Microsoft yesterday released a series of fixes to its Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book Touch and Pen drivers that appear to have resolved a long-standing problem with pen stroke tapering and smoothing.

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.

N-Trig DuoSensePen2 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 - 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:


Toshiba 8" Encore 2 Write - 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.

Lenovo Thinkpad 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.

HP Pro x2 612 G1 - 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.

Toshiba 10" Encore 2 Write 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 - 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.

Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 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.

Lenovo Thinkpad Active Capacitive Pen - 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.

VAIO Z Canvas - 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.

Microsoft Surface Pen - 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 - 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 - 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.

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. 


A funny thing happened on the way to writing this review...

Actually, it was more like dozens of very annoying things kept cropping up as I was doing my testing of the Surface Book: daily, often hourly system freezes, display driver crashes, blue screens of death, etc. etc.

I returned my first Surface Book after only three days of utter frustration and thought I would have to wait until December for a replacement. However, a shipment of i7/8/256/dGPU models arrived unexpectedly at the local Microsoft Store a couple weeks later and I was back in business. Unfortunately this unit began locking up too, though far less frequently than its predecessor.

Microsoft released a UEFI update November 18 that it believes fixes the lockups once and for all. And since installing it, my Surface Book has been relatively solid. On December 2, Microsoft released a System Hardware Update that addressed persistent display driver crashes. Now the only remaining issue is a power management bug that the company says it won't fix until the new year.

We certainly hope so, because once its launch troubles are behind it, there's very little not to like about the Surface Book. This new flagship is a premium product with a premium pricetag. It's clearly not for the masses, but it is a great aspirational device that should push the state of Windows computing forward. Just like OEMs (and Apple) have begun copying the best design features of the Surface Pro 3, I suspect we'll see more devices with Surface Book DNA showing up in 2016.

Because the Surface Book's release was so well-received and reviewed extensively across the web, I won't focus on the basic details you can find elsewhere. Some of the highlights for me are the best backlit keyboard you'll find on a Surface device, the largest and most responsive trackpad, the brightest, roomiest and sharpest display.

If you're torn deciding between a Surface Book and a Surface Pro 4, the decision is not as difficult as you might imagine. Setting price considerations aside, if you need a discrete GPU for rendering or gaming, the Book is your only Microsoft Surface-branded option. If you will be working in traditional laptop mode more than 50% of the time, get a Book. But for those primarily interested in art and directly interacting with the display, the Surface Pro 4 is the better way to go.

Over the last few years I've reviewed several convertible or 2-in-1 laptops, such as the Acer Aspire R7-572, the Sony Flip 15A and the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 12 and 14. In each of those instances, the display remained attached to the keyboard base. Flipping the display into tablet mode ranged from ridiculously easy (Acer) to cumbersome (Yogas).

While detaching the Surface Book screen and going into "clipboard" mode is easy enough, flipping into "creative" mode requires two free hands to flip and guide the large screen into place. More importantly, you can't enter in and out of these configurations on a whim.

Although the detached clipboard mode is nice, you'll probably want to do the bulk of your pen-related work in creative mode because that's the only way you're able to tap into the extended battery life and discrete NVidia GPU located in the keyboard base. But if that GPU is occupied, you have to wait for that task to complete before you can detach the screen. This shouldn't be more than an inconvenience in most instances, but I ran into one scenario that could cause some serious grief.

When the display is detached or flipped into creative mode, the keyboard is inoperable. I had the Book in this configuration when I started a 3DS Max animation. The touch targets are very small in that application and the playback controls were being unresponsive to the pen. The only other way I know to exit animation playback is the Esc key. Unfortunately, the on-screen keyboard doesn't have an Esc key. (If there's an Alt equivalent that I'm unaware of,  the on-screen keyboard doesn't have an Alt key either!) So I was stuck. I couldn't detach the display in order to flip it because the GPU was engaged. Ultimately I was forced to quit the program via Task Manager. Had I not saved my file prior to running into this roadblock, I might have lost a lot of work.

Windows 8.1 had an option to display a second, full-featured keyboard on screen. That selection appears ghosted in Windows 10 and I can't find any options related to this in PC settings. If you have any information on this, please leave a comment.

