On the 22nd of September 2021, Microsoft hosted an online event where they showed off their all-new hardware, which included the very accurately predicted Surface Pro 8, the expected Surface Go 3 and updated Surface Pro X, as well as the Surface Duo 2 “phone”. What they also reviewed, was a device was thought to be the updated Surface Book based on patent discoveries but turned out to be the new Surface Laptop Studio. As I’m sure you are aware, especially if you were paying attention to the comments on the release video and social media, the new addition to the Surface team has been rather… polarising. I’ll also freely admit that the reveal of the design had me scratching my head, and many of my first comments were rather negative. In fact, I ultimately needed to receive a loan device and use it for a period of time before I really uncovered the benefits of the Laptop Studio design and found my flow with the device.
What is the Surface Laptop Studio?
Before I go too much further, I think it best to describe what the Surface Laptop Studio is. Firstly, the new devices is a premium convertible device that offers three postures: Laptop mode, Stage mode, and Studio mode. The Laptop and Studio modes are familiar and represent the same poses you’d use with a Surface Book or similar convertible device. The new Stage mode is new for the Surface line but has existed for several years in other brand’s lineups, and simply describes a mode where the screen can be pulled closer to the viewer and covering the keyboard potion of the top deck in a way that some claim is “more engaging”. Like most main line Surface devices before it, the Laptop Studio continues to feature the beautiful, factory colour-calibrated, 3:2 aspect ratio, PixelSense display that we’ve all come to know and love. The new display is now in a slightly larger 14.4″ configuration, that also happens to be 120Hz. At only 201ppi (2400 x 1600), the resolution isn’t the best in category, but is more than enough for incredible image quality on this size device. As you’d expect, the screen continues to have excellent touchscreen and digital inking capabilities, but now also includes a new party trick: Additional haptic motors that enhance the inking experience when paired with the new Surface Slim Pen 2; And a built-in magnetic dock for the Slim Pen 2 that doubles as a charger for the stylus.
Outside of the screen and pen, the new Surface Laptop Studio features Intel 11th generation CPUs, with both Core i5-11300H and Core i7-11370H options. The Core i5 models will come with the Intel Iris Xe graphics and will weigh in at a hefty 1.7Kg (1,742.9g or 3.83lbs); The Core i7 model gets the impressive Nvidia GeForce RTS-3050Ti discrete graphics (featuring 4GB GDDR6) and weighs in at slightly heftier 1.8Kg (1,820.2g or 4.00lbs). That weight comes in a dense package, though, as the aluminium + magnesium device comes in at only 32.32cm x 22.83cm x 1.89cm (12.72” x 8.98” x 0.746”). The storage options range from the typically 256GB entry model, to the insanely priced 1TB option, and both are removeable (not by “normal users” though) 2230 NVMe M.2 SSDs. Some firsts for the Surface line include the complete switch to Thunderbolt 4 ports (not just USB-C), and a minimum memory configuration of 16GB (up to 32GB) so we no longer need to struggle with the paltry 8GB configuration (YAY!). The Laptop Studio is fitted with a standard 58WH battery for both CPU/GPU configurations, which is expected to get over 10 hours in real world conditions, but optimistically advertises up to 19 hours. Starting at a breathtaking A$2,399.00, this isn’t a device that will see many average consumers running out to get the device, but it does offer a great workstation experience for those thinking or replacing or buying a Surface Book.
I can hear you all, already: “But what about the review?”
