Microsoft Surface Pro 2017 – the artist's review


Digital Arts

  • Price: From £979. Model reviewed: £2,149 plus £149.99 for the keyboard and £59.99 for the pen

  • We rate this 7 out of 10 We rate this 7 out of 10

Microsoft Surface Pro 2017 review

Before going into my thoughts on the Surface Pro, let me just explain my current setup as an artist. I spend the majority of my time working from home on my 5k iMac, drawing with a Wacom Intuos Pro. Over the last year or so the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been introduced into my workflow, and I find that increasingly I’m starting new pieces on there before bringing them to my desktop for additional work and adjustments.

You may be interested to know that I’ve also previously reviewed Wacom’s 27-inch Cintiq and MobileStudio Pro and Apple’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro for Digital Arts – as well as taking a hands-on look at the Microsoft Surface Studio. It’s always a challenge knowing when to upgrade, and what to upgrade to, so I really appreciate having the opportunity to try out the latest technology.

I often work in a café on my iPad to start my day, then when I get home, export Photoshop PSD files from ProCreate – the iPad painting app I prefer – and continue with the pieces on my desktop machine. There’s something about working on a tablet in general, and the iPad Pro in particular, which really doesn’t feel like working at all. To the extent that when you open a partially-completed file on your desktop, it somehow magically feels like you’ve been given a head-start.

Of course in theory, an ideal solution would be to have a tablet device where you never need to switch back to a desktop machine, because you’re able to use full desktop applications like Photoshop on the move. With that in mind, is this latest Surface Pro just that device?

I’ve always been intrigued by the Surface Pro, but I’m happy to admit that whilst I’m well-versed in OSX and iOS, over the last fifteen years I’ve had little experience with Windows. Should the right hardware or software come along, I’m not totally averse to moving over to it, but I certainly don’t mind admitting that I find Windows intuitive to use. For the purposes of the review I’ve looked at the device as a drawing tool though, so once I got everything set up, I wasn’t hindered by my lack of Windows experience as such.

Initial aesthetic impressions of the hardware itself are good. I’ve not used a Surface Pro previously so can’t compare to the earlier versions, but this latest model has a ‘sturdy’ feel to it. It risks falling into the ‘chunky’ category, but then there’s a full PC inside so it’s still an impressive disguise. This sense of solidity also comes from the strong magnets, as the keyboard and pen really snap hard into place. Then there’s the kickstand, which in theory can be used at any intermittent angle, so as you’d expect, there’s a stiffness to it. The keyboard/cover certainly doesn’t feel flimsy either and in fact is very comfortable to use.

The high-resolution display is great – while not as bright as the iPad Pro, the colours still look excellent.

Coming back to the keyboard though, that’s where things getting interesting, in terms of comparing to the iPad Pro. On Apple’s tablet, as an artist the keyboard is a nice accessory to have, for writing emails or notes comfortably, but of course generally the apps you’re using don’t require it. Apps like ProCreate work purely by touch, and you don’t find yourself reaching for keyboard shortcuts. Something as fundamental to workflow like undo, are simply buttons on the screen within immediate reach. The moment you open up a desktop app on a Surface Pro, such as Photoshop or Illustrator, you immediately realise that the keyboard is essential.

Whilst you can prop the Surface Pro (and keyboard) up on your lap, it’s not particularly comfortable, and it means you’re going to want to work on a table. One of my favourite things to do with the iPad Pro is find the comfiest available armchair in a café and really get into the flow of drawing. I’ve let many a ridiculously expensive coffee get cold whilst losing myself to my work. Yes, you can detach the keyboard from the Surface Pro, but once you need to undo for the first time and have to go into the menus to do so, you’ll be hauling yourself out of the sofa and back to the table. Okay so you can also do a three-finger swipe to undo, but that is also far more cumbersome than simply tapping a button with your non-drawing hand.

For those who have used an earlier model, the key changes to note here, as well as the bumped specs, are as follows: The kickstand hinge now lets you rest the screen at an even lower angle that previously, and the pen has been significantly improved, now supporting tilt (software permitting), and offering 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity. Like the Apple Pencil, the Pen isn’t included with the device, but naturally if you’re wanting to create artwork, it’s an essential purchase.

One immediate thing I noticed about the physical design, in terms of how it impacts drawing, is that the bezel at the edges is very narrow. The iPad Pro has a more generous one, which means you can comfortably rest your hand at the edge of the screen and device and draw much closer to the edges of the display, also without your had overlapping as much of the actual display.

One immediate effect of this on the Surface Pro is that, while it’s exciting to be using Photoshop on a device this portable, you’re struck by the fact that the majority of the functions and tools are at the corners of the screen. Over the years I’ve got so used to everything being in a certain place, and no longer give it a second thought, but for example, being left-handed I immediately found that the toolbar needed to sit over on the right hand side. On desktop I’ve been perfectly happy with its default left position for many years. It’s not really a problem in that the majority of applications let you drag and move palettes and functions around, but it certainly highlights how complex desktop applications are just that – they’ve simply not been conceived with the mobile user in mind.

