It’s been a bit over a month since I purchased and began using a Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Here’re some thoughts on the machine, with an emphasis–for obvious reasons–on the Surface as a digital drawing platform.
Why The Surface?
A few factors all converged simultaneously which lead me to think the Surface was worth a try:
- I’d been considering buying a tablet for a while. I had two main uses in mind: First, light browsing, Twitter, etc. in the evenings when I’m not in my studio near my desktop machine. And secondly, as a device to read comics on.
- My old HP Mini netbook, which I’ve absolutely loved, was nearing the end of its usable lifespan. It was at the point where it was taking well over five minutes just to boot and have Chrome up and running. I needed some other laptop-ish device to use for working away from home, while travelling, etc.
- I’d recently purchased a Yinova digitizing monitor for my main PC and have been doing a lot of digital drawing on it. Being able to draw digitally away from my studio–whether while travelling, or just sitting on the couch downstairs–was really appealing to me.
So, I bit the (fairly substantial) financial bullet and purchased a Surface Pro 2 with 128G and 4G RAM.
My review in a nut shell? If you’re considering a SP2 for drawing you need to answer this question: Is being able to run the full OS versions of your favorite drawing programs worth putting up with the quirks and annoyances of the Surface Pro 2? For me, the answer is yes… but with a few qualms about the overall experience.
Drawing on the SP2
Let’s tackle the good stuff first. Drawing on the SP2 is fantastic! You will, though, need to make two adjustments to your “out of the box” setup in order to get the most out of the SP2.
First: the stock stylus that comes with the machine is perfectly fine for non-drawing stuff–selecting text, taking handwritten notes, etc.–but it’s not great for drawing. The nib is too hard and whatever sensing mechanism that’s in the stylus that tells the screen its position seems to be in an odd place in the stylus. The cursor seems to align poorly with the position of the stylus. Based on several recommendations, I purchased a Wacom Bamboo Feel stylus and it’s fantastic. Cartoonist Lea Hernandez uses a Fujitsu T-500 and says she’s getting good results with that as well.
Second: in order for some art programs to work with a stylus–most notably Adobe Photoshop–you’ll need to download and install the Wacom Feel drivers for the SP2. The SP2’s stock drivers work just fine with other drawing applications, but I find them a little pokey anyway and prefer the Wacom drivers pretty much across the board. So, I recommend installing the Wacom drivers even if you don’t use Photoshop.
(Inked in Digital Manga Studio)
How do the big drawing programs perform on the SP2?
Digital Manga Studio
Manga Studio is my main drawing platform and I’m happy to say that it works wonderfully on the SP2. I found it perfectly functional when I first gave it a try, but when I tried the newest update (5.0.3) which has a ton of features designed specifically for touchscreens I was blown away. This version of Manga Studio allows you to use a new touch-optimized interface. Here it is:
You can see that all the buttons are now bigger and easy to operate with your fingers or with a stylus. The layout also maximizes your available screen space. Palettes can easily be opened and closed with the buttons on either side, so they only take up screen space when you need them. There’s also a built-in toggle that allows you to switch between drivers. You can try out the native pen drivers and then switch to the Wacom drivers to see which you prefer. Also: when it touchscreen mode, you can use two-finger touch to move and rotate your canvas. This works really intuitively and is a huge time-saver. Really the only thing that I wind up using the menus for is edit–>undo. I may map this to my stylus button when I get some time to fool with it. Props to the Manga Studio developers for being so far ahead of the curve here interface-wise.
Sketchbook Pro’s interface is exactly the same on the SP2 as on a desktop machine… Which is perfectly fine, since SP’s interface is already set up in an incredibly elegant way which allows it to be operated solely with a stylus.
(Sketch/under-drawing done in Sketchbook Pro)
Sadly, the Photoshop experience on the SP2 could be a lot better–and the blame here rests not with the device, but squarely with Photoshop. First off, Photoshop (and most of Adobe’s Creative Cloud products) aren’t set up do deal with HD displays like the one on the Surface. As a result, the buttons and menus are rendered so small that they’re really difficult to read and operate. I used this workaround to remedy the situation, but after the latest Windows update it seems to no longer be working.
Secondly, Adobe seems to be way behind the times just generally as far as touchscreen support goes. There’s virtually no touch functionality to any of Photoshop’s features, so you’ll find yourself having to use the (tiny, tiny) menus and buttons to do a lot of nuts and bolts things–and it really slows down the workflow. Setting up Artdock helps significantly, but honestly I’ve moved so much of my drawing workflow to Manga Studio that I rarely fool with Photoshop on the SP2.
(Photoshop running with Artdock)
The SP2 As A Laptop Replacement
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well this machine works as a laptop/netbook replacement. I purchased the Type Cover 2 attachable keyboard and I find it as comfortable and easy to type on as the keyboard on my old HP Mini. I regularly use the SP2 to deliver PowerPoint slideshows for teaching, answering long emails, general writing–all things that’d be pushing the functionality of a conventional tablet. It’s also great to be able to easily connect the Surface to my home network. I can work on files that are on my PC, easily print stuff from the Surface, and in short do pretty much anything with the SP2 that I’d do with a conventional laptop or netbook.
There’s been a lot of grousing about the Windows 8 interface–and a lot of it is justifiable–but I didn’t have a huge problem adjusting to it. Yes, the toggling between your “normal” desktop mode and Metro app mode is a bit bizarre, but it’s not something that really affects the day-to-day usability of the device.
