Artist Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (2018)

After months of waiting, I've finally got the Microsoft Surface Pro 6. The launch date of Surface Pro 6 here in Singapore is much later than USA hence the delay. I had to sell off my Surface Pro 2017 to offset the cost of this new tablet. So is it worth the upgrade? It depends on what you're using it for.

As usual, my review will be from the perspective of a visual content creator, more specifically someone who creates digital art, graphic design, edits photos and videos.

The main selling point of the Microsoft Surface Pro is the portability, and the ability to draw on it. It's not a workstation so you can't really push it as hard as a desktop. The second selling point is despite it being a tablet, it's running Windows 10 desktop OS which means it's made for productivity. There are things a Windows 10 tablet can do more effectively compared to Android and iOS devices.

Specification and pricing

These are the specifications and pricing for the new models.

Few things to note.

Models with Intel Core m3 and 4GB memory are no longer being sold.

The dual core Intel i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5Ghz) and Intel i7-7660U (2.5 to 4.0Ghz) has been replaced by the 8th generation quad core i5-8250U (1.6 to 3.4Ghz) and Intel i7 8650U (1.9Ghz to 4.2Ghz).

The integrated graphics card has been upgraded from Intel HD 620 to Intel UHD 620 which represents marginally better performance.

Lastly, the base pricing has increased from US $799 to $899 because the low end models are gone, BUT the top end models are now cheaper. E.g. The previous 16GB 1TB SSD model was US $2699 and the current one cost US $2299.

I felt that the Surface Pro 2017 was overpriced when it first came out so I chose to buy a secondhand unit instead. The Surface Pro 6 seems to be more worth the money now because of the upgrade from dual to quad core processors. Tasks that require processing power are now significantly faster to complete but there are some limitations that I will talk more about below.

BUILD QUALITY AND DESIGN


The physical design is pretty much unchanged since Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Pro (5) 2017 that I've reviewed previously.

While the design is functional, it's feeling a bit dated. Microsoft should have added an option for a larger screen, such as the 13.5-inch from their Surface Book 2. A 12.3-inch screen is usable but for work and productivity purposes, a large screen would be welcome. Right now for work, I always connect the Surface Pro to an external screen.


The only new design addition is the matte black version which unfortunately is not available here in Singapore.

Overall, build quality is still excellent and that makes it feels very much like a premium product.

SCREEN


The 12.3 inch screen supports a resolution of 2736 x 1824 which makes the user interface and everything look really sharp. The 3:2 aspect ratio is great for productivity.

Thickness is 8.5mm and weight is 770g (i5 model). It's still incredibly compact and portable.


Those are fan grills but the Intel i5 model has no fans so it runs silent. Passive cooling unfortunately is not as effective as fan cooling. When running processor intensive tasks, the tablet will become hot and processor speed will be throttled. I don't have any temperature readings for you except to say that it's about as warm as a typical LCD monitor after it has been turned on for an hour. It's not warmer compared to the previous generation Surface Pro though. The Intel i7 models are the ones with fans.

Battery life is around 5 to 6 hours for normal usage at 75% screen brightness. If you export photos or videos, expect lower battery life.


The kickstand is still adjustable to different angles. The tension in the stand is stiff but not enough to prevent it from going to the lowest angle while drawing.


The connection ports on the sides are surprisingly still the USB type A and mini-DisplayPort. Even the Surface Go has a USB type C port so the Surface Pro connectivity really feels a bit outdated now. I still use USB type A and mini-DisplayPort daily so I can't complain much.

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)

The Surface Pro 6 can drive a 4K screen. No problem.


The microSD card slot is still there which is fantastic. A 400GB Sandisk microSD card nowadays just cost less than US $90. This is the cheapest way to expand storage, rather than paying for more internal SSD storage, but of course you're not going to get SSD speeds for reads and writes for files on the microSD. Opening and saving large files, booting the system, launching apps are still much faster with the SSD

SURFACE PEN


Once again, the US $99 Surface Pen is not included and this is an essential buy if you want to draw on the Surface Pro. I have tested other Surface Pen alternatives but none comes close to the performance and accuracy of the actual Surface Pen.


The main thing going with the Surface Pen is the matte tip which provides more friction when drawing on the glass surface, and hence gives you better control.

