Surface Laptop Studio: The First Convertible Worth Having

October 8, 2021 / Carolina Milanesi

I am not one for sensationalistic titles when talking about a product, but I must admit talking about the new Surface Laptop Studio like the first convertible worth having is the best way to summarize how I feel about this product.

At what has now become an annual Fall appointment, the Microsoft Surface Team announced several new devices in addition to the Surface Laptop Studio: the Surface Pro 8, the Surface Go 3, the Surface Duo 2, and a refresh of the Surface Pro X. An impressive line up that serves a broad spectrum of users with a well-established design like the Surface Pro 8, more compact design like with the Surface Go and the new form factor of the Surface Laptop Studio. Aside from the classic clamshell posture, thanks to what Microsoft calls a “dynamic woven hinge,” the Surface Laptop Studio’s screen folds over the keyboard, leaving the trackpad exposed to create a “stage mode” for gaming with a controller or video streaming. The screen also folds over almost flat in “studio mode” for users to draw or write.

Convertibles are far from new. They were an initial response to the iPad and what many, me included, believed to be the start of the end for PCs in favor of tablets. As such, they focused on providing a highly mobile experience for users who wanted to create and consume content on the go. Because of their mobile-first nature, most of these devices were compact and not necessarily the most powerful.

Since then, mobility has become a much more mainstream need no longer delivered at the expense of performance, and the Surface Pro 8 is a particularly good example of that winning formula.
However, PC manufacturers continued to think of these devices in terms of creation and consumption as two separate workflows for a user who was willing to sacrifice function over form when it comes to convertibles. With data showing that most users buying a convertible were really after a laptop that could occasionally convert to a tablet, PC vendors fostered this misconception that the laptop posture mattered the most. For me, this approach always delivered a compromise experience.

To be fair to PC manufacturers, those early-day hybrids also suffered tremendously from running on Windows 8. While things got a little better with Windows 10, switching from laptop to tablet mode was not necessarily the best experience with a UI that did not properly accommodate the less precise touch of a finger over a pen or a cursor.

With the Surface Laptop Studio, the focus is on enabling a continuous workflow that allows you to use different input mechanisms as well as adopt different postures. It is about a more balanced experience for a user who, in terms of time, might well be using the device more as a laptop but who values equally any time spent in stage or studio mode. In terms of performance and screen, the Surface Laptop Studio remains true to its category predecessor, Surface Book, which was always seen as the workhorse of the portfolio, leaving you with a feeling that you are really not compromising function over form.

The importance of all postures is underlined by the 120Hz screen and the very clever charging capability for the Surface Pen 2. Maybe a nod to the fact that for most users, inking will still not be an everyday thing, the Surface Pen 2 does not ship in the box. If you purchase one, however, it easily tucks under the front of the device to charge. That way, any time you need the Pen, there is no fumbling in a bag or on your desk and, even more important, no more finding out it needs charging. It might seem simple, but you would be surprised how much proximity helps drive the adoption of inking.

New with Surface Pen 2 is the support for haptics. This needs experimenting a little as we all have different sensitivities to the vibrations. I had to push my setting up to experience the more natural ink-to-paper sensation Microsoft talked about in their demos. Once you find your setting, it is much more engaging than writing on glass.

Finally, on the hardware side, I need to give a shout-out to the keyboard. The well-spaced-out keys, the travel, the quietness, and the bigger touchpad all make me appreciate the keyboard. Interestingly, the larger touchpad can now be pressed anywhere to register a click rather than for your fingers having to move back to a corner every time you want to click.

Lastly, part of the good experience I have been having comes from Windows 11, which officially launched this week. The user interface is much more sensitive to the needs of touch, albeit no longer having a dedicated Tablet Mode. For instance, when moving the Surface Laptop Studio from clamshell to stage mode, the icons spread out to better support the lesser precise input of a finger. Windows 11 also supports a series of gestures very similar to those you would find on Precision trackpads. There is also better spacing in the new touch keyboard and support for split view to use it with one hand.

When I first started to use the Surface Laptop Studio, I wished Stage and Studio mode had an interim position that covered the keyboard as well as the trackpad, mostly because I am more of a “wedge writer” than a “flat writer” and the angle that Studio mode offers is not quite enough for me. Yet, I came to realize that such a posture would have compromised sturdiness. It would have also prevented users from mixing screen touch and touchpad touch if a more precise interaction with content was ever needed.

Because of Covid-19, my travel has remained limited, so I have yet to take Surface Laptop Studio on the road. It has been years since I traveled with a laptop, thanks to the iPad Pro that has been my travel companion since its launch. With the Surface Duo 2 just around the corner and the latest iPad Mini, however, I might just have a choice of a great companion for the Surface Laptop Studio to go on the road with.

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