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.
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.
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.
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