This article looks at various Surface Pro 4 alternatives for digital artists who want a portable tablet to draw on. I've only included alternatives that run Windows OS and support a pressure sensitive stylus.
Since the first Microsoft Surface was released in 2012, competition has been relentless in this tablet/convertible/whatever-you-call-them space. Manufacturers compete outdo each other by coming up with the best portable pen display device every year. Thanks to that, we have benefitted with variety and competitive prices.
Let's take a look at the various pen display tablets available today with pros and cons. By the way, the pros and cons are relative to other tablets.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Oct 2015)
I should mention Surface Pro 4 first to use it as a benchmark to compare with other models in terms of price and performance. I've been using one for several months and have also written a detailed review from an artist's perspective. It's a good improvement from Surface Pro 3 but it can certainly be better. Hardware is good. My issues are with the OS.
+ Has ports for USB 3, mini-DisplayPort, microSD
+ Vibrant 12.3-inch screen with 2736 by 1824 resolution
+ Many configuration available: Max 16GB RAM, 1TB storage
+ Multi-position stand
+ 786g or 1078g with Type Cover
+ Comes with Surface Pen stylus
+ Surface Pen's pressure sensitivity works well but...
- Surface Pen has issues with taper strokes in Photoshop
- 5-6 hours battery life
- Fan turns on often for unknown reasons
- Optional Type Cover cost USD $100++
Vaio Z Canvas (Dec 2015)
The Vaio Z Canvas is the most powerful tablet in this list. The base model uses a Intel Core i7-4770HQ quad-core 2.2Ghz with Iris™ Pro Graphics 5200 which has more processing power than SP4's dual-core. It's also priced quite competitively because it comes with a bundled keyboard. Just for reference SP4's Type Cover cost USD $100++.
+ Pressure sensitivity stylus is slightly more comfortable with the grip
+ Wireless keyboard is included
+ Stylus included
+ Ports included: 2x USB 3, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, SDcard, Ethernet
+ Vibrant 12-inch 2560 x 1704 IPS screen
+ 95% Adobe RGB
+ Physical shortcut button to disable palm rejection
+ Multi-position stand
+ Many configurations: Max 16GB RAM, 1TB storage
- Fans run constantly but not noisy
- 4-5 hours battery life
- 1.20 kg or 1.54kg with keyboard
For the same price you pay for SP4, you get a faster machine with the Vaio Z Canvas and get a keyboard. But the power hungry processor takes a toll on battery life.
Samsung TabPro S (Mar 2016)
The 12-inch Samsung TabPro S is a nice addition to Samsung's line of tablet. Previously, they had the 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro but it runs on Android so the drawing apps that are available are limited. Now that it's running Windows 10, you have the variety of desktop software available to you. You can think of this as a competitor to Surface 3 rather than Surface Pro 4 because it uses a dual-core 900 MHz. I've used the Surface 3 (Intel Atom 1.6Ghz Quad Core) before and find the speed satisfactory when used with Photoshop and other drawing applications. So by comparison, TabPro S' speed should be adequate for casual drawing.
+ Vibrant 12-inch 2160x1440 resolution AMOLED screen
+ 693g weight not including keyboard
+ Bundled with keyboard cover
+ 7-8 battery life
+ Does not get hot
+ 99.9% sRGB, 86.6% Adobe RGB
- Intel m3-6Y30 dual-core 0.9Ghz that max out 2.2Ghz
- Limited configuration: Max 4GB RAM and 256GB storage
- One USB Type C connector
- No kickstand but you get the keyboard
- PRESSURE SENSITIVE PEN IS NOT AVAILABLE YET
I'm hesitant to list the processor speed as a negative point because it really depends on the tasks you do. If you want to edit photos, this is not the right machine. If you are a casual artist, then the TabPro S should be sufficient to meet your needs.
Most important thing to note is the pressure sensitive stylus is not available yet. There's no confirmation to whether or not it will eventually be released although Samsung says that they are developing it.
The main advantage over the Surface 3 is the larger 12-inch screen.
Huawei Matebook (Release date unknown)
Huawei Matebook will find it difficult to compete with Samsung TabPro S because the specifications are rather similar. Nice thing is they have included several USB Type C adaptors.
