EDITOR'S NOTE: Justice Frangipane is one of the co-developers of Tablet Pro, formerly TabletPCMouse. That utility is currently in beta 35 and coming along really nicely. We'll have an updated post soon.

By JUSTICE FRANGIPANE

I had looked forward to this event for a full year, waiting, anxiously awaiting. Would the Surface Pro 4 work for me as an artist? I should state that I am not a journalist, which will likely become evident in the next few paragraphs. I’m a software developer for a tool that’s built to enhance the tablet drawing experience. I am a tablet art geek to the core. I can site in a matter of seconds 15 different components that are needed for the Surface Pro 4 to meet my expectations as an artist and as a developer. But frankly, most artists don’t freak out over specs. So let’s get to the “goods”.


How does it feel? The answer my friends is “goods, very goods”


I have been fortunate enough to try out both the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book as drawing tools. As tools for graphic artists, they are the exact same machine so I will only refer to the Surface Pro 4 from here forward with the notion that both work the same for artists. The differences start to vary more when you consider the needs of motion/video graphics, and 3d modelers. How do they compare to the Wacom Standard or the standard set last generation with the Surface Pro 3? Initially, during my first use of the Surface Pro 4, I was immediately in love, head over heels,. If I could have snuck away on a romantic honeymoon with either device I would have. The friction of the pen to the screen was lovely, it has just the right amount of glide and traction to make it feel smooth and natural. The glassy pen feel of the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 2 are gone. Or at least that was my initial impression. 

Pen tips - Not what I was expecting

I was handed a set of pen tips by the manager of the Microsoft Store. The tips all had familiar names to me. 2H - H - HB - B. I knew what I expected to feel. Soft with the B, Harder tip with the 2H. What I experienced was kind of a shock to me. I also was looking for a different line on the screen to show up. Lighter with the 2H, darker and softer with the B. But the lines were exactly the same. Perhaps in a different program with different settings I may have experienced more of the intended user experience. But they ended up feeling like the term “hardness” was being swapped for “frictionless”... B had the most traction and grip on the screen, it felt identical to me to the standard tip in the Surface Pro 4 pen. HB and H were similar to the Surface Pro 3 pen or Surface Pro 2 pen. 2H was very glassy. So how does that affect my opinion on the device for artists? Not at all. The standard tip is likely the only one that I plan on using (at the moment), but time will tell. Do the tips come with the pen? Microsoft, I would love to be able to get a little more info on the final shipping product. Bought separately the tips cost $10. 

Screen Size and Thickness

The Surface Book screen is pretty large. 13.5 inches felt vast to me, especially coming from a Surface Pro 2. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as when it was detached it was very easy to hold. The combined weight of the keyboard and the tablet was more than most people will want to casually carry around. I’ve been told that the battery life of the Surface Book tablet (minus the keyboard) is around 3 hrs. While I haven’t been able to confirm this information it does sound reasonable and probable. 

The Surface Pro 4 has a smaller footprint than the Surface Book and one that is identical to the Surface Pro 3. Below is an image of the Surface pro 2 - 4 with the Surface Book in the bottom right and Surface Pro 4 directly above it. 

Tablet thickness can be seen below with the Surface Book being the closest in the shot. 

Tracking - How does the tip line up? 

The tracking on the device is one of the most stand out features. It was immaculate and accurate. Spot on. Corners we excellent and on point as well. It really does feel like a ball point pen on paper. This is not a surprise as the tracking on the Surface Pro 3 was also quite good. 

Eraser - Why not? 

Eraser users are a diminishing populace. This is I believe due to the extra time it takes to flip the pen around and use the eraser on the end, a feature which was missing on the Surface Pro 3. If you fancy an old school eraser feel... you are in luck. The eraser on the pen feels sticky and EXACTLY like you would expect. I kept looking for the little rubber eraser grunge that knocks off the end when you use a real eraser. If you are one of the few remaining eraser buffs on the planet you will likely be very satisfied. 

