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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Review: a portable art studio

Surface Pro 2 review

by Tablets for Artists

surface-pro-2-review-1

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 with 128GB

 

TYPE OF TABLET

The Surface Pro 2 is a slate tablet PC that runs Windows 8.1 and Metro Apps.

 

FEATURES

The Surface Pro 2 and original Surface Pro have gained popularity among digital artists because of their portability and versatility. The original Surface Pro is similar, though with less battery life (see it on Amazon).

The Pro 2 weighs 2 pounds and features a Wacom digitizer offering 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. This tablet slate’s portability, fast processor, and the fact that you can add a real keyboard has led many to use the Pro as an all-in-one replacement for a laptop, Cintiq, iPad, and even desktop, since if you get the HDMI out accessory, you can hook up another monitor, or a TV if you want to watch your computer screen on TV, to the Surface Pro. As an art tablet PC, does the Surface Pro 2 deliver professional results, and does it help or hinder creativity?

The build of the Surface Pro is comfortingly solid and strong. The design is sleek. The Gorilla Glass is strong and has held up well in drop tests. MS didn’t cut corners here, this machine is built to last. The Surface Pro a flagship device. The form factor makes it. It’s actually slightly thinner than the Ipad3. Turning on the Surface Pro 2 is different from a lot of Windows computers in that it’s fast.  Its powerful Intel chip and solid state drive makes bootup under 10 seconds.

There is a single USB3 port. A micro SD card slot allows you to add 64GB of storage. It has Bluetooth 4.0, and dual 2×2 MIMO antennas for fast Internet connection.

The vents are on side, not back, so you can put it down on a soft surface, though it’s better to let air circulate around it. The cooling fan is pretty quiet.

It also has HDMI port, so you could have 3 or more screens. You can add a micro SD card for more RAM. Palm rejection favors the stylus, so if you put your hand down it it will not, for instance, give you a print of your hand.

Other specs: The Intel 4th Generation TM i5, 10.6 hi-def 1920 x 1080 widescreen, 10 touch points, 128 GB storage, 4 GB memory, micro SD card reader, headphone jack, mini display port output, one usb 3.0 port, Bluetooth, battery life about 6 hours.

IThe 256 GB hard drive model is better, but the 128GB should do for most digital artists.

 

surface-pro-2-with-keyboard11

 

WHAT’S INCLUDED

The Pro 2 comes with a Surface Pen,  built-in kickstand, two built-in cameras, power supply, Quickstart guide, safety and warranty documents.

The included kickstand is a really convenient item that lets you prop up the Pro on your desk, bed, or lap. You can watch movies while taking  a break from all that work.  The kickstand offers three positions (the first Surface Pro kickstand has just one).

The Pro 2 comes with a stylus but no keyboard besides the on-screen keyboard. You can purchase a Type or Touch Cover or use any Bluetooth keyboard.

 

FOR LEFTIES

The Pro can be a bit of a hassle for southpaws. The controls are all on the right, and flipping the tablet over will just flip the controls along with it. So lefties might not want to use the multitouch feature that allows you to use the screen with your hands alone, but instead use a keyboard.

 

STYLUS

The stylus it comes with is standard and good for writing and drawing. But for the best art experience, I recommend a stylus such as the Wacom Bamboo, which feels more solid and weighty (not too weighty–sort of like using an expensive pen vs. a ballpoint). The stylus input is accurate, except at the edges of the screen, which seems to be common across Wacom digitizers. But it’s not a big deal, because you can move the drawing around, and of course zoom in to the parts of the drawing you’re working on. The button on the stylus provides a right-click function. The bottom end of the stylus is an eraser.  (how many levels) The stylus attaches to the charger port via a magnet, but can easily come loose, and you have no built-in place to park it while charging. It’s a good idea to have designated places you keep your stylus while charging the computer.

 

SOFTWARE

You can use whatever you want, full programs for Windows to Metro Apps and even games. Photoshop, Illustrator, In Design and Maya all run fine. Because of the screen’s high resolution, the icons are a bit small in some programs, and text display is not always great. The fact is that some software, particularly word processing, is not ready for HD screens. The issue is more on the Adobe side of things, because it’s now the software that needs to catch up to the hardware.