+ 12-inch 2160 x 1440 IPS screen
+ 640g without keyboard
+ Configuration available: Max 8GB RAM, 512GB storage
+ Adapters for USB Type C to power, micro-USB and USB Type A
+ Pressure sensitive stylus support
+ 85% sRGB
+ Rated 10 hours battery life (will be lower in real life)
- Intel dual-core m3 up to 3.1Ghz
- MatePen stylus is not included
Lenovo Miix 700 (Nov 2015)
Don't be confused by all the Miixes. Miix 700 has a 12-inch screen, Miix 300 a 10.1-inch and Miix 3 with only 8-inch.
Miix 700 is slightly heavier but has good number of ports onboard.
+ 12-inch 2160 by 1440 resolution screen.
+ Configuration: Max 8GB RAM, 256GB storage
+ 780g or 1.11kg with keyboard
+ Detachable keyboard included
+ Pressure sensitive stylus support
+ 1x USB 3, 1x USB 2, micro-HDMI out, micro SIM, microSD
- 5-6 hours battery life
- Intel m7-6Y75 dual-core 1.2Ghz up to max 3.1Ghz
- Stylus not included. It cost USD $40 and comes with 3 replacement nibs
- Palm rejection a bit iffy
- Jitter when drawing slow diagonal strokes (pen discussion here)
HP Elite X2 and Spectre X2 (Dec 2016)
HP Elite X2 competes with Surface 3/Samsung TabPro S/Huawei Matebook rather than SP4 because of its lower spec configuration.
Note that there's also another product called the Spectre X2. The main difference is the Spectre X2 comes with two USB Type C but does not come with the pen.
+ 840g and 1.23kg with keyboard
+ Configuration: Intel Core M3/M5/M7, Max 8GB RAM, 512GB storage
+ Ports: 1x USB Type C, 1x USB Type A, microSD
+ Active stylus included with Wacom AES
+ Multi-position kickstand
+ Good keyboard included
+ 5-6 hours battery life
- Intel Core M3/M5/M7 (dual 1.2Ghz up to 3.1Ghz)
- 12-inch 1920 x 1080 resolution screen
- Screen colours not that great
Asus Transformer T300 Chi (Mar 2015)
Asus Transformer T300 Chi is another Surface 3 competitor except with a larger 12.5-inch screen. It's difficult to stand out among other brands because there are so many alternatives. I guess the highlight is the battery life.
+ 7-8 hours battery life
- Not full size ports: Micro USB 3, micro HDMI, microSD card reader
- 12-5-inch screen with 1080P resolution
- Intel M-5Y71 (dual-core 1.2Ghz up to 2.9Ghz)
- Limited configuration: Max 8GB RAM, 128GB storage
- 0.72kg or 1.43kg with keyboard
- Average keyboard
Toshiba dynaPad (Jan 2016)
The Toshiba dynaPad is quite a stylish 12-inch tablet.
+ 12-inch 1,920 x 1,280 IPS screen
+ 576g or 997g with keyboard
+ Wacom AES pressure sensitive pen included
+ Ports: Micro HDMI, 2x Micro USB 2.0, multi-card reader for microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC
+ Rated 8 hours battery life
- Intel Atom x5-Z8300 quad-core 1.44Ghz
- Limited configuration: Max 4GB RAM, 64GB storage
- Keyboard not included
This is another affordable Surface Pro 4 alternative.
+ 12-inch 2,160 x 1,440 IPS screen
+ 1.25kg with the included keyboard
+ Full size USB 3 and USB Type C ports
+ i3, i5, i7 configuration
+ Liquid cooled
+ Stylus is included
+ microSD card slot
- 81.3% sRGB gamut for an IPS screen, 57.8% Adobe RGB
- 256 levels of pressure sensitivity using Synaptics digitizer
- Runs hot
- Pen holder attached on the keyboard is too fragile
- Overall design feels cheap
- 6 hours battery life
Wacom MobileStudio Pro
+ Option of 13.3 (WQHD) or 15.6 inch (4K) screen
+ Processor option of i5 & i7
+ 8192 levels pen pressure
+ Physical shortcut keys
+ Intel® Iris™ Graphics 550 or Quadro® M600M or M1000M
+ microSD card slot
+ Pen has tilt sensitivity
+ 94% Adobe RGB
+ 3 USB-C ports
- Brightness 150cd/m2
- Weight of either 1.42kg or 2.2kg
- Battery life 6 hours
If you want to get any of these tablets as your main computer, having a keyboard is essential. However, not all tablets come with bundled keyboards. The OEM keyboards may be nice, such as those type covers designed specifically for the tablet, sometimes they can be quite expensive.
