Perhaps it's due to the overwhelming volume of gadgets I've got clattering around the SurfaceProArtist labs or just my advancing old age, but it's getting increasingly difficult to remember all the gear that I've reviewed and exactly when I reviewed it. Fortunately, despite the somewhat awkward design of the Squarespace template behind this site, everything I've ever posted here is only a keyword search away.

So as the year draws to a close, I thought it would be fun to revisit my last twelve months of reviews and see if my conclusions then have withstood the test of time.

In many cases, the time I invested while writing the review was about as much as I ended up spending with the device for the entire year, so I'll try to distinguish between the gear that I've really put through its paces and the stuff I only ever skimmed.

January
N-Trig DuoSensePen2
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/3/n-trig-now-selling-replacement-pens- The first of a couple of products on this list that disappeared shortly after their release, these replacement pens were N-Trig's first foray into standalone consumer products. It was nice to see an option in case your Surface Pro 3 or Sony VAIO pen went missing, but I didn't care for the short body. When Microsoft bought N-Trig's pen technology later in 2015, the pens vanished.

Monoprice 22" HD SmartTouch Drawing Display http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/10/review-new-monoprice-pen-display-puts-multi-touch-within-reach - This touch capable drawing display was Monoprice's second attempt to entire the Wacom - Huion - Yiynova fray, but it also disappeared unceremoniously shortly after release. I still use it occasionally, as its attached to my second desktop. It's really not a bad value and I hope that Monoprice and its anonymous Chinese suppliers take another stab at it in 2016. UPDATE 12/24/15: In the comments section below, reader Vachel Shannon informed me that the Smarttouch pen display has resurfaced on Monoprice's website. You can find it here: http://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=12077

TE2W8.jpg

Toshiba 8" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/31/massive-guest-post-8-toshiba-encore-2-write-impressions - TabletPCReview member Precurve did a great job capturing the virtues of the 8-inch version of what was the best pen computing value of the year.

February
Lenovo Thinkpad Helix 2
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2014/11/28/keyboard-hinders-helix-2 -
I expected to love the Helix 2, but I didn't, thanks to its high pricetag and crappy keyboard. Had it been discounted a couple hundred bucks, I might feel otherwise. When the Ultrabook Pro keyboard was ultimately released, it cost a ridiculous $400.

March
HP Pro x2 612 G1
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/hp-pro-x2-612-g1-review - Because I reviewed it so closely to the pricey Helix 2, I probably ended up inflating my rating of this tablet. I admit I grade on a curve for lower cost devices, but there's something about this ugly duckling tablet that reminds me of the Surface Pro 1 that got this blog started. UPDATE 12/24/15 : Vachel Shannon also let me know that refurbished i5/8/256 HP Pro x2 612 G1s are on sale over at Woot! for only $399 until supplies last. This is an exceptional value. http://computers.woot.com/offers/hp-pro-x2-612-12-5-intel-i5-tablet-7?ref=cp_cnt_wp_2_9

Toshiba 10" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/guest-post-10-toshiba-encore-2-write-review- I never got around to writing my own review of the TE2W, but Eric Merced did the honors here. The TE2W is the first Wacom ActiveES tablet I owned and it's an exceptional value.

Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/2/20/wacom-companion-2 - I'll admit I haven't gotten as much use out of the CC2 has I had imagined/hoped when I first purchased it. I'm spoiled by having so many other options at my disposal and I consider the CC2 too large and loud to use outside of the office. But performance is fantastic and it's still the one to buy if art is your foremost concern.

June
Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/6/26/thinkpad-yoga-14-sneaks-into-best-buy- My credit cards were able to take a break during April and May, and they were taxed a little more lightly by this Best Buy-exclusive offer. The laptop is my daily driver at the office. I've changed out the slow 1TB HDD for a much more responsive 512 GB SSD. You won't need to make that additional expense if you purchase the latest model, which has been updated several times since I purchased it. The TPY14 offers the best price-performance ratio on the market. It's not a style champion, but the Skylake version is essentially an i5 dGPU Surface Book for half the price.