You can use Metro Apps from the Windows Store as well. If you are using a Metro app that has small text, right-click on the app’s icon, go to properties, then to compatibility, and check the box to change the DPI scaling, meaning the resolution.

Apps tend to only cost a couple dollars, and some art apps such as Fresh Paint are good for sketching.

This 4 GB machine is fine for all these programs and even gaming, though an upgrade to the 8GB model would be better.

Because the Pro is a slate, and only about a half-inch thick, there is no disk drive. Disk drives have become a rarity even on laptops.You can get software by downloading onto the computer, or if you have it on disk,  you will need an external disk drive to load the software onto the computer. When you buy software as a download, if you need to download it again, you usually can.

One artist noted that in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, the Color Picker tool did not work. She found that the solution was to change the screen magnification from the default 150% to 125%, which made text tiny, but made the Color Picker work. Hope Autodesk raises the program’s resolution.

 

SCREEN

The Gorilla Glass screen is glossy, not matte like the Cintiq. It lacks the slight bite like the Cintiq, and instead feels sort of like drawing on smooth paper, it’s more slippery. The pen glides over it. It’s fun to write, and you can use One Note.

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CONTROLS

The on-screen keyboard offers good accuracy and pops up reliably when you need it, but I prefer a real keyboard. Drawing on the Pro is pleasant. If you like using keyboard shortcuts, you can lay the keyboard down and have the tablet on your drawing table. Or use the express keys. I particularly enjoy using Sketchbook Pro as it’s very intuitive.

 

 

 

BATTERY LIFE

Battery life is an excellent 7 to 10 hours, compared to the original Surface Pro’s short life of 2 to 6 depending on what the user is doing.

 

 

CONSUMER REVIEWS AND RATINGS

Many have penned a Surface Pro 2 review. Many users loved it. People taking notes liked One Note. Artists were able to get good results with the software. Most didn’t feel the smaller icons were much of  a problem but it did really bother some people. The Surface Pro 2 has a longer battery life of 7 hours.

Some complained that the stylus is in the charger port and comes loose easily when carrying the computer. That it runs warm to hot bothered some. Others did not have this problem. A fair amount of machines seemed to be faulty. Don’t hesitate to return your Pro if something doesn’t work.

Some professional artists decided to stop using Cintiq because this is more versatile and portable. Others prefer the Cintiq’s larger screen and matte finish. (I think having both is ideal–the Cintiq for home and a tablet PC for travel).

 

Pros

solid, durable build, sleek and attractive design

highly portable

fast versatile, runs full Windows plus Metro apps

beautiful HD display

One Note good for note-taking

kickstand makes it easy to prop up and keeps you from having to hold it a lot

comes with OneDrive cloud storage

has Wifi and Bluetooth so you can add a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard, headphones etc.

HDMI port makes it so you can have 3 or more screens

Feasibly can take the place of an Ipad, a Cintiq, and a laptop or desktop

 

Cons

Because of the HD screen, text can appear fuzzy in some apps, and icons small in some art programs. Hopefully the software will soon catch up to a more compatible resolution.

Small size can feel cramped

Digitizer doesn’t work well in corners (this seems to be an issue across Wacom products, including the Cintiq).

Has two Webcams, neither of them are very high quality

Left-handers may get aggravated using multitouch, since all controls are on the right. (Righties may not fare well with multitouch either, I don’t use it myself, I use the keyboard or a stylus to navigate)

Cannot change to larger hard drive

Stylus attaches magnetically to charger port, but falls out easily

Only one USB port (you can add a hub, and use Bluetooth, which cuts down on the need for a lot of USBs)

Trackpad a bit difficult, according to some

 

If you buy a lot of accessories, including the Type Pad cover, a slip case, and a Bamboo stylus, you may instead want to consider the Cintiq Companion, 256 GB model, the first truly mobile Cintiq; it’s a Windows computer that’s a Cintiq all in one, with all the art goodies of the Cintiq such as Rocker Ring and Express keys, and a 13.3-inch HD screen.