For future versions of the Surface Book, Microsoft should definitely add the ability to power on the keyboard separately and have it communicate wirelessly. In the meantime, you will want to keep a Bluetooth keyboard close by while you work in creative mode, just in case.

If you should shut down your Surface Book while in the Creative configuration, you'll need to turn it back on and use the on-screen eject button in order to get in back into laptop mode for transporting. If you power down your Clipboard while detached, it will reattach to the keyboard without having to power it back up. Thank heaven for small favors!

Due to its unique hinge, the Surface Book's creative configuration forms a wedge that provides a slight incline (perhaps five degrees) to the display. This is preferable to writing on an entirely flat surface, but the angle isn't large enough to make much of a difference. If you plan to work this way on a desk or tabletop, you'll probably need to prop the Surface Book up with something to find a more comfortable drawing angle.

Clip Studio Paint work-in-progress inks over amazing pencils by the legendary Gil Kane.

Clip Studio Paint work-in-progress inks over amazing pencils by the legendary Gil Kane.

The laptop is light enough that I had no difficulty resting it on my lap as I drew. The curved hinge comes in handy in portrait mode, where it can double as a grip for your free hand as you draw (see left).

While detached, the Surface Book display performs exactly like the equivalent i5 or i7 Surface Pro, except for the fact that it is powering a larger display at a whopping 3000 x 2000 pixels. Battery life is limited to only three hours. I haven't run it all the way down yet, but running Clip Studio Paint with a browser open in the background, I was at 50% battery after only an hour in balanced power mode with 25% brightness. The Windows power meter isn't very reliable, reporting wildly different "time remaining" each time I check.

The detached i7 tablet tends to run cooler than my i5 Surface Pro 3 tablets. On those, significant heat collects in the upper right corner of the tablet. Heat appears to be better distributed along the length of the Surface Book display, collecting close to the keyboard ports. I'm not sure how air flows through the vents located all around the perimeter of the tablet, but it concerns me that my clothes may be insulating the warmest area as I hold it in my lap. To be safe, I occasionally rotated the display so that the warm areas were located away from my clothing.

I really miss the kickstand. There are times when you want to place the clipboard on a desk or tabletop and working flat is just not as pleasant as the variable angles offered by the Surface Pro. As I use the Clipboard, I can't help but dream of a Surface Book XL with this display size and none of its compromises.

Speaking of angles, when the display is reattached, I wish the Surface Book would open up perhaps another 5-10 degrees. The maximum opening is just a little too vertical to provide optimal viewing angles.

As expected, the Surface Book did well vs. other dual core tablets in most benchmarks I ran, although the VAIO Z Canvas bested it in most tests. I think this is because most of the benchmarks are heavily weighted toward CPU results, where the dual core 6600U is outmatched by the quad core 4770HQ.

Also tests from 3DMark report that the Surface Book's NVidia display driver is unapproved, which must account for some of the poorer results, especially compared to the Thinkpad Yoga's 940M GPU.

I'm new to Bapco's TabletMark benchmarks, but the chart to the left is fairly consistent with the results of other benchmarks I ran. See full benchmark results below which I will update if and when the NVidia driver is recognized by 3DMark.

Pen response in 2D programs like Clip Studio Paint, Photoshop and Sketchable is on par with the Surface Pro and I don't have much new to add to the record in that regard. In a couple of earlier posts, we've reported and confirmed Brad Colbow's finding that there is a bug in the new Surfaces that creates an odd aberration at the end of strokes applied with a lot of pressure (see below). Microsoft is aware of the issue and has confirmed that they are looking into it. Whether or not this problem is a showstopper depends on your drawing style. I draw lightly enough that the bug rarely bothers me. (I didn't notice it at all doing my Surface Pro 4 review.)

A more common issue for my drawing style is a small nipple at the end of heavy strokes. At first I thought this was similar to the bug described above, but actually it's a result of the much softer HB and B nibs that I've been using. Because of the increased screen friction, I have to be more conscious of stopping my pen; otherwise, it continues for a short distance past my intended end point, creating an unintentional "skid mark."