Now to the act of drawing itself, and I’m afraid to say I was quite disappointed. The Microsoft Surface Pen, well, it just doesn’t come close to the Apple Pencil or a Wacom Stylus. The 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity – which is four times as much as the previous model – certainly sound like they’d be enough, but even with a soft airbrush, I found I needed to reduce the brush opacity rather than simply press more lightly.

The opacity control is something I could work around, but more importantly, I just didn’t find it to be accurate or predictable enough in terms of where and how it’s going to draw. I tried tracing over lines, something I wouldn’t ever hesitate with on my iMac or iPad, but was only ever able to approximate where I wanted them to be and kept having to undo. It felt somehow laborious, where normally it’s a breeze and I don’t even think about it. I was really aware of the difference between what my brain expected it was about to draw, and what actually came out. As I spent more time with it, I became more used to it, but I still found it to be frustrating.

I did a simple comparison text between the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro, using the same brush by Kyle T. Webster in Adobe Photoshop Sketch on the iPad and Photoshop on the Surface. You can see the results here (the red example being the Surface Pro), and quite clearly see how the lines are noticeably ‘jittery’ on Microsoft’s device, whilst also showing far less variation in thickness, controlled by brush pressure.

This, for me at least, is a deal-breaker. I couldn’t possibly draw on one device knowing that I could be making smoother and more accurate marks on another. I suppose you could use something like Lazy Nezumi Pro to improve the lines, and of course this kind of tool is useful for some specific cases, but I want my own hand to be making the marks wherever possible.

This sense of inaccuracy in the placement of marks wasn’t helped by the delay I also often noticed between making a pen motion and the brush-mark actually appearing. I found this to be the case with both large existing Photoshop files, but also when starting afresh on a much smaller file with just 2 or 3 layers. Basically when making any kind of rapid stroke motion, such as shading a large area, cross-hatching marks or, say, painting hair strands, I often found myself waiting for the device to catch up. I tried some of Kyle’s Real Oil mixer brushes and wasn’t hugely surprised to find that the delay was especially noticeable.

So again, while in theory it’s great to have Photoshop on a tablet, in practice I was often frustrated. The model I was using is also the second most powerful of the six available, so I can only imagine the delay would be more noticeable on the lower spec models. I also found that using gesture to zoom in and out of my canvas and rotate it was both unresponsive and faltering, and then when it did actually work, felt very jerky and again, imprecise. Scrolling through menus for layers or brushes is also very sluggish and juddering. Having just tested out the incredibly smooth ProMotion on the new iPad Pro with its 120Hz refresh rate, it’s another detail that detracts from the prospect of having a full PC in such a compact form.

I tried bringing in some existing work just to see how it performed. I had a 1.7GB file which was 18 x 24-inch with multiple layers (The Thing artwork above). To be fair, it opened just fine, and while of course the drawing and delay issues persisted, it was still possible to make changes and add details. So there’s certainly a possible use case there, if you were away from home but had some urgent changes to make to something for a client. Having spent years commuting as a freelancer, I’ve certainly been in that situation on many occasions, needing to adjust something for another client over lunch!

For anyone really keen to work with their full apps on the move, then I’d suggest that a well-powered laptop and an Intuos tablet are still the best way to go. If you really want to be able to draw on the machine’s screen itself, the Wacom Mobile Studio makes for a far better drawing experience.

In conclusion

Ultimately, while the Microsoft Surface Pro is a welcome hybrid device which may no doubt feel like a step up for many people looking to be more creative, I find that I can’t really recommend it for professional artists drawing and painting by hand. We expect, and need to have full control over the marks we make, and don’t have time to wait to see whether we can work with what we’ve actually drawn.

If, however, you often need to open and adjust artwork files away from home and need to have a portable device with you for that, then it still could be the device for you. Equally, someone working primarily in vectors where they want to simplify their lines dynamically (and/or with bezier controls) might not find the pen control issues such a large problem.

With all this said, if the mark-making and responsiveness can be improved for future models (or via firmware updates, even) then I certainly wouldn’t rule out trying it again, as I do still love the idea of having a full PC with me on the move which I can also draw on. For now though, I’ll take the simpler apps built bespokely for the iPad with me, and bring them back to my desktop for the full experience when I’m ready.

Sam's Surface Pro review unit had a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, and has an RRP of £2,149/US$2,199. The base model for creatives has a Core i5, 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD, and costs £979/$999 (there's a cheaper version with an m3 chip, but this won't run creative applications).

The keyboard and mouse are bought separately with the Surface Pen costing £59.99/$99.99 and the £149.99/$159.99 for the Signature Type Cover Keyboard. The pen comes in black, purple, blue or grey – the keyboard in purple, blue or grey.

You can also buy the Surface Pro, Pen and Keyboard from Amazon, John Lewis and PC World.

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