The concerns and bits I don’t love
I know people love a hot take, so first, here are some of my initial thoughts and concerns: I think the design, in my opinion – and an opinion seemingly shared by a lot of people online – is … it’s ummm… not the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. Sure, from some angles it looks great. From other angles, it looks thin, light, and almost like it’s floating off the desk. But this is all an optical illusion created by the smaller plinth beneath the main keyboard and trackpad deck: When you hold this device, you quickly realise it is really thick, and quite heavy. Now, it was clear from the launch event that the priority was performance with the Laptop Studio, and I can therefore excuse the over-the-top cooling vents in the base (plinth) that make up around one third of the device’s considerable thickness, but this doesn’t really excuse the design being used even for the lower end Core i5 model with integrated graphics. To me, it looks like the device was originally designed to house the Core i7 and discrete graphics, modified to support the Surface Slim Pen 2 storage and charging capabilities, then that latter change is what locked in the design across all SKUs. In other words: The design seems unnecessary thick, and compromised overall. I recall stating to my colleagues that I just hope the EDU price is reasonable so I can “sell” it to my staff on the capabilities and price/performance, because looks won’t do the job here… and some staff, having seen the demo device, have already asked us to make a note to ensure that they get a Surface Book 3 or Surface Laptop 4 instead of the Laptop Studio. Oof.
Having now used the demo device for a while, I can say that it works well and the aesthetics no longer bother me (too much), but my concerns have now moved to three main issues: The size and weight, the ports, and the hinge design/material.
- The size & weight: We already have a number of staff willing to compromise their device experiences in order to get a thinner and lighter device, especially if they commute in ways other than a personal car. Many, for example, really wanted the larger screen and better typing experience of the Surface Book, but ultimately chose to go with a Surface Pro for the aforementioned reasons. The Surface Laptop Studio, at its thinnest point, is around the thickness of the thickest part of the Surface Book 3, and it also weights at least 0.2kg (208.9g or 0.45lbs) more than the equivalent Surface Book as well.
- The ports: While some may be overjoyed by Microsoft finally moving to Thunderbolt 4 (TB4) on the new Surface device, this does create a situation where almost all of the devices we have and use are still USB-A, and/or contains storage that requires SD (or microSD). The Surface Laptop Studio replaces these much-loved ports on the Surface Book 3, with two USB-C/TB4 ports only. This is not a problem unique to Surface, however, and we are likely to see increased numbers of devices and peripherals coming out with USB-C ports… but it just means more dongles right now, and that isn’t ideal for students and teachers moving between rooms every 45 minutes or so.
- The hinge: This has been a serious concern raised by every person that has had hands-on with the device, because unlike other Surface devices, there is no constant-friction hinge mechanism in the Laptop Studio. Instead, there appears to be ribbon cables held in place by some plastic strips, and the whole assembly held in place with black fabric. In fact, if it weren’t for the magnets strategically placed to support the three modes (Laptop, Stage, and Studio), the device wouldn’t stay upright at all. If you detach the screen from the back of plate while in Laptop mode, you can freely move the hinge around – actually, it will flop around all by itself – and can easily fall back on itself up to 180 degrees. Now, given that we needed to wait for the upgraded hinges in the Surace Pro to see a reduction in the number of broken devices coming across our desk (even now, we get a lot of this), we can’t help but wonder how well a frictionless “hinge” made of fabric will last over a 3-year period in a school environment. We’re… not optimistic, but will gladly be proven wrong.
The point of the device and what I do love
Okay, now that Mr. Negativity has had his moment, let’s explore the benefits of the refreshed design. One thing I really like about the Surface Laptop Studio, is the frictionless way you can switch modes while using the device. At my school, we’ve had a multimodal-first device selection criteria since 2005, and a 1:1 student device programme since 2003; Years of experience with different devices and models over this time, with feedback gathered from devices being in the hands of an incredibly varied group of users, has taught us one thing: Switching modes needs to be easy if you’re going to benefit from a 2-in-1 device. More specifically, here’s what we learned:
- When we introduced PC tablet devices, the convertible nature of the devices meant that staff & students could quickly rotate the screen, touch, annotate & diagram, then flip the screen back to continue typing on the keyboard or using the mouse: The device design made mode-switching easy, so all supported modes of the device were well-utilised.
- Around 2013, we introduced our first detachable 2-in-1 devices. Even though these devices greatly enhanced the overall inking & touch experiences – with better sensors and tracking, lower latency, reduced parallax – we found a significant reduction in usage outside of just being an expensive laptop: Despite detaching the screen from the keyboard base being relatively easy, it was enough friction to kill that multimodal usage we desired and had fostered with the previous convertible devices.
