The beast is back.
Microsoft seems to have mastered the art of turning Windows laptops into tablets and back again, with a range of Surface devices to suit most budgets and work requirements.
But when it comes to one laptop to rule them all, if you have the funds, there's really only one option.
The Surface Laptop Studio 2 doesn't look a whole lot different from its predecessor. It's still big, still heavy and still one of the most useful and powerful laptops I've ever come across.
If you're not familiar with this unique form factor, not only can you use it as a laptop, you can pull the screen forward, over the keyboard and magnetise it in place to play video or for gaming, using an external controller. Or thirdly, you can fold the screen down virtually flat, concealing both keyboard and touchpad entirely to use the device as a tablet. An incredibly grunty tablet.
And yes, there have been some upgrades.
For the last few years I've been rather critical of most laptops for their lack of ports - it's really limiting to only have one or two USB-C slots, especially if you're using one of those for charging purposes. So I was quite pleased to see the Laptop Studio 2 had added a microSD card reader and a USB-A 3.1 port. This seems to be a recent trend - bringing back USB-A. A big reason for this is probably due to most wireless mice relying on a USB-A dongle (if not Bluetooth). Despite the Laptop Studio 2's fabulous haptic touchpad, a physical mouse is still likely to be the first accessory most people add to the mix, so it's great not to have to rely on yet another adapter or external hub to plug one in.
It's not all good news though.
By far the biggest downfall of the Laptop Studio 2's design is how it handles heat. It really doesn't. While its unusual inset, elevated base features large vents for cooling down either side, they simply aren't enough. Once the device is put under any amount of stress - when playing comedy first-person-shooter "High On Life" for example - the fans kick in like you wouldn't believe and even they can't prevent the whole laptop from heating up. And I don't just mean warm. This is without doubt the hottest I've ever felt a computer get. Weirdly, it seems to keep functioning perfectly - brilliantly, even. But it literally gets too hot to leave on your lap.
What's really frustrating about this is the fan noise and overheating were issues with the original Laptop Studio - if anything, they're now even worse.
Another major - and lingering- issue is battery life, or lack thereof. Most of the other laptops I've reviewed this year have impressed me with good battery performance and many have actually blown me away. In previous reviews, I've already suggested that 2023 was really the year Windows laptops could finally claim all-day battery life - thanks to a combination of improved battery tech but more significantly, more efficient CPU and GPU performance.
Sadly, this trend has not carried through to the Surface Laptop Studio 2. While it's tricky to be precise when it comes to measuring battery life in real-world usage, my feeling is there hasn't been much improvement from the original model... which was bad. Given the gale force breeze the fans are blowing out a lot of the time and the incredible amount of heat being generated, this isn't surprising, just disappointing.
At least the Laptop Studio 2 charges quickly - as long as you use the supplied 127W brick which still attaches via that weird, magnetic, Microsoft-only Surface Connect cable. Alternatively, you can charge via one of the USB-C USB4 Thunderbolt 4 ports - although charging this way is significantly slower. In fact, while gaming, I was using a GaN charger capable of up to 140W, yet the laptop drained the battery faster than the USB-C charger could top it up and it still went flat. Quite quickly.
But... just as with the original Laptop Studio, I don't really care. That's because this is a computing device that cuts through any task like a hot knife (or laptop) through butter. I've mentioned gaming a few times - and while that's not really what this computer is designed for, between the 13th Gen Intel Core i7 processor and the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4060 GPU my review model was tricked out with, I couldn't find a game that didn't work fantastically well on it. The 14.4-inch PixelSense Flow Display is super bright and colourful and I didn't seem to have the reflection issues on this model that I encountered with the first generation.
The Dolby Atmos Quad Omnisonic speakers do a fabulous job of throwing 3D audio around and the whole audio/visual package makes for a superb entertainment experience - gaming, streaming... whatever.
But if you're forking out almost NZ$6,000.00 for a machine like this (it starts at NZ$3,752.00, but my review device was equipped with maximum RAM, storage and GPU) you need to know it's going to do the job - whatever business you're in. No problem there; this has got to be a creative's dream device - a responsive, accurate touch-screen you can fold down to use as a tablet - or add the Surface Slim Pen 2 for more artistic control. It will run whatever audio and video editing tools you need without a stutter and when it comes to multi-tasking, the tall 3:2 aspect ratio means plenty of screen space for plenty of windows.
Speaking of Windows, Microsoft has introduced some major A.I.-powered innovations software-wise this year and obviously this is a perfect device to make the most of that well-publicised Copilot integration into tools like Outlook, Edge and other Office 365 apps.
Even the camera has been upgraded with some useful tweaks for those crucial online meetings or live streams. Automatic Framing puts you front and centre, Eye Contact keeps you looking directly into the lens - even when you aren't and Background Effects provides some professional blur to whatever might be distracting viewers who are looking behind you.
The first Laptop Studio was an unstoppable juggernaut - a sturdy, polished piece of transformable tech design, capable of adjusting itself to fit any work environment and meet any computing demands. By adding extra ports, more processing power and a GPU upgrade, the new generation is an even bigger triumph. Let's just hope next time Microsoft figures out a way to cool things down and run the battery a little longer.
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