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My first impressions from using a Microsoft Surface Pro 4

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I’ve been in the market for a mobile graphic tablet for a little while now. This mainly to be able to get away from my desktop for ergonomic reasons and be able to work wherever I want to. This means that I wanted a high-end machine that will run Photoshop CC smoothly for digital painting.

One of the obvious choices would be the Micrososft Surface Pro 4, a high-end laptop (drawing) tablet in 1 Windows 10 computer that’s specifically marketed towards those wanting to use it for creative purposes like Photoshop users (and thus digital illustrators as well) do.

Upon writing this blog post the Surface Pro 4 has been out there for about 9 months I think and while there are many reviews out there, I can’t seem to find any pro digital painter user experiences out there.

Well I decided to take the plunge anyway and invest my hard earned cash in this machine.

After two days of playing with the SP 4 I figured I might as well write about my experience with it. Perhaps this is useful to anyone contemplating getting the SP 4 for wanting to actually paint digital on the thing.

I won’t go into tech details, but I should mention that my SP 4 has the i5 processor, 8gb ram and 256 gb storage. It’s the mid-range model.

First of all, Photoshop CC and Clip Studio Paint Pro that I installed as well both run smoothly. On a large canvas (A3 at 300 dpi) I did notice a little bit of lag when using a relatively large brush size, but I didn’t find it that bothering. When completely zoomed out, using a very large brush size, the lag becomes significant. Up to about 3 seconds after making the stroke, but you probably won’t be working like that anyway.

One thing we as digital painters simply can’t do without are shortcut keys. I use Alt extensively to color pick, brush size increase/decrease, F5 for brush settings, undo-copy-paste-deselect-invert selection-transform-merge etcetera. I’m kind of used to just picking my tools from the toolbar, but those shortcuts above are those I can’t do without.

The Microsoft type cover keyboard (which doesn’t come with the SP 4 but will set you back another 150 Euros in my case) is absolutely lovely and a joy to type on, but only if you use your SP 4 as a laptop sitting at a table and that’s not how I want to use it. Besides painting in this setup absolutely sucks. It feels completely unnatural.

I want to kick back on my couch, tablet on my lap and just draw/paint like I would with a regular sketchbook. This will not work with the keyboard attached. You could probably have a bluetooth keyboard linked to your SP 4, but in a reclining position on the couch or in bed or somewhere in a park on a sunny day this will be annoying as hell.

Expresskeys like on Wacom tablets would be ideal, but it doesn’t have them so I want them on my screen. Hey awesome solution; there are customizable toolbars that will do just that. These are a couple that I found: Toolbar Creator, Touchkey and Toolbar Pro (Google them, find some tutorials on how to set it up) and it does actually work.

I’m using Toolbar Pro (see screenshot of my screen setup above) and I believe I can totally get used to this. It’s a paid application though, I believe it was around $9.

So now that I’m all set up, Photoshop CC runs smoothly, I have my shortcuts on screen, what are my thoughts? Well, the pen…it could be great, but it’s not. Pressure levels are not as high as those by Wacom, but should be more than enough and they are, really, if you actually press down. Ugh, it doesn’t register very light touches! When you use Alt to color pick extensively you actually need to think about pressing down hard enough even on the softest pressure settings from the pen’s menu. It’s not that you’ll have to press the pen through the screen, but just lightly touching the surface will not color pick and this completely takes away the workflow. I normally do this action completely automated and very fast on my desktop. I want the same experience on a mobile tablet if I fork over this amount of money for it.

This is a total dealbreaker for me. There is some hope I found because Wacom is rumored to produce new pens that are supposed to be compatible with the SP 4 (like they did with Bamboo pens for SP 1 and 2, or so I believe)

All in all; fantastic machine, very high-end, super slick with some very nifty magnets inside that snap on your type cover and pen (I just think that’s awesome). The above image is pretty much how far I got testing it as a painting utility, but I believe it’s powerful enough to handle your average painting work on a desktop (unless if you probably go completely overkill on dpi and filesize) In combination with an on-screen toolbar for shortcuts, this could be an absolute brilliant mobile graphic tablet. I don’t see it as a complete replacement for my desktop with my kind of work, but I can definitely see loading up a file I’ve been working on and take it with me to a coffee bar and continue working on it.

