Perhaps you’re a software developer by day and a gamer by night. Or maybe you game and code simultaneously by night, and by day you’re asleep. In either case, your laptop of choice might have once been a Razer or an Alienware, but now there’s a new kid on the block: the 14-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio (starts at $1,599; $2,699 as tested). It advances the state of the art of mobile computing for creative pros in a big way, with a haptic touchpad and a 120Hz screen that pulls forward so you can lay it completely flat on top of the keyboard. It’s not particularly powerful, and it’s pricey, but it’s still impressive.
The Most Advanced Surface Laptop
The Surface Laptop Studio was conceived as a successor to the Surface Book 3, another innovative device for creative professionals that Microsoft will continue to sell for the time being. Like the Book 3, the Laptop Studio has a convertible touchscreen. Unlike the Book 3, which is a tablet that can detach from its included keyboard base, the Laptop Studio is a non-detachable laptop. Yes, Microsoft already offers a non-detachable (a.k.a. clamshell) laptop with a touchscreen, the aptly named Surface Laptop. What makes the Studio version different is that its screen can be pulled forward to create an easel, or pulled even further forward to lay flat on your desk as a digital canvas on which to spill your thoughts or draw your masterpiece with a digital pen.
The concept has been tried before, in the form of the Acer ConceptD 3 Ezel and a few other devices. But Microsoft’s take is by far the most polished we’ve seen. Whereas the ConceptD 3 Ezel is a tad overweight and rather chunky looking, the Laptop Studio is as sleek a Surface as there ever was. A familiar magnesium gray chassis with a reflective Microsoft logo on the display lid, it measures 0.75 by 12.72 by 8.98 inches (HWD) and weighs 4 pounds. By contrast, the Acer’s 0.9-inch thickness is unbecoming of such an innovative form factor.
Like the ConceptD 3 Ezel, the Surface Laptop Studio has a 14-inch screen, a new sweet spot toward which more and more laptops are gravitating, whether they’re ultra thin biz machines like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon or powerful gaming rigs like the Razer Blade 14. It’s the latter—an outstanding laptop in its own right—that is perhaps the chief competition for the Surface Laptop Studio as it seeks to win the hearts and wallets of its target market: people who consider themselves coders, gamers, and digital artists (and participants in many other creative fields of the 21st century) simultaneously.
If that’s you, Razer wants to win you over too, of course, and both companies dole out considerable sums for product placement in content you’re likely to consume, from Surfaces in Marvel’s WandaVision to the Razer logo plastered on seemingly every electronic device in Apple TV’s Mythic Quest. Yes, as brands go Razer is arguably (unarguably?) cooler than Microsoft, but both the Blade 14 and Surface Laptop Studio are considerable investments, so coolness is far from the only decision point.
Instead, if you’re considering the Laptop Studio as one option among a few buzzworthy 14-inch PCs to hit the market this year, it really comes down to priorities. Do you value performance above all else, or are you drawn to the innovative pull-forward design that Microsoft pulls off surprisingly well with the Surface Laptop Studio? Spoiler alert: You can’t have both, so let’s dig deeper into both the features and performance aspects of the Laptop Studio to see how it stacks up.
Easy Conversion to Stage or Canvas
One of the main complaints about the Surface Book 3 is that its tablet functionality is not as robust as its laptop functionality. In the 15-inch version of the Book 3, the Nvidia GPU and one of the two batteries are located in the keyboard base, which means that before you detach it you have to close any apps using the GPU and prepare yourself for much shorter battery life.
The Surface Laptop Studio doesn’t suffer from this problem, of course, since its screen doesn’t detach. You never have to worry about closing apps or drastically reducing battery life (which is excellent, clocking in at 14 hours in our testing). To pull the screen forward, you simply grasp the upper right or left corner of the screen and twist your wrist gently. The magnetic middle hinge, made of woven fabric with embedded power and data cables that supply the screen, detaches. The display lid then folds along the middle hinge. You pull the screen toward you, slowly closing the bottom hinge, until the bottom edge of the screen is aligned with the gap between the keyboard and the touchpad. Here, another row of magnets snaps it into place.
