The surprisingly capable new tablet is almost undone by its companion pen.
There's nothing not to like...except the pricing strategy.
Until tilt compatibility for your device is confirmed, proceed with caution.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Windows Store app simply known as Surface was updated Wednesday to enable users to customize the Surface Pen's cap button.
Up to now, single clicking the pen button automatically only launched with Modern version of OneNote, a nice feature for anyone who uses that software. For the rest of us, it was at best a novelty. Now any app or desktop application is a simple button click away. In the screenshot below, I set the single click to launch Clip Studio Paint.
Unfortunately, this new functionality is limited to the new Surface Pen and the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Even when using the new Surface Pen on the Surface Pro 3, Button Customization is not listed as an option.
*INSTANT UPDATE: Brennan McCullar on Twitter advised me of the following Reddit thread that describes how to bring the functionality to your older devices. It's a little complicated and subject to being overwritten every time a Windows Update is released (in my experience, the OS will want to revert to official drivers whenever you install something not expressly created for your device). If you decide to give this a try, let me know if you have any luck: https://www.reddit.com/r/Surface/comments/3x8xzd/microsoft_now_offers_full_surface_pen_button/
The app allows you to customize the single-click, double-click and press-and-hold actions (below, left). The latter is configured to launch Cortana by default (below, right) but can also call up Cortana Ink Reminders if you like to jot yourself the occasional digital Post-It.
The Brad Colbow video review I embedded yesterday freaked me out. Brad's video depicts tremendous, unacceptable lag in Photoshop and worse, he identified a stroke tapering behavior that is impossible not to notice. Could I really have blown my m3 Surface Pro 4 evaluation so badly?
So I overcame my usual aversion to recording my scribbling tests and here's the verdict: guilty. The lag and tapering are definitely there, not only in Photoshop but in Clip Studio Paint as well.
The good news is that I think I can argue for a pardon, because as I demonstrate below, the problems manifest themselves in a drawing style that is foreign to me.
You have to use a lot of pressure to see the tapers. As you'll see in the videos below, I sketch very lightly and even the 60 pixel brushes that I'm using in both applications show up more like 12 px strokes. While the strokes are still tapered at that size, those tapers seem a lot more natural than they do at full size.
You'll note that as I'm scribbling very quickly, both applications have no trouble keeping up. It's only once I try to achieve maximum pressure that there's a discernible delay for Photoshop especially to complete the stroke.
In the first wobbly video (it's hard to draw while trying to frame the shot with the your free hand!), I adjust the pen pressure in the Surface app. Brad's video captured the problem with stroke tapers here as well. Despite my best efforts, I don't see them except for a couple of strokes in the video thumbnail.
The next test is in Clip Studio Paint Pro and demonstrates the speed and fluidity of that program on the m3 Surface Pro 4. Tapers are barely perceptible at the ends of thin strokes. It's only when I try to get 100% pen pressure that I get the little pinch at the end of the stroke.
Hopefully the video below illustrates why I missed the lag in my written review. You hear an audible click every time I force the pen down with maximum pressure. It's a totally unnatural amount of force for me. It's also unclear how much of the lag is being contributed by Photoshop not being optimized for the new sixth generation M3 processor and its Intel HD Graphics 515 GPU.
So from what you see here, is the tapering a deal breaker? It's definitely not ideal and may be something that can be corrected in a future update. I certainly can live with it and compensate for it. Let me know if you could do the same in the comments section below.
As for the Photoshop lag, it's harder to say whether this is a hardware, driver or software issue. The lag is present whether I turn gpu acceleration on or off. Once again, I can work around it. I don't use Photoshop for drawing anyway. But can you?
Illustrator Brad Colbow's video reviews are always good for their mix of information, insight and humor. He just posted his review of the m3 Surface Pro 4 and has scenes of it running Photoshop, Illustrator and Clip Studio Paint.
This is the same model that I glowingly reviewed yesterday and his results are radically different than mine. Although he is surprisingly positive on the product, I could never recommend the entry level SP4 if it was as laggy as he demonstrates here. Even stalwart CSP looks like it's having trouble keeping up.
I've asked Brad to share his exact settings so that I can try to reproduce his configuration (and the troubling strokes that he illustrates at about the 6:30 mark). I'll update my review or this post once I determine whether they are reproducible.
If any of you have seen similar behavior, please let me know in the comments section below.