May 20, 2022

The Fourthny

Art is beauty

Artist Review: Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio (2021)

12 min read


This review is made possible thanks to the review unit on loan from Microsoft Singapore. My review is from the perspective of a visual content creator, someone who creates art, graphic design, edits photos and videos.

The Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio was released in September 2021 together with the Surface Pro 8 (review), Surface Duo 2 and Surface Go 3.

Specifications:

  • Display: 14.4-inch touchscreen IPS LCD
  • Resolution: 2400 x 1600 pixels, 201 PPI, 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Refresh rate: 60Hz, 120Hz
  • Memory: 16, 32GB
  • Storage: 256GB – 1TB
  • Processor: Intel 11th gen Core i5-11300H @ 3.1Ghz x 4, Core i7-11370H @ 3.30GHz x 4
  • Graphics: Intel Iris Xe Graphics, NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti (4GB)
  • Ports: 2x USB-C Thunderbolt 4/USB 4, Surface Connect, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Camera: 1080P with face unlock
  • OS: Windows 11
  • Connectivity: Wifi
  • Battery capacity: 58Wh
  • Pen support: Surface Pen, Slim Pen 1, Slim Pen 2
  • Dimensions: 323.28 mm x 228.32 mm x 18.94 mm (12.72” x 8.98” x 0.746”)
  • Weight: 1.742g (Intel i5), 1.82kg (Intel i7)
  • Warranty: 1 year (extended warranty via Microsoft Complete for additional 1, 2 and 3 years)

My review unit came with the Intel i7-11370H (quad 3.3Ghz), 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti (4GB).

The comparison table below was sourced from Wikipedia.


Official retail price starts from USD 1599 for the model for the Intel Core i5, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD storage and Intel Iris Xe.


As the laptop has been out for several months now, you can find it often with discounts in USA. Prices above are from Microsoft online store. Prices from Amazon USA are quite comparable too. I found the official retail prices to be pricey so the discounted prices are more reasonable.

Here in Singapore, price for the base model starts at SGD 2338, and the model with the graphics card is SGD 3088. Microsoft Singapore has promotion occasionally, usually in the form of bundles, such as the bundling of Surface Slim Pen 2 worth SGD 179.


Just for comparison purposes, these are prices of the Surface Pro 8 from Microsoft’s website at the time of this review.

The main selling point of the Surface Laptop Studio is so that you can have the graphics card. If you don’t need or want the graphics card, the much lighter Surface Pro 8 at 891g is a better option, and is cheaper too.


The model with Intel Core i5 comes with a 65W charger and the Intel Core i7 comes with a 102W charger. The charger has an extra USB-A port.

The Surface Laptop Studio supports USB-C charging so it’s possible to charge it with a GaN charger. With my own GaN charger, I was able to charge it with the 30W port but not the 100W port for some reason.


Design of the laptop is clean and simple, very minimalist.


On the back are two long pieces of rubber feet with good grip on the table.


The body is made with aluminium and magnesium. Build quality is solid and the laptop feels incredibly dense. Weight is 1.742 kg and 1.82 kg for the Intel i5 and i7 models respectively. The weight is on the heavier side for a 14.4-inch laptop but it’s still under 2kg so it’s still considered portable.

The machining is impeccable. And I love the matte textured surface.


These are the two USB-C ports with USB 4.0/Thunderbolt 4.


The other ports are the Surface Connect port and a 3.5mm audio jack. I thought there was a SD card slot initially and was like “Yes, Microsoft! That’s the way to do it!” but found out it’s actually the Surface Connect port. I get that Microsoft wants to sell their Surface dock but if they make a good Thunderbolt dock, they could sell to more customers. And more useful ports on a laptop is always a selling point. Even Apple brought back HDMI and SD card slots with their 14 and 16-inch Macbook Pros from 2021.

The fan exhaust come out from the grilles on both sides. Audio also comes out from the grilles and the audio quality is fantastic, loud and clear until over 30% (already loud) where distortion sets in beyond that.


Underneath the laptop near the touchpad is an area where you can attach the Surface Slim Pen 2 for charging and pairing. The magnets are really strong so don’t worry about dislodging the pen.


The Slim Pen 2 is sold separately and a necessary tool for drawing or writing. The pen supports tilt and 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity.

The pen also provides haptic feedback with supported apps — only ones I know are Concepts and Adobe Fresco. The haptic feedback comes in the form of micro vibrations to simulate the feeling of friction, but it’s not real friction as the pen tip is still quite smooth on the glass.


Pressure sensitivity can be adjusted by the Surface app which is not included but can be downloaded from the Micrsoft Store.


The display is a 14.4-inch touchscreen IPS LCD with 2400 x 1600 pixel resolution, 201 PPI. Aspect ratio is 3:2 which is great for productivity.

Refresh rate is 120Hz so you can actually get some high frame rate gaming with the right games, provided you get the model with the NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti.


Interestingly, the resolution of this bigger 14.4-inch display is lower than the 13-inch Surface Pro 8 resolution of 2880 x 1920. Anyway, I wasn’t able to see pixelation from one arm’s length away.


