Artist Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 8 (2021)

The Microsoft Surface Pro 8 was released in October 2021 together with the Surface Laptop Studio. Drawing performance of the latest model has improved significantly. The original Surface Pro was released in 2013 and it took Microsoft eight years to finally fixed the diagonal line jitter/wobble issue with the Surface Pen. And it's a good move to have a new name for the pen as well, Slim Pen 2, to disassociate from itself from the Surface Pen.

Official retail price is US $1099 for the model with Intel 11th gen Core i5-1135G7, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The model with Intel Core i7-1185G7, 32GB RAM and 1TB storage cost US $2599. The model I've purchased for this review is the base model with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.

Bottomline for artists
The new Microsoft Slim Pen 2 has drawing performance almost on par with the Apple Pencil and Samsung S Pen. The Surface Pro 8 and the Slim Pen 2 are products I can now recommend without hesitation to professional artists, especially to artists who demand a high level of accuracy for their line art. If you're a heavy multi-tasker, get at least 16GB RAM. The main downside is battery life which is just 5-6 hours with auto-brightness, and depends a lot on what you do.

Here are the full specifications (from Microsoft SP8 product page):

  • Display: 13-inch touchscreen LCD
  • Resolution: 2880 x 1920 pixels, 267 PPI, 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Refresh rate: 60Hz, 120Hz
  • Memory: 8, 16, 32GB
  • Storage: 128GB - 1TB
  • Processor: Intel 11th gen Core i5-1135G7, Core i7-1185G7
  • Graphics: Intel Iris Xe Graphics
  • Ports: 2x USB-C Thunderbolt 4/USB 4, Surface Connect, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Camera: 5MP front camera with face unlock. 10MP back camera
  • OS: Windows 11
  • Connectivity: Wifi
  • Battery capacity: 51.5Wh
  • Pen support: Surface Pen, Slim Pen 1, Slim Pen 2
  • Dimensions: 11.3 in x 8.2 in x 0.37 in (287mm x 208mm x 9.3mm)
  • Weight: 891g (not including keyboard cover and pen)
  • Warranty: 1 year (extended warranty via Microsoft Complete for additional 1, 2 and 3 years)

Design


The display size has increased from 12.3 to 13-inches. I've always found 12.3 inches to be on the smaller size so having a larger display is a welcome upgrade.


The bezels on left and right are thinner, making the tablet look more compact. The thin bezels are so thin there's no way to hold the sides without accidentally activating anything on screen.

Bezels at the top and bottom are still quite thick. If you have the keyboard case, you can prop the keyboard case up to cover the bottom bezel. When the keyboard case is propped up, the keyboard is more stable and can actually be used quite easily on your lap.

By the way, the Microsoft Surface Pro Signature keyboard is an optional accessory selling for US $179. There's a version with a fingerprint reader for US $199. Both are much cheaper on Amazon.


Volume buttons and 3.5mm audio jack are on the left. The two front facing speakers on the left and right are barely visible. Audio quality is surprising good, loud and clear, coming out from those tiny speaker grilles. I don't use the speakers beyond 20% volume so that's how loud they are.


On the right side are the power button, two USB-C Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports and Surface Connect port. The tablet is 9.3mm thick, much thicker than the 5.5mm thick Samsung Tab S8 Ultra and 6.4mm thick 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro 2021. Weight is 891g not including the keyboard. The keyboard case is 281g and the Slim Pen 2 is 13g. Total weight with keyboard and pen is 1.185kg, still quite compact for a 13-inch portable device.


Charging via USB-C is possible but finicky. I'm using fast-charging GaN charger with 100W and 30W ports. The 100W port doesn't charge the tablet but the 30W does. You can use the included 60W Surface Connect charger for charging at optimal speed. When browsing the web, 30W charges the tablet slowly. When you are pushing the processor, 30W is unable to maintain the battery level.


Battery capacity is 51.5Wh. Battery life based on my experience with auto-brightness with light tasks is around 5-6 hours. When you push the processor, the fans rev, battery life may drop to 4-5 hours.

