Drawing on the Surface Pro 4: Full Review
Posted On: 2/10/2016 - By: Brad Colbow
This is the text for my video review above.
Hello, today I’m reviewing the Surface Pro 4. This model has the M3 processor and 4gbs of ram and is the lowest priced Surface Pro 4 Microsoft sells.
I’m not going to be covering all the technical benchmarks that most other reviews do because what fun is that. I’m talking about drawing on this thing. How does it hold up.
I’m breaking this review down into 3 parts. First the hardware, what makes this tablet good for drawing? Then I’m going to be talking about software, I tested out a couple apps I like to draw in. and lastly my thoughts and opinions and if the low end surface Pro 4 is powerful enough to handle this kind of stuff.
What is the Surface Pro 4? This is a full blown PC. It runs full blown Windows 10. Any program that Windows can run this can run. It has this great pen and a touch screen so naturally a lot of artists have gravitated towards these machines.
The latest Surface has some nice little upgrades. The type cover is a big step up. I never liked the trackpad on the old typecover, this one works the way you expect it to. The type cover is pricy.
Do you need it? Yeaaaah, you really do. you don’t need it - need it. You can get around without it.
It’s like getting a filling at the dentist. you don’t neeeed novocaine. But you’re entering a world of pain without it.
Windows was built to be used with a mouse and keyboard, and so are all the apps I use. I like to hold the shift button down to get a straight line or the alt key to duplicate something. Some of that stuff you either can’t do or it’s really hard to do without a keyboard.
My favorite feature on the Surface Pro 3 is on the back. It’s the kickstand. Look at this hinge. If this software thing doesn’t pan out Microsoft should become a hinge company. You can set this at any angle and it’s going to stay.
I should put an asterisk by that statement. It’s not going to hold the weight of your whole arm when you’re drawing on it, it will sink down. but you can brush against it without it collapsing on you.
I find the angle it settles in at to be a good drawing angle for me.
So the pen, I kinda went overboard gushing about it in my first impressions video. But I really like it. The main change here is the rubber tip. It provides a little bit of friction on the smooth glass screen that gives you so much more control over drawing.
Wacom has always put a texture coating on their tablets to give it some drawing resistance. I hear the new iPad Pro will have the same thing. The rubber tip stylus achieves a similar effect here.
You can also buy a pack of tips from Microsoft for $10 that have varying degrees of rubberiness so you can find one you think feels best.
The pen now has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity over the old pen’s 256. On paper this Sounds great, but The pressure sensitivity is hit and miss, I think it needs some calibration. there was a lot of variance from program to program. More on that in a minute. The Surface has an app that lets you change a the pen settings and pressure sensitivity. So if you like drawing light you can adjust to make that easier to do.
The back of the pen now has an eraser, since it’s rubby to it feels like you’re really erasing. It’s also a button. Press once to open One note, hold it down to activate cortana and pressing it 3 times to initiate the self destruct sequence. I would not recommend doing that.
It also has a button along the side, this usually works as an right mouse click
The pen can now stick to the side of the tablet with magnets. And not just any magnets, this is one crazy strong magnet, like the kind they use in space.
In fact there are a lot of magnets on this thing. The power cord has magnets and the type cover also has a crazy strong magnet.
Get ready for anything metal to stick to this. paper clips, other pens, headphones, potatoes. not potatoes. These are some good magnets. If this software thing doesn’t work out Microsoft could become a magnet company.
The line jitteriness that bugged me with slow strokes on the SP3 has been improved. I can definitely feel the improvement. I don’t know if it’s because you have more control with the rubber tip or if they improved the software, it might be a combination of both.
Here I’m going to be focusing on 3 programs I know really well, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator which is a vector program and Clip Studio.
Photoshop has always been my go to drawing app. Mostly because in my day job as a web designer I use it a lot and know it backwards and forwards. So I do a lot of my drawing and painting in it. Especially my early pencil sketches and roughs.
For sketching and beginning steps Photoshop performed really well. I thought I might see some slowdown because of the slower processor. Nope, it runs great. As the file size got larger I did notice some lag on some of the brushes I use. It can take a second for the lines to catch up to the pen. This occurs with larger files, like 300 dpi full page illustrations where I have several layers built up already. I noticed it once I got to the inking/painting stage of my process. Honestly I totally expected this. I actually expected more lag and slowdown than I saw, in fact this exceeded my expectations as far as performance on the M3 processor. I don’t know if it’s because of the processor, or just that it has 4gb of ram. I shut down Illustrator to free up some ram and I did see performance increase.