The Surface Pen 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 is low so you draw a really thin line with the faintest of pressure.

Surface Pen is suppose to have tilt sensitivity but it only works with compatible apps.


The gap between the screen and the glass surface is very minimal. That and because the screen isn't that big, parallax is not an issue here. The cursor will always appear directly beneath the pen tip.


There's also none of the misalignment issue that happened with Surface Pro 2017. You can hold the tablet with your non-drawing hand while drawing and there won't be misalignment.

Update: Someone in the comments section mentioned about the Surface Pen not working after 2min 11s if it has been on the screen continuously. I've tested that and had the same problem. In real world usage, I don't really experience it because when drawing, I'm always lifting the pen high enough until it gets out of the hover mode to click other stuff like menus and buttons. That's why I wasn't able to detect this problem with my initial review. This could be an issue for people who write a lot since they may not lift their pen that often.

Processing power

In theory, the upgrade from dual core to quad core processes should bring about dramatic increase in performance, BUT in real life, the scenario plays out a bit differently.

Photo editing

To test the processors, I exported 100 photos in RAW format (17MB each) using Adobe Lightroom and below are the results. When there are multiple readings, it meant I repeated the tests.

Lightroom 5.6

  • SP2017 - 8min 44s
  • SP2017 hot - 12min 18s, 13min 20s
  • SP6 - 5min 5s
  • SP6 hot - 6min 38s, 6min 56s

Lightroom CC

  • SP2017 - 4min 56s
  • SP2017 hot - 12min 1s
  • SP6 - 4min 18s
  • SP6 hot - 6min 9s, 8min 18s, 8min 44s

Surface Pro 6 (Intel i5) started exporting the videos with the processors overclocking up to 2.8GHz on average. When it started to get hot, the speed dropped to 1.8GHz (the base advertised speed). And when it got even hotter, speed dropped to average 0.8GHz and stayed there for most of the time. Sometimes I even see 0.4GHz.

When the Surface Pro 6 start to heat up, the amount of time it requires to export the same number of photos can vary a lot. We are talking about a 4min+ export time jumping to 6+ or even 8+ minutes. That is a huge difference!

Surface Pro 2017 may only have dual cores but it was able to maintain close its base clock speed of 2.71Ghz most of the time.

With Lightroom 5.6, using Surface Pro 6, it was actually able to maintain close to the 1.8GHz base clock speed. And surprise! When heated up, Lightroom 5.6 was able to export photos faster than Lightroom CC.

Video editing
These are the results from exporting a 5-minute long 4K clip into a 1080P video using Adobe Premiere CC.

  • SP 2017 - 44min 40s, 41min 24s
  • SP6 - 16min 6s, 14min 4s, 11min 35s, 13min 16s, 17min 39s, 11min 45sa

Minutes into exporting the videos, processors on both SP2017 and SP6 got hot and speed dropped to an average 0.8GHz for most of the time.

It's clear from the results that the quad core processors cut down video export time by more than half, sometimes even three times faster.

Looking at SP6 alone, export times can vary quite significantly.

When exporting photos or videos, the whole system will slow down. Even activities like web browsing will slow down. Web pages will take longer to load, as if the download speed had been throttled as well.

When I used the SP6 in an air-conditioned room, the processor was able to run at a higher speed for a longer period of time. Cooling does matter. The unit that I have is the Intel i5 model without fans. The Intel i7 model with the fan may perform better.

Drawing performance


Pressure sensitivity in Photoshop CC works well. No Wintab drivers required. Curves are smooth. Strokes don't taper as gradually compared to real graphic tablets but to me it's still acceptable.


The main issue I have with Photoshop is there's noticeable lag when drawing. Not the irritating type of lag. It's more like the low-screen-refresh-rate kind of lag, or maybe input lag. The other drawing software mentioned below are more responsive and more satisfying to draw with.


Surface Pen is supposed to have tilt sensitivity but unfortunately it doesn't work for the relevant brushes in Photoshop CC. I searched online for workarounds and found out that it's a common problem with no real solution.