However, the pen. This is a major issue for me. Maybe it’s something I should and could get used to (like way back when first using a drawing tablet instead of paper) and/or maybe it has to do with some settings I haven’t figured out yet.

Anyway, these are the first impressions. Of the 2 days I had the machine, I spend most of it trying to figure it out of which the toolbar thing took up a lot, and only spend about 30 minutes doing some actual digital painting (apart from a couple of hours just doodling and testing out pen strokes). I have about two weeks left before my return/refund options run out, so I’ll be spending a lot more time on it and perhaps write a follow up or give up and swap it for a Cintiq Companion 2 instead or just get my money back because I really should not be spending this amount…

If you found this useful, have anything to add or ask go ahead and comment below.

*Update

I worked on this illustration in Clip Studio Paint Pro on the SP 4 for a little while now. Admittedly, I started this illustration a couple of days ago in Photoshop on my desktop, but I’m having some nice results on the tablet. I’m very new to CSPP so I’m still figuring it out, but the basics are very similar to what I’m used to in PS.
The best thing: the Alt+click combination to color pick seems to be working much better in CSPP! It’s not as fluent as with my desktop Wacom Intuos Pro or even my ancient Intuos 3 in PS, but it’s not bad at all. This makes me assume it’s very much a PS performance thing. This still in combination with a pen that is just inferior to those from Wacom.

surfacepro4_testdrive_2

Rudy

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Author: Rudy Faber

This post has 2 Comments

  1. Michel D on May 26, 2016 at 10:29 am Reply

    Thank you for this great and informative post, exactly the kind of info I have been looking for. I’m in the same situation, been in the market for a few months, looking at all the reviews there are on Youtube on pros and cons, comparisons with ipad pro, wacom companion 2 etc.

    It’s driving me nuts, I could have spent all that time drawing! 🙂

    I think I might go for the same specs as you, found a good deal with type cover and dock thing, but am a bit worried about lag with big brushes on big files.. I often work on much bigger canvases than I have to , just to be safe. And with many layers. Up to 1GB files.

    Also, don’t you miss tilt sensitivity?
    And the pressure sensitivity issue is also going to be annoying.

    Ahrgh!

    It’s a pain in the a** that none of these products is perfect 🙂

    The wacom Cintiq companion 2 might be? But not as portable,and so expensive…

    How do you feel abou t the SP4 now you’v been using it a while?

    • Rudy Faber on May 29, 2016 at 6:02 pm Reply

      Hi Michel, thanks for your comment.

      I could not find any reviews on the SP4 that really shows the type of work I’m planning to do with it. I guess the device is sufficient, an incredibly awesome machine actually, if you don’t plan to use it as a desktop substitute or when your work doesn’t require the ability to draw with feather light touches. If digital painting is your thing, the SP4 isn’t in my opinion.
      There’s a very long thread on the Microsoft answers forum that talks about these pressure issues as well as tapering of line strokes: here From what I understand, this is all a software problem the developers are aware of and they are working on a fix. The thread was originally from november 2015 and is still not resolved though. A possible update is expected this summer when Microsoft releases their Windows 10 Anniversary update. Another positive development is that Wacom creating new pens that will work on the SP4. They won’t come out until the end of the year…
      Anyway, I didn’t feel like waiting for this and returned my SP4. I did actually buy the Cintiq Companion 2 and I absolutely love it! Yes it’s quite large and heavy and it has low battery life, but it more than makes up for this by being a most excellent drawing/painting device as you would expect from Wacom. It comes with a carrier case by the way and I can just fit it all in my camera shoulderbag. I spend 100 Euros more on this than on the SP4 with typecover. It has a smaller ssd, but also has an i5 processor and 8 gb ram. I believe that if you’re in the market and looking for a device primarily for drawing/painting and you have a budget that you would otherwise spend on the SP4, those 100 Euros or $120 USD (a guess) extra is much better spend on the Cintiq Companion 2.

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