Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio – my first impressions

Microsoft gave me this product to try. The following remarks are based on my own experiences and are my own opinions.

I’ve been using Surface devices for almost 10years – purchasing my first, the Surface RT in October 2012. I followed this with several generations of the Surface Pro, which is in its 8th generation and is still my go-to Windows tablet, come laptop. I have also tested the Surface laptop but unfortunately, I have not spent a great deal of time with the Surface Book. But to make the connection for those not familiar with this model – the successor for many (not necessarily in the words of Microsoft) to the Surface Book – is the Surface Laptop Studio.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is the new mobile computing workhorse for creative professionals and quite possibly gamers too; screen refresh-rate primarily. It packs a punch with a unique pull-forward 120Hz touchscreen, a re-imagined haptic touchpad and available in 11th Generation Intel Core i5 and i7 configurations. This is an impressive device that is certainly ticking a lot of boxers for me.

Well, at least it appears to be. It arrived a week ago and has only been work-ready (see details below) since Wednesday. So, this article represents my initial impressions only with a more detailed review to follow in a few weeks or closer to the end of my time with the device (mid-May). But for now, here are a few things I have learned or gleaned from this time.

Like a kid on Christmas day, I was eager to fire it up and get started, even though I knew I would need to reset before I could onboard for work. Working my way through the out-of-the-box-experience (aka OOBE) I was immediately surprised to see that I was confronted with Windows 10 and not the most recent release – Windows 11. Doing some searching I was able to confirm that the Surface Laptop Studio can be purchased with:

  • Windows 11 Home
  • Windows 11 Pro
  • Windows 10 Pro

So, my device configuration is a result of a choice made at build time as opposed to a limitation of options. However, before rushing in and upgrading to the latest and greatest, I have decided that I will spend half my test-time on Windows 10 and the other half on Windows 11. This will ensure I can experience the current Enteprises mainstream OS and the emerging successor.

Starting with the screen, it is nothing short of impressive – a 14.4″ 120Hz PixelSense Flow touchscreen – that pulls you in with a spray of pixels that create a crisp sharp image that would have even the most avid gamer impressed. At 120Hz it’s not the highest refresh-rate out there (some hitting north of 160Hz) but it’s no slouch and would serve creative professionals well in both still and motion mediums.

The screen story doesn’t end there. Part of its predecessor’s story was its ability to provide a tablet experience – both in a fully detached tablet mode and by reversing the screen and attaching to the keyboard base to create a full-powered tablet. With the Surface Laptop Studio Microsoft has moved away from a detachable screen and taking cues from both Surface Studio (Microsoft’s creative desktop with lay-down screen experience) and Surface Pro (Microsoft’s most popular Surface device to date) to create a unique pull-forward touch screen -providing two distinct positions one, which Microsoft calls “stage mode” and two a near-flat experience as a tablet. You can of course move it forward or back to suit your preferred angle too.

Staying with the screen for a moment another important feature for me is the screen aspect. As with the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop – Microsoft has continued with the 3:2 aspect ratio, which as a business device this is the perfect ratio for creating content but equally for consuming it too. Many of my other recent test devices are leaning in on the 16:9 ratio, which just doesn’t work for me as a business device.

The bezel of the Surface Laptop Studio is an improvement on the Surface Book and on par with the most recent Surface Laptop and described as a slim bezel. Positioned in the top of the bezel is a Windows Hello webcam, which lets you log in to your Windows account or Work account (using Windows Hello for Business) via face recognition instead of typing your password. Coming from a HP EliteBook I can say that the accuracy of this camera is a significant improvement – unlocking successfully in an array of lighting conditions without issue. That said, I would still prefer a finger scanner as the camera is sometimes working too well and logging me in when I am in proximity – even when I am not looking to use my device.

Moving to the main body of the Surface Laptop Studio the next key call out are the available ports or connection types. It provides:

  • 2 x USB-C ports each with USB 4.0/Thunderbolt 4 capabilities
  • 3.5mm headphone jack 
  • 1 × Surface Connect

For a laptop that is positioned for creative pros this is a little light IMO. Further, one noticeable absence, and a personal dependency is the lack of a USB-A port. My current YubiKey is a USB-A type so, I had to rely on a USB-C hub that presents a USB-A port to use this key. That in itself is not a showstopper as YubiKey also makes a range of USB-C options too – order already placed.