 

For art, a Wacom Bamboo stylus would be better than the basic pen that comes with the Surface Pro 2. The Wacom Bamboo Stylus comes in Black and Carbon. I suggest the Black.

 

THE VERDICT

Drawing right on the screen is a great boon to most digital artists, and this is miles above an Intuos or Bamboo non-screen tablet. It’s similar to the Samsung Ativ, but has more levels of pressure sensitivity. If you need a large screen, then it’s probably not for you, but otherwise, I do think this is an excellent affordable solution for professional artists as well as hobbyists. It’s nice-looking, useful for everything, and even comes with a year of Skype unlimited calls. It can take the place of a laptop, iPad, and Cintiq.

The original Surface Pro, though the battery life is not very good, most other features are comparable to the Surface Pro 2, so for around $600 you can get a very good all-in-one art tablet with a year warranty.

 

Microsoft Surface Pro Tablet (128 GB Hard Drive, 4 GB RAM, Windows 8 Pro)

 

The Microsoft Surface and Surface RT (without the “Pro”) computers are not powerful enough to effectively run Photoshop, only apps. Most professional artists will want a more powerful system that can run Adobe Creative Suite.

 

 

Accessories (docking station type cover 2, arc mouse, power cover)

No Surface Pro 2 review would be complete without discussing some of the accessories. While the computer is ready to use out of the box, certain add-ons will make your art experience more positive. You probably won’t want to hunt and peck only on-screen, so a keyboard is a good addition. The Touch and Type Covers attach to the Pro and are made specially for it. They come in a rainbow of colors, including basic black. I recommend the Type Cover, as it’s easier to type on. Or you can use any Bluetooth keyboard. The Power Cover extends your battery life by several hours.  A docking station is quite convenient.

You might want a mouse, too, though you can be stylus-only.

Type Cover 2 (comes in various colors)

Microsoft Surface Touch Cover Keyboard | Black (compatible with Surface Pro 2)

Wacom Bamboo Feel Stylus for Microsoft Surface Pro 1 and 2 and tablets with Feel technology

 

end of Surface Pro 2 review

Read our Surface Pro 3 review.

 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review: Good-bye Wacom, hello N-trig pen

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Surface Pro 3 with N-trig pen

 

Surface Pro 3 Review

by Tablets for Artists

 

TYPE OF TABLET

Tablet PC hybrid (slate tablet with detachable keyboard, runs full Windows 8.1) This Surface Pro 3 review is for the 4GB/128GB model.

 

Features

11.5 x 7.93 x .36 inches, with a 12-inch display 2160 x 1440 px resolution.

The kickstand now allows you to adjust it to 135 degrees–basically to any angle, including flat.

64-bit

Now in attractive aluminum color rather than black.

N-trig pen with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity.

Keyboard sold separately.

Weight 1.2 lbs. without keyboard.

Dimensions 0.36 x 11.50 x 7.93 inches.

 

surface-pro-3-kickstand

Tablet

 

The larger screen of 12″ is a major step forward for artmaking. The workspace doesn’t feel so cramped. The 3:2 aspect ratio instead of 16:9 is closer to a regular sheet of paper as well as to the artist’s traditional ideal of the Golden Mean, and lets you use portrait mode more intuitively.

The tablet is also considerably thinner and lighter than the Pro 1 and 2. The Pro i and 2’s Wacom digitizers require another layer of innards, adding more thickness. Using N-trig plays into Microsoft’s strategy of competing with Apple–the Surface Pro 3 is lighter than the MacBook Air. The Pro 3 is also now competing with the Cintiq Companion using N-trig.

Photoshop’s menus have been given magnification that you can turn on and off. Problem is, it only covers certain menu items, so unless you only use those specific items, you might want to go back to the regular menus, which show up small. Adobe has still not worked out an ideal way to get menus to display well on a high-resolution screen.

The trackpad on the new Type Cover 3 (optional) is much better than on the Type Cover 2. It’s larger and making a right-click isn’t a chore. If you don’t want to purchase the Type Cover, you can use any Bluetooth or USB keyboard.