The battery life indicator icon for Windows 11 sucks. What may look like a 30% bar actually represents 50% battery life left. At least they got the under-promise-over-deliver part right here. But you can't choose to show the percentage. I'm using this app called Pure Battery Analytics to show the percentage. The app is useful for tracking battery usage, charging and has many features.


Overall build quality of the tablet is solid and premium. The edges are beveled, corners are rounded off.


The kickstand is thicker and more solid (with less flex) compared to previous models. The hinge is strong and can hold the tablet weight even at the lowest angle.

However, the stand is not strong enough to hold its position when you're pressing against it while drawing. A proper stand is still needed if you want to draw on the tablet comfortably at an angle. My recommendation for a good tablet stand is the Parblo PR100 (I have two).


The SP8 with 128GB and 256GB storage have removeable SSD. Those models are using the M.2 2230 PCIe SSD. The SSD upgrade process is documented on Windows Central.

How much storage do you need?
Windows 11 takes up 21 GB of storage. Below's the comparsion of marketed vs actual storage capacity:

  • 128GB = 117GB
  • 256GB = 238GB
  • 512GB = 476GB
  • 1TB = 931GB

If you get the base model with 128GB storage, you'll be left with 96GB of usable storage after Windows 11 installation before you install any apps. If you work with large files, it's better to get more storage space unless you don't mind connecting an external SSD to the USB-C port all the time.


It's great that the SSD is user-upgradeable. Downside is you have to source for the M.2 2230 PCIe SSD which isn't as common compared to the larger M.2 SSDs. 1TB storage capacity is around US $200 - 250 currently which is much cheaper compared to the $100 - 300 Microsoft charges for additional 128 - 256GB internal storage. And then there's the re-installation of Windows 11.


In terms of value for money, the US $1099 base model with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage is good as you can upgrade the SSD yourself. Do keep the old SSD in case you need to send the SP8 in for servicing.

Unfortunately, there's no model with 16GB RAM and 128GB storage. The 16GB RAM + 256GB storage model cost US $1399, that's $300 more compared to the base model.

If you have limited budget, go with the base model and upgrade the storage yourself. If you have more budget, consider the 16GB RAM model for better multi-tasking performance.

There's this thing called Microsoft 365


Microsoft 365 is a bundle of services that includes all the Microsoft Office apps and OneDrive cloud storage. Price is US $60/year for personal and $80/year for family.

Microsoft 365 Personal provides 1TB of online storage which can be used to backup your Windows computer completely. $5/month for 1TB storage and backup service is a good deal. The Family plan provides 1TB online storage each for six people.

Unless you're editing videos, you probably don't need to store numerous huge files on internal storage. So going with small internal storage together with Microsoft OneDrive is a good plan too. Microsoft 365 is good enough for graphic design work and digital art workflow where file sizes aren't large as videos.

Unlike iPads and Android where artworks are stored within the app, Windows store files outside of the app. So you can actually store the artworks online and never have to use internal storage except for software installation. The downside is to access your files you will always need internet connection. If you don't have internet access. you can always download the the files on your computer first, and it's really easy to do so with OneDrive, e.g. right-click make available locally.


The ventilation grilles are for the fans in the tablet. The fans are audible under full load but I won't consider them loud. With the fans on, battery life is going to drain fast as the fans are spinning and the processor is under load.

For some reason, the Adobe Creative Cloud app uses too much RAM and processing power and always causes the fans to spin, and drains battery fast. So don't have Adobe Creative Cloud launch at login, and (it's a hassle) always quit that app when you're not using it. This is more of a problem on tablets because battery capacity is smaller than laptops.


If you can get the keyboard case as a bundle, that's great. But otherwise at US $179 (or US $149 on Amazon), it's pricey but it's not too pricey especially when you compare it to the Apple or Samsung keyboard cases which are $200 - 300+.