Typing experience on the keyboard is excellent. The chiclet style keys have good travel and feedback. You can definitely speed type on this. Only downside is the lack of Control button on the right side, and instead we have a button that mimics the action of right-click which you can already do with the touchpad.


Colours of the display look good out if the box. I measured colour support for 100% sRGB, 79% NTSC, 81% AdobeRGB, 88% P3 and a maximum brightness of 369 nits. Contrast ratio is said to be 1500:1.


Viewing angles are good with minimal colour shift when viewing from extreme angles. The glossy display is quite reflective though.


The Surface Laptop Studio is a radical re-design of the Surface Book 3 that features a removable display that can be used as a tablet. I’ve tested the Surface Book 3 and was disappointed with the 5-hr battery life and the wobbly lines from the Surface Pen. I’m happy to say that the Surface Laptop Studio has improved significantly in those two areas.

The laptop can be deployed in three ways: Laptop mode, Stage Mode and Studio mode as Microsoft calls it. Each way has its pros and cons. Shown above is the lowest angle of the Surface Laptop Studio in laptop mode.


With Stage mode, the display will snap into place with magnets between the keyboard and touchpad.


Stage mode brings the display forward and is good for using the display as a touchscreen, and is good for media consumption. The angle of the display here isn’t comfortable for drawing or writing.

Stage mode isn’t a major selling point for me but if since the feature is there, I can certainly see myself using Stage mode often for watching movies.


Stage mode is extremely stable to use on the lap due to the large base, more so compared to the Surface Pro 8 with its kickstand and keyboard case.


Studio mode or tablet mode is better for drawing but since it’s almost flat of the table, it’s not good for posture.


To get the best angle for drawing, I use my own tablet stand with adjustable angles.


The keyboard is not accessible with tent and tablet mode. When drawing with tablet mode, you’ll probably want to have a wireless keyboard for productivity.


If you don’t want to buy a tablet stand, you can find something to wedge between the display and the fold. In the photo above, I used a rubberised case of my wireless earphones. The rubber has good grip and doesn’t scratch. The display was able to hold my weight while drawing. The metal of the display is quite thick so I doubt it will bend unless you bend it with force. It’s still better to get a proper stand.

Drawing performance


Drawing performance has improved significantly over the older Microsoft Surface Pen.

1. When drawing diagonal lines slowly, there’s minimal wobble or jitter.

2. Unfortunately the lines don’t taper as smoothly and sharply. E.g. You can’t draw blades of grass or hair with sharp tapered ends. How the lines taper will also depend on the app you use.

3. Line transition from thin to thick and back is smooth. Initial activation force is minimal. As long as the pen tip is touching the display, you can draw a line even if you don’t apply any pressure. The initiation activation force also allows the thick lines to transition back to thin, something that’s difficult to do with pens with lousy initial activation force.

4. You can draw lines with consistent thickness by applying consistent pressure.

5. Dots can be drawn easily by tapping the pen on the display.


Drawing experience is good. The 14.4-inch is a comfortable size to work with. You can place toolbars and palettes on the side and still have a good amount of canvas space to draw with.


This was drawn with Concepts app, one of my favourite drawing apps on iPad, Android and Windows.

There was some issues with the Intel graphics driver and Concepts so I had to update the Intel graphics driver.


I didn’t use a pressure sensitive brush for this artwork though.

Concepts is one of few apps that support haptic feedback with the pen. The heavier you press, the more vibration the pen will produce. As mentioned earlier, it’s not real friction since the pen tip is still quite smooth on the glass display.

It will take some time to get used to how smooth the pen is on the display. Or you can apply a matte screen protector to achieve a more tactile drawing experience, but at the expense of affecting the image quality.


This was drawn with Clip Studio Paint.

The tapering strokes (bottom left) can taper sharply but not as smoothly. At least it’s better here compared to other apps where the strokes taper abruptly or with a rounded end.


This was drawn with Medibang Paint Pro.

Drawing thin and thick lines is definitely not an issue. Ultimately, whether you need the strokes to taper smoothly and sharply will depend on the type of art you create. For those who draw comics who probably require more accuracy with lines, the issue with the tapering strokes may be a deal breaker.


This was drawn with Sketchbook Pro


Another Sketchbook Pro sketch.

I tried using Sketchable but the app would crash occasionally. Unfortunately, that app has no auto-save feature so I lost an artwork that I was creating for this review.


To get tilt sensitivity working with Krita, you have to choose Windows Ink option instead of Wintab under Krita settings.


Pressure works fine with Photoshop but tilt doesn’t work. There’s no way to get tilt to work with Photoshop on Surface products based on the countless posts without solutions on Adobe and Reddit forums.


Pressure sensitivity does not work with Adobe Illustrator even though you can set pressure to affect line width.

Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer both work well with pressure sensitivity.

General performance

Overall performance with the Intel i7 processor and 16GB RAM is smooth and lag-free when it comes to drawing, graphic design and editing photos.

I can’t say much about video editing with Premiere Pro as the app just crashes whenever I export any video.