Because of the higher screen resolution, the computer needs to work harder, and as more than one artist noted in a Surface Pro 3 review, the i5 processor can feel sluggish when using Photoshop. Penny Arcade artist Gabe has worked the with Microsoft Surface Pro 3 team in improving the artist experience.  Even though Gabe complains of pen lag even in the i7, we’re impressed that Microsoft is listening to the arts community and continues to tweak it.

Update: here is a link to the i7 model, which wasn’t out yet when we wrote this review.

 

surface-pro-3-review-portrait

Portability

At 1.8 pounds, about 2.4 pounds with Type Cover and pen, this versatile machine is very portable.

 

For lefties

MS moved the Windows key over to the right bezel, so lefties holding the tablet in their left hand may hit the Windows key by accident and end up at the home screen. On the other hand, it may be easier for southpaws to hit the Windows key by using their right hand when not holding the tablet; they no longer have to use their main hand.

You can choose left or right-handedness writing  “hand” (without the quote marks) in Search (to get to that, swipe from the right of the screen). A search result will appear and prompt you to specify which hand you use to write.

The Surface Pro 3 pen will also work on the Surface 3  (release date May, 2015).

 

Pen

The most striking news for artists is that the 3 does not use Wacom digitizers. Instead, it uses an N-trig pen, which requires 3 batteries–a AAAA battery for the pen, which supposedly can last thousands of hours, and are also cheap to replace, and two batteries for the Bluetooth. So now you need to worry about batteries.

The metal Premium Pen certainly looks nicer than the plastic Wacom ones, but is heavier and if you draw for many hours on end, fatigue can set in. The N-trig pen is metal because it takes a battery, not just for looks.

On the bright side, the N-trig doesn’t have the issues of jitter at the edges that the magnetic-resonance Wacom digitizers have. You can draw smoothly all the way up to the edges. Also, there is almost no parallax. There is a much smaller space between the pen and your line than there is with Wacom. So the experience is closer to using a pencil and paper. Pen accuracy is greater. The other big difference about the N-trig system is that there are only 256 levels of pressure sensitivity–that’s as few as the early tablet PCs had. It’s far less than the norm of 2,048 today. But oddly, it makes little difference. You only need more than 256 levels of pressure if your brush is larger than 256 levels, because that is the largest your mark is going to get no matter how high you press it. You can hover-click the pen, but you need to hold it closer than you do with Wacom.

For a detailed discussion, read this article about N-trig vs. Wacom.

Unlike the Cintiq, the eraser does not have pressure sensitivity, and the pen does not have tilt sensitivity. So it’s not quite as advanced, but it’s considerably cheaper than a Cintiq Companion, and you can do almost anything that you can do on the Cintiq Companion or other Cintiqs.

We noted that when holding the pen at a near-perpendicular angle (something we normally don’t do), the pen would not make a mark. Also, you have to press considerably harder to make a mark than with the Wacom system. On the bright side, there is nearly no parallax, meaning no distance from the pen to the line, and no edge jitter, so in that aspect the N-trig beats Wacom and feels closer to pencil and paper.

Here’s a little sketch done in Fresh Paint. You can see the effects of the pressure sensitivity.

 

microsoft-art-tablet

 

Many have complained that when drawing a diagonal line slowly, you get a jagged line. This is because the N-trig digitizer is arranged on a grid. This is an annoying problem and could be a dealbreaker. But if you want to use the Surface Pro 3, here are some solutions:

-draw a straight line, select the line, and rotate it.

-use Manga Studio, which has line smoothing and fixes the issue.

-use Lazy Nezumi, an app that gives you line smoothing. It has a Photoshop plugin, or you can do it canvas by canvas in other programs. It has a 30-day free trial, and is fairly affordable to buy.

-get a Surface Pro or Surface Pro 2 instead, since those have Wacom digitizers.

What’s Included

Windows 8.1 Microsoft Surface Pro 3 4GB/128GB Power Supply, N-trig pen, batteries, documentation.

