Microsoft Surface Dial Review

Posted on January 17, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Microsoft Surface with 16 Comments

Microsoft Surface Dial Review

While Microsoft’s new Surface Dial is high on promise, it’s probably best suited for Surface Studio and its voluminous screen for now.

I write “probably” because Microsoft has ignored my months of begging for a review unit. I think we can all safely assume it’s awesome—it had better be, given the price tag—but I won’t know for sure until Microsoft takes pity on a poor reviewer or I hit the lottery. Neither is expected anytime soon. (To be fair to Microsoft, Surface Studio is simply in very short supply. Maybe “ignoring” was a bit harsh, and “dealing with my complaints” is more accurate.)

So what I’m left with is the standalone Surface Dial, which anyone can purchase for $100 from the Microsoft Store. I’m having trouble coming up with a good reason to do so.

For those unfamiliar with this unassuming little peripheral, Microsoft markets Surface Dial as a completely new kind of PC interface. But unlike a mouse or smart pen, Surface Dial is meant to be used alongside another peripheral—most typically Microsoft’s own Surface Pen—where you have one in each hand. That is, it’s not a standalone tool, nor is it something you switch back and forth to.

Dual-wielding PC peripherals isn’t all that common, even among the graphics professionals who might use Wacom tablets and other similar industry-specific hardware inputs. So Surface Dial requires a bit of adjustment, if not outright training for most.

It also requires a pretty big screen to be used effectively, which explains my Surface Studio comment earlier. (That device has a 28-inch screen.) That’s because, like a pen, you’ll typically place the Surface Dial right on the screen. So you could use it with a Surface Book or even a Surface Pro 4, I guess. But it’s not great.

You don’t have to use it right on the screen, and in fact you could simply pair the device to any Bluetooth-based PC. In this case—without a compatible Surface device—Surface Dial is reduced to its most basic usage. That is, you can adjust the system volume at any time, or perform a few other basic functions if an app is selected.

If you press and hold on the top of Surface Dial, a radial menu will appear onscreen. What you see in this menu depends on what is selected on-screen. On the desktop, only a Volume option is provided in the menu, so when you rotate the dial, it adjusts the volume up or down. You can also press once to toggle mute.

If an application—Word, MarkdownPad, Paint, whatever—is selected, the menu has more choices: Volume, Scroll (which is now the default), Zoom, and Undo. So you can change, on the fly, which function the dial uses. (And some features, like Zoom, work better in certain apps, of course.)

But some apps have been updated with explicit Surface Dial support, and these apps provide additional options in that menu. You can findthe compatible apps listed on the device’s product page.

Maps is a good example: It supports Zoom, Rotate and Tilt features, so you can adjust the view of the map with Dial.

Groove Music supports scrolling and song scrubbing.

You gain a few things when you use Surface Dial on a (Surface) screen. For starters, the basic dial menu features both volume and brightness options now. And the device is context-sensitive when used with Surface displays; that is, Dial reports its on-screen location back to apps that have been written to support this feature.

I haven’t really been able to test that feature per se—I’m not aware of an app that supports it—but I could at least test pen-sensitive apps like Sketchpad (part of the Windows Ink Workspace in Windows 10), which provides additional dial menu options like Pens and Size, enabling a brief glimpse at what two-hand operation—Surface Pen on the right, Dial on the left—is like.

In short, I’m not sure I can recommend this device for Surface Book or Surface Pro users yet, and those without Surface devices should absolutely skip Surface Dial for now. But support for Dial can only improve over time, and I suspect—since, again, I don’t have one—that it works well in tandem with Surface Studio and more professional apps than the ones I’ve used.

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