July
Lenovo Thinkpad Active Capacitive Pen
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/7/7/lenovos-elusive-thinkpad-active-capacitive-pen-arrives - The pen that accompanies Lenovo's Wacom ActiveES devices has since been rebranded as the Lenovo Thinkpad Pen Pro. But it remains a must-have for anyone buying one of the new penabled devices, as the bundled rechargeable pen is too small for serious artists.

October
VAIO Z Canvas
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/10/26/vaio-z-canvas-is-windows-tablet-performance-champ - I was a reluctant buyer but the performance of the VAIO Z Canvas really won me over. It's been discounted $500 in recent weeks and is really hard to pass up at that price.

November
Microsoft Surface Pen
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/5/man-sets-out-to-review-surface-book-settles-for-pen-instead - A must-have for any Surface Pro 3 or 4 owner. The new pen and softer nibs are a huge improvement over their predecessors.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/7/entry-level-surface-pro-4-is-the-only-ipad-pro-youll-ever-need - I purposely decided to review the low end m3 SP4 because I was looking for a fanless option. I love it and find I'm using my i5 SP3 less and less often. This is the perfect digital sketchbook Sorry Apple.

Miscrosoft Surface Book http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/12/5/surface-book-is-great-but-artists-should-stay-with-the-surface-pro - Early growing pains have almost been resolved. This is a beautiful prestige device, but I think it's a less than ideal form factor for digital artists.

December
Apple iPad Pro & Apple Pencil - Coming soon. Trying to take my time so I don't come off like an Apple hater or Microsoft fanboy.

So that's it. Funny doesn't seem like so many gadgets when you put them all on one page. I don't know how many I'll get to review in 2016. You guys were great the first couple of days I began my appeal for donations, but that's all died down now and revenue is no where near where it needs to be to pay for this site. So if you haven't yet, please consider a small contribution or click on as many ads as you can. Also, remember to begin your Amazon shopping sessions with a click on one of our Amazon links and we'll receive a small kickback.

So what was your favorite gadget of 2015? What are you most looking forward to in 2016? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: I've been hopelessly behind on my product reviews since January. It's been my plan to follow up my review of the HP Pro x2 612 G1 with a review of Toshiba's 10" Encore 2 Write. But then the Wacom Companion 2 was released and testing that device has been taking up all of my limited free time. Fortunately, Twitter friend and artist Eric Merced stepped into the fray and purchased and quickly reviewed his Toshiba tablet last week. With his kind permission, I reprint his findings here. Enjoy!

By ERIC MERCED

I tried my best to write a short thorough review of the Toshiba Encore Write 2 tablet that was not just open and honest, but informative for anyone who is in the market for either a Surface Pro 3 or the less expensive Write 2 tablet.

As an artist, my review is technically geared towards Artists looking for a portable drawing solution. However, that does not exclude anyone looking for a solid pen-based tablet.

With that in mind, I do have to say, that if you’re a heavy Photoshop, Corel Painter or Manga Studio user, you may be better suited with the more expensive and higher spec Surface Pro 3 due to the lower specs of the Write 2. And by heavy user, I mean, if you’re a painter who requires lots of memory and processor power, then the Write 2 may under perform for you.

I broke this review in two simple sections targeting the Write 2 and comparing it to the Surface Pro 3. Hopefully, this will help you decide which device is better suited for your needs.

THE GOOD STUFF
Small and lightweight. The Write 2 basically feels like an iPad in your hands. It’s lighter than the Surface Pro 3 and feels much more solid than an iPad. I always got the feeling that if I dropped an iPad or the Surface Pro, it would be game over. While I’m not looking towards dropping the Write 2 anytime soon, I feel that it may be capable of taking a tumble or 2 much better than the iPad or SP. Also, the Write 2 feels way more portable than the SP. Again, just like an iPad, I feel better carrying this thing around versus the SP3 which, even though it’s supposed to be a tablet, is more in line with a laptop.