One thing that really started to get to me as I used it more and more for finishing was that the pressure of the pen felt off. I like to choose a brush width and use the pressure of the pen to adjust the width of the strokes. Here is what I saw the brushes doing. The pressure isn’t consistent. SO as the faster strokes taper off they don’t gradually get thinner but you get a really fast tapered edge that looks odd. Once I saw this I couldn’t unsee it, it happened everywhere and drove me nuts.
My first thought was to adjust the pressure sensitivity within the little pen app that comes with the Surface. I noticed the same tapering problem there too, it’s harder to see because it has thinner strokes.
Experiment time. Is this a hardware problem or a software problem. THe SP4 pen works on the SP3 so let’s see if I have the same problem. Nope, the strokes look great, exactly how I want them. Also the surface pen app on the SP3 has much more gradual looking lines as well.
I’m pretty sure this is a software pen calibration issue. I posted my screenshots on Microsoft’s answers site and site and I’m hoping to get some clarification. I’ll post the links to that in the description, so if someone does help resolve this you can see it down there.
Also good news is that in the last year and a half of owning a Surface Pro 3 is that Microsoft has supported the heck out of the thing. Many of the problems artists had with the SP3 at launch, like adjusting pen pressure and disabling the windows button, Microsoft was able to address with software updates. I would imagine that in a few weeks or months this pen pressure calibration issue will be resolved.
Illustrator, let’s talk about Illustrator. Again, I was working on some good sized illustrations there and I didn’t notice any lag at all. Illustrator is going to run really well for you on this device.
Last year Adobe rolled out a big update for Illustrator that introduced a touch mode. I’m a fan of the touch mode because it can be really hard to grab anchor points on a high density screen like this one, the points are just to small, so the touch interface they built makes that much easier. I’ve done an entire video on that. Make a funny noise while pointing at the screen where the link will be.
I also have played around a bit with Clip Studio, also known as Manga Studio. They are the same program, just with different names because… I really don’t know. Like Illustrator it ran better than I thought it would. If it’s your primary drawing app than the low end Surface might be a good fit for you. I inked and colored this wrestler dude in both Photoshop and Clip Studio and where Photoshop showed some brush lag after a while clip studio was great. I haven’t used Clip Studio’s more advanced features because I’ve only been using it for a couple months so there might be some stuff I don’t know about that taxes the system but for every day painting it’s great.
Another thing to point out is that it doesn’t have the brush taper problem I talked about in Photoshop. I know a couple artists who love Clip Studio especially for inking. I can see why, the lines just seem smoother and more confident when I draw in that app on any device.
Someone asked me to try SAI’s Paint Program on this because it’s free… oh man, this is old. How old is this? I guess it works. I’m not sure I ever got pressure sensitivity to work on this. and holy shaky pencil lines batman!
This exceeded my expectations. I definitely noticed only having 4gb of ram. My Macbook has 16gb, my other Surface has 8. So I’m spoiled. If I had Illustrator and Photoshop open I might jump from one to the other and it took a second or two for the program to respond. Once it loaded up it was fine. But definitely noticeable.
I didn’t specifically test battery life, but If I was going to stick my finger in the wind I would say about 4 hours of drawing time is what you should expect from one charge.
By far the most common question I get is “can I get the low end Surface and use it for art.” My answer is mixed. If you’re going to use this for a school laptop to take notes and surf the web and occasionally draw on it. Yeah, I think the low end is going to work great for you.
If you’re like me and you have a couple apps open at once most of the day and are working on this 8, 10, 12 hours a day. you really should go up a level or even two to get the 8 gb of ram. So like this fellow on twitter who asked about AutoCAD. If you use it more than an hour a day get a better device.
Look at it this way. You may save $100 now, and that’s a lot of money, but 1 year from now, 2 years from now you might hate this. I can say 1 ½ years after getting my Surface Pro 3 with 8gb and the i5, it’s still good, I love it.
Last question: Am I going to review the Surface book! No! If you look at the Surface book specks they are identical to the high end Surface Pro’s. Plus it doesn’t have a kickstand. I really like the kickstand.
Am I going to review the iPad Pro. Oh hell yeah. I should be getting one of those later this week. So pumped. I really like this pen and device. I’m an Apple fanboy, but honestly I’m not sure the iPad pro can displace the Surface as my drawing tablet. Stay tuned!
If you have any questions let me know in the comments. I’m actually much much better at answering questions on Twitter, I have a hard time sorting through all the comments on Youtube. So if you want a faster answer hit me up there.