Performance with Davinci Resolve is alright. 4K 30FPS timeline playback is smooth. Video export is slower than I expected though. It took around 9 minutes to export a 10-min project with H265. This can be up to 40% slower compared to the very common 11th gen Intel i7-1165G7 and i5-1135G7 found in 2021 laptops. The processor throttles after some time making the export slower. Anyway, you can get a better video editing laptop for the price you pay for a Surface Laptop Studio.

Windows 11


I’ve been using Windows for several months now and it’s a pleasant experience. I really like the new polished look of the user interface. The OS is stable and there are many features you can discover.

Make sure to download the Surface app because there’s a charge-battery-till-80% feature that you can’t turn off without the Surface app.

Gaming


The NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti is good for some light gaming. With Hades at 2400 x 1600 resolution, I could get 60 FPS. The display has a refresh rate of 120 Hz so you can possibly get higher frame rates with the right games.

For some reason, Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t seem to be able to start. With God of War, I could only get 25-30 FPS with max resolution, and low 30-35 FPS with 1080P. Gaming experience with AAA title games isn’t ideal.

The downside to gaming is the fans exhaust from both sides so if you use a mouse your hands will be blasted by hot air.

Fan noise under load is controlled, not terribly loud.

Compared to Surface Pro 8


The size difference of 13 vs 14.4 inches isn’t too significant. Surface Pro 8’s 13-inch display is a good size to work with, and is already bigger than the previous 12.3-inch display.

The main consideration here is whether you need the graphics card. The Surface Laptop Studio without the graphics card is just a drawing display with and excellent keyboard. The Surface Pro 8 is a drawing display with a removable keyboard. If I don’t need the graphics card, Surface Pro 8 is the better choice as it’s more portable at just 891g.

Conclusion

The Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is a good improvement over the previous Surface Book series of laptops. Most noticeable improvements are the much longer battery life and better pen performance with the new Surface Slim Pen 2. Battery life and pen performance are the deal breakers for the Surface Book laptops.

The design with three modes of deployment sets itself apart from the crowded market of laptops. I’m mostly using the laptop and tablet mode, which is also available with the Surface Pro 8. Stage mode is good for watching movies, or presentation.

The main reason to get the Surface Laptop Studio over the Surface Pro 8 is due to the NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti graphics card option which allows for light gaming, 3D and maybe some video work. The Surface Pro 8 cannot be equipped with a dedicated graphics card but you can use an eGPU connected to the Thunderbolt 4 port.

Surface Slim Pen 2 is more accurate than the previous Surface Pen. Diagonal lines drawn slowly now have minimal to no jitter. The only downside is the lines can’t taper as smoothly and sharply at the same time.

Overall performance is quite smooth and mostly lag-free with visual content creation. The only downside is it’s not particularly powerful for video editing, especially on exporting videos, relatively speaking compared to other laptops.

The Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is a good laptop. There are many things to like and there aren’t any deal breakers. If you want an all-in-one laptop that can also be used for drawing, this is a good option, especially if you have the budget. This is a very well built, premium and good looking laptop. I believe you will be very pleased if you do buy it.

If you get the expensive configuration, you may also want to consider getting the Microsoft Complete extended warranty.

Pros and cons at a glance
+ Beautiful design
+ Excellent build quality with a premium feel
+ Loud and clear audio
+ Excellent keyboard
+ Excellent touchpad
+ Good pen drawing performance
+ Bright display up to 369 nits
+ Auto-brightness works well
+ Colour support for 100% sRGB, 81% AdobeRGB
+ 2400 x 1600 resolution has no noticeable pixelation
+ 3:2 aspect ratio is good for productivity
+ 120Hz refresh rate can be good for gaming
+ Surface Slim Pen 2 performance has improved significantly over older pen
+ Pen can be charged by attaching underneath the laptop
+ 2x USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4/USB 4
+ USB-C charging supported
+ Fans don’t rev unless there’s processor intensive tasks
+ Stage mode deployment is good for watching movies, presentation
+ NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3050 Ti good for some light gaming, 3D work
+ Has no bloatware
+ Windows 11 looks polished
+ Overall performance for visual content creation is smooth, lag-free
+ Fans don’t rev with normal workflow
+ Longer battery life than any Surface devices
– 1.7kg, 1.8kg is on the heavier side for a 14.4-inch laptop
– Display is quite reflective
– No SD card reader
– Surface Slim Pen 2 not included (look for bundles!)
– Surface Slim Pen 2 has issues with tapering lines
– Haptic feedback of pen is gimmicky
– Fans exhaust from the side will hit your hand with mouse
– USB-C charging may or may not work with certain USB chargers or wattage
– Keyboard has not right Control button
– Surface Connect port isn’t as useful as SD card reader, USB-C or HDMI port
– Surface app to configure the pen is not pre-installed
– Not as good for video editing compared to other laptops of similar price

Availability

If you’re interested to get the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio, consider getting them through the Amazon affiliate links provided. I earn some commission at no extra cost to you.

Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr | Amazon.es | Amazon.it | Amazon.co.jp

Here in Singapore, you can find the Surface Laptop Studio at Microsoft Singapore online store, Shopee, Lazada and most major electronics stores. And Microsoft Complete extended warranty is available on this page.



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