- The follow-up device, in 2014, was another 2-in-1 that operated as a detachable device. The jury was still out on whether it was the specific device, or the device design, that ultimately compromised the multimodal usage, so we went with an upgraded model. While the newer device was a great improvement over the previous model, and was even easier to detach, we still found that the device encouraged “laptop first” experiences, which led to it being used as “laptop only”. Use in classes such as mathematics and science, where inking formula is a much-improved experience over keyboard entry, is where we continued to see the multimodal usage, but it fell in most other areas.
- Furthermore, an informal and subjective review of student scores in these years seemed to align with established studies around the benefit of learning by motor-cognition, especially given how laptop usage can be detrimental in the learning experience. Without our devices being used as tablets, and without inking being a primary input, we started to see scores slip and concerns around handwriting quality increase. Unexpectedly, our device choice compromised the tablet used and turned the devices into “laptops/typewriters” and the students into human photocopiers instead or learners. Put simply, keyboards can hurt learning, but inking can enhance it in the same ways as studies suggest pen & paper usage can.
- The change came in 2015, when we switched to Surface Pro 3: While those that prioritised a typing experience were relatively happy with the Type Cover, but by no means ecstatic, the fact that the keyboard easily got out of the way meant that mode switching was back to being frictionless: Tablet/Pen usage skyrocketed again, and so did sentiment (across staff, students, and parents/guardians/carers) towards devices in the classroom. We were back on track with classroom technology, and both grades and handwriting quality returned to expected levels.
- The experience wasn’t perfect though. While many appreciated how thin & light Surface Pro was, some others wanted a better typing experience than was offered with the Type Cover. Another major request was for a larger screen, especially among staff. This is why, in 2019, we switched the device for upper years (10, 11, and 12) and offered senior staff the same device… the Surface Book 2. But here’s the issue with the Surface Book design: It’s another detachable 2-in-1 device. And, as you can likely guess from the trend above, it suffered a similar issue to the previous devices of this type in that it mostly just became another laptop: Needing to detach the screen was too much friction for mode switching.
- We’ve looked at devices with 360⁰ hinges, and while they enable mode switching better than detachable 2-in-1 devices, they still require the device to be lifted and moved which adds friction; Some also reported that they didn’t like the feel of the keyboard keys when folded back, and that also adds friction to the experience we are chasing, so these were also ruled out for the time being.
- And now we’re back to the Surface Laptop Studio. This device design seems to offer the best of both worlds: It offers a first class laptop & typing experience; With a quick & easy motion, you pull the screen forward to access touch and inking; Then it goes right back to keyboard. Frictionless. In fact, less friction than the convertible tablets that we originally found to improve engagement and learning in the classroom, and that’s excellent news.
The Surface Laptop Studio, just like the Surface Studio all-in-one that came with the name before it, allows you to easily pull the screen forward and interact with the device the way you want, then push the screen back to continue with traditional productivity and inputs: It’s a gloriously frictionless multimodal-enabling solution.
The Surface Laptop Studio is an interesting device. On one hand, it has a divisive aesthetic and “unique” hinge design. On the other, it’s a frictionless, multi-modal device, which offers convenient storage, access to, and recharging or the pen that we’re trying to prioritise for our classroom technology. I’m not sure how this device will go in the hands of students, especially given how they’ve managed to destroy even the more robust Surface Pro hinge mechanisms, but I’m hoping the Surface designers thought this through and have a plan to deal with hinge issues.
I have a lot of additional thoughts on the device, but this post is long enough. I’d love to hear the thoughts of others, whether they have had hands-on with the device yet, and whether they are considering this device for staff or students. Let’s have a chat on Twitter. All I know is, once I was able to get past the weirdness of the design choices, get hands-on with the device, then see this setup (see picture below), I really want one for my work device.