The keyboard and touchpad on the Surface Laptop Studio are amongst the best I’ve ever used. But it’s the touchpad that is the most impressive. Taking a leaf out of Apple’s playbook, Microsoft has added a force feedback touchpad – so you cannot depress the pad physically. Rather, Microsoft have equipped the Surface Laptop Studio with haptic motors that provides the feedback to your fingertips across the entire touchpad. You can rely on traditional tap, click interactions, or use gestures to navigate your content or switch between applications.  

Looking internally, the Surface Laptop Studio test unit came with a quad-core 11th Gen Intel Core H35 i7-11370H Processor, with 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU with 4GB memory and a 512GB SDD. This configuration represents the higher end of the available configurations with a starting price of USD $2,099.99 (AU$3,149.00). It tops out at USD $3,099.99 (AU$4,649.00) increasing RAM and storage to 32GB and 2TB, respectively.

Checking the Microsoft Surface page, the starting price for the entry level Surface Laptop Studio is USD $1,599.99 (AU$2,999.00). This includes a quad-core 11th Gen Intel Core H35 i5-11300H Processor, with 16GB RAM, Intel Iris Xe Graphics and a 256GB SDD. There is no doubt that the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 will provide a more superior video experience however, this newer generation Intel Iris Xe is faster and better than Intel UHD Graphics but, not suitable for high-end gamers.

It is worth noting that Microsoft and retailers carrying their devices routinely have sales so if you are not after this device today – it might be worth waiting. Either way, the Surface Laptop Studio is truly an impressive device.

Update (March 15th): There are two hardware related characteristics that I missed calling out when I initially published this article – the weight of the unit and battery life. The weight was an oversight, and I will talk more on this in a moment. However, for the battery – I deliberately held off making any claims here, as I wanted to get some more field time with the device. Battery times are highly contested, and variable based, as so many factors can play a part here too. I will make further comment on the battery in my final review but for now the published battery life is up to 19 hours for the i5 and up to 18 hours for the i7.

Returning to the weight of the Surface Laptop Studio – the i5 is 1.7kg (3.83 pounds) and the i7 is 1.8kg (4.0 pounds) – this puts it right between the two Surface Book 3 models, which came in two sizes – a 13.5″ & 15″. So, despite dropping the battery and processing unit in the Surface Book 3 detachable tablet – this hasn’t seen a major drop in overall weight for the Surface Laptop Studio. One plausible reason for this could be in the sturdy design and chassis build, which feels robust and sturdy in the hand and when in use – showing zero flex or movement when typing.

Using my device at Work (making it Work-ready)

Testing devices, especially in large Enterprises can be met with push back from your IT team as it often involves work to integrate with your Standard Operating Environment (SOE) – aka corporate Windows image. This leads to frustration on the end-user’s part and huge loss for the Enterprise to evaluate other hardware offerings across their business. Fortunately, there are alternatives:

  1. Manual setup – Windows setup, domain-join, and configuration performed by an IT Pro
  2. Windows Autopilot – zero-touch setup for new devices or re-staging existing through cloud onboarding service

Option #1 is often used as a tactical solution but, doesn’t scale and can easily lead to varying results through missed steps or missed configuration. While option #2 is a purpose-built provisioning service that can be used to identify both the device and the user and enforce compliance policies that ensure that only trusted devices can access and consume corporate data.

I was fortunate to have access to Windows Autopilot and after performing a series of steps to extract my test devices hash, I was up and running and working from my Surface Laptop Studio.

Final remarks

There is a lot to get excited about over the Surface Laptop Studio. Whether it is the unique hardware features found in the touchpad or the pull-forward screen but, I will need to spend some more time with this device before I can decide if I will be looking to spend my own coin here. But I am sure grateful for the opportunity to test.

More to follow…

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