Windows 8 Desktop Apps in a true portable experience. The allure of the SP3 and the Write 2 is the fact that you can have Windows 8 desktop apps in a portable device. And I’m not talking about desktop equivalent apps here, I’m talking about the actual desktop apps, like Photoshop, on a tablet. With the Surface Pro 3, it’s almost not much of a big deal because, like I mentioned beforehand, the SP3 is like a smaller laptop more than it is a tablet. With the Write 2, you really get the impact of running full Photoshop or Manga Studio in a tablet (as a matter of fact, Microsoft compares it against the Apple Macbook Air and not the iPad). To be honest, there’s more of a wow factor with the Write 2 than there was with the SP. And again, that has to do with the fact that this feels like an iPad. A real tablet. I think every iPad owner that’s a digital Artist really dreams of an Apple solution to the SP and now, the Write 2. As a Mac OSX user myself, I wish Apple would get with the program and create a true portable OSX experience like Microsoft has done with the SP and now, their partners like Toshiba, with the Write 2. I can’t express how awesome it feels to have Photoshop or Manga Studio in such a small device without much compromise. I can truly start something on my desktop, sync via Dropbox, and continue on my Write 2 on the go, or vice versa.

Good battery life. The Write has really good battery life. I can go almost a full day using it without the need of plugging it in. However, there’s a downside which I’ll touch on in the 2nd portion of the review below.

The pen (Stylus). The Write 2’s pen is such an improvement over the SP3’s pen by leaps and bounds. First of all, when you first set up a SP3, you need to hold down the SP3 pens top “eraser” button until the SP recognizes the pen via Bluetooth and automatically pairs with it. It takes a few seconds to do this and you get a prompt on screen that it will take as much to set up. The problem with the SP3’s pen is Bluetooth. It’s not a reliable connection and, at times, it will say that the pen is not connected yet you can still use it.  (NOTE: It was pointed out to me by a reader that, as a matter of fact, the Surface Pro 3 pen does not need Bluetooth to function. The Bluetooth is there for the top button which activates Onenote. Thanks Sven!). It’s a wonky set up to say the least. With the Write 2, I can’t recall a set up process. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t. I honestly don’t remember. The fact is, it’s been a hands off and painless experience. The pen just works right out of the box and, I’ve had no connection issues. As a matter of fact, a quick look at the Bluetooth section of the PC Settings and you won’t find any choice for connecting or disconnecting the Write 2’s pen. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Neither the N-Trig pen on the Surface Pro 3 nor the Wacom ActiveES pen on the Encore 2 Write require pairing in order to work, except for the limited cap button functionality cited above.)

Tracking is on par with the SP3. You notice the cursor drag behind the pen if you move fast but this has no noticeable impact on drawing/writing that I’ve noticed.  Yes, you do encounter lag at times with Photoshop or Manga Studio, but it depends on the brush you’re using. I use a lot of custom brushes in both apps and these brushes, at times, require some power to work. But for the most part, the lag is very minor. And as a reference point, I generally work in 8.5x11 or 11x17 at 300dpi’s. And yes, it does have pressure sensitivity which works great in both Photoshop and Manga Studio. Note: I did encounter a lot of frustrating lag when I installed the Wacom Feel Driver. I was told on Twitter that the latest version, as of this writing, did introduce some issues so keep that in mind.

Side slot to store your pen when not in use. This is so cool. The SP3 has a magnetic side where the pen clings on. You can’t use it when you’re charging the SP and, in both my experiences with the 2 units I tried, the magnet’s not even that’s strong. The Write 2’s solution comes via a clip on the side of the pen that you can insert into a slot on the side of the tablet. It works exceptionally well and diminishes any fears of it accidentally slipping out. I do wish it had the same in body slot the Samsung tablets have but, this works well. Also, the cap on the pen is a bonus. Not only does it protect the tip when not in use but, according to Toshiba, it helps with conserving battery life.

