Artist Review: Surface 3 vs iPad Air for drawing

I've always been interested to find out how the Microsoft Surface 3 would compare to my old iPad Air when it comes to drawing on it. So when I saw a secondhand Surface (non-Pro) 3 on sale at a great price, I bought it. By the way, at the time of this review, the 128GB storage Surface 3 cost USD $500 while the iPad Air 2 cost $600. That's quite a significant difference. However, you have to factor in the extra $50 for the Surface Pen because it's not bundled with Surface 3.

This review compares my user experience of the Surface 3 and iPad Air because they are quite similar in size and price. There will be an artist comparison of the Surface Pro 4 and iPad Pro tablets in the future.

The unit that I bought has a 10.8 inch screen, 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage.

It came with Windows 8 but I've since upgraded it to Windows 10 for free. The tablet experience is slightly better with Windows 10 than 8. What I mean is, I find it easier to locate things on Windows 10, especially with the return of the Start menu and the visible desktop.

Specs comparison

Here's the tablet for a quick specs comparison.

Surface 3 iPad Air 2
Models 64GB with 2GB RAM, 128GB storage with 4GB RAM 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
Size 18.7 x 26.7 x 8.7cm 17 x 24 x 6.1cm
Weight 622g 437g
Body material Magnesium Aluminum
Colors Silver Silver, Gray, Gold
Screen 10.8-inch, 1920 by 1280 9.7-inch, 2048 by 1536
Stylus Not included Not included
OS Windows 10, can install tablet apps iOS
Ports USB 3, microUSB, microSD, mDisplayPort Lightning
Processor Intel Atom 1.6Ghz Quad Core A8X Tri-core 1.5Ghz
Battery life 10 hours as advertised 10 hours as advertised
Release date May 2015 Oct 2014

BUILD QUALITY

Build quality of the Surface 3 is fantastic. The magnesium body is sturdy, thin and has a nice matte feel to the finishing. It weighs 620g. iPad Air 2 has a significant weight advantage at 437g. The iPad Air 2 is lighter, but I don't feel that the Surface 3 is really that much heavier.


Mine has some tiny scratches already. The Windows logo at the back is a fingerprint magnet.


Surface 3 comes with an incredibly useful built-in stand because you can make the tablet prop up on its own without additional accessory.

SCREEN


The 10.8-inch screen has wonderful colour reproduction and viewing angles. Resolution is 1920 by 1280. The screen can be considered small when you need to accessing things like menus and buttons of applications that have user interfaces not optimized for tablet use. I feel that iPad's user interface and buttons there are usually bigger.

However, note that you can run Windows tablet apps as well as desktop software on the Surface. Windows tablet apps are designed with larger user interface.


Thickness comparison with iPad Air on the top. In terms of thickness, there's not much difference but Surface 3 is noticeably heavier.

IT HAS A USB PORT!

One major advantage of the Surface 3 compared to the iPad Air is the existence of the USB port. The USB port is so convenient. In actual use, I plug the USB port into my Dell monitor which acts as a USB hub where I plug in many other devices, e.g. scanner, SD card reader, keyboard, Wacom tablet.

And MICRO-SD PORT!


This is nice. If you run out of storage on the Surface 3, you can get a microSD (128GB for $50 or 200GB for $100) and plug it in.

BATTERY LIFE AND MANAGEMENT

Downside of the Surface 3 is the battery management. Tbe battery port is a micro-USB port, those commonly used by phones for charging. While it's great you can charge with phone cables plugged to the computer, it charges very slowly. If you want to charge it faster, you have to use the Surface power adapter provided, and even so it does not charge as fast as the iPad. I don't like to bring the Surface power adapter to the office so I have to make do with slow battery charging via phone cables. At home, I charge it overnight with the power adapter.

Battery life is decent but not as good as the iPad Air. I get around 6-7 hours for some drawing and Internet surfing.

When the screen is off, it seems wireless communication is still on and that can drain the battery on standby mode, e.g. battery depletes 5% overnight on standby. To conserve energy, you have to set the Surface to shut down during prolong inactivity, such as at night, but that means the next time you need to use it, you have to startup and wait a short while for the booting sequence. It's like, erm, using a desktop/laptop.

