- The Surface Laptop Studio starts at $1,600, which is more than comparable laptops from Asus, HP and other companies.
- The computer's design provides more computing power compared with the Surface Book it replaces.
Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio launches Tuesday and I've been using it for the past several days. It's more practical than the Surface Book it replaces in Microsoft's family of laptops, but it's still not perfect.
The Surface Laptop Studio, which starts at $1,600, gives Microsoft a shot at grabbing more of the PC market, which has grown during the coronavirus pandemic as people rushed to buy PCs to virtually attend meetings and classes and stay entertained from home.
The Surface Book this computer replaces proved that Microsoft could pull off impressive hardware engineering. Its hinge expanded and contracted, calling to mind a lotus flower, as you opened and closed it. Push a button on the keyboard and you could take off the screen and use it as a tablet.
The Surface Laptop Studio leaves out that whimsy — you can't take the screen off —but still offers a unique experience. Here's what you need to know about it.
The new design is the Surface Laptop Studio's greatest attribute.
You can use it like any other laptop, but when you want to use it as a tablet, you just slide the screen out and lay it flat on top of the keyboard in "Studio Mode." There's no more clicking a button or hitting a key on the keyboard and then waiting to disconnect the display from the keyboard base, as there was on the Surface Book.
Unlike the Surface Book, which lost a lot of its power and battery life when you detached the screen, you still have all the processing power when the Surface Laptop Studio is in this mode. And, laid flat, it's better for reading documents, taking notes or just browsing the web without a keyboard or mouse. You can stay in the flow for longer without being bothered to charge up.
When you're ready to use the Surface Laptop Studio like a laptop again, just pull up the bottom edge until the display forms a 90-degree angle, and then you flip the panel over.
You can also switch to what Microsoft calls "Stage Mode," which brings the display closer to you by positioning the bottom of the keyboard right between the keyboard and the trackpad. This is useful if you're using the computer to watch movies, play games or draw on the screen when you don't need the keyboard.
The Laptop Studio has a spot beneath the trackpad where you can stow away and recharge the new $130 Surface Slim Pen 2, which contains a haptic motor that pushes back with more pressure if you write or draw with more force. A powerful magnet ensures the pen won't come loose. It's a more thoughtful solution than attaching the stylus to the edge of the display as people did on the Surface Book.
The display is sharp, and a new Windows 11 feature will let you make the most of its 120 Hz refresh rate, which makes scrolling through websites and photos much smoother. It might also help save battery life. Microsoft says it's testing a dynamic refresh rate setting that automatically lowers the refresh rate for less graphically intensive tasks. I couldn't try it yet because a compatible graphics driver was not available.
The trackpad is larger than any on a Surface PC. It provides haptic feedback, and you get a response no matter where you click, just like on Apple's MacBooks. It's a big improvement from the Surface Book's trackpad.
Overall, it's a fun and powerful computer that can be used in a lot of different modes depending on what you need it for. But it's not perfect.
Microsoft used the introduction of the Surface Laptop Studio to switch up the ports on its top-of-the-line notebook PC. The most recent Surface Book included two traditional USB-A ports, one modern USB-C port and a full-size SD card reader, along with a headphone jack and Microsoft's proprietary Surface Connect charging port. On the Laptop Studio are two USB-C ports that support the contemporary Thunderbolt 4 standard, but the USB-A ports and the card reader are gone. That means customers will have to reach for dongles to connect their devices to it, which is a bummer.
Microsoft's Surface Connect charger feels dated. It's been used since 2012, so Microsoft is keeping it around for people who have accessories that work with it. It's nice that it's magnetic and easy to attach or disconnect in case you trip on the cord, but I think it could be cut altogether. At least you can still charge over USB-C if you forget the cable, though.
The Surface Books gave people hard-to-miss power and volume buttons on the top edge of the display. On the Laptop Studio, the power button is on the keyboard just to the left of the delete key. It's taken time to get used to.
Also, while the volume keys are in the same easy-to-find place as they were on the Surface Book at the top of the keyboard, they aren't as easy to push as the old buttons when you're in a hurry. A Microsoft spokesperson said the company's research showed most Surface Laptop users expect power and volume buttons on the keyboard, which helped the company make the Laptop Studio display thinner.
The battery life isn't very good, either. I generally got around 4½ hours of use on a single charge from my review unit, which contains an Intel Core i7 chip and 32GB of RAM. That's well short of Microsoft's claim of up to 18 hours of battery life. It's also shorter than the 6½ hours I got on the Surface Book 3 and almost 7½ hours on the Surface Book 2.
As clever as the new design is, the Laptop Studio feels more delicate than the Surface Books. Flipping over the display and revealing Microsoft's Dynamic Woven Hinge seems one step removed from exposing the guts of the device. I couldn't help but worry that switching between modes a couple of times per day might wear down the components. I didn't encounter issues while reviewing the laptop, though.
Microsoft tests the Laptop Studio "to standards that consider how users may cycle the device through various modes during life and even how they might transport the device to ensure we provide the highest quality and long-lasting experience," a spokesperson told CNBC in an email.
And like the Surface Book, the base-model Laptop Studio, at $1,600, can be expensive. Asus, HP, Lenovo and Samsung all sell convertible PCs with similar or fancier hardware configurations for less. For example, Samsung's 15.6-inch Galaxy Book Pro 360 goes for $1,300. The situation is better at the higher end. The Laptop Studio that Microsoft lent me costs $2,700, and a comparable Lenovo ThinkPad costs around the same amount of money.
The Surface Laptop Studio is a better computer than the Surface Book it replaces. It's less flashy but more focused on delivering a good experience when people want to use their laptops in nontraditional ways, specifically with touch gestures or a stylus on the screen.
I enjoyed working, playing video games and listening to music on the Surface Laptop Studio. People seeking impressive performance and the ability to write on the Surface as a tablet ought to consider this machine, just beware of the battery life.