Microsoft Surface Studio versus Apple MacBook Pro: A (tech) tale as old as time

Welcome back, Microsoft. The Surface Studio is all about matching a computer to my office. Apple, it's second place for you.

surface studio screen

There’s a new battle for your hard-earned computing dollars.

The current skirmish is one for the ages, though. It’s Microsoft against Apple, the Mac versus Windows, the laptop versus the desktop.

This time, the desktop looks pretty dang appealing. The Surface Studio screen pivots down to become a canvas. There’s a Dial you use directly on the screen to select colors and effects in Adobe Photoshop. The same pen you use with the Surface Book works with the desktop, so you might as well buy a couple of spares.

Over in the other corner? The Mac has grown up. The latest version of the operating system, called Sierra, now lets you use Siri so you can dictate an entire document and answer text messages to your synced iPhone. The MacBook Pro is stunning. It has a Touch Bar where you can quickly select emojis during a chat, swipe through photos, and (oh yeah) select colors and effects in Adobe Photoshop. Both computing paradigms have matured. Now, the question is: Which one makes the most sense?

Let’s get really practical on this one. First, the latest MacBook Pro, which ships soon, costs $1,800 for the 13-inch model but the faster, bigger 15-inch costs $2,800 for the version with the Intel Core i7 2.7GHz quad-core processor and 512GB of SSD storage. (In other words, the one we all want.) That’s an interesting price, because it’s only $200 less than the Surface Studio, at $3,000.

Let’s say you have the funds for either. Now what? For the past decade, I’d pick the laptop every single time. It’s no contest. Portability is far more important to me these days, since I work remotely a couple of days per week. You can’t really bring the Studio Surface on a plane, although if that happens I would not be surprised. Yet, I also have a fondness for a well-designed desktop with some computing power, a stylish design, and extra functionality like the pen input. There are many all-in-one desktops available today, but few have the sleek angles of the Studio.

It’s easy to say “both and” -- although I hate that phrase with a passion. It’s not practical. When do we ever get "both and" in life? Normally, we have to choose.

The clincher for me is that I am heading ever so slowly back to the desktop, and here’s why. Laptops are so widely available today, and they tend to take some serious abuse. My laptop gets coffee-stained and dumped into a satchel on a daily basis. All of my work is in the cloud, so I can switch between a laptop and desktop in seconds. What I’m craving these days is something that looks like it fits in my office, which has a couple of standing desks in it right now. I’m at a screen all day, so I want a computer that offers some inspiration. I want a computer that encourages hands-on interaction, a palm on the screen here and a swipe there on a photo gallery.

Yes, I’ll test both machines. Yes, they serve their purposes. But the desktop is calling me back. I recently started testing a Lenovo IdeaCentre Y900 RE (more on that later) and recently finished testing the Acer Predator. What I’ve learned is that, I can grab any Chromebook for typing up docs at a coffee shop, but a desktop is a piece of office equipment more than a laptop. That Acer Predator let me play games with a VR headset like the HTC Vive; it sat next to a pair of high-end speakers and a sleek monitor that’s thinner than a finger width. It made a statement.

That’s why my nod right now goes to the Studio. It brings back a computing aesthetic that we’ve lost, the shiny object on a desk that draws your attention. Hey, maybe I’ll hate it. Maybe the Dial won’t work. Maybe it will look too small and ornamental in my office. I doubt it. The Surface Studio is Microsoft being Microsoft. It hearkens back to the years when Windows first debuted and helped us become more productive in the office. I’m aligned to that ideal all over again.

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