As an artist who uses a lot of keyboard shortcuts, I look for keyboards that are wireless. With wireless keyboards, you can put them on the side so that your drawing hand is not over on top of the keyboard. That's one reason why I don't like the Microsoft Type Cover. If I want to draw on the SP4, I have to detach the keyboard so that it does not get in the way of my hand. That's where the Vaio Z Canvas' wireless keyboard gets it correct because it's battery powered and you can place it beside your screen.
I like the Logitech K810 so much I bought an equivalent version for Mac, the Logitech K811. These are battery powered Bluetooth keyboards. You can charge them with micro-USB cables, those commonly used by Android phones.
Microsoft's Universal Foldable Keyboard's main advantage is it can be folded, thrown into a bag and be transported easily. The downside is there's this gap in the middle. So you might have to retrain your muscle memory when hitting some keyboard shortcuts that are across the gap. This Bluetooth keyboard is also powered by rechargeable battery and you can charge it with a micro-USB cable also. Very convenient.
A mouse may not be required if you already have the stylus. Personally for me, I prefer a mouse when using 3D software because most of those software make use of three button mouse. Anyway, Logitech makes the best mouse so just go check out the many reviews on Amazon. I recommend the Bluetooth Logitech M557 mouse. Do not get those mouse that require a USB wireless receiver because the tablet may not have a USB port, but almost all support Bluetooth connection.
So which one should you get?
Best drawing experience
Probably the Wacom MobileStudio Pro. Wacom is the industry leader when it comes to manufacturing graphics tablet. The MobileStudio Pro is out to compete with Surface Pro 4 head to head. Wacom has one significant advantage though, which is their ability to make their pen work flawlessly on screen without any of the jitter problems commonly faced by other tablets.
Fastest and powerful for those with bigger budget
The quad-core Vaio Z Canvas is the fastest followed by Surface Pro 4. Since they have more powerful processor, their battery life aren't the best. Also they have fans so you may hear them blowing out hot air, especially so for SP4.
Toshiba dynaPad is the lightest at 576g. Stylus is included by Keyboard is not. So you can get your own Bluetooth keyboard which I feel is better that way. Downside is it max out at 4GB RAM and 64GB storage. The next lightest is Huawei Matebook at 640g before the bundled keyboard is included. SP4 is 786g by the way.
Vaio Z Canvas's screen support up to 95% Adobe RGB. Wacom MobileStudio Pro has 94% Adobe RGB. Next up is Samsung TabPro S with 86.6% Adobe RGB. Surface Pro 4 is also quite impressive with a 100% sRGB screen.
Vaio Z Canvas has 2x USB 3, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, SDcard, Ethernet
Cheapest for the budget conscious
Toshiba dynaPad (4GB RAM, 64GB storage) official retail is USD $569 and comes with a stylus. Lenovo Miix (4GB RAM, 64GB storage) is around USD $700 and the $40 stylus is not included.
Prices can change quite fast, so just visit the links I've provided to check the latest price (and reviews) on Amazon.
Samsung TabPro S uses Intel m3-6Y30 dual-core 0.9Ghz that max out at 2.2Ghz. The next faster processor used is the dual-core 1.2Ghz that max out at 3.1Ghz. Samsung TabPro S does not have a stylus out yet so we can't determine if there's going to be lag when drawing digitally.
Most well designed
From all the reviews I've read, all these tablets seem quite well built. The Toshiba dynaPad probably is more stylish. Anyway, they are all tablets so the design is not going to be too extreme.
Best battery life
Both Samsung TabPro S and ASUS Transformer T300 Chi have the best battery life around 7-8 hours. It's usually going to be less when you're using it for drawing. Unfortunately for other brands, their battery life varies from 4 to 6 hours.