Saturday, December 9, 2023

The Surface Laptop Studio 2 is greater than the sum of its impressive parts


The Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio 2.Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

This story is part of our complete Microsoft Events coverage

The Surface Laptop Studio 2 isn’t going to blow you away. Or, at the very least, it’s not the surprise device that it was when the original Surface Laptop Studio launched nearly two years ago.

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Normally, I like to see some innovation. What’s the device going to do that the previous model can’t? There’s the extra performance, but the Surface Laptop Studio is already supremely powerful. The Surface Laptop Studio 2 justifies its existence in all of the small ways.

It’s half about software. The big news coming out of Microsoft’s September 2023 event was Windows Copilot — so much so that the two Surface announcements felt like a footnote stuffed into the last 10 minutes of the presentation. The Surface Laptop Studio 2 seems like the debut device for this new way to interact with your PC.


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Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Everyone will get access to Copilot through the next Windows 11 update that arrives on September 26. However, not all PCs have an NPU, or Neural Processing Unit, which the Surface Laptop Studio 2 has. It seems Microsoft pulled some strings with Intel to get this dedicated chip in the Surface Laptop Studio 2. Intel’s other 13th-gen processors don’t support dedicated NPUs, but it looks like Intel made an exception for this device.

Up until this point, all of your AI interactions have been in the cloud; the PCs of yesterday didn’t have enough power to run those AI models locally at any reasonable speeds. That’s where the NPU comes in. It’s a dedicated AI processor that’s specifically built to speed up those operations.

I ran a Large Language Model (LLM) locally on the Surface Laptop Studio 2, and it was able to spit out a response about as quickly as ChatGPT using the GPT-4 model. And remember, that’s without accessing any additional computing power.

Sounds kind of lame — I agree — but there’s a clear throughline here for a dedicated AI processor in a device like the Surface Laptop Studio 2. It’s a promise, even if it hasn’t fully formed yet. It’s all about having the power available when more apps inevitably can tap an NPU.

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

In addition to the local LLM, I tried out Windows Copilot and Generative AI Fill in Photoshop (via Adobe Firefly). Photoshop was great. The AI not only generated trees for the background of a photo, but it also created nine different options that I could cycle through with a tap of the slim Surface pen. These, however, were run through the cloud.

There’s a chicken and egg game going on with the Surface Laptop Studio 2. Unless you’re inclined to download and run AI models locally (doubtful for this device), the only real use case for the NPU is Windows Studio Effects — background blur, eye contact, and auto-framing. All of these features, mind you, are available through Nvidia Broadcast which can run on the RTX 4050 or RTX 4060 GPU.

The NPU, right now, isn’t a reason to buy the Surface Laptop Studio 2. It has promise, but I want to see what else Microsoft can do with this dedicated processor before saying it’s a must-have. There are enough improvements elsewhere to get excited about anyway.

First, the screen. It’s the same 14.4-inch display as before, including the same 3:2 aspect ratio and 120Hz refresh rate. Now, however, it has HDR. With up to 650 nits of peak brightness, the display looked very impressive in my brief time with the machine. It’s not going toe-to-toe with something like an OLED monitor, but it looks great for a laptop display.

Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

The port selection got an upgrade as well. It may seem small, but the addition of a single USB-A port and a Micro SD card slot alongside the dual Thunderbolt 4 ports goes a long way to help avoid a USB-C hub.

It’s hard to ignore the spec upgrade, too. Nvidia’s RTX 40-series GPUs offer features like DLSS 3.5 for gamers, which is huge for a device of this class. Intel’s 13th-gen processors are no slouch, either, allowing the Surface Laptop Studio 2 to beat down an M2 Max MacBook Pro in an intense rendering test. If you want a full rundown, make sure to check out our Surface Laptop Studio 2 specs roundup.

Otherwise, this is the same Surface Laptop Studio we saw two years ago. But that’s not a bad thing. I wouldn’t blame you for scratching your head and thinking, “Surely there must be more than this,” but after using the Surface Laptop Studio 2, it’s clear the machine is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s worth remembering this is the same shell that earned an Editors’ Choice award in our Surface Laptop Studio review. There wasn’t much room to innovate, but the areas Microsoft did touch made the machine that much better.

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