The Surface Book's 3:2, 13.3-inch screen is a nearly perfect drawing area, but as I wrote above, if your main desire is to draw, you're better off sacrificing an inch for the added flexibility of the Surface Pro 4.

Unless typing is your main concern, lower cost models of the Book don't offer any other significant advantages. It's only when you add in a discrete GPU that the Book begins to distinguish itself from the rest of the Surface line.

I installed Blender and the full Autodesk suite on the Surface Book. Thanks to 3DS Max artist Adrian Wise who provided a torture test scene that allowed me to see how well the Surface Book performed.

As you can see in the video above, 3DS Max is a bit of a nightmare to use on a high resolution display. Its UI doesn't scale correctly or uniformly. Fonts in some menus can be resized but others remain nearly microscopic. Most icons do not scale. In order to make the software usable, I changed the Surface Book resolution to 1600 x 1200. Even at this reduced resolution, touch targets are very small and often unresponsive as you can see in the video. 

When I was able to get the software to react to my pen or touch, viewport performance is actually fairly smooth and playback was 24 fps thanks to the dGPU. By contrast, I was only able to get the file to play at 20 fps on the VAIO Z Canvas (although that was running at 2560 x 1704 resolution).

A 1000 x 1000 MentalRay render took 41:06 on the Surface Book vs. 23:31 on the VAIO ZC. Switching over to an iRay GPU accelerated render, the Surface Book completed 500 passes in 6:08!

Maya's UI is better behaved on the Surface Book but I didn't get a chance to try to do much with it. I installed the Redshift GPU renderer in order to check out a benchmark scene, but the Surface Book doesn't have enough video RAM to process the file.

Once the NVidia drivers mature, the situation may change, but for now I have to conclude that if you're looking for a workstation class laptop, you'll be disappointed with the Surface Book.

The Surface Book is a stylish product and it will likely appeal most to executives and enthusiasts with plenty of disposable income. It's a beautiful device and a sure crowd-pleaser. But 2D artists will be better-served by a comparably equipped Surface Pro 4 for several hundred dollars less. Power users will be better-served by the VAIO Z Canvas or another workstation class laptop. And everyone else looking for a powerful yet affordable two-in-one device should look closely at the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga line.

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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MobileTechReview's Lisa Gade has just posted this great video comparison of the latest, greatest releases from Microsoft and the upstart VAIO Z Canvas.

Well worth a look! Though I don't think I'd ever describe the drawing experience as "creamy."

Lisa Gade compares the Vaio Z Canvas with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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This blog entry was supposed to be my promised Surface Book review. But fate intervened and I received a device that was highly unstable, suffering from frequent lockups and even a few BSODs.

If you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll know that I tried everything I could think of to correct the freezes, but after three days of utter frustration, I decided to return the Surface Book to my local Microsoft Store.

The new Microsoft Surface Pen and replacement nib kit retails in the US for $60. A standalone nib set is available for $10. The pen is compatible with the Surface Pro 3 and other N-Trig DuoSense2 devices. The nibs will not fit in other pens.

The new Microsoft Surface Pen and replacement nib kit retails in the US for $60. A standalone nib set is available for $10. The pen is compatible with the Surface Pro 3 and other N-Trig DuoSense2 devices. The nibs will not fit in other pens.

Ignoring telephone support may have been a mistake because several others who were having similar issues were able to get replacement units after troubleshooting via phone. By the time I decided to try to swap out my machine in person, I was told that the soonest I could expect a replacement was mid-December.

I opted instead to ask for a refund and will sit on the sidelines to see how quickly Microsoft can address the lingering issues with their new flagship product.

There’s much to like about the Surface Book and I’m fairly certain that my review would have been relatively glowing were it not for the hardware issues I encountered. Although all reviews I’ve read have mentioned some niggling problems, no major reviewers have complained about frequent lockups. So I will assume that mine was an isolated, though not entirely unique, case. The "Surface Book is Freezing" thread on Microsoft’s support forums is currently well over 300 posts long.