DRAWING EXPERIENCE


I've used many tablet styluses and the best ones are the Surface Pen for the Microsoft Surface tablets, the S Pen for the Samsung Note tablets and the Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro. Third party styluses can be good but not as good as those made by tablet makers themselves.

The Surface Pen is not bundled with Surface 3 but thankfully it's not as expensive as the Apple Pencil. Anyway, Apple Pencil cannot be used with the iPad Air 2. The Surface Pen I got is created for Surface Pro 3. By the way, there's a new Surface Pro Pen 4 that's backwards compatible. Surface Pen 4 has a felt-like tip which has slightly better friction when it comes to drawing on the glossy screen. However, it's actually the old Surface Pen that has better sensitivity when it comes to really light strokes. With the old Surface Pen, you can draw lightly on the screen and it will register a really thin line. With Surface Pen 4, when you draw lightly, the stroke will still be thicker than that of the old Surface Pen. So which one is better really comes down to personal choice. I prefer the old Surface Pen, which is also cheaper, for the extra sensitivity at the lighter end.


One AAAA battery is required to power the pen. I've not used up the battery yet but Microsoft has rate it to last for at least a year. With constant use for drawing, it would probably drain the battery faster.


Pressure sensitivity is supported and the tip is not wobbly unlike many of the third party iPad styluses.

Drawing experience depends on the drawing application.

Nice thing about the Surface Pen is it works well with many drawing applications. Unfortunately for me, it's quite buggy with the Photoshop CS6 (more on that later).

Here's the list of applications I'm using with the Surface Pen 3 and their performance

By excellent, I mean they draw without any significant lag and support pressure sensitivity. Unfortunately, only Sketchable has palm rejection.

When I installed the Wacom drivers, compatibility of the Surface Pen with the drawing apps suffer. The apps are not longer able to handle pressure sensitivity of the Surface Pen. However, I was able to use the Wacom tablet and all the drawing apps work well, including Photoshop. But I would rather prefer the Surface Pen work over the Wacom tablet because you don't want to bring an extra tablet out.

I've read in the other review by Loc Nguyen that Adobe CS apps are just not designed for tablets and touch interface. My experience is similar. I wasn't able to get pressure sensitivity to work with Photoshop CS6 and the Surface Pen. Adobe CC apps now have better touch compatibility with tablets, and also settings for scaling the user interface. Anyway, Photoshop is not the best drawing software on a small tablet like this. I also have problems accessing the menus sometimes, e.g. the mouse cursor will be at one position but some other menu further away will pop up — Photoshop is almost unusable like this.


I've read about issues with jitter with the Surface Pro 3 when drawing. It's also present here with the Surface 3 but so far I've not felt that it affects me when drawing because you have to draw really slowly to get the jitter. If you are specifically testing for jitter, then yes it will show up, just like how it shows up with some styluses on the some apps on the iPad.

SPEED AND PERFORMANCE

For artists, I recommend getting the 4GB RAM unit. The OS and the drawing apps use RAM. Also, Windows OS itself take up 20GB of storage.

The 2GB RAM unit is good for Internet browsing, playing videos.

I've not noticed any lag or significant lag in any of the drawing apps I've used. The only exception is the 3D modeling software Sketchup which is not unexpected because there's no dedicated graphics card.

I wanted to test how well it can handle photo editing so I installed Adobe Lightroom. Menus and commands are slow to appear. Edits also take a sec or two to show. Exporting photos from Lightroom with the Atom quad core 1.6ghz is slow, but it can be done. Overall, it's just not a pleasant experience with Lightroom.


It does get slow when you have a huge artwork. For example, when I'm drawing a huge scene in Mischief, I find that navigating around the artboard will start to lag. However, the strokes will still come out fast. I suspect it's the issue with not having a dedicated graphics card.


Here's the close up of the sketch above drawn with Mischief.

Overall, I'm satisfied with the Surface 3. Speed is comparable to iPad Air 2.


