Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review

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For over ten years, I had worked with Wacom graphics tablets to create my art digitally.  While I love Wacom products and their performance, the inherent disconnect between drawing on a bit of plastic below my monitor has always been an issue for me. Last year, my career exploded and I had to upgrade.  I had gone full time freelance, taking on more paid art jobs than I ever had in my life, and I found myself traveling cross country several times a year on top of that.  I needed a drawing solution that was more streamlined than my laptop/tablet combo, and that could handle the kinds of high resolution comic pages I needed to throw at it for work.  Wacom makes a traveling tablet called the Cintiq Companion, but at nearly $2000, price was definitely a problem.  I needed a mobile solution that would run production quality software and for a price that wouldn’t break me.

And then I heard about the Surface Pro. (Thanks, Doug!)

What is the Surface Pro?

If you haven’t seen the pile of commercials on TV, the Microsoft Surface is a tablet computer that can function as a tablet or a laptop depending if you attach the magnetic keyboard (which costs extra).  With the keyboard on, it works a laptop, but with the keyboard off, it feels like a tablet.  It also comes with a pressure sensitive pen that can be used for writing or drawing.

Tech Specs

The entry level model has an i3 processor that runs at 1.5 GHz and has 4GB of RAM with 64GB of HDD storage. The Surface is quite light clocking in at just under 2 pounds and has a 12” drawing screen.  It has a kickstand on the back that allows it to quickly and easily turn into an angled drawing surface.  The Surface runs Windows 8, which means that it can run production-level software such as Photoshop or Manga Studio.

There are models that have beefier processing power if you’d like to upgrade.  I put in the extra couple of bucks for the i5 model that has a faster processor and 128GB of HDD.  I also bought an extra MicroSD card to use for even more storage space, and most of my freelance work is saved there.  My Surface Pro 3 set up runs software like Photoshop and Manga Studio without much issue.

Why the Surface over the Cintiq?

For me, it was cash vs. time.  I needed a tablet monitor solution quickly after going full time freelance, and I didn’t have the time to save up until I had a Cintiq Companion.  The Surface clocks in at $800 for an entry-level model, while a Cintiq Companion would’ve cost me nearly twice as much.  I know different artists have different financial situations.  A couple of my artist friends do have Cintiq Companions and have no trust funds that I know of. However, they likely had more time than I did to save up for their respective tablets, and that was time I didn’t have.  I found myself in a situation where I needed a mobile drawing tablet quickly for my work, so the Surface was a solid compromise.

But the Surface Pro 3 doesn’t have Wacom Drivers.  It has NTrig drivers! That must be bad!

You’d be surprised.  I find the pressure sensitivity response on the Surface to be pretty smooth, feeling comparable to most graphics tablets I’ve tried in the past, which includes the Wacom Grapphire, the Intuos4, the Bamboo, and the Cintiq 22HD.  I’ve been doing production quality art on my Surface since last October, and I haven’t gotten any complaints from my clients about my work.  I’m sure if I did a side-by-side comparison with the Surface Pro 3 and the Cintiq Companion, I would notice some differences, but on its own the Surface Pro 3 answers satisfies my needs (And if you’ve ever seen my used up tablet pen nibs, you know I work my tech pretty hard).

However, Webcomics Alliance alum had some issues with the NTrig drivers on her Surface and had to download the updated version.  The blog Surface Pro Artist has them available to download in case anyone’s SP3 drivers are a little screwy out of the box.

Pros and Cons

Because the Surface Pro 3 is light and small, I can work anywhere.  I can work at my desk.  I can work on my couch. I can work in bed when I’m sick. I can work at a coffee house.  I can work at a friend’s house.  I can work at my mom’s house.  At my sister’s house.  On a plane.  In an airport.  In a taxi.  On the moon.  ANYWHERE. It’s awesome!  A simple carrying sleeve is all I need to haul this little dude with me and I can pencil, ink or color pages from any place at any time.

Lettering is where things get tricky with me. Adobe Illustrator’s selectivity on the Surface is a pain.  If I feel like I’m selecting a balloon’s handles, I totally miss the mark and have to start over again and again.  Also, lettering is a very painful process if you don’t have the keyboard case, which is an extra $100.  When it comes to lettering pages, I stick to my Macbook Pro.  I suppose I could use Manga Studio on my Surface to letter my pages, but MS has a lot of limitations that make lettering unpleasant (No text warping for sound effects, can’t bring in my square balloons, it adds a bunch of unnecessary extra layers to my file). Yeah, lettering on a Surface sucks.

