements.

Here’s just a fun note. The most recent product I reviewed to have a shorter battery lifespan than this was Asus’ ROG Strix Scar 17 — one of the most powerful gaming laptops that has ever existed. That $3,499.99 test unit (just $200 more than this Studio) came with an RTX 4090, Nvidia’s top-of-the-line graphics card. It lasted about three hours to a charge; it also blew Apple’s M2 Max so far out of the water in GPU benchmarks that the MacBook looked like a Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn in comparison. The Surface Laptop Studio 2, needless to say, does not do that. I don’t mean to pretend that a 14-inch convertible has anything in common with Asus’ seven-pound monstrosity — I’m just trying to illustrate the type of performance league the Studio is batting in here with a $3,300 price tag.

I very much enjoy the keyboard, which is nicely backlit.

Despite the funky form factor, and despite the attempts of its creator to brand it as a new and different offering, the Laptop Studio 2 is a Surface through and through. Its chassis is doing unique things, but its insides are midtier. For $3,300, five hours just isn’t enough.

The rest

The upgrade Microsoft has been touting the most is the touchpad. The haptic trackpad comes with a new Adaptive Touch feature. When this is toggled on, multitouch gestures are disabled, and the Studio looks for multiple points of contact moving in the same direction to determine where to move the mouse. The idea is that people who are missing digits or who need to navigate with appendages other than just a finger will have an easier time using the Studio 2 without a specialized setup.

This is awesome, and other companies should be designing with these sorts of use cases in mind. Making gadgets more accessible and customizable isn’t just good for disabled folks; it’s good for everyone. Well done — and more of this. 

With that aside, this was not my favorite touchpad ever. The click was certainly comfortable and a cut above some of the thin, clunky sensations you get from smaller, cheaper Windows laptops that go the haptic route. But I’m a frequent couch and lap user, and I had some trouble getting clicks to register when the Studio wasn’t on a flat surface. Even when the deck was hanging slightly off the edge of my desk, or sitting fully on my lap desk, I sometimes had to repeat clicks because my first try had thunked against hard plastic. This is something that happens occasionally with the MacBook Pro that I use regularly in these positions, but it was quite frequent on this unit. (Microsoft said it hadn’t heard of an issue like this when I asked.)

The second big upgrade is the connectivity. Last year’s Studio only had two USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports and a headphone jack, plus Microsoft’s proprietary Surface Connector. That was… not a ton. This year, Microsoft has added an additional USB-A 3.1 and a microSDXC card reader. I mean, good. That’s a step in the right direction. It’s still not incredible as workstations go — I imagine that the lack of a full SD slot, in particular, will be a hangup for many professionals who are willing to pay this much. 

The Studio’s 14.4-inch 2400 x 1600 touch display now offers dynamic refresh rate, which bumps it between 60Hz and 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing. This wasn’t included on the original Laptop Studio, at least not at launch. This feature is always nice to see, and I do love me a smooth 120Hz scroll through my unfathomably long Google Docs and spreadsheets. The Studio unit I received was set to 120Hz out of the box. If you’d prefer to be in Dynamic Mode, you’ll have to dive into settings and turn it on yourself.

The Studio unit I received was set to 120Hz out of the box

Then there are odds and ends. The screen now supports HDR, including Dolby Vision. The 1080p camera now has a wider field of view, which I guess is neat, though I’m not immediately clear on its benefit for video conferencing. More AI stuff is coming later down the line. 

This is neat, but other companies have done it before.

But the reason to buy the Laptop Studio 2, and the reason it’s worth so much money, remains the same as it’s always been: the bendy, foldy screen. Is that enough?

I love to complain about the cancellation of the Surface Book, which the Studio would ultimately materialize to replace. Like the Studio, the Book was something different. It was a form factor nobody else was making. It purported to be a new way of thinking — a new vision of what a computer could be. And unlike the other consumer laptops Microsoft was making at the time, it had the power to game and create. But the Surface Book’s unique build was also its downfall. It was thick, top-heavy, and hot. The tablet form factor was too limiting, and at a certain point, it seemed that Microsoft had taken it as far as it could go.

The Studio certainly solved many of those problems. It’s sleek and modern, without the giant, gaping gap in its hinge for which the Book was infamous. It is not hot — the CPU stayed at very reasonable temperatures throughout testing — and it is not particularly loud. It can accommodate more powerful GPUs than the Surface Book could dream of, even if those GPUs are not the best that Nvidia has to offer.

But there were two things the Surface Book did that the Surface Laptop Studio, in its current form, is not doing. First: the Surface Book worked, full-stop, all around. Its keyboard and touchpad were exceptional. Its screen was stunning (and higher in resolution than the Studio’s). Its battery life was some of the best in its category. The Book was a groundbreaking project and a beautiful display of Microsoft’s craftsmanship — but it was a standout piece of technology before it was either of those things or anything else. Of course, it had its issues, but it was also sold at a price point where small issues were much more excusable.

Second: the Surface Book solved for a need. The big issue with traditional 2-in-1 laptops is that they are heavy — and in particular, they are too hefty and bulky to be used for many of the things people want to use tablets for. The Surface Book can be a reading tablet, a piano music tablet, a conference companion, all of it. The Studio cannot do so nearly as comfortably. The Studio, with its three screen positions, merely replicates the same thing the classic 2-in-1 convertible has been doing for years on end. It can be a clamshell, it can be a tablet, or it can be a tent. So can a Lenovo Yoga, an HP Spectre x360, or any other number of classic convertibles — including some that pack very respectable GPUs. The Studio is achieving those ends differently, but it’s not clear to me that it’s achieving them thousands of dollars better.

I am glad that a Windows convertible for creative professionals, with this level of craftsmanship and quality, exists. But I wish it were more. I wish it could be a more powerful version of Acer’s truly innovative ConceptD line — a laptop with a built-in stylus, every port under the sun, and six unique positions. Or I wish it could be something like the Surface Book — an exceptional laptop that happens to have a fun bonus quirk.

In my view, the current Surface Laptop Studio is an okay convertible. For its price, it should be more than that.


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