Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for Artists and Drawing

This review was written by illustrator Mas Shafreen. (Surface 3 (non-pro) is reviewed separately.)

Hi. My name is Mas Shafreen and I am a Mac user. I need to make that disclaimer before I dive into my review of the Surface Pro 3. I am an illustrator and the tools of my trade have been my trusted iMac with a Wacom Intuos4, or when I am on the move, my MacBook Pro 15” with a Wacom Bamboo. When a quick sketch is needed, I turn to my tablets - iPad Mini or Samsung Note 8 (yes, not an Apple product but I hate to admit that the S-pen works wonderfully). So when Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 3, I was definitely tempted with the idea of having a tool that could replace more than half of what I currently have to carry around.

I was already contemplating getting the Wacom Cintiq Companion but the Surface Pro 3’s specs and, most importantly, overall size and weight definitely edges the Cintiq Companion. However, as with any illustrator, the lack of pressure sensitivity was a concern. The Surface Pro 3’s 256 levels is a a many distant shades poorer than the 2048 levels from Wacom. In spite of my reservations, I was N-trigued (Microsoft ditched Wacom and went with N-trig for its latest Surface edition) enough to give the Surface Pro 3 a go.

Like any other self-respecting tech geek, I pre-ordered and was one of the first few to collect my Surface Pro 3 at Singapore Comex. I opted for the Intel i5 256 GB 1.9GHz with 8GB RAM which is pretty similar to my MBP i5 although the latter was a faster workhorse with 2.7GHz.


Out of the box, I have to begrudgingly admit that the machine is beautiful. Its sleek lines and minimalistic signature really makes it a sight to behold and, err, hold. The box contains:

  • Microsoft Surface Pro 3 laptop
  • Power adapter
  • N-trig Pen
  • Pen loop

I bought a couple of accessories to go along with my new toy - the Surface Pro Type Cover and the Arc Touch Mouse Surface Edition.

The Type Cover is aesthetically really pleasing and the magnetic strip along its top snaps very easily on to the Surface Pro 3. Other than that, I am not a big fan of the tactile feedback of the keys as it makes a very “clickity” sound and almost feels cheap. It is a vast improvement from the Surface 2 but pales to some of the wireless keyboards (Apple) out there which will be way cheaper (Apple, surprisingly).

The Arc Touch Mouse, on the other hand, is more practical. It flattens out to a sleek profile for ease of storage and pairs immediately when turned on, which is easily achieved by bending it to shape. It fits comfortably in hand and works well. My only quibble is its haptic feedback touch strip. This allows you to “feel” better when you scroll but the sound and sensation reminds me of the vertical scrolls mice were equipped with many years back. Not sophisticated.

Now on to the main event. The Surface Pro 3 definitely feels comfortable in hand. It has a resistance hinge which allows you to adjust the display angle from 0 to 150 degrees. The hinge does not feel robust but has been holding up very well over the past few months of abuse.

The power adapter comes with an additional USB port which is very ingenious as it not only helps you charge other devices like your mobile phone but, more importantly, assists power hungry USB devices especially the USB 3.0 ones. Coupled with my 4TB HDD, this combination had all the resources I need to get my work commissions done anywhere.

Since we are on the subject of power, I have been impressed by the battery life. Doing design and illustration work with brightness all the way up, I have managed to get 5-6 hours on this. Although not as much as the 8-9 hours I get on my MacBook Pro, it is also not as heavy at 800 grams compared to MBP’s 2 kg which is a huge difference when travelling.

There is a microSD slot at the back of the device but inserting the card was not easy. I often transfer videos from my GoPro and it can be frustrating to keep fiddling with that tiny card balancing on your finger. I found that the best way to do it is to insert it with the screen facing up. Not intuitive at all.

The 12 inch screen is godsend. I have been drawing mainly on my iPad mini or Note 8 so having 12 inch of screen estate was liberating. Given how thin the Surface Pro 3 is, you almost forget that it is a full laptop when you carry it around. There is a black border around the screen so you cannot draw up till the edges but that is fine as it would be tough to draw all the way to the end anyway.

The pen uses 1 AAAA battery and 2 small 319 lithium coin cell batteries for its bluetooth function. The pen feels comfortable in hand with the battery weight giving it a more comfortable feel. It does not have the ergonomics of the Wacom pen but it feels closer to a traditional pen. The button at the back helps you launch OneNote but sacrifices the eraser function.

As an illustrator, the first thing I wanted to try out was how convenient and responsive the touchscreen sketching was. The good news is that it comes preloaded with OneNote, a note taking and quick sketch app which launches immediately when you press the button on the back of the pen. It works like a charm when I was taking notes for courses or client briefs. The bad news is that OneNote is about as useful as Captain Hook’s second glove when it comes to drawing.