Pressure sensitivity - Is 1024 levels enough to compete with the Wacom Cintiq professional standard? 

This is a tricky topic as there is a few ways to address this issue as an artist. I’ve had tablets (about 8 in total) where I’ve had 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and it worked great. I’ve also had other tablets with more that worked far worse for a number of different reasons. Pressure sensitivity has not been a “make or break” aspect in my experience. Do I like that the new Surface Pro 4 has 1024? Yes. In testing have I been able to notice or use those levels? No. 

While testing the two machines I was not able to test pressure sensitivity in photoshop. Different drawing programs use different api’s that handle pen tip pressure in different ways. I saw great range in line thickness in artrage, while corel painter 2016 (which was preinstalled on the Surface Pro 4) I was unable to see that variation likely due to my ignorance of that program. 

Bugs and Buttons - Is it ready for primetime?

Not yet, during my tests on about 5 Surface Pro 4 and 1 Surface Book I found the majority to suffer from a pen issue that kept the pen tip down even while the tip was off the screen. This resulted in one line unintentionally being connected to next line and “drips” from the tip while drawing. 

Does that concern me or alter my decision to buy one (most likely the Surface Book to allow for the addition of more intensive gaming)?

No. Microsoft has proven that they can get the N-trig tech to work on the Surface Pro 3. The machines I tested were pre release units that didn’t contain the full system specs of the final product. (the Surface Pro 4’s I tested had 4gb ram, 128 gb ssd and an i5 6300u processor, while the Surface Book I tested had 8gb of ram, 512gb ssd and also had an i5 6300u processor) neither option is available online. 

The Surface Pro 4 pen does come with a side button, which may not be visible to most people. It is a single button (not two buttons like the Surface Pro 3). 

I couldn’t find any way to customize the pen side button (a process I’m familiar with), this would be a welcome addition if it isn’t there yet. As most of us know, the pen does require a battery, it requires pairing to the device (extremely easy to do) and the battery is supposed to last 1 year. 

Final thoughts?

If you are on the fence about getting a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book for digital art, go for it. Microsoft’s track record has improved year over year. They have bug fixed the units before and I believe that they will do so again. If you are needing a machine to work perfectly as soon as you open the box, this may not be the safest bet just yet. 

Microsoft, my hat is off to you, stellar product, a few things to fix yet, but I can’t wait to get my Surface Book. 

for more watch the video

When I was first approached by the folks behind TabletPCMouse a couple of months ago, I was frankly perplexed. The utility developed by Japanese developer Takashi Yamamoto creates a virtual trackpad on your Windows tablet's display (see demo video, right). 

We all know that desktop touch targets can be very small and difficult to hit accurately, especially on complex professional programs. Controlling the screen pointer with the virtual trackpad is indeed easier than attempting to tap with a finger. But whenever I'm in tablet mode, I'm seldom without my pen, so whatever the added accuracy, I find it's much faster to tap the pen tip directly onto the target.

The software also enables users to access a large array of customizable two-, three-, four- and five-fingered gestures which can be very "handy." (Pun intended). 

I thought this latter feature was very useful and I intended to write a note about the utility at that point, but it was a complex enough utility that I felt I couldn't do it justice with the time I had available, so it quickly fell off my radar.

The developers persisted and contacted me again this week to offer a peek at the upcoming version 2.0 beta. My interest was piqued when I learned that this new version offers an ArtDock alternative called "Artist Pad." Development of the free utilities Toolbar Creator and RadialMenu, which I've covered extensively, has slowed in recent months, so it's nice to see a new option on the horizon.

Once installed, TPCM makes it extremely easy to create customized Artist Pads with your favorite keyboard shortcuts. The layouts are saved as .ini files that you can load in and out as often as you like. I created the Photoshop Artist Pad here (see left) after only a few minutes of getting familiar with the utility.