If you're editing huge graphic files, such as those x00 MB file sizes, expect some lag when panning or zooming around the canvas. When editing using adjustment layers (e.g. changing hue, saturation, levels), the speed depends on the size of the file. Visual updates will appear choppy if the file is huge, and more instantaneous with smaller files, of course. This performance is similar to what I've experienced with SP 2017 so the extra processors don't help in this area.


This is what happens with Photoshop CS6 without Wintab driver, which is not installed by default.

Wintab driver needs to be installed first for pressure sensitivity to work with Photoshop CS6. You can easily download it from Microsoft (get the 64-bit version).

After Wintab installation, strokes in Photoshop CS6 will behave just like in Photoshop CC. Pressure sensitivity will well. Curves will be smooth. You don't need any plugin (e.g. Lazy Nezumi) to improve the smoothness of the curves.

If you're still using Adobe CS6 and older software, perhaps it's time to move to using other software. For editing, you can check out the one-time purchase Affinity Photo, and for graphic design Affinity Designer. For drawing, there are Medibang Paint Pro, Krita, Clip Studio Paint, Corel Painter and other apps that don't use subscription-based payment models.


Photo above is from the Surface Pro 2017 review.

Old Adobe software also has scaling problems with high resolution screens. User interface like menus and buttons are 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 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.


Adobe CC software are scaled properly on the Surface Pro 6. Menus and icons are larger and easier to click.


Pressure sensitivity works fine with Adobe Illustrator CC.



Pressure sensitivity works well with Medibang Paint Pro version 22.0.


Pressure sensitivity works fine with Sketchable.


Pressure sensitivity works great with Clip Studio Pro.


ArtRage works fine.


Affinity Photo works surprising well, actually better than I expected. This is definitely a very capable app for creating line art.

Pressure sensitivity does not work by default but you can just click a button to activate it. The brushes that I use don't taper well though and I've read online on ways you can change the settings to have pressure taper the strokes but I just can't get them to work. Other than that, pressure sensitivity works well.


Pressure sensitivity does not work by default but activating it is just a button press. Pressure works but it's not easy to consistently create the same thickness. Look at the example with the hatching lines above and you can see the lines of varying thickness even though I drew them quick and at the same pressure for each line.


Both pressure and tilt sensitivity works well with Krita.



With Autodesk Sketchbook, there's more noticeable jitter when drawing diagonal lines. Pressure works fine.

The best apps to use on the Surface Pro 6 for drawing are Medibang Paint Pro, Krita and Clip Studio Paint.

Conclusion

The upgrade from dual to quad core processors is the biggest change from Surface Pro 2017 to Surface Pro 6. That really sped up processor intensive task but unfortunately the processors would throttle quickly and oftentimes unable to maintain even the base clock speed for majority of the time. Having said that, for certain task, quad core processors really help A LOT, such as when exporting videos.

Drawing performance and the overall performance in other areas remain largely similar compared to Surface Pro 2017. So if you are not doing a lot of processor intensive tasks, there's not much reason to upgrade.

For heavy content creators, using a proper desktop workstation is the better choice obviously. The Surface Pro is for those who really need the portability and still need Windows 10.

If you're in the market for a Windows 10 tablet, the Microsoft Surface Pro is a good one to consider. This new model is now more worth the money after the upgrades. So is it worth upgrading to? It depends on how much you value time and if this is going to be your only computer.

As with any tablet device, there are going to be limitations. You have to understand your work and workflow before you can decide if such a device is suitable for you.

Pros
+ Sturdy build quality
+ Significantly improved processing power because of the quad core processors
+ Has a USB 3 Type A port (see con)
+ 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
+ Decent battery life of 9-10 hours.
+ Lots of different configurations available

Cons
- Quad core processors throttles easily because they get hot fast.
- Can be quite warm if you're doing things other than web browsing, watching videos
- Would be great to have a larger screen option
- Surface Pen stops working after 2min 11s if it has been on the screen continuously.
- No USB type C port
- 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
- Surface Pen is not included and cost USD $100.

Availability

You can check out more reviews on Amazon. Below are direct product links to various configurations.

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5 Comments

How's the IAF on this version

How's the IAF on this version? I own a previous model of Surface and one of the less-than-great things compared to a Wacom or Apple Pencil iPad is the higher initial activation force needed to register a stroke. Is it any better than a Surface 2017?

Awesome review!

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