Illustratedpixels reviews the Microsoft Surface Pro 3
by, Alexander Gustafson
For the last month or three, I've been incorporating the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 into my creative work flow. After several people asked me my thoughts on the device, I decided to write them down and share them with those who are interested. First, I'll go into why I got it. I wanted to free myself from the studio desk and allow me to work as I traveled, thus freeing myself to create whenever and wherever I had the need or urge. I've tried other devices in the past, such as the iPad or the Note 10.1 by Samsung. Both of these (and others I've used) fell far short. I'm happy to say that the Surface Pro 3 comes very close to filling my needs at a digital artist, and the more you use it the more you want to use it. That said, it is still not perfect; although, I think that more of the issues that arise come from windows 8 and not the device itself, which is fairly amazing.
The hardware:There are several version of the surface that you can purchase; I ended up with the middle of the road version with 256 gig solid state hard dive, Intel i5 processor and 8 gigs of ram. For the rest of the tech specs you can compare the different versions of the device here (Microsoft's site). As far as the hardware is concerned, I've had no trouble at all. There as been no lag, crashing or freezing that I can trace back to the hardware (and very little of that at all to be honest). This version of the machine costs $1,200 USD unless you can find it on sale. The colors are great, and the 12 inch screen size just feels right when your working on it. The speakers are fairly powerful, and playing music through Spotify while painting didn't cause any latency. Its fast to charge, and the battery life is pretty great as well. I get around 8-8.5 hours on general use, 5-6 for painting, although I could most likely extend that if I closed everything else. I found playing games kills the battery the fastest, which is no real surprise. But even an older game like Baulders Gate 2 II will take the battery life out fast. Lastly the power block/charge cord its fantastic: small, lightweight and magnetic, it makes it harder to knock out of the port. There is also a USB charge port on the power block for charging other devices. The device has a fantastic kickstand, the USB is a full size 3.0 port and there are also a MicroSD card port and a mini display port.
Unlike the Surface 2, the pen that comes with this device comes equipped with Ntrig tech instead of Wacom. The very first thing you're going to want to do if you buy one of these is go to the Ntrig website and download the driver updates; this improves the pen quite a bit. You can find them here (Ntrig Website). The other thing you'll want to do regarding the pen is go to the Windows Store and install the Surface Hub app; it's small and allows you to manually adjust the pressure curves of the Surface's pen. I got a chance to talk with one of Microsoft's reps for the product, and they claim they are also working out how to make the buttons remappable like they are on a Wacom pen. This is currently the only shortcoming of the pen. It's very comfortable to use while drawing. Lastly, I highly recommend that you get the pen loop so you don't loose the pen (available separately or with the keyboard attachment).
This is by far the weak spot of the device, once you have used it, it's clear why it isn't offered with the unit standard,because its made from cheaper materials than the rest of the unit. The material the keyboard is made from feels cheap in comparison to the unit itself; however, you absolutely need one as using the onscreen keyboard is very limiting. The keyboard also doubles as a screen protector, and in that role it does an adequate job. I have had some issues with functionality, but they always fix right away if you detach the keyboard from the unit and reattach it. One nice feature of the keyboard is that it can convert to a stand for the Surface without depressing any of the keys. Microsoft sells the keyboard for around $120 USD, but you can get it on eBay for less than half of that.
Other things I recommend for your Surface 3:
I recommend getting a wireless mouse for your Surface 3; it makes doing certain things easier than using the touch screen, but it's not necessary. Amazon has your back for around 12 dollars here. I also like to have an external hard drive handy to back up my files. The USB port on the surface will run these items, but the power flow to the port is limited. This means that its can't run something like a DVD drive. The workaround for this is to use a splitter and connect the other line to the USB charging port on the power block.
The Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1. It's a good enough operating system, but it is also where most of the flaws come from. The few times I've had the unit freeze or, more accurately, get confused, it's been Windows 8.1 at fault. I'm not going to go into the strengths and flaws of Windows here; suffice it to say its works well but isn't perfect.
The artistic programs I've been using are Photoshop CC, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6 and Google Sketchup. Photoshop works great; there is very little lag in the pen, and there are no dead zones around the edges of the screen. As an added bonus, although you can access menus and buttons with your fingers, only the pen will mark your open file/canvas. Sketchbook Pro is also a great program, especially for line drawing, but it does not offer the pen-only feature, and your hand will leave marks on your artwork. There is a newer version of this program out; however, I do not know if this item has been addressed. I have always loved Sketchbook Pro, and if you haven't had a chance to use it, grab yourself a copy and give it a couple of months to get used to the interface. It's a lot of fun to work in.
In conclusion, the Surface makes a great but not perfect workstation. Its a joy to bring to client meetings and be able to incorporate their feedback and ideas right there in front of them. It also makes a lovely and attractive portfolio, thanks to the thought and care put into the physical design. I don't think it would be great as my only computer but as an addition to a desktop I think it frees you up to work remotely quite well.
I've had a chance to prepare a couple of pieces of artwork with my Surface Pro 3 to show you what its capable of producing. These are both from my personal IP project I've been working on for the last few months, IronHeart.
Rhino Listening Post
Breakwater: Legendary dragon spirit
If you would like to see more of my work you can find me at www.illustratedpixels.com. or on face
Hopefully I've given those of you who have been considering purchasing a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 an idea of what to expect from the tool. Over all, I would give the surface a 8.5 out of 10; its a very powerful device with a lot of potential. Perhaps the best feature is that Microsoft really seems to care about what you think about the unit. I was asked to fill out a survey, and Microsoft called back within three days and asked how my experience could be improved. All in all, they seemed to want to make the Surface the best experience they could for artists. We will have to wait and see if they roll out the button remapping for the pen. Feel free to ask me if you have questions I didn't answer in this review and happy creating.