In this arrangement, which Microsoft calls “stage mode,” you’ve got a rock-solid surface on which to write or draw with a stylus. It’s far sturdier when the Laptop Studio’s screen is in conventional laptop mode, since there are two points of support instead of just one. As a result, there’s no screen bouncing, something that nearly every other convertible and clamshell laptop suffers when you tap, write, or draw on the screen.
While tapping on the touch screen is much more satisfying when the Laptop Studio is a stage than when it’s a laptop, the most useful part of the stage orientation is presenting content, not creating it. You can watch videos or play games (using a console controller) more enjoyably without the keyboard in the way.
For more serious writing or drawing sessions, you’ll want to convert the Laptop Studio into a canvas: Grab the corner of the screen and apply slight pressure again to release the magnetic bond and move the display to the fully flat position, where it will again magnetically lock. Now, the Laptop Studio is essentially a digital version of a pad of paper, and really the only difference between it and a detached tablet like the Surface Book 3 or even smaller convertible 2-in-1s like the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is that it’s too heavy to hold in your hand.
Getting Smooth With 120Hz
Conventional laptops like the Blade 14—which lacks even a touch screen—can’t do any of this, of course. And the reason it’s surprising that Microsoft is able to pull off the pull-forward screen so well is two-fold. First, because the concept has been tried before but plays a faint second fiddle to the Lenovo Yoga-style convertible 2-in-1s that dominate the market. And second, because Microsoft has added a few features to the Laptop Studio’s touchscreen experience that almost no other similar offering has.
The first is a 120Hz screen refresh rate. Outside of the gaming laptop and flagship phone markets, screen refresh rates above 60Hz are rare. But they’re essential to making what you see on the screen look more like real life. Gaming laptops need them to give esports players a competitive edge, while flagship handheld devices like the Apple iPhone 13 employ 120Hz-screens to make scrolling and other on-screen animations appear smoother. (The Blade 14 can be fitted with a 165Hz screen).
The Surface Laptop Studio benefits from these usual advantages over the standard 60Hz laptop refresh rate, of course, but Microsoft has another, more niche reason for introducing a high-refresh-rate screen: It enables more realistic writing and drawing experiences, regardless of whether you’re using your fingertip or a digital stylus. The higher refresh rate means the pixels can keep up with your motion better. If writing on a 60Hz screen feels like, well, writing on a screen, then writing on a 120Hz screen feels much closer to (albeit still far from) writing on a piece of paper from an actual pulp mill.
The Surface Laptop Studio’s second ingredient for success is an optional extra: the new Surface Slim Pen 2. This $129 digital stylus should really be included in the box with the laptop, since the two fit together perfectly. When used with the Laptop Studio, the Slim Pen 2 adds tactile feedback to even more closely mimic the feel of writing on paper. Apply more pressure to the screen, and the tiny haptic motor in the Slim Pen 2 vibrates, evoking the friction you get when you dig a sharp mechanical pencil into a drafting pad. It’s hard to notice until you turn up the sensitivity in the Windows 11 Settings app, and it’s likely more gimmicky than useful unless you’re a digital artist with precise stylus control skills. But now that I’ve experienced it, it will be difficult to go back to using a non-haptic stylus.
The Slim Pen 2 and Surface Laptop Studio also fit together literally. You can attach the pen to a notch beneath the front edge of the laptop, where strong magnets both hold it in place and charge it.
Improved Windows Hello Webcam
The Surface Laptop Studio’s unique screen features make it an ideal digital canvas, but it’s also a pleasure to look at. The HDR display measures 14.4 inches on the diagonal, with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a resolution of 2,400 by 1,600 pixels (between full HD and 4K). It has slimmer bezels than both the Surface Laptop 4 and the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro have, giving it a decidedly modern look. In a curious twist, the corners of the screen are rounded, not squared, which softens the aesthetic but also means that a few pixels in the corners of full-screen apps will be lopped off.
