I finally found a secondhand Surface Pro 2017 to produce this review. The official retail price of the new Surface Pro is a bit too high for me and this time the Surface Pen is not even included. So I had to wait for a good deal.
This review will cover the specifications, capability of the new Surface Pen, how various graphic apps perform and also compare it with the earlier model, the Surface Pro 4 that I've reviewed last year.
My review will be from the perspective of an artist, graphic designer and also someone who creates a lot of content online. The Surface Pro model I bought has Intel i5, 256GB and 8GB RAM. This review is written for those who are thinking of getting a portable tablet to draw on.
Here are the different configurations of the Surface Pro 2017.
Incremental spec bumps given to the processor and graphics aren't particularly exciting. The storage and RAM capacity remains. In short, performance is still snappy when it comes to basic operations like startup and reboot, opening apps, opening and saving big files, switching between apps. Everything appears and feels responsive.
The one that's most value for money in my opinion is the model running Intel i5 with 256GB storage and 8GB of RAM. The next model with Intel i7 cost USD $300 more.
If you want to check out the current price, just visit these Amazon links:
- Intel Core M, 4GB RAM, 128GB
- Intel i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB
- Intel i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB
- Intel i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB
- Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB
- Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB
I would not recommend getting the 4GB RAM model for graphics work. Note that Windows OS uses RAM too. Then there are other apps that use RAM. Get at least 8GB RAM. RAM is needed so that apps can run smoothly.
128GB storage is still not too bad considering that there's a microSD card slot included so you can easily get a 200GB micro SD card under USD $100. But the model with 128GB storage only has 4GB RAM. That's a no-go there.
BUILD QUALITY AND DESIGN
This is a good case of don't fix what's not broken.
The new Surface Pro 2017 retains the excellent build quality of SP4. Even the design looks very similar. I love the smooth matte surface to the metallic body. This definitely feels like a premium product.
The thickness of 8.5mm may not be as thin as the Apple iPad Pro 2017 (6.9mm), it is still considered incredibly thin for a tablet that runs the full Windows 10.
The new Intel i5 model has no fans equipped so it runs silent. However, passive cooling isn't as effective as fan cooling, so the tablet can feel quite warm after running more processor intensive tasks. Removing the fans is still a welcome move because the SP4 fan is noisy, irritating and comes on randomly. Drawing on the tablet will make it warm, but not uncomfortably warm like rendering videos. How warm is it exactly? It's as warm as the surface of typical 27-inch LCD monitors after an hour. If you want to test out how warm it really is, go to electronics stores and touch the surface of their large LCD monitors. Watching videos, web browsing and typing are not going to make the tablet warm.
Fans are only included in the Intel i7 models where the processors can boost to higher clock speeds.
The sturdy stand can now reach an even lower angle, which is one of the two angles for drawing -- the other is drawing without the stand deployed. I prefer SP4's design where the lowest angle is still steeper. It's too low on the 2017 model.
The only ports available are the power port, USB 3, mini-DisplayPort and the micro SD card slot.
Micro SD card slot is located behind the stand.
Many tech websites criticise the SP 2017 for the lack of USB type-C port. Well, I don't because I'm still using a lot of devices that use the USB type-A ports, things like scanner, thumb drive, external drives, and even my phone cable. At the moment, the USB type-A port is still useful. However, for the next Surface Pro model, I hope Microsoft will include USB type-C ports, and just get rid of the power charging port.
Many external monitors still use the DisplayPort. To be able to connect the SP 2017 directly to a monitor is very convenient. I'm using the Accell mini-DisplayPort cable and it works really well.
When connected to an external monitor, you have the option to
- Extend the desktop to the external monitor
- Mirror the desktop to the external monitor
- Use the external screen as main, and black out the Surface Pro's screen (for use as a screen-less graphics tablet)
Surface Pro's resolution of 2736 x 1824 is higher than my 2560 x 1440 monitor. When connected to the monitor, some settings have to be changed to make the user interface look the right size. If not, the 2736 x 1824 will be scaled proportionally to fit into the monitor's resolution, and everything will appear slightly smaller.
Usually when I connect an external monitor, I will black out the tablet screen and use it like a desktop computer.
SURFACE PEN 2017
The new Surface Pen is unfortunately not included with the purchase of the Surface Pro 2017. That Surface Pen cost an extra USD $100. Very pricey.
There are some physical design changes to the pen. The pen clip is gone to allow part of the body's side to be flat so that it can stick magnetically to the Surface Pro's left side. The magnet is quite strong so that prevents the pen from being dislodged accidentally.
The tip is the matte tip so it has more friction and offers more control compared to hard plastic tips. There's no noise when tapping on the glass screen.
The new Surface Pen now supports up to 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity. Pressure curve can be adjusted in the app called Surface. There are 12 levels of pressure curve to choose from. I find that level 3 or 4 to be the best for me. The initiation activation force required to produce the faintest of lines is now much less. I can now draw very softly to get a really thin line.
