photo: Microsoft

A photographer spends 30 minutes with the Microsoft Surface Studio

I took an SD card with some DNG RAW files and a 4K MP4 video to my local Microsoft Store today to see how the new Microsoft Surface Studio would run my two go-to photography apps, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Microsoft staff were very welcoming and let me spend 30 minutes putting their new machine through its paces. Here’s my experience…

Damn this thing looks nice!

The display is impossibly thin (as opposed to the iMac which has a thin edge but bulges towards the center) and it’s kind of crazy to think that they’ve stuck a computer in the tiny base. The screen articulates effortlessly too, with some height adjustability when used as a regular computer. It’s hard to know if there is enough vertical adjustment for all desks and torsos though. In the past I’ve had to place iMacs on a big book to raise it high enough and I’m not sure if the Surface Studio solves this.

Where’s the freakin’ SD card slot?

Oh, there it is, in the back of the base. The screen does not raise or tilt high enough to slip my hand beneath it to insert the SD card, so I have to come from the side to insert and withdraw the card. It’s impossible to know if I’ll get use to this in time or if this would slowly drive me crazy.

Wow that screen is glossy!

It’s hard to take a photo of this thing without seeing reflections of the store’s lights. But while working (instead of taking photos of pretending to work) you can tilt the display to minimize glare. To make another iMac comparison, they’re glossy too, so if you are cross-shopping you will have to control your workspace lighting no matter which one you buy.

Drafting table mode is hella cool!

It takes no effort at all to reposition the monitor so that it’s lying 20 degrees from flat, just like in the videos. You might have to move the keyboard out of the way though. And the mouse too. Which may not seem like a big deal until it is. Wait for it.

This screen is gigantic!

When in drafting table mode, the top edge of the screen feels quite far away. And since it’s tilting away and I’m an old man with old man vision, those tiny menus are kinda hard to read. I do like the 3:2 format though; two letter size pages fit no problem.

The pen? Jury still out.

I played around with the pen, poking around Windows 10. Yes, Windows 10 was built from the ground up to support touch, and it does work. But i won’t say it’s great. There’s an uncanny valley between the pen tip and the actual screen. Actually, it might be the thickness of the glass, but there’s something odd about having a physical object manipulating a virtual one. I can’t put my finger on it, figuratively speaking, but it feels different than using a phone or tablet. Maybe it’s the scale. And there’s a chance that it feels different just because it’s new and in a couple weeks of usage I’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

But there’s something else. When using a mouse or trackpad (or small Wacom tablet), the File menu in the upper-left corner of the screen is typically a flick of the wrist or quick swipe of the finger away. With this giant screen, the File menu is a good stretch away, and it seems like every interface interaction is a reach. But hey, in this era of standup desks, this may be the new workout craze.

But that screen. Wow.

I loaded up a photo in Lightroom and hit F on the keyboard for fullscreen mode. All of a sudden I was looking at a 28” (diagonal) wide gamut print with deep blacks and great colors. It wasn’t an actual print of course, but having the image nearly flat on the table did some weird kung-fu to my brain. The bezel is pretty small too, maybe 1cm, so the image really just filled my entire field of view and it looked fantastic. Yes, the 5k iMac is great, but the image is vertical and some distance from you; it’s like you are looking at a print on the wall. With the Surface Studio in drafting table mode, you are positioned to literally touch and work on the image. Wow.

The last time I was blown away by such a paradigm shift was back in 2004 or so when someone brought a Sony PSP to work and I watched a trailer to a video game. It was the first time that I had held something movie-like in my hands, predating the iPhone by several years, and it was really odd to hold something that normally existed as a 19” object or projected onto a giant screen. The Surface Studio experience is something like that.

Want to get blown away? Unpinch.

I touch the screen to unpinch and zoom in. Mind. Blown. It’s like I’m massaging pixels with my fingertips. I zoom in and out repeatedly because it is so freakin’ cool. I pan left and right rapidly just for the hell of it. I am immersed and engaged in the image in a novel new way, vaguely familiar yet uniquely different. I think I like it.