There are for sure some real annoyances with the setup, though, and they’re most often things that make me scratch my head and think, “Didn’t anyone actually use this device before they shipped it out for sale?” Here’re just a few:
- The on-screen keyboard doesn’t have predictive text. (It also makes a horrible clicking noise with every keystroke, but thankfully this can be easily turned off.)
- The on-screen keyboard seems totally unaware of where form fields are in webpages and pops up right over them, preventing you from filling them out. There’s a floating, adjustable size on-screen keyboard that solves this, but for some weird reason there’s no shortcut to bring it up.
- The on-screen keyboard often pops up when the Type Cover is attached. There’s no reason for this to ever occur.
- Long-tapping should bring up the right-click context menu or the text selection tool… but it’s a crap-shoot as to whether this will actually work in any particular program. Sometimes you have to use the stylus.
- The available Win8 apps are, for the most part, terrible. You can of course just use the “real” versions of most apps since the SP2 runs full Win 8, but still…
- Often basic tasks are bewilderingly complex. There’s really no excuse, for example, for having to manage wi-fi networks at the command line.
- Not MS/Win 8’s fault, but Chrome’s support for touchscreens is terrible. They’re apparently working on this, but if Chrome’s your preferred browser (it’s mine) you’ll find using it on the SP2 a sub-par experience.
- MS has gone full in with Skydrive, their cloud storage service, and it’s tightly integrated into the directory structure of Win 8 here. Because of the SP2’s internet connectivity issues (more on this big problem later), though, it doesn’t really work well on this device.
None of these are huge deal-breaking issues, but minor annoyances like these can cumulatively make the user experience frustrating. Sorting out this kind of stuff is why Apple is justifiably known for its great user experience. These issues should have been fixed before the SP2 left Redmond. From what I gather on Twitter, most SP2 owners “grow to love” the device after in initial few weeks of wanting to throw it out the window. That was for sure my reaction when I first started using the device.
As A Tablet
This, sadly, is where the SP2 really falls on its face. Let’s address the big issue here first, then some minor things.
The big issue: The SP2’s biggest advantage as a tablet–that it runs a full desktop OS–is also its biggest downfall. Just like a desktop machine, the SP2 goes to “sleep”–and when it goes to sleep, it loses its internet connection. This means that the SP2 can’t perform the most basic functions of a mobile device: letting you know you have email, notifying you of Twitter replies, updating apps in the background, etc. Nothing.
In actual use, the SP2 only really works as a tablet mobile device if I have my phone nearby to let me know about background notifications. My phone chirps, I fire up the SP2 and wait for it to connect, then read the email/twitter/whatever. The situation would be funny if it weren’t such a across-the-board detriment to using the device.
You could of course set the machine to never sleep–but that’d drain your battery in short order. And even then, you’d have to train yourself to never turn the device’s screen off, since bizarrely the SP2’s on/off button doesn’t simply turn off the screen (as with pretty much any other mobile device) but also immediately puts the machine into sleep mode and disconnects you from the internet.
And it’s not just background notifications that are affected; it’s pretty much everything–downloading programs to install, downloading movies and music, backing up files. Comixology downloads get cut off mid-stream and then get “stuck.” It’s incredibly frustrating. Again, it makes me wonder what kind of real world testing was done before this thing was sent to market.
A few other points:
- I’ve read varying reports on SP2 battery life, with some people claiming as little as four hours and others claiming more like 7-8. I’ve honestly never timed mine, but I use the device pretty regularly and wind up recharging it every day or so. It’s never been an issue for me.
- The camera is absolutely terrible. Daylight pictures are mediocre but passable. It’s non-functional in a low light environment.
- Adding a a bluetooth device is bewilderingly complex and trying to stream audio seems to knock out the wi-fi connection. Again, my two year-old Android phone can do this without issues. (Update: this is a known issue… with no solution.)
- It’s quite heavy. I’ve heard a lot of complaining about the device’s weight, but it’s never really been an issue for me. Maybe because I’m usually resting it on something when I read?
- The SP2 has a two position “kickstand” which I absolutely love. It’s great to be able to have the device in a vertical position to read without having to hold it there.
- There’s a built-in “share” button that seems to be completely broken. I’ve never been able to successfully share anything between programs, not even its most basic choice, a screenshot. Android does this brilliantly. This needs to be fixed.
- It plays poorly with Google stuff. If you use a lot of Google services (I do) you’ll really miss not having things like a calendar widget, Gmail app, etc. Again, I can use things like my calendar in the browser, but it’s an annoying quirk. (And, no, I don’t really care whether Google or MS is to blame for the lack of interoperability. It doesn’t work. That’s all that matters.)
- I’ve had Microsoft zealots (who knew there was such a thing?) dismiss a lot of the problems with this device by saying that it’s not really intended as a tablet. It is intended as a tablet. It’s, according to Microsoft itself, “The Windows Tablet That Does More.” One of those things that it does should be functioning better as a mobile device.
While there continue to be occasional annoyances that tempt me to throw the device in the gully behind my back yard, I’ve grown to–if not love–at least really like the SP2. Honestly, though, if I weren’t using it for drawing, I’m not sure I’d be willing to put up with its many quirks. The real deal-breaker here is the internet connectivity issue. There’s some talk of maybe a firmware update that would solve this by giving the machine a “connected standby” state. Let’s hope so.