So despite my frustration with the Surface Book, I was despondent to let it go. To console myself, I decided to apply a small portion of my refund to a new Surface Pro Type Cover ($130) and Surface Pen ($60).

The new Type Cover is outstanding: a huge step up from the last generation. I’ll have more to say about it during my Surface Pro 4 review.

Although I still have the new Surface Pen that came with the Surface Pro 4, I was eager to try the new nib set bundled with the replacement pen.

On the basis of my in-store testing, I’ve already advised several readers and Surface Pro 3 users to skip an upgrade to the new tablet and opt for a peripheral upgrade instead. Although the new pen won’t give SP3 owners any additional pressure sensitivity, I do believe the new nibs and eraser tip are worth the money if, like me, you like a little more “tooth” or friction from your pen nib.

The replacement nib set (right) includes four nibs of varying hardness, from 2H (very hard) to B (very soft). The standard nib in the Surface Pen is HB. The H nib approximates the hardness of the Surface Pro 3 pen. The replacement pen included in the set is also equipped with its own HB nib.

The nib set includes four nibs of varying hardness. The pen is supplied with its own HB nib.

The nib set includes four nibs of varying hardness. The pen is supplied with its own HB nib.

That standard nib is such an improvement over the slippery "plastic on glass" response of the Surface Pro 3 that I believe most users will be very happy with it. However, I found the B to be even better, approximating the toothiness of the Wacom Stylus Feel nibs I still recommend for the Surface Pro 1 and 2 and other Wacom EMR tablet PCs.

The 2H and H nibs are so hard that I don't see ever using them myself. Perhaps artists doing very fine line drawing may appreciate the hardness. I tested the nibs on one device with a Photodon MXH film screen protector and found the H was acceptable on it, but I still preferred the HB. This is all a matter of personal preference of course. You may reach an entirely different conclusion.

When the Surface Pen is used against a new Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book, it provides naturalistic feedback as pressure is applied. You can feel the sensation of the nib moving slightly into the pen body the harder you press.

This isn't the case when you use the new pen on a Surface Pro 3 or other N-Trig DuoSense2 device. Although the nibs feel great, pressing harder doesn't provide feedback. I don't know how Microsoft achieves this trick with their new hardware, but it's very convincing.

Most reviewers have already mentioned the Surface Pen's eraser tip, which really feels like a rubber eraser on both new and older devices. If you like to erase that way, you should really enjoy the sensation.

The sculpted Surface Pro 3 pen nib (top) and the new Surface Pen nibs are not interchangeable.

The sculpted Surface Pro 3 pen nib (top) and the new Surface Pen nibs are not interchangeable.

Since the only advantage of the new pen for Surface Pro 3 users is the new nib texture, you may wonder if you can just replace your current pen's nibs with the new generation replacements. Unfortunately, they're very differently sculpted (see above) and the new nib would have to be tapered in order to seat properly into the older pen's body.

Swapping nibs is very straight forward. The nib case itself cleverly doubles as an extractor (see below). Make sure to apply a lot of pressure between your index finger and thumb or the nib will slip. I lost my grip as I was pulling out a nib and lost an HB nib against the gray-black patterned carpeting in my office and it hasn't turned up since.

I hope that Microsoft eventually offers sets of same-hardness nibs. I would hate to pay $10 for a new replacement set when I'm only ever going to use one or two of the nibs.  If any of you reading this prefer the hard nibs to the soft ones, message me and let's create a nib-swapping club!

The bottom of the replacement nib holder doubles as a nib extractor. Apply heavy pressure with finger and thumb or the nibs will slip!

The bottom of the replacement nib holder doubles as a nib extractor. Apply heavy pressure with finger and thumb or the nibs will slip!

The Surface Pen (middle) is compatible with N-Trig DuoSense2 pens like the Sony Active Pen (top) and the Surface Pro 3 pen (bottom). The new pen has a single side button that is hidden under the tip end of the raised rubber strip located along the pen's flat edge.

The Surface Pen (middle) is compatible with N-Trig DuoSense2 pens like the Sony Active Pen (top) and the Surface Pro 3 pen (bottom). The new pen has a single side button that is hidden under the tip end of the raised rubber strip located along the pen's flat edge.

