The Surface Pro 3 does a lot of stuff right. The device is ridiculously light and thin. It still manages to feel sturdy and well built though. The new screen is absolutely beautiful and the extra couple of inches makes a big difference when using it. There will be plenty of great reviews of this machine from all different perspectives, but today I’m just going to talk about how the Surface Pro 3 works for artists.
First the good stuff.
The new kickstand is exactly what I’ve been craving. The ability to drop the device all the way down into a drafting board profile. If you watch the Twitch video of me drawing the comic at PAX, you can see that I actually use my Surface case to prop the device up at the right angle. At home I would stick a pillow or something under it. Now the kickstand simply rotates all the way down to a comfortable drawing position.
The larger screen is fantastic. Not only is the resolution sick but the extra room makes desktop programs like Photoshop easier to manage. It also has a new 3:2 aspect ratio rather than the old 16:9 that the Pro 2 had. All together it makes the Surface 3 feel a lot less cramped when drawing. It seems like before I was always fighting between giving screen real estate to menus or my drawing canvas. With the Pro 3 I feel like I have room for both.
I have to admit I was nervous when I heard about the new N-trig digitizer. The ability to use my Wacom Bamboo Feel stylus rather than the pen that came with the Surface Pro 2 was really nice. The new Surface pen is solid though and much nicer than the old pack in pen. This one is thicker and actually reminds me a lot of the Bamboo feel.
The pressure sensitivity has been reduced from 1024 down to 256 (for reference a Wacom Cintiq has 2048) and that scared the hell out of me. Numbers are supposed to get bigger with new computers not smaller. This isn’t Wacom though it’s N-trig and I have to admit whatever wizardry they are using is pretty impressive. The pen is still incredibly responsive with very little drawing lag and I still feel like I’m getting nice smooth lines.
I can still make my little wispy line and draw them out into nice thick curves. The lines show some jagginess when zoomed way in but it’s not a deal breaker in my opinion and overall I was really impressed with the N-trig tech. Long story short if you were worried about the new tech, don't be.
okay the frustrating stuff now.
The new type keyboard has this cool ability to sort of fold up and snap into place along the lower edge of the device. This makes it feel very sturdy when using it in your lap but had a strange side effect. This new position covers up the location of the Windows button and so MS decided to move that button to the right hand side of the Surface Pro 3. No big deal right? Except that as a right handed drawer this is the exact spot my hand goes when drawing and navigating menus.
Sometimes depending on how I touch it the button simply provides its haptic buzz to the side of my hand. Other times it will actually activate and throw me back out to the desktop. It’s either simply annoying or actually disruptive. Tycho came over after hearing me cursing at the thing and I showed him what was up. I tried drawing a little and ended up getting kicked out to the desktop three times in the space of just a couple minutes. He shook his head “that’s not okay.” he said and I have to agree.
At first I thought I was a smart guy and I just turned the machine 180 degrees putting that home button over on the left. Ahh but then the Kickstand doesn't work. Doh! I sent my feedback over to my contacts at MS and they came back to me with a way to disable the home button. It’s a trick that involves going into your device manager and unchecking a box essentially. It’s not hard to do but it has the side effect of also disabling all the other hard buttons on the device like volume and sleep. Tycho thinks he can fix it with something he called a “command line prompt” and he said the word registry a couple of times which seemed to get him very excited.
Disabling the home button in the device manager works and solves the problem to some degree. The issue is that while it no longer bumps me out to the desktop is still gives its little haptic buzz each time I brush it with my hand.
The other problem is performance. The Surface Pro 3 I was given has the i5 processor in it and is essentially the same guts as my old Surface Pro 2. The thing is, now those same guts are driving a larger 12” screen with a stunning 2160X1440 resolution. Honestly if it didn’t feel slower I’d be surprised. There’s noticible cursor lag and stuttering when navigating files in PS and Manga Studio. When moving my pen over to make a menu selection I can see the cursor lagging behind. Working on a comic strip, It feels like I’m dragging the cursor through syrup. Strangely that lag doesn’t seem to be present when I’m actually drawing with the pen touching the surface. Moving around the image also feels slow with some stuttering and screen tearing. Overall it just feels like it can’t keep up with what I’m asking it to do.
They have also removed the “high performance” power option from the Surface Pro 3. It used to be that you could essentially tell the Surface “fuck my battery I want you to kick ass” and that’s no longer an option. Apparently this has something to do with the new quick wakeup abilities. Would that fix my performance issues? I honestly can’t tell you because there is no way to activate it anymore. The other possibility is that the new Surface 3 sporting the i7 processor might provide the extra juice I need for my work. MS has said they are going to get me that model ASAP and I’ll let you all know how that goes. It's also worth noting that this is me trying to run it at the new max resolution. I can drop the res down and see some significant performance boosts. Down around 1650x1050 it is positively snappy but gives me black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
I’ve been really impressed with my MS contact Markus who has been listening to all my gripes about the new device. He’s been offering solutions when he could and passing all my feedback over to their engineers. I don’t like dumping on a product that I’ve loved so much in the past but I feel like this is important stuff that they need to hear. Markus told me today that “Artists are a really important audience for us and we want to make this a great device for artists – I want you to know that your honest feedback is helping us tremendously in getting there.” That's a class act right there.
So my honest opinion right now is that I’m frustrated with the device. It’s so close to being perfect that the problems it has feel especially maddening. If it just performed a little better! If they just hadn’t put that button right there! Grrrr.
MS is going to be using me as a sort of artist guinea pig from what it sounds like. They will be bringing me new devices with some special options that they think may resolve my problems. As soon as next week I’ll probably be testing out some new stuff. I will keep you updated but for right now, I can’t tell artists to run out and buy the Surface Pro 3 today.