I often draw using my Wacom Intuos4 for which the pen has 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity compared to the Surface Pro 3’s N-trig pen’s 256. This may sound like a deal breaker but I was surprised at the results. I usually do my drawings in SketchBook and it stacks up well on the Surface Pro 3. You almost forget about the pressure sensitivity altogether. Drawing on the Surface Pro 3 is going to feel different compared to a graphic tablet because it is smooth and does not have as much drag. But it is very much similar if, like me, you have been using tablets like the iPad to draw. My disclaimer here is that since most of my illustrations are vector-based, pressure sensitivity was not as big an issue for me.

However, I know any illustrator worth his salt absolutely must know at least some details about pressure sensitivity. My opinion is that it is all about each individual’s “feel” (pardon the pun). There is very little lag, so it feels almost as responsive as my Intuos4. By drawing directly on the screen, I tend to have better control of pressure sensitivity compared to the Intuos4, despite the N-trig’s paltry 256 levels. In this regard, the line results are closer to what I intend them to be on the Surface Pro 3 compared to my Intuos4. The comparison chart below shows the differences between the Surface Pro 3 and Intuos4 with examples of stroke lines and a quick minute-long sketch of an eye.

That said, if you are a real stickler for sensitivity control, go to your brush settings and play around with the presets. My favourites are shape dynamics, transfer and smoothing.

The screen is reflective, like any other glass surface or the tablets that I have been drawing on, but adjusting the brightness more than compensates for this. The aspect ratio is now 3:2 compared to the previous edition which had 16:9, targeted at video and movie viewing. 3:2 makes more sense for design work as it is closer to the proportions for print. The higher screen resolution of 2160 x 1440 and very accurate on-screen colours definitely helps in illustration work and makes final art work that much easier.

What I am disappointed with was how easily the pen nib deteriorated. Only after 2 months of use I am already seeing strands at the nib from the constant contact with the glass screen. A new pen will set me back SGD$73 while searching online for replacement nibs shows that Microsoft will replace it for free although I am not sure if this service is available here so I make do by trimming away the frayed ends. I have been using my Wacom pen for years and it still has not shown signs of falling apart. Thankfully, the screen itself showed no signs of scratches or scuffing even though I have not placed a screen protector on it.

Using the Adobe suite is where the Surface Pro 3 exceeded my expectations. First off, 12 inches is never going to be enough screen estate so you will have to customise your Photoshop or Illustrator windows to allow for more drawing space. It is also very difficult to hit the buttons accurately with the default Adobe preferences. So you will have to go to Preferences > Experimental Settings and double the size of the interface elements. You can also activate touch controls in Adobe so that you can pinch and zoom and even rotate canvas. There is some lag when doing this so I always end up relying on my keyboard.

My set-up for Adobe Illustrator, which is what I am almost always using, is to have my wireless keyboard off to the left and my mouse to the right. This way, your arm will not accidentally press the keyboard when you draw or use touchscreen should you opt for the Type cover.

The mouse is essential for Illustrator. It is next to impossible to select anchor points along a path or drag bezier curves with the pen.

As a Mac user, I also had to remind my left finger to not hit the alt key as I am so used to the command key being there. Having to constantly switch between the Surface Pro 3 and my Mac helps train muscle memory but I suppose you can easily download apps to re-map your keys.

Conclusion

Overall, where the Surface Pro 3 truly shines, is what it was built for in the first place - to be a full laptop in the form of a tablet. Its portability is bar none. I travel fairly often and was away for a few months last year. This machine was all I needed to get my commissions done remotely. No more lugging around my MBP and Wacom tablet at more than double the weight. Lets just say this Mac user is now less biased.

Availability

Here's the table of the various models available:

64GB Intel i3 128GB Intel i5 256GB Intel i5 256GB Intel i7 256GB Intel i7
Available disk space 36GB 96GB 211GB 211GB 450GB
Processor Intel Core i3-4020Y CPU max 1.50 GHz Intel Core i5-4300U CPU max 2.9 GHz (with Turbo) Intel Core i5-4300U CPU max 2.9 GHz (with Turbo) Intel Core i7-4650U 1.70 GHz Intel Core i7-4650U 1.70 GHz
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4200 Intel HD Graphics 4400 Intel HD Graphics 4400 Intel HD Graphics 5000 Intel HD Graphics 5000
Memory 4GB 4GB 8GB 8GB 8GB
Price

Check out more reviews of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 on the Amazon product pages below:

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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