Painting though?  Painting is legit.  I did the recent Valkyrie Squadron cover on the Surface Pro 3 and had a blast.  Considering most of my freelance work is in coloring comics, this is a pretty good deal.  The pressure response  allows me to get the right kind of painterly look in my work, which especially comes in handy for fully painted Valkyrie covers or my work on Gutter Magic.  I could paint all day on this thing (which is convenient considering that’s my paying job anyway).

Some people claim the screen size is too small for them.  I don’t agree.  12” is plenty of space to work with and compared to a Cintiq Companion, there’s really only an inch difference.  For some artists, that’s a big deal, but not for me.  Maybe I just have small hands. I don’t know.

The one thing the Surface doesn’t have that the Cintiq Companion does are the side buttons and wheel.  My Intuos4 had them and they were really great for doing brush sizes and instant Undo commands.  I do miss having those around.

I’d say my biggest complaint with the Surface Pro 3 is the pen itself.  It feels awkward, cheap and small.  The side buttons are kind of hard to push, and the top button (which would be fantastic for an Undo) merely pulls up a notepad program I seldom use and don’t really need.  Yes, there’s a hack to fix that, but anyone who’s seen my workload knows that I don’t have time for quibbling with hacks.  I should be able to customize all the buttons on my pen for whatever purposes I need out of the box, and the Surface Pro 3 does not abide.  Also, the pen sometimes loses connectivity with the Surface.  I find unscrewing the pen to loosen the battery for a moment and screwing it back in works.  However, I’d like to do my art stuffs without resorting to silly tactics like that.  Even my Bamboo has a better pen than this, and it’s the most low end model Wacom offered from five years ago.  For the Surface Pro 2, Wacom actually made a third party pen to use, which works very well on that device, but since the switch to NTrig drivers, that pen is not an option for me.  I’m still holding out hope for some third party manufacturer to make a superior product that will save me from this metal shaft of disappointment.

Maybe they will.  Someday.

Overall

Pen and lettering complaints notwithstanding, I really like the Surface Pro 3.  It’s portable and allows me to do my job from pretty much anywhere, which is important for a freelancer who works coast to coast.  I love my Surface Pro 3 and would recommend it to any artist looking to get a drawing tablet to take their digital art to the next level.  At half the price of the Cintiq Companion, I would call the Surface Pro 3 money well spent.

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Jules Rivera is a freelance comics colorist and illustrator working for IDW, ComixTribe, and many other illustrious clients in the comics and animation industries.  When she’s not a coloring soldier-of-fortune, she’s working on her own graphic novel projects, Valkyrie Squadron and Misfortune High.  Her portfolio can be found at www.julesrivera.com

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Posted in Featured News, Helpful Hints, Tech and tagged , , .

14 Comments

  1. Good read, Jules! Thanks for your help with my SP3, too (I’m the WA alum who had issues, guys– mainly because N-Trig’s site was down and I couldn’t get the newest driver)
    I still find drawing on it wonky compared to my trusty old (slow) Gateway tablet laptop. I think either the driver is still off/incompatible, OR, it’s because I’m using Illustrator CS5… once I finally install manga Studio and try that out, I’ll see what the difference is.
    To basically describe what I’m seeing— it’s a noticeable lag between when I touch the screen and when a line is drawn. I have to backtrack after EACH stroke, and fill it in, because the line started maybe 1/8″ AFTER I thought it would. I also see if I draw a long curvy line, it’s like the driver “times out” and suddenly the line goes straight and stop following the pen. The sensitivity seems to be working fine– it’s the lag and wonkiness that drives me crazy. Thanks god I got my Gateway back up and running, just as the end of the comic and kickstarter chaos started.

    • I’ve found that I’m not a huge fan of using Illustrator on the Surface Pro. It’s like it wasn’t coded for the Surface properly. If I have an Illustrator-related task, I take it to the Macbook. Adobe has two different teams working on Illustrator and Photoshop and the I suspect the Illustrator team is Adobe’s red-headed stepchild.

      Photoshop, on the other hand, works GREAT on the Surface. So does Manga Studio. If you have the chance to use Manga Studio on the Surface, totally do it. It’s awesome for drawing stuff too (for inking it’s actually better than Photoshop). The pencilling and inking work in Nu-Valkyrie Squadron is done in MS.