Microsoft claims 21 milliseconds of latency, in other words, very responsive. However, the responsiveness or lag depends on the app used. In some apps, strokes may appear bit by bit, in a choppy manner. With other apps, the strokes appear with minimal lag and very close to the pen tip.
The Surface Pen supports tilt. But again, it depends on the app used as well. I tried Photoshop CS6 and the tilt brushes do not work.
This is an active stylus which means as you hover across the screen, you'll see a cursor. You get perfect palm rejection with an active stylus.
Battery life of the pen is rated to be one year. You can replace the AAAA battery easily by pulling the back off.
There's a button on the back that doubles up as an eraser which works only for certain apps.
Here's the thing I don't like about the Surface Pen. The side and back has limited customisation. You can only assign it to a list of functions that's pre-selected. If what you want is not on the list, too bad. And the right click functionality is weird. The contextual menu does not pop up when you press on the side button. You have to press the side button first before you tap the pen on anything.
The 12.3-inch screen allows the Surface Pro to be portable and light (770g). It would be cool if Microsoft could make an even larger Surface Pro, like 13 inches or larger. I would love it.
The resolution is 2736 x 1824 (267ppi) with 3:2 aspect ratio. 16:9 aspect ratio is great at consuming content, watching videos, but 3:2 is an aspect ratio with more vertical space that's more productive for work.
The most significant improvement to the Surface Pro is the battery life.
SP4's battery life is around 5-6 hours. Oftentimes less.
SP 2017's battery life is now 7-8 hours with typical usage at 60% brightness. That's a significant improvement. Battery life would drop with more usage and charges but at least it will drop from an already long battery life. You can get longer hours if you lower the brightness.
The other significant improvement is there is now no more, or barely any, jitter when drawing diagonal lines slowly.
Overall responsiveness of the strokes is satisfactory. Accuracy is spot on as this is an active stylus so the cursor is always directly underneath the tip. However, parallax will be present as the pen tip moves to the edges of the screen. If you draw near the edges, yeah, the lines will look like they don't appear directly beneath the tip. The parallax also makes clicking things a bit challenging near the edges. The glass is very close to the IPS panel beneath so parallax isn't a big issue, but it's still there. When drawing mostly in the centre region, parallax is a non-issue.
Here's my experience with various graphics software.
Wintab driver needs to be installed first for pressure sensitivity to work with Photoshop. Wintab driver is not installed by default but you can easily download it from Microsoft (get the 64-bit version).
After installation, pressure sensitivity works well. Stroke transitions and the way they curve are smooth. You don't need any plugin (e.g. Lazy Nezumi) to improve the smoothness of the curves. While the strokes don't taper as gradually compared to graphic tablets, they are still satisfactory.
I'm still using Photoshop CS6 by the way so I can't test out finger gestures like pinch to zoom, or to rotate.
This is where I want to highlight the problem of running old Adobe software on the high resolution screen of Surface Pro. Adobe software like CS6 and older are not designed for high resolution screens. As such, the user interface like menus and buttons are going to be small, so small that they are frustratingly difficult to click. There's a workaround that involves creating manifest files, but the scaled up user interface will make everything look a bit pixelated. For example, when you scale up Adobe Illustrator's user interface, those smooth vector lines are going to appear pixelated. The other workaround is to connect the Surface Pro to an external monitor and work from there.
The problem with user interface not scaling properly depends on the app you use. It is best to research online to confirm that the version of the desktop app you use will scale properly. If not, the tiny user interface can be very frustrating to use.
Adobe Illustrator works but there's this particular quirk where lines do not appear when you're drawing very fast. E.g. when you hatch lines fast, the lines may not start, No problems with drawing at normal speed though. Pressure works.
Medibang Paint Pro (desktop app) usually works well on tablets and that's the case here. Pressure sensitivity works great, perhaps even better than Photoshop. Finger gestures to zoom and rotate are supported but the animation is not as fluid compared to the same app on the iPad.
ArtRage Touch (tablet app) works great. The only finger gesture that works is pinch-to-zoom.
Mischief (desktop app) works well overall. However, the stroke usually starts off tapered even when I want to have it thick. A more conscious effort is needed to make the start of the stroke thick. I think it's an issue with Mischief. Another issue is with Wintab, the strokes will start off straight even when drawing a curve. This issue makes it impossible to work on Mischief. The alternative is to disable Wintab (use this hack). Finger gestures work fine on Mischief.
This is Sketchable, the tablet app (not ArtRage as I've drawn). Everything works great, even finger gestures.
For taking notes, Wacom Bamboo Paper (tablet app) is my favourite. It's able to capture my handwriting quite well. Pressure sensitivity works well too.
This is Squid (tablet app), another handwriting app. It works quite well for capturing handwriting also.
That's Microsoft OneNote (tablet app) and of course it works well.
Nebo (tablet app) is a note taking app that can convert handwriting to digital text. The app is able to recognise and convert my handwriting quite accurately.
COMPARED TO IPAD PRO
Both tablets are powerful and responsive. Main difference is the OS they run, and hence the apps that can be installed. Each OS has their own advantages and their apps stores have many useful graphics app.