In our testing, the Laptop Studio’s display managed to display the entire sRGB color gamut and 86% of the DCI-P3 gamut, which puts its color accuracy on par with the Blade 14 and is a noteworthy improvement over the Surface Book 3. The Laptop Studio’s backlight is also plenty bright enough for nearly any indoor viewing situation. We measured its maximum brightness at 485 nits, a few above the Book 3’s maximum and significantly better than the Blade 14’s 357 nits.
In the thin top bezel lies a Windows Hello webcam, a familiar Surface feature that lets you log in to your Windows account via face recognition instead of typing your password. Microsoft has improved the low-light performance of Windows Hello significantly with the Surface Laptop Studio’s camera, and the shooter also captures startlingly crisp video and still images thanks to an improved image signal processor and a 1080p sensor. As far as reliably logging me in every time, however, the Laptop Studio’s camera still falls short of Face ID on my iPhone, whose accuracy is 100% when I’m not wearing a face mask.
The Surface Laptop Studio’s keyboard and touchpad are also the best I’ve ever used on any Surface Device. The most significant improvement is the touchpad, which uses haptic motors instead of a physical hinge, affording your fingertips the pleasure of a uniform clicking sensation whether they happen to be in the corner or the center of the pad. Other Windows laptop makers have experimented with haptics, including Lenovo on the Yoga 9i and ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, but only the Surface Laptop Studio implements the feature as well as we’ve come to expect from the haptic trackpads of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
Don’t Expect to Plug In Lots of Peripherals
For a laptop that starts at $1,600 and is aimed at creative pros, the Laptop Studio’s port selection is disappointing. There are just two oval shaped USB-C ports, a headphone jack, and the Surface Connect port, which is where you plug in the AC adapter. Compare that with the Blade 14’s respectable complement of I/O options, which include two USB Type-A ports, two USB-C connectors, and an HDMI output. Pros need port options, even if it’s only to plug in a USB-A gaming mouse, and the Laptop Studio lets them down.
As a consolation prize, both of the Surface Laptop Studio’s USB ports support Thunderbolt 4, something the Blade 14 and the Surface Book 3 lack. And if you’re looking to charge a USB-A device, you’ll find a power-delivery port on the Laptop Studio’s stylish black AC adapter. The port is for charging only, and can’t transfer data to and from the laptop. The upgraded configuration uses a 95-watt power supply necessary for running the Core i7 and RTX graphics, while the Core i5 base configuration comes with a smaller 60-watt adapter. Both have USB charging ports. Meanwhile, wireless connectivity includes Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5.1.
With quad speakers and dual microphones, the Surface Laptop Studio’s audio quality is excellent. Output is rich and startlingly loud at maximum volume, and the only aspect I found lacking is the bass that comes from a dedicated woofer, though that’s something we don’t expect from a 14-inch laptop.
Surface Studio Configuration Options
It’s quite clear that Microsoft has a design win on its hands with the Surface Laptop Studio, from the added features compared with conventional 14-inch laptops, to the usability improvements over the Surface Book 3. But what about performance?
As mentioned above, it’s somewhat of a disappointment. We tested a higher-end configuration, which features an Intel Core i7-11370H processor, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti, 32GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD. Compare that with the 16GB of RAM and 256GB SSD of the Core i5-powered base configuration, which lacks a discrete Nvidia GPU and instead relies on Intel integrated graphics.
While it’s true that RTX is Nvidia’s flagship GPU brand, and the H-series Core CPUs are Intel’s flagship laptop processors, they’re not all created equal—not even close. The Core i7 in the Laptop Studio has just four cores and a 28-watt minimum power draw, which puts it closer to Core i7 models designed for ultraportable laptops than to the six-core, 45-watt models that make up the upper end of the H-series range. Likewise, there’s a significant drop in graphics capabilities when you step down from the RTX 3060 (itself a mid-range card) to the RTX 3050 Ti, which has just 4GB of video memory and can range anywhere from 35 watts to 80 watts, depending on the laptop.
