Artist Review: Microsoft Surface Book by illustrator Magge Gagliardi

This review is written by Magge Gagliardi.

Hello, my name is Magge Gagliardi. I am a professional illustrator, designer and professor. I recently purchased the new Microsoft Surface Book. I have only had it for about a month now but so far I am very impressed.


Contents of original box - Surface Book, Surface Pen, Power Adaptor

Transition from Mac to Windows
Before purchasing the Surface Book I had always worked on a Mac. My setup consisted of my MacBook Pro (which is about 7 years old now), Wacom Intuos tablet and a larger monitor. I have always struggled with the disconnect in working on a tablet below and having the image appear on the screen in front. Within the last year I have made the switch to working almost exclusively digital and decided it was time to find a set up that I could really adapt to. I take on a variety of work including illustration, graphic design and scenic design projects. I needed a product that I can use on a job from start to finish and the capability to work on site as well as in my home studio.

With my previous setup I have always found sketching to be the hardest thing to do digitally without direct contact with the screen. I have an iPad mini which has served its purpose for quick on the go doodles but is impossible to do real client work on. The main programs I use are Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator which most tablets cannot run. The Surface Book is fully capable of running the programs that I need to do my work. It has proven to be a complete studio in one product. The lightweight portability of the Surface Book allows me to take it anywhere. The best part about it is that I no longer have to cart around an entire set up of laptop, tablet, cords, etc. Having the ability to do actual client work and have access to all of my files anywhere I go has been a great advantage.


Disconnecting the screen and working in tablet mode has been a positive experience. It is extremely easy to sketch on. The 13.5 inch screen is a great size and the resolution is amazing. I have found myself using Photoshop to it's full potential and it is now where I do all my preliminary sketching and design work. I then transfer my sketches directly into Illustrator where I build the final product. In the past I would draw by hand on paper and have to scan the image in or take a picture and email it to myself. For finalized illustrations I mostly work in vector in Illustrator which has also been smooth with the exception that the pen tool points are a little small and it is sometimes hard to grab the handles. I have been able to adjust to this and although I have not had to yet, I do have the option of hooking the Surface Book up to my large monitor if I feel the need to work bigger. In that case I can also install my Wacom tablet as well. Currently, my entire work process now takes place directly on the Surface Book cutting out the extra steps I used to have to take. There is also the option of working in touchscreen, simplified versions of Photoshop and Illustrator when in tablet mode. I only use this when sketching in Photoshop when the tablet is not docked.

Surface Pen
The Surface Pen itself is an awesome tool. It is the same pen used with the Surface Pro 4 and runs on a single AAAA battery. It is paired to the Surface Book via bluetooth. I only use the pen, the touch pad or touch screen as of now. I have found no need for a mouse.



Surface Pen Tip Kit

There are also additional tips you can purchase of varying type such as 2H or HB pencil for example. The pen's pressure sensitivity is on point allowing me to change line weight and value with the varying pressure of the pen. It is also lightweight and close to the feel of working with a normal pen or pencil. It also has an eraser button on the back of the pen. There is little to no lag making the experience enjoyable. Typically the stroke appears directly under the pen although sometimes when shading the stroke takes a little time to catch up. It is also magnetic and attaches to the side of the screen which makes it hard to misplace. The two finger zoom on screen is helpful when working on my illustrations, bringing two fingers together zooms in and apart zooms out. Between the Surface Pen and the zoom versatility I can get in closer than ever before making sure that I hit every detail.


Surface Pen size comparison


Diagonal lines with the Surface Pen in Photoshop


Slow and fast vertical and diagonal line strokes with the Surface Pen in Photoshop


Various lines, weight orientation of stroke in Photoshop with the Surface Pen

In the short time that I have worked on the Surface Book I have cut my work time in half. For me, the hands on approach has allowed me to work faster and more efficiently. It is especially helpful now with the amount of client work that comes during the holiday season. The hardest thing to adjust to has been going from the OSX operating system to Windows 10 and also the fact of having a right click, but I have been able to adapt and am really getting the hang of the whole layout.


Sketch in Photoshop (full version) in tablet mode

One thing I did have to get as an addition to the Surface Book is an external keyboard. I use this when I am working on the screen in docked or tablet mode as the screen itself covers the full keyboard. Despite the fact of the digital on screen keyboard I need access to shortcuts and using the keys in sync with the Surface Pen. It has easily solved the problem at hand. In tablet mode when the screen is not docked you do not have access to the full keyboard and shortcuts. The USB ports are not on the tablet itself but on the keyboard base. This makes it a little complicated to use Photoshop and Illustrator fully and as quickly. However it is perfectly fine for sketching and preliminary work.


External Windows keyboard


My Current work setup - Surface Book (in docked mode), Surface Pen and external keyboard. Pictured in Adobe Illustrator (full version).


In my time adjusting to the Surface Book there have been a few points that can be improved on. It can only run the most recent versions of the Adobe Suite, Adobe CC. When it is initially installed the most noticeable flaw is that the tool bars and layer panels are absurdly small and almost impossible to read and or work in. This is something that is only adjustable in the CC version. I was able to correct this issue in both programs allowing it to show the toolbars and everything else at their appropriate sizes. As of now the CC programs have run well but on the rare occasion they do freeze I do have to restart as the only solution. So regardless what you are working with it is always important, especially as an artist to constantly save and make sure to backup your work.