The keyboard case is well designed. Layout of the keys is good except there's no Ctrl button on the right. The keys have backlight, good travel and feedback so the overall typing experience is great. The Alcantara surface material has a nice matte textured surface.


The touchpad works well enough too.


There's a slot above the function keys for charging the Microsoft Slim Pen 2. If you buy the Slim Pen 2 separately, there's no way to charge the pen unless you buy the US $35 Microsoft Slim Pen Charger or some other charging accessory. The pen can't be charged by attaching to the side of the tablet.


The keyboard case can be propped for typing at an incline, and this also hides the pen slot.

It makes more sense to buy the Keyboard case and Slim Pen 2 bundle for US $269 vs them separately for US $179 + $129 (or US $149 + $119 on Amazon).

Display


The 13-inch LCD display has good looking colours out of the box. Colour support is said to be 100% sRGB, 77% AdobeRGB, 78% P3. Maximum brightness is up to 450 nits.


Based on my own measurements with a Spyder5pro colour calibrator, I measured colour support for 99% sRGB, 75% NTSC, 80% AdobeRGB and 82% P3, and a maximum brightness of 350 nits.


The resolution is 2880 x 1920 at 267 PPI so all the visuals look sharp and detailed. Pixelation is not noticeable.

The 3:2 aspect ratio is good for productivity compared to 16:10 or 16:9. With the width fixed at whatever it is. 3:2 aspect ratio gives you more vertical space and can display more content.


The display is laminated so there's no gap between the line and the pen tip. There's latency when drawing, the typical amount of latency you find on majority of pen displays. When drawing the line will try to catch up with the pen tip. It's not a big issue unless your draw really fast, as fast as writing speed.

You have the option to run the display with either 60Hz or 120Hz refresh rate. 120Hz will make all animations, e.g scroll, zoom, pan, look smooth but will use up more battery life. Even at 120Hz, latency is still noticeable.


13-inch is a spacious and comfortable size to work with for drawing. You can have palettes on the left and right and still have a good amount of canvas space to work with.

The 12.3-inch displays of earlier Surface Pro models are considered small to me. The extra 0.7-inch may not sound like a lot but it does make a difference, in this case an increase in overall usable surface area.

Microsoft Slim Pen 2


I've always been quite hesitant to recommend Surface products for drawing purposes because the old Surface Pen (from SP1 to SP7) suffers from jitter/wobble when drawing diagonal lines.

The new Microsoft Slim Pen 2 no longer has diagonal line/wobble issue. The pen is now accurate and more sensitive, and up to the standard that's required for professional artists who focus on line art, e.g. drawing comics.


Design of the pen looks just like a flat carpenter pen. Getting used to the shape should take no time. Build quality is solid and the pen is comfortable to hold with its matte textured surface. On the side is a button for right-click and at the back an eraser button. Both buttons have very limited customisation.

The pen supports palm rejection, tilt and up to 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity.

Surface Pro 8 supports stylus with Microsoft Pen Protocol so you can actually use older Surface Pens or Surface Pen alternatives, e.g. Renaisser, however, those pens may not produce the same level of performance as the Slim Pen 2.

One other cool feature the Slim Pen 2 has is haptic feedback. The pen may produce haptic feedback to mimic the experience of the friction you get when writing on paper. It's not real friction of course but some sort of micro vibration that also responds to pressure sensitivity. The heavier you press, more vibration is created to mimic more friction. It works pretty well even though it's obviously not real friction as you're still writing on smooth glass.

Not all apps support the haptics functionality. For example, Photoshop, Medibang, Clip Studio, Krita, Affinity Photo, Sketchable, Sketchbook Pro do not support haptics. Only apps I've tested that support haptics are Concepts and Adobe Fresco.

Battery life of Slim Pen 2 is up to 15 hours.

Drawing performance


These are line tests created with Medibang Paint Pro.

1. Initial activation force is minimal. Thin lines can be drawn very easily with minimal pressure.

2. Strokes don't taper as smoothly as I want. This is where Apple Pencil and the Samsung S Pen performs better with smoother and sharper tapered strokes. But it's not a deal breaker compared to diagonal line jitter/wobble.