A full year of Office 360. Ok. I don’t know why I even added this as a good stuff. Or, yeah, ok. I did write this review on Word but, ok. Fine.

Affordable. The lower end Surface Pro 3 will run you $799 while this will run you $400.

THE BAD STUFF
Slow charging. Yes, it has good battery life but the downside is, in my experience, it takes looooong to charge up. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Nexus 6’s fast charge up time.
Low resolution screen. The only reason I’m even adding this here is because others have brought the point up. Yes, the Surface Pro 3 has a beautiful 12” screen. The thing is just gorgeous and a delight to work on. But the low resolution screen on the Write 2 may not turn you off. At least it didn’t turn me off. As a matter of fact, it’s a non issue for me.

It’s not a powerhouse. In comparison to the Surface Pro 3’s lower end model (see spec comparison below), the Write 2 is no power house. If you’re a heavy Photoshop user who does some intricate paintings that require a lot of processor and memory power, you might want to look at the higher end SP3’s because the Write 2 will disappoint you. With that said, it’s suitable for the kind of work I do. You’re just going to have to take a look at your work and workflow and decide which machine is best for you.
The charger cable is too short. I’m used to charger’s with a good amount of length on the cable. But for whatever reason, the Write 2’s charger is a bit short which makes for an annoyance when, say, sitting on a sofa and needing to plug the charger in while you continue to work. I may actually look into an alternative charger if possible.

No alternate choices for pens. With the Surface Pro 2 I had the choice of using the horrible stock pen or, what quickly became my favorite, the Wacom Feel pen. With the SP3, I believe that changed and your choice was limited to the stock pen. The same is true for the Write 2. I do wish I had a choice of 3rd party pens. While I really do not dislike the stock Write 2 pen (I actually find it better than the SP2’s pen) I do wish I had options. But for now, it will do just fine.

Surprisingly, that’s it for the bad stuff!

So in a nutshell,
Q. Is the Write 2 a suitable replacement for the Surface Pro 2 or 3?
That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for the same power you get from the SP2 or 3, then you might want to look at the latest SP3 models. If you’re looking for a much more portable solution with OK processing power, then the Write 2 might be what you’re looking for. If you don’t mind a smaller screen, again, the Write 2 is what you’re looking for (I do suggest the 10” model over the 8”). However, if you crave for a slightly bigger screen than that of the Surface Pro 2, the Surface Pro 3 has a beautiful 12” screen that does not disappoint.
 

Q. Is the Write 2 a suitable replacement for the Cintiq?
No. Look, in all honesty, if you have the cash to get your hands on a Cintiq Companion, stop reading this. Go get that darn Cintiq Companion. To this date I have not found a tablet that has the feel of the Cintiq screen. The SP2 or 3 did not have it nor does the Write 2. Drawing on these machines is like drawing on glass while the Cintiq’s have a premium textured feel to it that truly feels like drawing on paper. Also, the Cintiq Companion is much more powerful than the Write 2 and as an added bonus, you can plug it into your computer to use when not on the go.

Q. Will it run Photoshop, Manga Studio and or Illustrator?
Yes. Yes and yes. The Toshiba Write 2 basically runs on Windows 8. The same OS you get on desktop, you get in this portable little tablet. It’s friggin awesome. But keep in mind, there’s some squinting to be had. Not every app is optimized for Windows 8 mobile. I think Manga Studio and Sketchbook Pro have the best mobile UI’s out there. And on the Write 2, please stay away from Adobe Photoshop’s experimental UI features for now. They were designed more with the Surface Pro’s screen in mind.

Q. Does the pen have replacement tips?
Yes. And no. It comes with one additional replacement tip but I have not looked online to see if I can order more so, for now, I’ll play it safe and say no.

