Review: Microsoft Surface 3 for Artists and Drawing

This review is contributed by Loc Nguyen, a Creative Director with an extensive background in User Experience (UX) and Visual Design. (Surface Pro 3 is reviewed separately).

As you may have known, on 5 May 2015 Microsoft released the new Surface 3 to replace the defunct Surface RT lines in North America.

The new Surface 3s are now running the latest Intel mobile processor, which means you can install any Windows desktop applications. This new Surface 3 is a bit smaller, lighter (620g), use less power, cheaper, but lacking in CPU horsepowers and RAM memory. Basically it is targeted towards the student and regular users who do office related work to surfing the web. But, can it handle a digital artist workflow without breaking the wallet?


The Surface 3 (10.8 inch, 4GB RAM 128GB Storage, Stylus sold separately) in front of the Wacom Cintiq 13HD tether to my MacBook Pro.

The Surface 3 comes in two model; the 64GB with 2GB RAM and the 128GB with 4GB RAM. The mobile processor is a Quad Core Intel® Atom™ x7-Z8700 processor (1.6Ghz quad). This is not a very powerful processor for running games, but designed for low power consumption and light work. I’ve tested both model and found that the 4GB RAM is way better for drawing software or any software in general.

In this review, I’ll mainly focus on using the Surface 3 with 4GB RAM for drawing and digital painting. I will not review it’s processor performance benchmark and other technical aspect of the Surface 3, with something like the iPad and etc. I just wanted to give you my feedback on using the Surface 3 for/in my daily digital workflow. How is it to draw on the Surface 3 with the stylus and its responsiveness while using these software: ArtRage, Mischief, Sketchbook Pro, Manga Studio 5, Photoshop and Illustrator. And mainly is the Surface 3 right for you, the artist?

So get on with it...

Pleasant Surprise!

It’s my first thought every time I’d picked up the Surface 3 to start on a new drawing. I’ve been drawing everyday on the new Surface 3 for at least two weeks and it has been an enjoyable experience.

My digital workflow is simple, I launch one of my favorite drawing software, Mischief, then draw. Coloring my drawing will depend on how much work I want to put into it. And this could just be painting directly in that application or exporting it to another application like Photoshop.


Drawing at the local coffee shop to coloring in the car. Image 1: Rough sketch, Mischief. Image 2: Inking in Mischief. Image 3: Coloring with Adobe Photoshop CC

The Surface 3 is really light in weight and comfortable to hold. I like the 3:2 aspect ratio of the screen, running at 1920x1280 resolution and when holding it to draw (in portrait mode), it does feel like you are holding a 8.5x11 inch sketch pad. Then when place on the table, the 3-position built-in kickstand does help and give you enough angle to properly draw with. But sometimes, I do find myself placing something a few inches high under the Surface 3 to give me a lower profile stand.


Surface 3 sitting on top of my 8.5x11 Sketchbook.


The Surface 3 kickstand has 3 positions and this is the lowest, but sometime I need something lower.

Then the drawing on glass part. This is maybe new to some, but drawing on glass is really smooth --- really, really smooth! Some of you, whom like me that owns a Wacom product are used to draw on a texture matte screen. This give you some resistance feel to the stylus and the screen. Yet, drawing on glass at first feels like you are sliding on...well, glass. But after a few drawing that feeling disappear as you muscle memory and control kicks in.


Sitting outdoor under a patio shade while drawing and the screen at 70-80% brightness. Note the screen can be very reflective outdoors.

The glass screen is also reflective if you are out in direct sunlight, but I don’t draw in direct sunlight. I’m always under some shade or indoors. You can adjust the screen brightness, but do keep in mind that the brighter the screen the more battery you will use up. Another thing I always do is turn off the auto-dim (Adaptive Dim) in the Windows Control panel. This is a sensor that adjust your brightness by the amount of light it detects. This can get annoying if you screen auto-dim because your hand happens to cover the sensor.

Precision and Accuracy

The Surface Pen stylus is not free, but a must have for any artist. Unlike the more powerful Surface Pro, you don't get stylus when you buy the Surface 3. This is sold separately, so pick a color and buy it. This set me back an extra $50 Canadian, so price will vary from where you live. I’m guessing that Microsoft did this to keep within the iPad price range to compete.


Lightweight stylus that needs AAAA battery and has a replaceable plastic nib.

The stylus comes with a battery and they pair automatically when you touch the stylus to the surface screen. This stylus need a AAAA battery which is included. I’m not sure how long the battery will last, but I bought spares from my local electronics store, just in case. Why? Because I’m going to be drawing a lot and for hours at a time, so having a dead stylus is not helping. It’s my safety net.


