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Gabe / on Mon, Jun 16 2014 at 10:55 am

Surface Pro 3 update

Last time I talked about the Surface Pro 3 I laid out some of the problems I had with the device. MS reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to come over to the campus and meet with some folks from the Surface team. Basically they wanted to get me in a room with the designers and engineers and just have them watch me draw for a while. I figured if watching me use the device could help them fix some of this stuff then it was worth giving them an afternoon.

I ended up in a conference room with about half a dozen people from the Surface team. More rotated in and out as I worked. I drew and talked for two and half hours while they watched and took notes. Within the first thirty seconds they realised how frustrating the home button placement was. I was trying to draw for them but kept brushing that home button and getting kicked out to the desktop. I could see some of them shaking their heads and looking at each other. They were very obviously bothered that they had not seen this before. I went on to talk about how the pressure sensitivity felt a little off to me. It’s very hard to take something like how the device “feels” to draw on and convert that into something engineers can use. I ended up describing it in terms of speaking. I said drawing on the Pro 2 was like having a conversation with someone. With the Surface Pro 3 I feel like I need to either whisper or yell to have the same conversation. I had to press very lightly or very hard, and it changes the way I draw. I was also able to show them some of the lag I was noticing. They could all see me draw a line and watch it pop in a split second later. The Surface 3 just couldn’t keep up with my drawing which was a problem I never noticed on my Pro 2.

They had me draw on a few different devices with some modifications they had made as well as various hardware specs. The results were pretty much the same across the board. After I was done they told me they were going to take all the notes they had gathered and go to work on fixing the issues I had shown them. I explained that it was a cool device and that a person who buys it to take notes or doodle or just replace their laptop is probably going to love it. Specifically artists who want to use it the way I do are really the only people who will have issues. They told me they are determined to make the device work for artists and they appreciated my help.

A week or so went by and MS reached out again and asked if they could show me some of the fixes they were working on. They ended up coming out to the PA office this time with a handful of devices for me to test out. The number one issue I had was the home button placement. It essentially makes working on the Pro 3 impossible for me. The fix they came up with was pretty cool. Basically when the pen is in contact with the screen the home button is disabled. It stays disabled for a couple seconds after lifting the pen up so that you can lift your hand up and select menu items. The fix worked perfectly and I actually asked them if they could put it on my personal machine right there. Sadly they are not 100% sure how they are going to role that particular feature out yet. I told them that as a user, I’d be happy to go into the pen settings on the device and check a box that turned that on or off.

Next they had me try drawing on a couple different devices that had altered “pressure curves”. Each one had been tweaked to treat pen pressure a little differently. They also had a program that measured the pressure I was applying to the screen so they were able to build a sort of map of how I use pressure to draw. The Surface Pro 3 has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and it turns out I wasn’t using anywhere near the entire spectrum. What I was looking for wasn’t so much more levels of pressure sensitivity but greater variation in line quality within the slice of the spectrum I was using. One of the engineers that came out seemed 100% confident that they could make the machine “feel” the way I wanted it to and the two custom pressure curves they showed me were super interesting. I ended up really liking the one they called “curve B” but it had a couple weird bugs that had it drawing lines even when the pen seemed to be hovering. This stuff was so early though that I wasn’t super concerned. What they proved was that MS could release an app that let artists adjust the pressure curve to suit their style. They assured me this is something they want to do.

Sadly the pen lag I was seeing was still present in all the devices I tried including an i7 model. They told me they are confident they can fix this too but it wasn’t one of the problems they were trying to fix with the machines they brought me to test. I was actually able to play with the new version of Photoshop they showed off at the Pro 3 launch event. This version can be put into a tablet mode that introduces a larger custom interface and touch controls. The touch controls were super intuitive and handy. The only problem was the lag and if they can fix that I’m sold.

It’s one thing to invite me out to give them my feedback. They very easily could have done that and then not done anything with it. Honestly I wouldn’t have blamed them. I mean the device is done and shipping in like a week. To see them come back to me with fixes for my problems was really amazing. They are putting time and effort into making sure the Surface Pro 3 does what artists want it to do. You hear a lot about MS being this massive company that doesn’t listen but that’s really not fair in this case. The Surface team seems incredibly passionate and open to hearing feedback about their baby. After I was done drawing I went out to lunch with some of the people from the team. I said to them “listen, I am an edge case. I don’t use this machine the way most of your users will use it. I understand this thing isn’t going to do everything for everyone.” Their answer was basically “why not?”

-Gabe out

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