Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is There a Good Alternative to Microsoft's Surface Studio?

Microsoft is expected to unveil new Surface hardware next week, but unless a standalone Surface Studio monitor is one of them, it might be time to consider some of the other (cheaper) options from its OEM partners.

One of my primary goals for this year was to finally get around to replacing the badly outdated computer systems in my office. I'm not normally one to neglect technology, but it's really hard to replace systems that are constantly being used without impacting productivity in the process.

With the year quickly drawing to a close, my hardware refresh is nearly complete. However, I have been considering whether to replace one of my few remaining legacy systems with a Microsoft Surface Studio.

Although I am probably best known for the books and columns that I write, I also do quite a bit of artistic work (it's a long story). That being the case, the Surface Studio 2 initially seemed like a no-brainer. However, I just can't seem to bring myself to order one.

Like its predecessor, the Surface Studio 2 is an all-in-one PC. Despite the Surface Studio 2's massive price (the base model is currently listed at $3,500 on Microsoft's Web site), its hardware is already somewhat dated. The top-end model currently sells for $4,799, but is equipped with a 7th-generation Intel CPU and 32GB of non-upgradable RAM. For comparison, I found similarly equipped PCs -- minus the Surface Studio's fancy display -- selling online for about a thousand dollars.

I totally get the fact that the Surface Studio 2 has an awesome monitor, and that the monitor is the No. 1 reason for the Surface Studio 2's hefty price tag. Unfortunately, though, the fact that the Surface Studio is an all-in-one machine means that when its computing hardware eventually becomes obsolete, there isn't a way to detach the monitor and use it with a more up-to-date system.

Late last year, there were rumors that Microsoft was going to begin selling a Surface Studio monitor that could be attached to any PC. However, those rumors seem to be just that. Microsoft is hosting a Surface event this coming Wednesday, Oct. 2, where it is expected to announce some new hardware. According to my sources, however, a Surface Studio monitor is not among the products that are being announced.

This, of course, raises the question of whether there is a viable alternative to the Surface Studio 2 at all. I think that the answer to that question really depends on how you are planning to use the device. For those who need a large-format, high-resolution (4500x3000 pixels) display with extreme color accuracy and support for the Surface Pen, then Surface Studio 2 is probably the only realistic option. You can still buy a first-generation Surface Studio on sites such as Amazon and Newegg, but those devices contain 6th-generation Intel CPUs and legacy hybrid hard drives.

One possible alternative to the Surface Studio 2 is the Microsoft Surface Book 2. The top-end model includes a 15-inch display with a resolution of 3240x2160 pixels. The display isn't as large as what you get with the Surface Studio, but the Surface Book 2's screen can be used in a drafting table-like configuration that is similar to the Surface Studio, and it works with the Surface Pen and the Surface Dial. In case you are wondering, the top-end model sells for about $3,000 and includes an 8th-generation Intel CPU, 16GB of RAM and 1TB of flash storage. I have been using this particular machine for quite some time. It works really well, but the screen is a bit small for some of the graphical projects that I work on.

Two possible alternatives to Microsoft's Surface Studio 2: the Lenovo Yoga A940 (top) and the Dell Canvas.

Another Surface Studio 2 alternative is the Lenovo Yoga A940. This machine has the same basic form factor as the Surface Studio and is equipped with a 27-inch, 4K display. The machine's price varies based on its configuration, but Amazon is currently selling it for roughly $2,400 for the 16GB model with a 1TB hard disk drive and 256GB SSD.

I haven't had the opportunity to try out the Yoga A940 for myself, so I can't tell you how well it works. There are, however, two things that I noticed about the device. First, unlike the Surface Studio, its memory and storage are upgradable. Second, it doesn't support the Surface Dial. Lenovo has its own "dial," but it's more of knob that attaches to either side of the screen -- not a dial that's designed to work on the screen.

One final option that I wanted to mention is the Dell Canvas. The Canvas is a monitor, not an all-in-one PC. Additionally, it is designed to lay on your desk like a drafting table, rather than be used as your primary monitor. The Dell Canvas is the least expensive Surface Studio alternative, selling for about $1,700.

I have not had the chance to try out the Canvas, either, but from what I can tell, its biggest disadvantage -- besides the amount of space that it takes up on your desk -- is its resolution. The 27-inch screen's resolution is 2560x1440, far lower than any of the other options that I have discussed. Remember, though, that the Canvas is designed to be used as a secondary display.

The Canvas includes Dell's own proprietary stylus and dial, which Dell calls "the Totem." Although these interfaces are proprietary, they use Microsoft APIs, which means that any apps that support the Surface Pen or the Surface Dial should theoretically also work with the Canvas.

As it stands right now, I have not ordered any of these devices (although I do own a Surface Book 2). If I do end up ordering a Surface Studio or one of its alternatives, I will let you know how it works out.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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