      You’re not crazy for not liking Illustrator on the Surface, but I think it’s more on Illustrator than the Surface for its lack of cooperation.

      Congrats on the Kickstarter’s success, by the way!

  2. Thank you for this! I really want to get a tablet like this to draw on and have been going back and forth between, SP3, Waccom and a Galaxy. Now it’s time to gather the funds and get one.

    Thanks again!

    • Let it be known that if I had the cash for a Cintiq Companion, I would probably have gotten that instead. The Companion is a BEAUUUUUUUUTIFUL piece of technology. I just couldn’t get the cash together fast enough to keep up with my expanding career. The laptop/tablet combo wasn’t working for me, especially with the amount of travel I started doing. But rest assured if I had the time to save up the cash back then I would’ve sprung for the Companion instead.

      However, I had to make a business decision and from a cash expenditure vs. business standpoint, the Surface made a lot more sense because it does roughly the same thing as the Cintiq Companion. If they’d only upgrade that damn pen…

      I’d be eager to try out the Samsung Galaxy Tablet. I actually tried to draw a bit on the newest Samsung Note and it was pretty groovy. Samsung has some good technology behind their tablets. I bet it would make a great tablet for practices sketches and life studies, but the lack of production software would be the deal breaker for me. Still, I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one just to play with it.

    • Yes, he’s made a couple, hasn’t he? 🙂 The more I hear, the more I am beginning to think this is a portable solution for my artwork.

  3. I have had my Surface Pro 3 for a couple of months now. It is powerhouse. No matter if I am playing World of Warcraft on it, using full blown Photoshop, Manga Studio 5EX or Corel Painter 12 it handles all these programs with ease. I have hooked an external monitor to it with the miniport and there was no lag what so ever. I did a few demos an reviews on my Facebook. Drawing on it is a pleasure. I sit at Panera, drink mochas and sketch people on it. All on all, I cannot recommen the SP3 high enough… and I HATE Windows products. 🙂

    • Yes, I read your insights and found them very helpful, especially since our comic work-flow are very similar. Now with Dawn and Jules putting in their positive comments, I’m thinking I need to get one of these so I can step out of the office and do some drawing. That would help with my depression too, so I’m not stuck here in the same place all the time.

  4. I have been using my Surface Pro 2 for coming up 2 years now. By far the fastest and best machine I have used in my 19+ professional years. (Im currently at WB animation)

    First off when you get yourself a cintiq…. The simple purchase of a mini DV cable will hook straight up to your surface and you’re ready to paint on your Cintiq.

    Also don’t purchase the keyboard made for the Surface. Run to Frye’s electronics and pick up a mini Blu Tooth Keyboard for $20 so you can set it off to the side.

    If you don’t like the pen….. Wacom makes pens for use with tablets.

    Last but not least. It is completely a bad idea to use any other pen nibs other than the generic plastic nib. The nibs Wacom makes that are supposed to simulate paper are really FINE GRAINED SANDPAPER. If your cintiq or tablet is scratched to hell, it’s your fault for using these nibs.

    Surface pro 2 and 3 can now upgrade to windows 10. Which has given me no trouble. Solid State Drives rock btw.

    I am a long time user of wacom products and love them. But the SUrface Pro is by far a better purchase over the Companion. The buttons are the only difference. I am a huge fan of the Surface Pro line and will be for some time.

  5. For lettering use Comic Life version 3!
    Save your work in Photoshop format then import into Comic Life version 3 which is a very inexpensive photos to comics art program!
    It has a fantastic comic script program which you can write or speak to write to script then you just drag the little icon that shows up besides the text and it makes the word balloon , title or caption box which you drag to the place on your comic and then drag the already made tail to the character that is speaking! I learned this from the creator of the we comic The Dreamer! And since then it has got even easier!
    Then import it back into Manga Studio Ex!
    This makes lettering comics fun and fast in itself!
    I could say more but trying it out will convince you one way or the other!
    Steve

  6. Hi, Thank you for this review which I totally agree with. I’ve had my SP3 since last christmas and love it. I’ve also discovered Manga Studio is a perfect program to use with it. Have completely switched to it from Photoshop when doing illustrations.
    If you miss the Wacom wheel, have a look at this little add-on: http://radialmenu.weebly.com/

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