Q. Is the Write 2 a suitable replacement for the iPad (as a digital portable sketchbook)?
Um, how do I say this politely…. HELL YEAH! Look, iOS has some really amazing apps. Among my favorites were Procreate and iDraw. Unfortunately, you can’t find those out of iOS. But where iPad fails as a digital sketchbook is in the pen department. Bluetooth and pressure sensitive pens are not the best of solutions at the moment. I’ve had plenty of frustrations when dealing with them. But, it’s getting better. Still, when you use an iPad and iOS you’re basically using mobile apps that are not as powerful as desktop apps. I don’t care what opinions you may have about Procreate, you can’t produce high resolution art on it the same way you can in Photoshop. So the iOS experience on the iPad is a very limited one at the moment (fingers crossed on those iPad Pro rumors going around). In the meantime, if you’re looking for an iPad replacement, I highly recommend the Write 2. Windows 8 is a different beast than iOS and it takes some getting used to, but the ability to run desktop apps on a tablet will diminish any gripes you may have with the OS.


SIDE BY SIDE SPECS COMPARISON
SURFACE PRO 3

Display: 12” (2160 X 1440)
Processor: 4th generation Intel Core
Memory: 4, 8GB options
Storage: 64, 128, 256, 512GB Options
Weight: 1.7lbs
OS: Windows 8.1

TOSHIBA ENCORE WRITE 2
Display: 8” (1280 X 800)- I’m not even going to consider the smaller version here because I’m highly recommending you go with the bigger model.
Processor: Intel Atom
Memory: 2GB
Storage: 64GB
Weight: 13.4 oz
OS: Windows 8.1

So there you have it. I hope this review has been informative and helps you decide what machine to get based on your needs. While I really would have settled for a Surface Pro 3, and would still own one if the first or second units I bought hadn’t turned out defective, I have absolutely no regrets from buying the Write 2. In the end, I saved a lot of money and got a slightly more portable machine that still gives me the abilities to do the things I would have on an SP3. While not as powerful as the SP3, it still works great for my workflow and style of art.


See more of my work at www.ericmerced.com


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PRESS RELEASE

TOKYO and LAS VEGAS, Jan. 6, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- Wacom Co., Ltd, announced that Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc. and Toshiba Europe GmbH have adopted "Active ES" pen technology, Wacom's unique capacitive pen solution, for their new Windows 8.1 tablets, the Encore 2 Write (exhibited at CES in the Central Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Booth #11028). 

Wacom leads the industry with its EMR® (Electro-Magnetic Resonance) digital pen sensor solution, and reached 100 million units of component production (cumulative) in April 2014. Wacom has now extended its technology portfolio by adding the "Active ES" pen solution to address broadening needs for pens in mobile products.

The Active ES pen solution handles high performance pen and multi-finger touch inputs simultaneously with a single sensor and a single ASIC controller. It realizes a natural and intuitive writing experience with high speed, precision and pressure sensitivity. By supplying both Active ES and EMR pen solutions, Wacom continues to accelerate digital pen use on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, and lead the way toward the era of digital stationery.

"Toshiba's Encore 2 Write tablets and TruPen stylus proves that Wacom's Active ES solution delivers a best-in-class writing and drawing experience, with accuracy and speed never seen before on tablets," said Masahiko Yamada, president and CEO of Wacom. "Our Active ES pen supports writing, drawing and editing in intricate details with pressure sensitivity, as well as flexibility in design and configuration for OEM partners."

Toshiba's new tablets running Windows 8.1 Update with Bing are ideal travel companions, delivering a powerful Intel® Atom™ performance to help users get the most out of their day.  The "TruPen" stylus brings high precision control to your work -- taking notes in meetings or lectures without sacrificing the writing feel of pen on paper, regardless of speed.

The TruPen is also ergonomically designed, making it comfortable to hold over long periods of time. Thanks to its pressure-sensitive tip, users are always in complete control of every line they write or draw. Furthermore, each model's elegant design features a special slot for attaching the pen to the tablet, so it's always handy for jotting down ideas or developing to-do lists.

By promoting the adoption of feel™ technologies in a variety of mobile devices, Wacom partners with industry leaders in making the world a more creative place.

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AuthorRick Rodriguez
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