My collections of stylus for different devices. The one in front is the N-Trig Surface Pen that you would get with the Surface 3, the black one after that is the stylus from the Surface Pro 1 & 2. Note the thickness.

The stylus has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. Compare that to the Wacom lowest Bamboo/Intuos line of 1024 levels, it’s nowhere close. To some artist this is a big deal, but for me I didn’t notice it as much for the artworks that I create. Drawing with the stylus is about the amount of control and how hard you press (dark thick to light thin lines) and how quickly you draw your line or paint strokes. The Surface product line comes with a calibration tools call “Surface” that let you adjust the pressure curves. This could be hard or soft depend on how you adjust the curve. Another thing you have to remember is that most to all of these high end drawing software like Photoshop has fine tuning in the brush setting to further adjust as needed.


The “Surface” Windows app that is pre-installed to do you stylus calibrations.


Stylus pressure curves sensitivity. Having this open and your drawing applications helps with the stylus calibrations to give finer control..

Once you get your setting the way you want, you now have your digital painting tools. But right out of the box, the accuracy was spot on to all my line test. There were some jitter issue, but not very noticeable while drawing lines very slowly. This was a real issue with the Surface Pro 3 but Microsoft had fixed it and will continue to fix with updates. But if you do fast stroke, the jitter is not present. Other than that, drawing, painting with the stylus seems very accurate and precious.


This is drawing a slow line, note the slight jitter in the line and next to them me drawing very fast.


Close up of the same image above. Jitter in the line as you try to do a slow drawn line on the left.


Line sample with Adobe Photoshop CC.

What I’ve notice is that these lines and pressure test is handy and all, but it falls to each artist and their drawing style. Then adding to the fact that each software has their own setting for calibration right down to the individual brush level is something you need to consider too. All these factors will not replace your own experience with it.


The Stylus on the Surface 3 is pretty much accurate.

Screen Orientation

Landscape or portrait mode? Either one it all depends on the work that you create. I somehow, gravitate towards drawing on the Surface 3 in portrait mode, while I’m out or sitting on the couch. Something natural about it, like I said early, just like holding a sketchpad. Just remember that each software has their prefer workspace and most can be customized.


Photoshop in landscape mode with the UI scaling enable. Note the cut off icons toolbar or how the menu has the arrows to more options at the top & bottom.

Portable Studio

I’ve been lucky, my day job or pay job is a UX Designer (User experience) and I get to do at least something creative and get pay for it. Others are not so lucky, but I also have a busy family life with a wife and two kids. This leaves very little time for me and I believe that this is what most artists life is like… getting time to just draw or do some sort of art. This is where the Surface 3 really shine for me. It’s my portable studio.


On the weekend, I’m being a chauffeur dad, driving the family around to birthday party, swim glass or appointments. I just pop out the Surface 3 while waiting and draw. Taking a break at the local coffee shop and draw. You get the idea. I just love that my little drawing studio is with me, when I get inspired.


Having a beer and note the iPad as my reference material open.

Having this kind of mobility is a huge plus for me. Imagine meeting up with clients and quickly sketching an idea and working on it later back home. I just wish I had this Surface tablet when I was drawing storyboard for my film clients on locations or at the production meeting.

Software

Firstly, this is a full Windows Laptop/Tablet. It means that you can install most to all Windows desktop applications. The only caveat is the system requirement such as graphic engine to memory (RAM). Most to all the software installed and launched on the Surface 3 worked without any issue. Using the application with 4GB of RAM might have some performance issue. The issue will be a “laggy” response while you are drawing or painting.


This is a graphic card problem that would appear after a long time drawing that seem random. Just by turning off the display and turning it back on, made it go away. I believe this is a running out of memory issue.

What I believe is the the Surface 3 built-in graphics card share the same memory as the system RAM. So when this RAM fill up the Surface 3 slows down for a bit and tries to catch up, thus the notice of “laggy” lines as you paint or draw across your canvas. Anyway on to the first software tested with the Surface 3.

ArtRage 4 by Ambient Design

ArtRage is a natural media paint software, so right off the bat, I'd known that this will be CPU and graphic card intensive software. This art software simulate real paint textures, like you are painting with oil, watercolor, color pencils to chalk and anytime you simulate textures you will run into issue with something like the Surface 3.


The version of ArtRage 4 that I’ve installed is a demo version. The demo software is crippled in the resolutions of your canvas to accessing most of the feature tools. But I’d manage to use the software without any issue, beside me trying to figure out how the brushes and other tools worked. There's slight lag when trying to paint with a large brush really fast. As in dragging them around the entire canvas of 1920x1920 at 72dpi, it’s like the graphics card is trying to keep up with the rendering of the brush textures. It’s really not a big deal. I’ve painted a face at my default speed, nice and easy pace, of over an hour and it didn’t bother me or notice any lag.

