So, thanks to a friend over at CG Magazine, I managed to test drive the original Microsoft Surface Pro this week. I tested it from the perspective of a digital artist, to see if it would be a suitable tool to use for digital art work. I tested it with Manga Studio, Photoshop CC and Painter 13 (albeit briefly). Please note this is not a subjective review meant for art friends; if you are looking for a technical review please look on another site.
A bit of background first. The Microsoft Surface Pro is a tablet that runs Windows 8. You can see more full specs here. The main difference between this and your average tablet is:
Why would I want one?
Speaking for myself – I am a digital illustrator. Most of my work is done digitally on the computer. I have a Cintiq 24 attached to my desktop computer at home, which is where I work most of the time. I do my sketches and final artwork on this. I personally like staying in my studio and working, and when I need to come up with ideas, I’m fine sitting on the couch with pencils and papers just scribbling crappy thumbnails.
But – I do have friends who have a more active lifestyle. Some of them commute or travel a fair bit, and want to have a portable studio. Most have to use a laptop together with a drawing tablet like an Intuous or Bamboo, or spend upwards of $3,000 on a high end tablet-PC that allows you to draw on the screen.
We’ve talked about it for years, about how it would be nice if someone would come up with a solution for a digital art studio. Something that was light enough to carry around, but also powerful enough to run the software we need to use. Something that wouldn’t cost a bomb. Something that, if powerful enough, could replace the desktop computer completely, and save us costs from buying both a new computer, monitor and Cintiq/Intuous every few years.
Here are some test drawing I did relatively quickly in various programs on the borrowed Surface Pro. If you want to see the full size version, click on the image to open it in a new window. I will talk about the experience with each program below the drawing.
This was done in Painter X3. The size is 900x1600px at 150dpi. I don’t use Painter regularly, so I barely know how it works. I just messed around and sketched this out with pencils (you can’t see the sketch, I removed the layer). Another layer for the black inks done in sumi brushes. And another layer for the colors done with oil brushes.
For my test, Painter X3 worked smoothly. There was no noticeable lag while I was working on this. The tools loaded fine, the program saved the file as per normal. The BIG problem was that Painter’s interface does not seem to be designed for tablets. The buttons are really small and hard to click, and when you rotate the screen from landscape to portrait, some of your palettes seem to disappear altogether. I was forced to paint this in landscape format as I could not figure out how to get the palettes to appear when the tablet was rotated.
One nice thing is that Painter X3 does have a command to acknowledge touch input, so you can pinch zoom your artwork. It’s of small consolation considering the annoyance of losing palettes and tiny buttons, but hey, at least you get that. Painter also has its customary brush tracking controls for you to refine your pressure settings, which makes it easier to control the look of your strokes.
This was done in Photoshop CC. I was asked to test a file that was 5000px long and 300dpi, so that is the size of this image. Granted, I didn’t actually paint on most of the image, so I’m not sure if this is really a worthwhile test. For what it’s worth – Photoshop opened fine and had no problem creating the file at said size. I painted the head with standard round brushes with some tampered to the Transfer and size settings. Nothing lagged while I was working on the file. I had about 3 layers, same as with the Painter file.
The big problem with Photoshop is that the interface, like Painter’s, doesn’t seem to be optimized for tablet use (or if it is, I just wasn’t able to find the setting). The buttons are tiny. Really tiny. Palettes are responsive if you rotate the Surface (and don’t just disappear like they do in Painter). Admittedly, I don’t like drawing in Photoshop at all; it just seems clunky and the results look like crap to me. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong or something.
This was done in Manga Studio 5.0.3. It also has 3 layers, a pencil sketch layer (not shown), an ink and a color layer.
By far, Manga Studio was the most pleasant of the 3 to work with on the Surface. When I started working with Manga Studio on the desktop, I was wondering why a sub command bar would pop up when I made selections; it was kind of annoying. BUT – it makes SUPER PERFECT SENSE on a tablet.