TabletPCMenu is free to download from the Windows App Store, but to unlock all its features, you'll want to pay the $10 premium. At this writing, the software is on sale for $4.99.

What's odd about the tool is that the app doesn't do much without the presence of the desktop add-on. It's this confusion about the way the two programs interact that kept me from writing about it earlier.

In case you'd like to give the utility a try, below is a step by step guide to getting the program up and running. (Apologies if the layout is weird. Squarespace's Layout Engine is giving me fits with this post!)

STEP 1. Download the Tablet PC Mouse Manager App from the Windows Store.

STEP 2. Run the App and select Get Desktop Program

STEP 3. Download the desktop program. At the moment, this downloads the 1.9x version. When you register your email address, you will get the 2.0 beta and eventual update.

 
 

The settings (above) also offer customization of the pointer and virtual keyboard, but for the remainder of this post, I'll focus on customizing the ArtistPad.

STEP 4. Install the desktop application.

STEP 5. Access the TabletPCMouse settings from the notifications tray.

STEP 6. Insert your Bonus Code to unlock commercial features.

Once inside the settings menu, TabletPCMouse offers a wide and potentially confusing array of options (click on any of the images below to see larger versions).

My advice is to take your time with each screen, testing the settings one at a time until you're comfortable with the options.

To access the ArtistPad, tick it in the Current Mode (left).

Side Float and Full Screen settings (below) allow you to set up customized gestures. This is a really great feature that should be part of the OS. The developers state that TabletPCMouse is compatible with Windows 10, so this may end up being a lifesaver if Microsoft removes a gesture from 8.1 that you've grown to love.

In one of the oddest design choices of the utility, selecting the Layout settings (left) only offers the opportunity to edit the layout in the Modern app (below).

By default, the layout screen opens up the Float trackpad (above). I wasn't able to load the Artist Pad from the Layout pulldown, so it took a little trial and error by loading the Artist Pad on the desktop and then selecting "Edit layout with store app" (above left).

Once the Artist Pad is available in the Layout window, save a new .ini file in case you want to go back to the original settings.

Customizing your Artist Pad is very simple: just click on a button (below left), enter its keyboard equivalent and modifier keys and size, position and rename it. In the example below, tapping the Open button will send the Ctrl-O shortcut.

By default, the Artist Dock buttons are 15 units tall, but in order to add many more buttons, I reduced the height to 7. At present, it looks like Artist Pads are limited to two columns.(CORRECTION: The pad can contain more columns, but I haven't figured out how to do so.)

You can drag the buttons around as you like, but they don't snap consistently. Just pay attention to the x and y coordinates to keep your buttons evenly spaced. It would be nice to be able to move multiple buttons at once or add graphical separators to keep the items better organized.

When you have a button you like, just Clone it to add a similar one.

Once your Artist Pad is completed, save the .ini file and load it in the desktop settings. (I told you the bouncing back and forth between apps is weird and a little tedious).

When the Artist Pad is loaded (left), it has a hamburger menu icon in the top left that allows you to quickly load settings or jump to the layout app. The blank area next to the hamburger menu allows you to click and drag the pad around the screen.

You can set the Artist Pad's opacity in the Settings tab and the Minus icon will minimize it.

For a beta product, TabletPCMouse is very robust. It works with both Wacom and N-Trig devices. Be aware that on N-Trig tablets like the Surface Pro 3, the pen's proximity to the screen will disable touch. On Wacom tablets, touch is only disabled at the moment that the tip touches the screen. In any event, this means that the keystroke can't be held down as you use your pen. 

TabletPCMouse mitigates this limitation somewhat by toggling modifier keys like Alt and Shift. For those shortcuts, once they are tapped they will stay depressed until they are tapped again.

This is a very worthwhile utility and the developers are eager to get feedback from the SurfaceProArtist community. The first 20 commenters on this post will receive free licenses in order to provide more feedback and advice on the beta. For more details visit TabletPCMouse.com

Posted
AuthorRick Rodriguez
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