The touch gestures of pinch and zoom, two finger hold to rotate and move, pretty much works. But this was a hit or miss with ArtRage. Sometimes when I try to use these gestures, it would think that I'm painting and a line of paint will appear where I pinched the screen. I'll have to undo that and try again and it would work... strange.


Trying to paint with the tools.

These kind of natural media painting software can be a huge resource hog and will cause issue with the responsiveness of the Surface 3. But if you paint like most artist and do things nice and easy this is not an issue at all. Now this lag can be a few things, it being a demo version and or the developer has not release a touch optimize version of the software yet. I believe there is a Windows Store app of ArtRage, but figured that most artist that have this software is using the desktop version.

Sketchbook Pro by Autodesk

This software seems to be made for the Surface 3. It’s got all the tools for digital sketching and painting. Even better, the user interface was designed for touch based tablets with or without a stylus. There were no lag issue when working with this software.


SketchBook Pro UI is designed to work with the Surface 3.

Mischief by the Foundry

This has to be my favorite drawing software. It’s a real joy to draw with Mischief. The interface is as simple as you can get it. Again, this is another software that seem to be design for artist that has a tablet. Running this on the Surface 3 with 2GB and 4GB RAM didn’t seem to matter with Mischief. It’s quick and very responsive on the Surface 3.

Manga Studio by CelSys Japan / Smith Micro Inc

This is the Photoshop of comic-style drawing software. You will not have any or very little issue running this on the Surface 3. This will depends on how big and complex you page layout gets. This is the same thing if you are running this on any desktop. Your performance will be an issue if your project get larger. Other than that Manga Studio works fine on the Surface 3.

Illustrator CS6 by Adobe

Adobe Illustrator for me, has always been at mouse and keyboard drawing software. I use this everyday at work for User Interface design and other vectors-based work. I never had to use this with a stylus and here’s my reason. All of my design works relies on the grid system and getting layouts to be pixel perfect to export as PNG for software development. So, trying to introduce a stylus to my workflow as a real pain. I can’t use Illustrator on the Surface 3 without a mouse or keyboard.

Now that being out of the way. Adobe Illustrator installed and ran perfectly on the new Surface 3. I drew boxes, transform them and loaded some interface design with lots of layers. Everything worked as expected. No lag issue even when drawing with the stylus using the pencil tool.


Adobe Illustrator CS6 with really tiny toolbars icons.

Here’s the kicker. No gestures or pressure sensitivity, the interface is not design for touch and tools menu and buttons are really tiny on this version of Adobe Illustrator CS6. I know that the new Adobe Illustrator CC has these touch features. So, I’m going to chalk this up as, will work with the Surface 3.

Photoshop C6 & CC by Adobe

I ran two version of Photoshop, the CS6 and the newer CC. The CS6 version was like working in Illustrator, the UI buttons menus and tool icons are really small on a 10.8 inch screen running 1920x1280. There’s a UI registry hack to increase the UI scaling, but that’s not for me. The gesture controls and pressure sensitivity were not supported unless you download the WinTAB driver from N-Trig. This now will give you support for gesture and stylus pressure, but cause lags in other drawing software like Manga Studio 5. I’m sure this will address in a new driver update. This is where I just gave up and uninstall the WinTAB driver and installed Adobe Photoshop CC.


Photoshop CS6 without the WinTab Driver, thus will not work with pressure sensitivity.


Photoshop CS6 with tiny UI elements.

Adobe Photoshop CC is designed with the Surface product lines. Adobe recommends at least 8GB of RAM and will work with 4GB of RAM with touch gestures, stylus pressure support and UI scaling in the system preference. This is where having 4GB of RAM will vary your performance. I’ve drawn and colors with 15+ layers and effects didn’t see any issue. My drawing in Photoshop is about 12x17 inches at 300 dpi. The issue will only appear when you don’t hit the save button. You will notice some lag when accessing some the the drop down menu or creating new layers. Click the save button and this goes away, until the next hours of not saving. Strange, so save often as you files grows larger with more layers.


Photoshop CC with UI Scaling turned on with larger icons and menus.


Photoshop CC with UI scaling enable, but the menu are sometime cuts off due to screen orientations.

An example of this, is when one of my drawing was only 50+MB PSD file. As I was working with it, the files use by the scratch disk became 350+MB. That’s was when the lag in performance started to show and my cue to save the drawing. Again, save often.


Photoshop CC, note at the left bottom of the screen: Doc 52.9M/586M -- Save often.