As a result, the Surface Laptop Studio falls into a predictable performance pattern. It sails through everyday tasks like web browsing (as any laptop in this price range must), but on more demanding tasks it falls short of true power laptops designed for gaming or content creation, such as the Dell XPS 15, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme, and the Blade 14. You can see the specs of these laptops as we reviewed them in the chart below, along with those of the Laptop Studio and Book 3.
The first group of benchmark tests we run simulate both everyday tasks (UL PCMark and Primate Labs Geekbench) as well as more complex real-world workflows like 3D rendering (Maxon Cinebench), video transcoding (Handbrake), and image editing (Adobe Photoshop). On PCMark and Geekbench, the Laptop Studio finishes ahead of the Book 3, but behind all three of the other competitors, a pattern that bears itself out repeatedly on the other tests.
A deficiency of a few hundred points on the PCMark 10 overall test hardly makes a difference when all of the scores are above the 4,000 mark that represents excellent performance. But when the Surface Laptop Studio takes 12 minutes to complete a video transcode that the Blade 14 can do in 7 minutes, that’s where eyebrows start to go up. Transcoding video using Handbrake is a CPU-intensive task, as is compiling code, so software developers will likely find this result disappointing. The Blade 14 uses an AMD Ryzen 9 56900H CPU with eight cores and a 45-watt default power rating. (See how we test laptops).
Gaming Performance and Battery Life
Microsoft wants the RTX-equipped version of the Surface Laptop Studio to moonlight as a gaming platform, and here the benchmark results are slightly kinder. Performance on the 3DMark gaming graphics simulation is on par with the XPS 15, which Dell intends to serve a similar purpose (content creation as bread and butter, a bit of casual gaming at lower resolutions and detail settings to relax at the end of the day). We normally run a second graphics simulation called GFXBench, but it failed to launch on the Laptop Studio, more likely due to a software glitch than a problem with the laptop.
When it comes to AAA games with stunningly detailed graphics that can truly tax a GPU, however, the Laptop Studio is simply not up to the task. The differences between the RTX 3070-equipped Blade 14 and the RTX 3050 Ti Laptop Studio on the in-game benchmarks we tested (F1 2021, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Rainbow Six: Siege) are stark reminders that not every RTX laptop is created equal. Yes, you can get better performance if you select low quality and turn on Nvidia’s DLSS feature in games that support it, but it’s still far less than what you can expect from an RTX 3070-equipped machine.
As mentioned above, Surface Laptop Studio battery life and display performance are excellent. You can compare the Surface Laptop Studio’s color, brightness, and video battery rundown performance to competitors in the chart below. It’s especially impressive that it manages to come within two hours of the the Book 3’s result despite having more powerful components and one fewer battery.
Still Groundbreaking, Despite Performance Pitfalls
There’s no doubt that the Surface Laptop Studio is groundbreaking. We’ve come to expect such things from the Surface lineup, so it’s always nice to see a product that exceeds our expectations. The pull-forward laptop-screen concept has been tried before, but never in a device that’s so stylish and packed with innovative features like a haptic touchpad and robust digital stylus support.
The once-sparse market segment for compact power laptops is growing crowded, however, and many companies besides Microsoft have seen the potential of 14-inch PCs that pack a punch. Razer’s less expensive Blade 14 just happens to pack a lot more punch, thanks to its Ryzen 9 and RTX 3070. Of course, the Blade 14 doesn’t offer haptics or a pull-forward screen—it doesn’t even offer a touch screen.
So if you’re a creative pro, you’re right to get excited about the Surface Laptop Studio, but you’re faced with a conundrum: Get a stunning digital canvas, or get as much power as you can from a small laptop like the excellent Blade 14? We suspect you’ll gravitate toward the latter, especially if you tend to spend more of your day (or night, or both) gaming than creating with a stylus.