I have found that the battery life is good when it is in laptop mode at around, however, as warned when purchasing the Surface Book, it is much less during tablet mode, and even less when in tablet mode while running Photoshop or Illustrator. I am constantly working in these programs so I drain the battery fairly quickly. I would estimate around three hours in tablet mode running these programs and four in tablet mode without running them. In normal laptop mode I would estimate the battery life to be around seven hours, six while running the programs. It is good to note that the Surface Book is a bit top heavy in laptop mode. It does not extend far from a 90 degree angle, however this is not something that has bothered me as my main concern has been its tablet mode capabilities for doing my artwork.


Surface Book in laptop mode in its full extension with view of charger port (SurfaceConnect) and Mini Display Port


Close up view of the hinge and SurfaceConnect

I am not the most tech savvy person and have never had to deal with PC issues having always worked on a Mac. I have had help from others on how to correct issues that have come up. One point being that there seems to be some glitches drivers which especially have come into play when browsing the internet. Apparently Windows has begun to come up with solutions for this problem. Another issue I have encountered is that the Surface Book struggles to come out of sleep mode at times often forcing me to restart all together.

Deciding against Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro 4

In making the decision to purchase the 256 GB Surface Book over another product I made sure to do research. Before the Surface Book came out I was considering purchasing a Cintiq Companion. One major factor that pushed me towards the Surface Book was that it was a laptop as well. I was going to have to purchase laptop regardless due to my MacBook Pro getting up in its years. I figured I would go with the product that had everything I needed in one. Otherwise I would have purchased a new MacBook Pro on top of the Cintiq Companion.

I had tried out the Surface Pro 3 and 4 but I really wanted the full laptop capabilities. From a teaching perspective this is extremely important to be able to access student files, grades and other documents on the same machine that I can give digital drawing or painting demos in class on. I went with the Surface Book with more space to keep of with the variety of work that I do. After all the initial major software was installed (and working on it for a month) I have used up 42GB of the 256GB. Another point that I noted earlier was the screen size. It is larger on the Surface Book at 13.5 inches in comparison to the MacBook Pro at 13 inches and the Surface Pro 4 at 12. 3 inches. This slight size difference it actually very noticeable.

The screen itself is glass. It is smooth but I find it easy to work on. The small rubber tip of the Surface Pen works well on it. There hasn't been any scuffing or drag. The palm rejection has been fine so far, especially with me being left handed and always hitting the wrong thing. There is also an option to set up the Surface Pen to a left handed setting in which all the toolbars are placed on the right which is helpful. I make sure to clean off the screen as much as possible but unless the screen is off or in direct sunlight you cannot see any smudges. The high definition has been very clear to work with. So far I haven't seen any issue with color reproduction for the web. I have yet to have any of my illustrations printed however.

I still maintain my old set up as a backup or if I feel the need to work on a larger scale. I kept the MacBook Pro as it still contains a lot of my client files (which are also backed up on an external hard drive). The MacBook Pro is slower these days due to its age. The Surface Book is extremely fast in comparison. I feel that both machines perform well for what I am doing. The main difference between the Surface Book and the MacBook Pro is that the Surface Book allows me to work directly on the screen. There is a button which you hold down on the keyboard that releases the screen and enters into tablet mode. You can then use it as just a tablet or you can flip it around and dock it in reverse back onto the keyboard. When you do this the table covers the keyboard (hence the need for an external one) but it allows you to work in tablet mode while maintaining access to the two USB ports and charger port. This allows me to charge while working. Without the tablet aspect I feel that both the MacBook Pro and the Surface Book are very similar. The Surface Book looks and feels more like a Mac design that any other PC I have seen.


Release Button for screen detachment. Hold down until it says “Ready to Detach”, detached screen in working tablet mode


Detached keyboard revealing prongs which connect to the tablet


Tablet connection to keyboard


Tablet reversed and docked on keyboard at angle


Tablet closed

Overall I am very pleased with the Surface Book and am going to continue working on it. There are more pros than cons as far as I am concerned. The more I work on it the more comfortable I feel with it and am very happy with the art I have been able to create. I think this is a great product for a working artist who is also their own business. It has makes it possible to bring your studio wherever you go and create the caliber or art that you need.

Additional Photos


Headset Jack and USB and SD card reader


Outward facing camera and inward facing camera


SurfaceConnect charger attaches to the right side of the keyboard

Pros and Cons at a glance

+ Can run full desktop software
+ Lightweight (3.34 pounds, 1.51kg)
+ High resolution 13.5 inch screen (3000 by 2000 pixels)
+ Very fast system. SSD storage.
+ Additional tips (sold separately) for Surface Pen for different feel on screen
+ Default tip has good friction against the glass screen
+ Surface Pen has pressure sensitivity (1024 levels)
+ Eraser at back of Surface Pen
+ No parallax when drawing on screen
+ Palm rejection works fine so far
+ No lag typically, except when shading
+ Surface Pen attaches magnetically to the screen
+ 2 USB3 ports, SD card reader, MiniDisplay port
- Surface Pen uses AAAA battery
- Slow diagonal lines are (still) slightly wobbly
- When you reverse the screen, it will cover the keyboard, so you need an extra keyboard for shortcuts
- Can only run latest version of Adobe Suite, Adobe CC.
- Default size of Adobe Suite controls, tool bars are extremely small, but adjustable.
- Occasionally crash of Adobe Suite software (so save often!)
- Battery life in tablet-alone mode is around 3 hours when running graphics software
- Battery life in laptop mode is around 7 hours estimated
- The screen does not extend far beyond 90 degree angle
- Surface Book struggles to come out of sleep mode at times
- Windows OS takes up 20GB installation space

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