Photoshop to me, is a beast of a drawing software. It's like taking the tool shed with you when you only need a few tools. With that, a lot of the tools I’ve used has a keyboard shortcut. So, when drawing in portraits mode you don’t have access to the keyboard, thus I have to rely on finding that tool icon or menu again. And this can be buried deep in the software. Another issue is when drawing in landscape mode, some of the toolbars will be off screen because I’ve turned on the UI scaling. Moving the tools bar around and saving your workspace will solve this. Be aware of this if you want to run Photoshop CC on the Surface 3.


Drawing using the default brush in Photoshop CC. Image setting at 11x17 inch at 300dpi for this drawing.

Battery and charging

What Microsoft did with the new Surface 3 is made the charging port a microUSB port, thus no special connector. This is brilliant! This means I can start charge with my Android phone charger in the car while driving.


Port starting from the top down; Displayport, USB3, Micro USB for charging, Headphone jack, then on this same side behind the kickstand is the MicroSD card slot for expanded storage.


Intensive battery use when painting and drawing with only Photoshop CC with screen full bright and lots of layers.

The battery on the Surface 3 spec is for 10 hours, but this will vary on what you are doing. I had to screen auto-dim disable, screen brightness to 70-80% most of the time, and pretty much last me a good 4 to 5 hours or less, if I’m just using Photoshop. Like I said before Photoshop is a beast, it uses a lot of GPU and CPU power just launching it while I was drawing/painting. I notice that the screen got a bit hot, not uncomfortable, just noticeable heated screen.

The battery does last way longer like 7-8 hours with smaller software like Mischief & Sketchbook Pro, even when painting with them. So unless you plan to use Photoshop exclusively, bring the charger. Other than that battery is subjective to what software you are running and how your screen brightness is set.

Conclusion. Is the Surface 3 for artist?

Yes!

I believe that is a great tablet for the artist starting or wanting to start doing digital works.

The size, weight and form factor of this 10.8 inch tablet is just perfect for sketching and painting while being mobile. It is a surprisingly powerful for Quad -Core Atom processor and yet has enough horsepower to do the mid-level works that I do.

For those that do more intensive works, the Surface Pro 3 with the i5 or i7 might be better for you. And if you are not sure and don’t want to drop over thousand plus dollars for the Pro, then the Surface 3 is it.


Sample art works done on the Surface 3.

Drawing and painting digitally on the Surface 3 for this past couple weeks was fun. It got me out and un-tethered (Wacom Cintiq attached to my MacBook Pro) from my drawing studio (kitchen table). Being able to sit on the couch with the family while they watch TV or sitting at a coffee shop drawing is really refreshing. The Surface 3 became my sketchbook and it went everywhere with me for these past few weeks. Now I miss it because my review period was up, I’m now back using my heavy Surface Pro 2 with the 16:9 screen.


In the back, Wacom Cintiq 13HD, on the left, Surface Pro 2 and on the right is the Surface 3.

So, that is pretty much it for my review of the Surface 3 for artist. I hope I‘d covered enough info for you to make the necessary buy decision.

Keep on doing art!

Disclaimers: The images and artworks are all drawing and captured by me. Batman, Mad Max Fury Road, Grace the Fallen, Little Rock, Star Wars Force Awakens characters are my fan art drawing and are the properties of the original authors or company.

Pros and Cons

Pros
+ Light (620g)
+ Window OS can install any desktop application
+ 3:2 aspect ratio
+ 1920 by 1280 resolution
+ Almost the size of an A4 sketchbook
+ Price competitive with iPad Air
+ Pressure sensitive stylus (N-Trig 256 levels of pressure)
+ Good pre-installed calibration software for the stylus
+ Stylus is accurate
+ Portable drawing machine
+ Can charge with microUSB (commonly used to charge Android phones)
+ Expandable storage with microSD slot
+ Full size USB 3 port
+ Can handle Photoshop and layer work up to certain extent until you to save to reduce lag.

Cons
- Built in stand only has 3 positions
- Drawing on glass is really smooth (takes a while to get use to)
- Reflective screen
- Surface Pen stylus not included
- Wireless stylus' battery requires AAAA battery
- Slight jitter in linework when drawing slowly
- Certain software not optimized for tablet resolution (menus, tools too small)
- Adobe Suite version earlier than CC (e.g. CS6) are not optimized for tablet usage
- Maximum RAM at 4GB can be limiting
- CPU can't handle real paint textures (e.g. in ArtRage) as well compared to Surface Pro 3
- Battery lasts 4-5 hours for demanding Photoshop use, 7-8 hours with lesser software
- Whether pressure sensitivity is supported depends on individual drawing application

Availability

Check out more reviews of the Microsoft Surface 3 on Amazon at the following product pages:
Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.fr | Amazon.it | Amazon.es | Amazon.co.jp

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

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