3. Dots can be drawn easily by just tapping the pen.

4. Line transition from thin to thick is smooth.

5. It's easy to maintain consistent pressure to draw lines with consistent widths. There's still slight jitter but if you look at the drawings, the jitter is not noticeable.


Shown above are lines from the older Surface Pen vs the new Slim Pen 2 on the SP8.

The line quality is now almost on par with the Apple Pencil and Samsung S Pen. This pen is now good enough for professional drawing.


This was drawn with Concepts app which works really well. This is one of my favourite drawing apps on Windows, iPad and Android.


This was drawn with Concepts inside a restaurant.


This was also drawn with Concepts.


Another sketch with Concepts.


The main issue I have when creating this sketch was the pen is quite smooth, maybe slippery, on the glass. If you want more texture, you may have to get a matte screen protector. And the app was not able to detect some of my double-finger taps to undo, and that doesn't happen with the same app running on iPad or Android.


This was drawn with Sketchable.

Compared to the 12.9 inch iPad Pro and Samsung Tab S8 Ultra


Surface Pro 8 runs Microsoft Windows 11. iPad runs iPadOS. Tab S8 Ultra runs Samsung One UI on top of Android 12. Each OS and platform has its own pros and cons.


When it comes to technology, it comes down to whether you can save time or money with the product, and of course how that technology, computer or gadget can fit into your workflow.

My general recommendation is to choose based on the app you want to use. You really have to look at what each OS & platform has to offer. All three tablets have good drawing performance and can be used for drawing but the variety of apps available on their OS is different.

Main selling point of Surface Pro 8 is Windows OS which allows you to use full featured desktop apps such as Adobe creative apps, Affinity apps, 3D software, photo and video editing apps. Windows OS is more versatile compared to iPadOS and Samsung One UI on top of Android 12.

Most of those apps are also available from the Apple App Store. The main difference to me is efficiency and speed of how fast you can get your work done. With Windows you can get proper mouse support and that to me is more effective and faster with certain workflows. With Windows, you can choose to use either the pen or the mouse. With the iPad, it's just the Apple Pencil, which of course is an excellent stylus.

The iPad Pro is good if you're also use Apple computers because the ecosystem has many shared features. E.g. Sidecar external display support, AirDrop file transfer, iCloud backup, iTunes Store for sharing music and movies.

As for Android, the best drawing app is Clip Studio Paint, which is also available on iPad and Windows. Currently, the main limitation of Android is the lack of graphic design apps such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Photo, Affinity Designer, and vector apps. It may not have as many drawing apps as on iPad or Windows, but you don't use that many drawing apps anyway. Do you rotate among more than 2-3 drawing apps? So does it matter if the app store has 20 vs 200 drawing apps?

Battery life

The main downside for the Surface Pro 8 is battery life which is just 5-6 hours with auto-brightness. Unfortunately, battery life for Windows tablets has always been less than ideal. With auto-brightness setting, I can get around 10hrs, 8hrs and 6hrs of battery life with the 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro, Tab S8 Ultra and Surface Pro 8. Drawing with the Surface Pro 8 outdoors in bright conditions, with higher auto-brightness and extra heat (hence fans will rev), is going to drain the battery so fast. The M1 iPad Pro and Tab S8 Ultra are cool most times even with multi-tasking and drawing.

Under extra load, e.g. drawing with screen recording, I was able to drain the 50% of the battery in 90 minutes.

About Windows 11


Windows 11 is kinda like Windows 10 except with a more polished and modern looking user interface. I'm impressed at how smooth Windows 11 runs on the Surface Pro 8. I may even upgrade my LG Gram 16 laptop to Windows 11 soon as my experience with Windows 11 is rather pleasant.

Hardware defect on my unit


Unfortunately, my unit has hardware defect.