I suspect that Manga Studio 5 has been built FOR tablets. It even has a setting you can pick if you are on a tablet, and it gives you a different interface with bigger buttons to make it easier to access your tool with your finger or stylus. That annoying sub command bar allows you to do stuff with your selection (like Deselect, Clear) WITHOUT having to go up to the Menu bar. This really is a life saver when you don’t have a keyboard to work with.
I did all these sketches while lying in bed, to see if I could use this as a casual sketchbook.
I found that the Surface Pro, while not very heavy to carry around, was still rather heavy to support in bed. I ended up mainly drawing in landscape, with my left hand supporting the tablet. Drawing in landscape was just easier because the interface designs for all 3 programs are not ideal for working in portrait format (at least, I could not find a way to use them painlessly that way). Consequently, after a while, my left hand started to feel kind of cramped from holding the weight of the tablet.
The Surface Pro also runs pretty hot, and makes quite the noise from its fans. The noise is not really terrible, but the heat can be unfortable if you, like, are trying to hold your Surface for extended periods of time.
The pen that comes with the Surface Pro runs on Wacom tech. I downloaded the newest Tablet PC driver from Wacom and used that. The pen responded pretty well all in all; it was not as sensitive as my Cintiq 24, but by no means shabby. The Wacom driver also allows you to set up a Radial menu, which is pretty cool and almost essential if you are used to using a Radial menu. The downside though, is that the Radial menu seems to be universal; my usual driver on the desktop allows me to set up Radial menus specific to each program I use. I rely on this a lot because my shortcut keys for Illustrator and Photoshop and Manga Studio are completely different. With the Surface, if I wanted to use the Radial Menu, I would need to figure out a way to key things so that it would be useful across different programs.
The default pen is rather small compared to a normal Wacom pen. It is rather thin and twig-like. It has a strange design that attaches it to the side of the Surface Pro for ‘storage’, though it would be easily knocked out if you were carrying it around in a bag. The slot where the pen goes also seems to double as the port to plug in your charger. I found it pretty weird.
The pen has a button on its side, that seems to mimic the side button on a Wacom pen. However, this button seems to only depress on one side. On my normal pen, I have one side assigned to Right click, and the other to Radial menu. I am not sure why the Surface pen only has one ‘active’ side to the side button, but it’s a bit frustrating.
My personal drawing style is quite tight, and so I found that doing tight sketches to be hard due to the space and interface constraints. However, when I started to loosen up and draw more freely, or just use larger brushes for painting, then the experience became more enjoyable.
I enjoyed testing the Surface Pro, and, I think that if I needed to have a portable digital studio, then I would consider buying the Surface Pro 2 (seeing how the original is no longer available, and the 2 is more powerful).
For just under $1K, you do get a decent workstation that will get the normal, everyday artistic job done. It still seems expensive compared to an average tablet, but, really, you shouldn’t be comparing it to those. It’s true competitors are the Wacom Cintiq Companion ($2,299 at time of writing) and the Modbook Pro ($2,399). If I travelled a lot, or enjoyed sketching digitally in cafes, conventions or at client meetings, then yes it would be a worthwhile tool.
The biggest problem with the Surface Pro for me, at the moment, doesn’t seem to be the Surface Pro itself, but rather, problems with the interface design for the programs to use with it. All the programs I tried seemed to be less than optimal for a tablet, and I personally would prefer to use the bigger screens on my desktop unless I really had no other choice.
The unit itself is too big and heavy to use comfortably as a normal tablet for just surfing the web or watching videos, yet at the same time, the display doesn’t give quite enough real estate to accommodate a work interface (AGAIN – not exactly the Surface’s fault). Also, I find Windows 8 to be extremely annoying! I suppose I might need more time or a tour to get used to it, but just jumping into it, it’s horrible and I hope Microsoft figures out a solution soon because I don’t want to have to stick with Win 7 for as long as I had to stick with Win XP before that.
Hello! My name is Charlene Chua and I am an illustrator. Thanks for visiting; I rarely update my DA page now, please visit my website or follow one of my social media accounts to see new work and updates!
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