Reflecting on Microsoft’s unveiling of the Windows 10 Creators Update and new Surface hardware

Microsoft didn’t invite me to Wednesday’s hardware announcement but I couldn’t have attended in any case due to family commitments in Florida. But to try to recreate a little bit of the magic of last year’s event, I decided to head over to the local Microsoft Store where I got to sit among a large group of store employees.

Miami’s not exactly a technology hub, so I wasn’t surprised that I was the only customer in the store to watch the stream. I had hoped that the new hardware was already in the store’s stock room, ready to be displayed. And although that turned out to be a false hope, I nevertheless left the store two hours later absolutely elated.

Windows 10 Creators Update and Surface Studio were my idea, I thought, echoing that old Windows 7 campaign. After 3+ years of blogging about and advocating for the use of Windows software and hardware by artists, Microsoft is now promising to deliver what feels like a distillation of nearly all of my (and most of your) creative demands.

But rather than rush home and write an excited puff piece, I decided instead to spend the last couple of days researching, discussing and reflecting upon the products announced. This included returning to the Microsoft Store to get a little bit of hands-on time with the Studio.

There are reasons to be concerned about Microsoft’s new products, not the least of which is cost. But given the low-priced clones we’ve seen from OEMs since the release of the Surface Pro 4, I’m even more confident to evangelize about this creative eco-system than ever before.

Windows 10 Creators Update

Remember how I used to complain about the way Microsoft promoted the first Surface Pro generations: by showing people circling PDFs? How times have changed!

After significant improvements to the Ink APIs in the Anniversary Update, here is an entire release dedicated to creativity and creation!

And I know what some of you are thinking: it’s just marketing. Of course it is. But the point is that here is boring old Microsoft, the enterprise company, delivering a key insight: we are all creators.

Whether you use a PC to create an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation or a Word book report or create a OneNote to-do list or write a symphony or draw a comic book or edit a major motion picture, you are a creator. And Microsoft builds tools to empower and enhance your creativity. How awesome and inspiring is that?

And no, tired tech pundits, this is not an about-face for the company. Enterprise and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Enterprises are filled with creators. Creation is the engine of commerce.

3D for everyone

For far longer than I’ve been lobbying for better creative hardware, I’ve pleaded for simpler 3d solutions. I first began using 3d software in 1987. Rather than get easier as computing power increased, 3d software continues to add layer upon layer of complexity. Why haven’t developers used more of the processing power at their disposal to create tools that anticipate and simplify the creation process?

Can Microsoft really deliver on the goal of making 3d accessible to anyone? Will there be many takers?

3D capture

The capturing process demonstrated running on a Windows Phone is not new. Autodesk has offered similar apps for some time. The camera captures a point cloud and texture of the object in real time. The process typically fails to deliver a clean mesh and has difficulty distinguishing the object cleanly from the background without considerable cleanup.

I’ve never seen as clean or rapid a result as what was shown Wednesday. Converting these point clouds into other mesh formats could be a real boon to indie AR/VR and game development.             


Paint 3D

What an exciting update to the least exciting program in Windows! This is definitely not your father’s MSPaint!

The 3d objects the app can create with the Doodle tool appear to be limited to extrusions. But what a great way to introduce the masses to creating, texturing and manipulating 3d meshes.

A Paint 3D preview is available for download now from the Windows Store for Insiders running build 14955 or higher. Controls were a little bit touchy on my m3 Surface Pro 4, but I’ll have to test it further before rendering a verdict. I can say without reservation that it’s never been easier to assemble a 3d scene.

SketchUp and Remix3D

Paint 3D and the 3d extensions in other Microsoft applications like Powerpoint should create a much larger market for creators of 3d objects. I was particularly surprised to see SketchUp among the marketplaces mentioned.

Google bought the software for its 3d web experiences but sold it off to Trimble a few years ago. I don’t think you’d see SketchUp integration if Google were still the owner.

Should 3d artists be concerned about the automation of 3d creation? Not based on the tools shown. But if they serve the purpose of inspiring a generation of Minecraft players to become 3d modelers, there may be a lot more competition in the space in the not-too-distant future.

The integrated community already contains a nice set of free pre-made objects and it will be interesting to track Paint 3D’s adoption as the amount of available content there grows.

HoloLens for all

I’ve been eager to try out HoloLens since it was first demonstrated, but the $3000 developer kit made absolutely no sense for me. Now that Microsoft partners will be releasing their own tethered headsets for $299, I expect more creation tool developers to adopt AR features that should greatly improve the modeling process.

