My husband B gave me a really awesome early birthday present - a brand new Surface Pro 3! I've had it for nearly a month now, and I imagine someone might find my thoughts on it useful, especially since there are so few reviews dealing with it from an artist's point of view. The short answer is that it's a pretty awesome drawing device.
To give you a little bit of background, I'm a hobby artist who takes her hobby very seriously. I've been drawing on a Cintiq 21UX for years, and when I travel, I take my trusty old Intuos 3 tablet with me. I use the Adobe suite extensively, and I do all my digital drawing in Photoshop. Ever since I decided to focus on my sculpting a couple of years ago, the Cintiq's been gathering dust, but drawing is something that I've been itching to get back into.
We'd been considering getting me a new laptop for a while now, as my old Macbook Pro is well over three years old and not performing as well as it used to. B was dead set on getting me a portable drawing device, as drawing live at conventions has always been one of my (impractical) dreams. We'd checked out the Surface Pro 2 and the Wacom lineup (with the Companion being the only viable option), but neither seemed to really fit the bill. The Surface Pro 2 has a weird form factor (really long and narrow), not really suited to drawing, and the Companion is pretty bulky and expensive for what you get. So when the Surface Pro 3 launched last month, we studied the specs, tested one out at the Microsoft store, and then decided to take the plunge and get one!
You can read other reviews for information on general performance - I want to talk about my experiences with drawing on it. First of all, the Surface Pro 3 is about the size of a sheet of paper, so it's a nice size for drawing on. After I got Photoshop installed and got over the surprise of the UI being absolutely tiny, I had a blast sketching away. I know a lot of people were worried when Microsoft switched from a Wacom digitizer to Ntrig, but I don't need thousands of levels of pressure sensitivity, and the pen handles just fine. It feels good in my hand too, being just a little bit weighty. I really wish I could reprogram the buttons on the side and top of the pen, especially in Photoshop, because I like having an easily accessible undo button and I was definitely missing that as I worked. Anyway, sketching was fun - I came up with a couple of sketches the first night and decided I ought to work one to completion. My general workflow is sketch, line, color, shade, and lining is where I ran into a big problem.
The issue with using standard Photoshop on the SP3 is that the SP3 really encourages you to treat it like a sketchpad, but Photoshop isn't tuned for working with a touchscreen. So I really want to fold the keyboard out of the way and hold the screen on my lap, but then there's no way to easily zoom or pan without clicking on the magnifying tool or the scroll bars. It was right when I was getting ready to line my sketch that I found myself missing those side buttons on the Cintiq - I felt crippled without the keyboard, but I didn't want to have to swap my SP3 into laptop mode. I should be able to use it like a drawing pad, darn it! It is super frustrating to have a touchscreen, but for Photoshop to not be touch-enabled. Adobe demoed their upcoming touch-enabled version of Photoshop back when the SP3 was announced, but it wasn't yet live so I felt stuck. I'd made my first sketch in a single evening, but after several attempts at trying to line it without touch control, I put the SP3 down and ignored it. A couple weeks passed, and B started asking if we should return the device. I felt really bad about this. I wanted to like it, but I wasn't able to use it.
After sulking about for entirely too long with no further news from Adobe, I did some digging online and found out that you can enable the new Photoshop features by going to Edit -> Preferences -> Experimental Features. I checked the options to scale the UI up by 200% (a must on the SP3's high density display) and to turn on the touch gestures, and oh my goodness! What a difference it made! This was the drawing experience that I'd been looking for.
B's workplace is very concerned with the concept of 'delight'. They want their customers to feel delighted when they use the company's services, which I've always scoffed a bit at, because payroll and accounting are absolutely not delightful concepts to me. However, I was very surprised to find myself delighted with Photoshop's touch features. When drawing directly on a surface, it is a must to have an easy way to zoom and pan, and the touch controls make this easy and intuitive. I can't imagine working efficiently without these options available - I sure as heck was not working efficiently without them earlier. I love being able to easily rotate my image with a twist of two fingers. This is something that I never did on the Cintiq as I'd not had enough side buttons available to add that as a hotkeyed option. Once I had touch controls working, I was able to work much faster and managed finish my image with minimal use of a keyboard. It was a joy to draw, and that's not something that I've felt in a long time.
So there you have it. With Photoshop's touch controls enabled, the Surface Pro 3 is a delight to draw on. The pen handles well, the device itself is small, light and powerful, and the 8-9 hour battery life is really impressive. Microsoft seems to be going after the artist niche, and as an artist, I welcome that! Plus, I definitely got cool kid points for drawing in public on this thing. It's not the perfect drawing device... but I don't think it's any use holding out for the one perfect device, especially since I needed a new computer anyway. I look forward to drawing much more often with my Surface Pro 3, and I certainly hope that my next picture will take less than a month to complete!
Yeah, I drew a picture of my self with the SP3 pen. I'm a big dork.
Yeah, I drew a picture of my self with the SP3 pen. I'm a big dork.
I have a couple little quibbles, but I don't think any of them are dealbreakers. The Windows home button is very inconveniently placed and I found myself hitting it by accident several times while sketching, which would kick me back to the Metro home screen. Jarring, but easily fixed. Also, sometimes the eraser button on the side of the pen would get stuck and I'd erase where I was trying to draw. It wasn't much trouble to dislodge the button, step back and correct, but still irritating that it would happen at all. And every once in a while, Photoshop fails with the palm recognition and jumps me around the page. I think this is an issue with PS, not the SP3 and fortunately it didn't happen all that often. I also think that when you take everything into account, these issues are forgivable, plus it sounds like Microsoft might put out a fix for that Windows home button at some point.
Here are some other resources that you might find useful
Ray Frenden's review compares the Surface Pro 3 to the Cintiq Companion and is very comprehensive
Gabe, of Penny Arcade, has a couple of intriguing review posts on the SP3: One, Two
I also found the Surface Pro Artist blog very helpful