I was also able to plug the tablet using the mini DisplayPort (shown in the right) into my 27 inch Dell monitor that ran at 2560 by 1440 resolution and work with no lag. Working with desktop software like the Adobe CS is much better on a big screen.


When you plug in the mini DisplayPort, you can choose to work only on the big screen, or have the screen extended from the Surface. It will remember the settings and the next time you plug in the display cable, the screen you want will show up immediately. Very nice! Say you want to work on the big screen, you can still draw on the Surface as a tablet, like a Wacom Intuos. Nice x2.

A few artists said that they like to use the iPad (Pro) for quick sketches and drawing on the go before putting the details and finishing touches on their computer. They need two machines essentially. With the Surface, you need just one. Although if you want one main computer, I recommend getting the more powerful Surface Pro 4.

DOWNSIDES

One of the downsides of Windows OS is the mix of desktop and tablet OS. So there are a lot of options and customization, and the downside is it can get confusing. But mostly the confusion comes from expecting tablet features from the desktop OS, e.g. why are menus and buttons small, you can pitch and zoom on some software and they don't quite work like what you expected.

The onscreen keyboard does not come up automatically, and when it comes up, it often blocks the text box that you're typing into. Perhaps Microsoft wants to irritate you into buying the expensive Type cover.

Driver conflicts is something you have to accept especially when you install other tablet drivers, like those from Wacom and Huion. Those drivers will conflict with the Surface Pen.

The screen is really nice but small. If you want something that's really compact, this is a good choice. If you want something that's more comfortable for your eyes, especially if you need to work on the computer for long hours, I really recommend a larger screen. A small screen will make you sit closer and hunch down, and that's not good for health. If you're using it as a tablet, holding it on hand, then it's fine.

APP STORE

Microsoft's app store may not be as big as Apple's but I am always able to find an equivalent software for the one I'm using on Apple. I do miss the drawing apps Procreate and Paper by FiftyThree. I hope those apps get will a port over to Windows. That will definitely make Apple nervous because they are very popular drawing apps on the iOS. Other than that, I did not miss the iPad for the few weeks I was using the Surface 3.

CONCLUSION

Ultimately, it depends on what kind of work you want to do on your tablet.

In terms of value, I feel that the Surface 3 offers more for the money compared to the iPad.

I'm more than satisfied with the Surface 3. My quibbles are that I'm not able to use Photoshop together with Surface Pen without much troubleshooting (it worked and then stopped) and the slow charging battery.

If you're considering getting a tablet for sketching, I'll recommend the Surface 3 (4GB RAM model). For digital painting, you can use the Krita desktop app on Windows. I feel that Procreate on iPad is also a very good digital painting software so at least there's an alternative on Windows.

If you need more processing power, get the Surface Pro 4.

After using the Surface 3 for weeks, I'm still not accustomed to the small screen size especially when I know there's a larger screen tablet in the Surface Pro 4. I'll be upgrading to that soon and put out another review.

If I were to use the iPad Air exclusively, I will miss the Surface 3. For some websites I need to use, they only render the mobile version on the iPad with no way to load the desktop version.

Pros
+ Sturdy build quality
+ Has USB 3 port for extra functionality
+ Has mini-DisplayPort to extend working space on external monitor
+ Has microSD slot for additional storage expansion
+ Nice weight, not too heavy
+ Built in stand, but only 3 positions
+ Pressure sensitivity of Surface Pen is excellent
+ Surface Pen feels good to draw on the screen
+ Decent resolution of 1920 by 1280 on a 10.8-inch screen
+ Screen has good viewing angles and colours
+ Good stereo speakers
+ Able to install desktop and tablet apps
+ Generally snappy performance

Cons
- Surface Pen not included (cost USD $50)
- Battery life could be better
- Battery charging is slow
- Desktop apps not optimized for tablets usually have small menus and user interface
- Surface Pen buttons have limited customization
- Slow when it comes to zooming in and out, moving around 3D space
- Windows OS is so customizable it can be confusing, or not easy to find what you need
- Windows 10 still slightly buggy

Availability

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Check out other graphics tablet reviews at http://www.parkablogs.com/tags/drawing-tablet-reviews

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