The Mask.

I play around with masking in Lightroom and lassoing in Photoshop. Wow and wow. The pen works great here, letting me work directly on the image, get as zoomy as I’d like and really dive in. I’ve been using a Wacom for years (not a Cintiq) but this is something else. Responsiveness is pretty good too and the uncanny valley that I described above didn’t seem as big a deal. Maybe I’m already getting used to it.

Laggy?

There were times when I was able to induce some lag. Mind you, I was going a little manic trying stuff out so it’s may not be a typical use case. But this Surface Studio only had 8GB RAM mated to an i5 CPU, which is not the best spec to be running Lightroom and Photoshop simultaneously while pinching and swiping like a madman. This would be a system that I’d want to stuff the most RAM, the most HDs, and the most cores and gigahertzes into in order to make it superfast and last forever, but we’re stepping into Leica price ranges here. Well, not quite, but closer.

Dial? Untapped potential.

Currently, the Surface Dial (inconsistently called the Knob in Settings, IIRC) doesn’t support a lot in either Lightroom or Photoshop. When in those apps, you can control system volume and some other system setting, and also zoom level and undo. You can’t, for example, dial in brush size or control exposure, clarity, or any of the sliders. I would hope that future iterations of those apps would add more sophisticated controls, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Lefties need not apply.

Damn you Lightroom. I can’t move the Develop modules to the left side of the screen. So I’m repeatedly reaching with my left hand all the way to the right side of the screen to adjust things. I can adjust the palettes in Photoshop, but I spend a lot of time in Lightroom, and at this point I don’t think that I can buy the Surface Studio because of this. Optimists will say that Lightroom will accommodate lefties eventually but this is another we’ll see.

Wish I was Keith Moon

So here’s the thing that I need to wrap my head around and the thing that gives me pause (besides the price and the bias against lefties in Lightroom and the fact that I recently purchased a new computer and monitor and totally don’t need the Surface Studio)…Lightroom and Photoshop aren’t great touch apps, so some things are better done using the Surface Studio like an iMac with the screen vertical and with the mouse and keyboard in their familiar locations. But then if I need to mask a photo, I’d be inclined to incline the screen into drafting table mode, move the keyboard and mouse out of the way, pick up the pen, put the knob where the mouse was, and get to work in this wonderful new drafting table paradigm. But once the mask was set and I wanted to do something with the mask like saturation, exposure, clarity, etc…, I’d either have to make those adjustments with the pen (a PITA for a lefty in Lightroom) or go back to iMac mode and put the pen away, reposition the screen back to vertical, replace the Knob with the mouse, adjust the keyboard position, have a sandwich (are you still with me?) and then make the adjustments. But if I wanted to fine tune or edit the mask again, guess what I’d want to do? Yup, you guessed it…go back to drafting mode.

You see the problem here?

TL;DR — The Surface Studio will either turn me into Keith Moon, with each limb operating expertly and independently of each other in an amazing and wondrous choreography of movement and creativity, or drive me completely batty as I constantly and repeatedly shifted in and out of modes based on the task at hand. Or…and this would be a great disappointment…I’d end up using it like an iMac.

The final word.

Some might think that the Surface Studio is simply a Surface on steroids, but it’s not. The shear size of it makes it unique and introduces UX issues that have not been addressed before. There’s great promise here but as with any first generation product not all of it is fulfilled. The Adobe apps are a sticking point, and unless a credible competitor releases a touch-optimized app, Adobe has little incentive to rush out new Studio friendly-apps. Personally, I wouldn’t buy the Surface Studio until Adobe brought out Creative Cloud Apps that really took advantage of it (and the Dial), and I’d be inclined to wait for the refined second generation anyway after the Surface Studio team learns from real world feedback and improves the product. Until then (and completely irrationally) if you pre-order one now I’m still totally jealous.