The new Surface Pen is slightly longer than the Surface Pro 3 pen and it has a flat edge where the single side switch is located. That button is hidden at the tip end of the raised rubber accent strip. As much as I would have liked Microsoft to have kept a second programmable button, the flat edge and rubber strip really make it comfortable to grip the pen and move it with my index finger. Not trying to be cheeky, but the pen really does feel more like a pencil now. 

Unfortunately, the side switch is not programmable; it will only function as a right click.

The eraser tip button has three functions: single-click launches OneNote, double-click triggers a screenshot (a fantastic new feature!) and clicking and holding calls up Cortana.

If any of this functionality is important to you, you'll need to pair your pen via your Bluetooth settings. You won't need to pair the pen in order to just draw with it on your Surface Pro 3 or other N-Trig device.

At the Surface Pen's unveiling, Microsoft indicated that the pen would hold a one year charge. Following that confusing statement, many users who've tested the new pen at a local Microsoft Store or Best Buy have come away convinced that the pen is disposable. That's absolutely not the case. The Surface Pen contains a AAAA battery that should last a year between replacements.

Microsoft has inexplicably changed the the cap design so that the pen is nearly impossible to open unless you know the magic combination. And even doing so, I really worried I was going to break the pen trying to pry off the cap.

As illustrated below, the cap requires an 1/8 of a counter-clockwise turn in order to align a notch in the cap with a contact in the barrel. And it still will require significant force to pull the cap off when it's properly aligned. Putting the cap back on requires carefully aligning the cap notch and  contact.

The bottom line is that this process is so finicky and precise, that I recommend you just bookmark this article now so that you can come back to it in a year's time when you need to replace your pen battery!

Opening the Surface Pen's battery compartment requires turning the cap about 1/8-counter-clockwise before pulling.

Opening the Surface Pen's battery compartment requires turning the cap about 1/8-counter-clockwise before pulling.

The blurry barrel opening (bottom) contains a notch that must be aligned with the silver contact in the pen cap (right).

The blurry barrel opening (bottom) contains a notch that must be aligned with the silver contact in the pen cap (right).

In addition to testing the pen on the Surface Pro 3, I also tried it out on the VAIO Z Canvas and the Sony VAIO Flip 15A. In both cases, I vastly preferred the quieter soft nibs of the Surface Pen vs. the hard tapping of the VAIO and Sony pens. As I mentioned earlier, screen protectors will interact with your nib texture, so the softness you prefer on glass may be unacceptably draggy on screen protector film.

I really didn't encounter any meaningful difference in drawing results using the new pen and nibs. On the Surface Pro 3, the added friction provided a bit more confidence in my strokes. Conversely, on the VAIO Z Canvas, the added drag introduced a bit more wobble in slow strokes that I ended up rectifying with brush stabilization.

UPDATE: I was asked by a Twitter follower whether the new nibs are susceptible to the same wear as the SP3 nibs. I'm not sure whether later model Surface Pro 3 pens exhibited this issue, but in the early days, the nib would fray around the edges as an outer coating peeled off. The tip wouldn't continue to deteriorate at that rapid rate but that initial impression was very troubling. After about ten days of use, none of my new nibs show any signs of wear.

Ultimately only you will be able to decide whether you like the new nib textures and whether the pen is worth the steep price. But think of it this way: the Surface Pen costs $40 less than an Apple Pencil and the eraser and flat edge are much closer to the feel of a pencil than any pen on the market!

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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Monday was a big day at the labs as we received both the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4.

Most tech sites have already reviewed the devices, but we'll be diving in deeper to truly understand both new devices' strengths and limitations from an art perspective.

Please bear with me as I put them through their paces. Microsoft did not provide review units and so, as I have with nearly everything else I review on this blog, I plunked down cold, hard cash (err, plastic) in the interest of science.

Along with the VAIO Z Canvas and the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 I recently reviewed, the blog is running at a huge deficit for 2015. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as it's never been profitable. But I've never had to outlay as much money as quickly as I have the last month.

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AuthorRick Rodriguez
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