I’m looking forward to integrating VR headsets into my workflow as well, but I don’t think it’s wise to lock yourself off from the real world while immersed in a project. The HoloLens and AR offer a more realistic compromise.

Surface Book update

I’ve tried not to think too much about the Surface Book refresh because it offers the kind of incremental refinements I can afford to skip but wish I had nonetheless.

Greater battery life in the base and updated i7 CPU and GPU definitely make the new Book a better buy for high end consumers.

I just wish Microsoft would consider marketing the base separately. That might reduce the cost by at least a third and make upgrading after only a year feel less painful.

For 2D artists who like to work in tablet mode with the Clipboard detached, there’s nothing new in this revision that justifies trading in your existing Book. Let’s hope the Spring release of the Surface Book 2 addresses better battery life and a kickstand for the Clipboard.

Surface Studio

Has there ever been a more lust-worthy all-in-one ever created?

During my brief infatuation with Apple, I bought a couple of iMacs, then an iPhone and later an iPad. It seemed so obvious that touch technology would come to the iMac. Here it is, 8 years later and we’re still waiting.

When Windows 8 was released, a handful of all-in-ones were on the market and a few even had touch. But none offered pen support.

As much as I love portability, I do most of my work at a desk and I love to do 3d work on the biggest screen possible (those UIs are cluttered and tiny).

Larger Wacom Cintiqs are wonderful pen displays but they’re too expensive and have only recently integrated touch. Lower cost alternatives only run 1080p resolution.

I have no problem saying that the Surface Studio was my idea. And it was no doubt the idea of most of my readers. I don’t know why it took so long, but I’m thrilled to see Microsoft finally make it a reality.

Surface Dial

It’s interesting to see how well received the Surface Dial announcement was. After playing with it briefly, I’m not so sure.

I commend the company for trying new interaction methods the Dial feels a little gimmicky.

Improving the pen with a second button and adding a programmable context menu like Wacom’s radial menu would be far more useful to a greater number of users.

Sketchable, Mental Canvas and comics

The Harris brothers at Silicon Benders have hit the big time. It was great to see Miles and Ryan in the partner reel. Sketchable has come such a long way in the last few years and it deserves to be standard issue on all Surface devices.

Mental Canvas is a new 2D sketching tool that adds the ability to navigate layers in 3D. There’s only a player available at the moment, but this is definitely worth checking out.

Who would have imagined a Microsoft presentation including a long demo of motion comics creation? But here was Ben Wolstenholme of Madefire walking tech press and the world through his process and the results were gorgeous. Quite the improvement over ringing text and charts. It brought tears to my eyes.

Yesterday’s hardware

I’ve played with the even larger screen Surface Hub and I was confident that Microsoft’s pen experience would be at least as good on the Studio. Based on my limited interaction yesterday, I was not disappointed. If you’re happy with either your Surface Pro or Wacom ActiveES pen experience, I think you’ll be very satisfied with drawing on the Surface Studio. If you are a Cintiq enthusiast or rely on tilt sensing, you may not be convinced.

Price is obviously the biggest drawback to the Studio and will sadly relegate the device to professional environments and ultra-high end consumers. But as an aspirational device, I’m confident that you will soon see lower-priced Studio clones from Microsoft’s partners. Just look at what you can find in the $500-$700 range of two-in-ones released in the last year.

The bigger complaint I have is that Microsoft has cut some significant corners in the Studio’s components that set it up for nearly instant obsolescence. Sure, the Studio should still be working five years from now (we hope), but the $3500 first gen model I’ve pre-ordered will probably feel outdated within a year due to its Skylake processor, 965M GPU and hybrid HDD.

As with the Surface Book, I urge the design team to come up with upgradability options that extend the life of the display. This should be possible since all of the electronics are located in the Studio’s base.

What about Wacom?

Clearly the Surface Studio is the biggest frontal assault that Wacom has ever faced to its premium product. How will the Japanese pen giant react?

Does this announcement jeopardize the collaboration the two companies announced earlier this year? Will we ever see the promised dual protocol pen?

I want to believe that Microsoft didn’t improve its pen in order to allow Wacom to own the upgrade market. But they’ll have to sell an awful lot of $100 universal pens in order to make up for the loss of even one 27QHD sale.

And what about the newly announced MobileStudio Pro? If you “only” have $3000 to spend, would you buy a 15.6-inch tablet PC or the 28-inch Surface Studio?

What’s next

There’s so much to digest and think about here. These are only my initial thoughts. The next few months promise to be very exciting and I expect we’ll see a large number of ex-Apple artists migrating over to the Microsoft camp. Let’s make them all feel welcomed while we enjoy this crazy ride together.

AuthorRick Rodriguez