CONTROLS

The charger now slips into a thin slot and is much easier to use than on the Surface 2. The power brick, like the 2, still comes with an extra USB port you can use to charge a phone. There is a now a known Surface Pro 3 Wifi issue on some types of networks and I expect Microsoft will release an update to fix this. The Windows button has been moved to the right.

surface pro 3-power-port

 

Software

You install Wintab drivers and they now work with Creative Suite. You can use any program you can want, such as Photoshop, Maya, etc., though ZBrush is not supported. You can use full graphics programs as well as apps such as Fresh Paint and Sketchbook Express from the Metro store.

 

 

Customer ratings and reviews

We have read many comments and articles by artists and have tried to include important info here. Amazon users were very positive, though they aren’t all using it to create digital art. Overall, customers are happy with this, and many artists are, too.

 

PROS

Larger screen

9 hour battery life, more like if you use large graphics programs

Clicking on the pen opens One Note

Easy to connect the power

Larger Type Cover with 68% larger trackpad

Can replace a desktop, laptop, and tablet Runs full Windows

No parallax when using pen

 

 

CONS

Near-perpendicular pen angles do not leave a mark

drawing slow, diagonal lines causes jitter for many people

must press harder to make a mark than with Wacom pen

drawing fast can result in missed short lines not showing up, and gaps

kickstand not comfortable in lap due to sharp edge, so put the computer  on top of a book or something

no tilt sensitivity

eraser lacks pressure sensitivity

Wifi issues on some networks

Zbrush not supported

You can’t flip the pen over to use the eraser, now you have to click one of the buttons on the pen. This can be easy to do by accident and if you’re not careful you might end up erasing your drawing.

Screen sometimes flickers and dims, it’s the computer trying to not heat up. It can run hot.

TIP: There are two ways to shut off the auto-dim feature: Control Panel –> Power Option –> click on Change Advanced Power Option –> Scroll down to Display –> turn off Enable adaptive brightness Or PC Settings -> PC and devices -> Power and sleep, shut off the “Adjust my screen brightness automatically” option

 

THE VERDICT

This is a very versatile machine a The new screen size is great.  If you are a 3D artist, currently, Zbrush is not supported as of yet. The lagginess is annoying and I’d get the i7 model when it comes out.  Microsoft is definitely listening to artists, and they plan in the next iteration to put in a customized pressure curve, which will allow more control over brushes. Also, the user won’t have to download the Wintab driver. For more info, read this post on the Surface blog.

Once these fixes are in, this could be much closer to a great art tablet. However, I have to say I prefer Wacom to N-trig. The N-trig requires more initial activation force and is thus less sensitive, there’s an incongruity in having to press fairly hard to make a delicate little line. But we know art supplies are all different and the hand can get used to the tool.  If I had to choose between a Pro 2 and 3 I’d get the 3 (but wait til the i7 processor comes out). A Cintiq is still a bit better art tablet, but less portable, and the Cintiq Companion is more expensive.

The N-trig pen does handwriting very well, and has no edge jitter, edge drift, or parallax, so in that sense it’s an improvement, but perhaps these are more important in writing than drawing. I still find the Wacom pen more sensitive to my hand, and this isn’t due to pressure sensitivity but just to the force it takes to make a mark, and the fact that you can hold the Wacom pen at any angle. Even quickly drawn strokes will show up with Wacom, there won’t be any smoothing. It really depends how you draw. It’s worth trying out the Surface Pro 3 to see if it fits your style. If not, the Surface Pro 2, now sold online only, has a Wacom digitizer and  is now at a lower price.

Here’s a video about the Surface Pro 2 vs. Surface Pro 3.

 

Surface Pro 3 on Amazon

 

Optional Accessories

 

Type Cover

The Type Cover 3 connects by a hinge. The keys are backlit and there’s a handy pen holder attached to the side. Typing on it is comfortable.

 

type-cover-3-review

 

 

This Microsoft Surface Pro 3 dock for the SP3 can make life a lot easier.

surface-pro-3-docking-station

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Surface 3 Type Cover comes in some pretty nice colors.

 

joto screen protector

 

 

 

 

 

A matte screen protector not only keeps your screen from scratches, it can enhance your drawing experience by giving the smooth screen a bit of tooth, giving you greater control.

 

Read our Surface 3 review.

Read our Surface Pro 2 Review.

End of Surface Pro 3 Review