Microsoft Surface Pro 3: A Artist’s / Game Developer’s Review

Warning: I am a indie game developer and an artist by hobby only. Therefore, your requirements may differ depending on usage.

No doubt you’ve seen many reviews and previews of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet, which Microsoft claims to be the “true” laptop killer (which they’ve said for versions 2 and 1 as well). I’ve been tempted to buy one… who wouldn’t be interested in a tablet that can do everything your computer can? I remember making fun of the original iPad as a oversized-iPhone, only to realize that the larger touchscreen was the perfect device for note-taking and digital sketching. As an artist-wannabe, that meant something. But the only issues with the iPad were that it didn’t have USB connections, and that the OS itself was different. In fact, given the iPad’s relatively affordable price, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple ditches the iMac one day for a “professional” iPad to appeal to more consumers.

So the Surface Pro seemed like a great thing. It was a professional tablet with full Windows OS, and unlike most other tablet-PC’s, it came with a pen stylus and a decent processor and other specs, making it a true replacement hardware-wise for your PC. I was torn between the Surface Pro 1 (nice price), Surface Pro 2 (Wacom-pen with latest improvements to tablet), or the new Surface Pro 3 (even more new improvements). I eventually took advantage of Microsoft’s student offer and got a i3-Surface Pro 3 for about $700 (plus tax). Here are my thoughts after a few weeks.

The Good:

  • Surprisingly good pen/touch input. Despite using N-Trig instead of Wacom, the pen shows more than enough accuracy and lag-free writing. Especially in One Note (while almost no store demo I’ve seen shows this, One Note does allow stroke-erasers to act like a standard eraser, instead of the “cut the entire line out” function that seems standard). The pen’s nib as an eraser and ink is probably more accurate than past Surface pens where the eraser on the back was larger.
  • Surprisingly good processor/graphics. I got the cheapest model (Intel i3, with 4200 HD graphics). It still ran smoothly, able to run full Photoshop and also Adobe Premiere Elements. It should handle most of your photo-editing/basic-HD-video-editing needs. It even ran my Unity 3D games really well (also showing me it is in fact possible to run my game “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth” (HD version) with 4 GB of RAM, where other computers would use over 5 GB).
  • Well-built. Honestly, I am worried that the kickstand will break at some point, but seems really sturdy. The screen is a finger-print-magnet, but really durable, and has only seen one tiny scratch after some pretty bad handling of it.
  • That HD screen. At 1440 vertical resolution, it’s perfect for my personal preferences, and I can fit my entire canvas in 100% on the screen. It looks like most buttons and icons resize to be larger based on screen size, though. Most buttons aren’t too small, but still easier to use with the pen than with a finger.
  • Perfectly portable. Roughly the size of a medium-sized Wacom pen tablet, smaller and lighter than any laptop, easy to carry and use.
  • Micro-SD card slot. Easy and cheap way to extend your hard drive space (and at only 64 GB in my version, I needed that).
  • Great battery life. It’ll last a full day of heavy use (over 8 hours). Hopefully it stays that way a year from now.

The Bad:

  • The kickstand isn’t truly able to bend in every angle, just most of them. If you want to lay the tablet nearly flat on a table, it won’t. I’d guess there’s about 145 degrees of options, which is still good enough.
  • The Windows Start button. It probably isn’t necessary, and should not be a touch-button placed exactly where your wrist tends to be when sketching. It isn’t a huge issue, but you’ll notice it after a lot of use.
  • Pen input. While very good, it isn’t as good in terms of accuracy or lag to a cheap Wacom Bamboo/Intuos pen tablet. And having gotten to test one, both aren’t as good as the large and expensive Wacom Cintiq monitors. I don’t blame N-Trig, as the pen to monitor lag is bound to not be as good, but picky professional artists may only use this as a portable option and not a professional one.
  • Ports. A HDMI port and an extra USB port would have been worth an extra hundred dollars.

The Ugly:

  • N-Trig Pen Drivers. Being in the Surface Pro 3 was the biggest leap forward the company has done, so many software options didn’t work well with N-Trig until very recently. Only THE MOST RECENT versions of Adobe Photoshop will work with the accuracy you want… I have one version lower, Photoshop Elements 11 instead of 12, and it didn’t pick up about half of my pen strokes, with no update to fix it. Oddly, Premiere Elements 11 works perfectly well, maybe because I was being more careful and not as quick with the pen. But this is a huge disadvantage over Wacom, so if you are using software more than a year old, do some research first to see if it will work. Also, certain software like the Unity 3D editor will not work with any touch input, no matter the company.
  • Intel Graphics Drivers. Apparently, the Surface Pro does not like to accept updates not directly from Microsoft. I eventually found a trick to update the drivers: not only do you need to install them manually, you also need to uninstall the existing drivers first before installing the new one. Only after this did more demanding Unity 3D games work properly, so I highly recommend it.
  • A proper digital keyboard. Windows automatically disables a full one built in, but if you enable it, it’s much better than the other options. In fact, I have no intention to buy a keyboard type-cover. BUT WHY WAS IT HIDDEN IN THE FIRST PLACE MICROSOFT?!

Overall:

The Surface Pro 3 isn’t a true artist’s all-in-one, but is probably good enough to take on trips or for hobbyist artists. It’s also more powerful than you would think, making the i5 model overkill for anyone that doesn’t need high-speed 3d rendering or modeling. The N-Trig pen will cause issues with certain software (especially older versions of Photoshop), but when it works, it works well. I’m very happy with it. Worst case scenario, bring a cheap Wacom tablet with it, the combo would still be smaller and lighter than a standard laptop.

How a true artist uses Surface Pro

How a true artist uses Surface Pro

UPDATE: after several months, I’ve noticed the low-end Surface Pro 3 does stammer with Photoshop CC, especially when using the timeline editor, specific specialty brushes, or more than a hundred layers. And the scratch-disk feature of Photoshop can use up what little hard-drive space you have really quickly when open. It’s noticeable enough to be a problem, but I suspect that an i5 model would be enough processor/graphics upgrade to be tolerable. Given that programs like Autodesk Sketchbook are seamlessly fast on Pro 3, I blame Adobe more than Microsoft.