At the top left corner, beneath the glass, there's this abrasion-like effect coupled with parallel lines, and lights (LED) there are flickering. The effect beneath the screen can only be seen when the background is dark or mid-gray.

So I mentioned earlier that there's no more issues with auto-brightness flickering and there isn't. My unit just has this problematic flickering at the top left corner.

I will have to send my Surface Pro 8 back for warranty servicing. I've actually send an older Surface Pro back for serving before a few years ago and the process was straightforward.In Singapore, it means Microsoft Singapore will send a courier to collect the unit from your address, and return with a refurbished unit. You will not be getting your data back so you definitely have to backup your data, e.g. using Microsoft OneDrive mentioned earlier.

I find strange that such a visible defect was not detected before the SP8 was boxed.

Glitches

Pressure sensitivity does not work with Adobe Illustrator CC.

Conclusion


Microsoft is close to making the perfect tablet with Surface Pro 8.

Many people will say the M1 iPad Pro is the best tablet. Sure, the M1 processor is powerful and efficient. But in terms of versatility, I don't think iPadOS or Android can match Windows.

The base model SP8 is comparable in price to the 12.9-inch M1 iPad Pro 2021 and 14.6-inch Tab S8 Ultra. The latter two tablets are great performers at base model. For the SP8, it's best to upgrade to 16GB RAM for heavy multi-tasking and future proofing, and that unfortunately will push the price much higher. Good news is SP8 has been out for a while now and sometimes you may find good discounts on them.

The main problem with diagonal line jitter has been resolved so the SP8 is now a tablet that's great for drawing. With earlier Surface Pro models, I also have problems with flickering brightness, finicky auto-brightness, inconsistent face unlock. Those problems are gone too. So the main downside of the SP8 to me would be the 5-6 hours battery life.

If you're an artist looking for an all-in-one computer, the Surface Pro 8 or the Surface Laptop Studio are the ones to consider.

Availability


You can buy the Microsoft Surface Pro 8 from Microsoft online store, but it's cheaper, including the accessories, on Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | ES | IT | JP).

If you're interested to get the tablet, consider supporting my blog and work by getting your tablet through the Amazon links above. Those are affiliate links which means I earn some commission for each sale, but at no extra cost to you. Your support helps me put out more reviews such as the one you just read.

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8 Comments

Does this device need a

Does this device need a screen protector to help with the drawing experience. And if so are there any that you would recommend there would be perfect to help withdrawn/paper like feeling?

Are you using a screen

Are you using a screen protector? Because Microsoft fixed the fundamental jitter problem all the way back in 2017~ 2018 with the Surface Pro 5/2017 & its Pen + a bunch of firmware updates.

Any significant jitter since is due to either physical interference (ala, a screen protector), low battery life (pen), EMF interference like other nearby wireless &/or magnetic/conductive objects & devices, outdated software (specifically using the ancient + jury rigged to work w/ N-Trig, "WinTab" API), or borked drivers/settings.

The major improvements with the Slim Pen & Slim Pen 2 especially were in terms of EMF shielding, NOT fundamentally improved accuracy in and of itself. If one wasn't having interference problems (and thus notable jitter) before, the latest Pens are AT BEST a minor overall upgrade & w/ some notable new downsides/downgrades to boot!

Hey there,

Hey there,
How were the Affinity apps on the unit compared to on a desktop? I haven't found a solid review of them yet on the pro 8 and that's the primary use I have for it as I want to be able to work on the go.

Hi

Hi

I have bought the surface pro 8 recently
I tried using the old surface pen (the one with clip and 2 side buttons) but
it has rather unbearable amount of jittering on surface pro 8
I have drawn simple u-shape curve and it shows lots of jitter
The same pen is working rather well on my surface pro 4.

It is disheartening that my old surface pen works poorly on sp8 but can work well on sp4.
This leads me to question whether my sp8 is defective?

With the old pen (w clip and 2 buttons) working well on sp4 but badly on sp8, would you suspect the sp8 is defective?
Or would you say that sp8 requires the new pen to work properly?

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