My recommendation has always been this: If you don't already have a computer, a tablet with Windows (actually desktop OS) may be more useful.
Having a desktop file system is something people are already familiar with. You save a file wherever you want and that file can be accessed with any app that can open that file format. The file system in iOS drive me nuts sometimes. In iOS, files created are stored inside the app's file system. Other apps may or may not be able to reach into another app's file system to retrieve the file. Say you want to use App A to open App B's file, you have to use App B to share the file with App A, assuming that's App B can share with App A in the first place. OMG. My head hurts! For example, if I want to upload a video to Facebook, I can only access videos from the Photo app, which may not be where my video is. It's silly. Hopefully with iOS 11, the new Files app will solve my how-do-I-access-this-file-with-this-app misery.
Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to do with your tablet.
For me, a desktop OS is just more productive. Yeah, you can edit photos on the iPad, but you can do it faster with desktop software. Same for video editing. When it comes to drawing, in my opinion, both Windows and iOS tablets are currently evenly matched in terms of productivity and capability.
Apple Pencil vs Surface Pen... I still prefer the Apple Pencil. For some reason, maybe because of the design, the Apple Pencil just feels right. I won't say that Apple Pencil is better. It's just different. In terms of drawing functionality, the Surface Pen has improve a lot. The dreaded jitter when drawing diagonal lines is gone. That was a deal breaker in SP4.
In terms of responsiveness, iPad Pro has an edge with its 120 Hz screen. Animation effects such as the strokes appearing as you draw seem smoother, and hence feels more responsive. Surface Pro 2017 may not have the high refresh rate screen, but responsiveness is not exactly lagging by comparison. It's not as fast or smooth as the iPad Pro, but it's satisfactory and not irritating to use. However, with some apps, the strokes do appear to be more choppy.
Windows OS is at heart a desktop software. Because of that, sometimes the functionality or program design sensibilities would clash with the Windows tablet usability. For example with Photoshop, user menus are designed to be clicked with the small mouse cursor but challenging to click accurately with big fingers. Most desktop apps have menus at the top but tablet apps hide their menus away into icons, and sometimes there's no easy way to find the controls to even save a file or quit the program. So yeah, sometimes the ARGH! moments are with iOS, sometimes they are with Windows.
Surface Pro 4 has two potential deal breakers for me. One's the lousy battery life. The other is the jitter problem when drawing diagonal lines. The latter is a possible deal breaker for digital artists and the main reason that prevents the Surface Pro from reaching its true capability.
I'm glad to say that those two major problems have been resolved. Battery life is now much longer and more reasonable for a portable device. The jitter is almost non existent now. This is a huge deal. Imagine drawing a portrait slowly because you need the accuracy, but the lines have jitter. Wouldn't you want to tear your hair out? With the Surface Pro 2017 and the new Surface Pen, the jitter is a thing of the past. Finally!
Overall drawing experience is a positive one. Unpleasant experiences are from the little quirks with each graphic app. E.g. Medibang Paint Pro's finger gestures aren't very responsive. When drawing quickly with Illustrator, lines don't appear. Old desktop software do not scale well on the high resolution screen. With some tablet apps, I can't even find their menus to save a file.
The Surface Pro line has matured and has now fulfilled most of its potential and functionality. For artists who want a digital sketchpad, I can say that the Surface Pro 2017 is worth considering.
The price is a bit high in my opinion and it's likely going to stay that way for a while. You also have to consider that the Surface Pen (USD $100) is no longer included. And if you need a keyboard, the Surface Type Cover is another USD $130. I would personally go for the Logitech K810 wireless keyboard which is more comfortable to use with if you're a heavy user of keyboard shortcuts.
The new Surface Pro 2017 gets a thumbs up from me for drawing functionality and experience. To get two thumbs up, it needs to solve all those little software and OS quirks.
+ Sturdy build quality
+ Has a USB 3 Type A port
+ Has mini-DisplayPort to extend working space on external monitor
+ Has microSD slot for additional storage expansion
+ Nice weight for its size but too heavy for handheld drawing
+ Built in stand with many positions
+ Surface Pen feels good to draw on the screen
+ Jitter problem with diagonal lines is gone
+ High resolution of 2736 by 1824 on a 12.3-inch screen
+ Screen has good viewing angles and colours
+ Good stereo speakers
+ Able to install desktop and tablet apps
+ Snappy performance
+ Decent battery life of 9-10 hours.
+ Lots of different configurations available
- Can be quite warm if you're doing things other than web browsing, watching videos
- Limited number of ports
- Desktop apps not optimized for tablets usually have small menus and user interface
- Surface Pen buttons have limited customization
- Gets warm easily because passive cooling isn't as effective as fan cooling
- Installation of Wintab drivers required for use with Photoshop and Paint Tool Sai
- Surface Pen is included and cost USD $100.
You can check out more reviews on Amazon. Below are direct product links to various configurations.
- Intel Core M, 4GB RAM, 128GB
- Intel i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB
- Intel i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB
- Intel i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB
- Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB
- Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB
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