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. 

To properly judge some devices, you need to place them in the appropriate context.

Before Microsoft unveiled the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book lines, the VAIO Z Canvas seemed incredibly expensive to me. I was tempted to dismiss the tablet as an ill-timed, overpriced curiosity.

But now that the $2000 Windows tablet ceiling has been shattered, with highest end configurations of the Surface Book going for over $3000, the Z Canvas actually seems--dare I say it?--reasonably priced.

I was also dismissive of the Z Canvas' Haswell (fourth generation) processor until I learned that this quad core Intel Core i7-4770HQ still runs circles around the fastest sixth gen (Skylake) dual core processors shipping inside competing products.

And finally, to compare the Z Canvas head to head with general purpose tablets like the Surface Pro 3 or 4 is probably missing the point, because VAIO is actually targeting users who would otherwise be in the market for specialized devices like a Wacom Cintiq Companion 2.

From a pure power perspective, the VAIO Z Canvas is something of an engineering marvel. The former Sony engineers at the Japanese startup have managed to pack their tablet with a huge amount of performance that also runs coolly and quietly.

And while the Z Canvas still has its design quirks and limitations (like no discrete GPU), it should reign atop the Windows tablet heap for quite some time to come.

Although it's thick compared to other tablets, the VAIO Z Canvas packs a lot beneath the hood.

Although it's thick compared to other tablets, the VAIO Z Canvas packs a lot beneath the hood.

Build quality is excellent. Although the tablet is by no means heavy, it is a solid 2.67 lbs. without the keyboard and .54 inches thick. When attached, the cover adds .75 lbs. and an extra .17 inch.

The left side of the VAIO Z Canvas is chock full of ports.

The left side of the VAIO Z Canvas is chock full of ports.

All the cables connectors will quickly ruin the tablet's clean aesthetics.

All the cables connectors will quickly ruin the tablet's clean aesthetics.

It features a full array of ports along the left side: power, ethernet, HDMI, mini displayPort, SD memory card reader, 2 USB 3.0, and headphone/microphone port.

The Z Canvas can be used in effectively only one orientation and it's unfortunate that power connector is so close to the Ethernet adapter. The two thick connectors are a tight fit in this location and the cables have to be routed under the kickstand to stay out of the way. It would have been ideal to move power to the right side of the tablet.

The Z Canvas has all of its venting along the top, a major improvement over many devices that force hot air into your lap.

On either side of these vents (see above) are two unique hardware buttons: the left button calls up user-configurable on-screen shortcuts while the right button toggles touch on and off.

The right side of the VAIO Z Canvas.

The right side of the VAIO Z Canvas.

The pen clip and pen grip are two simple and useful enhancements.

The pen clip and pen grip are two simple and useful enhancements.

Volume control is on the right side, along with a magnetic slot to hold the pen. But in another smart move, VAIO includes a pen holder which snaps into the slot. There's very little chance of your pen coming loose in your bag if it's clipped into place inside the holder.

Like the Surface Pro, the Z Canvas built-in has a hinge stand, but that's where the similarities end. The tablet is not really designed for "lapability." Instead, the stand will provide a variety of useful drawing angles on a desk.

The back of the VAIO Z Canvas.

The back of the VAIO Z Canvas.

Opening the stand can take some effort. You need to fit your fingers into a slit above the stand edge and apply quite a bit of force to open it. Closing it by hand is also not encouraged. Instead, you should put the stand on a flat surface and push the display into a flat position.  Conversely, when the stand is sitting on a flat surface in even a mostly closed position, it takes almost no effort to tilt the screen to a 90-degree angle.

The VAIO Z Canvas keyboard cover lies completely flat and is always detached while in use.

The VAIO Z Canvas keyboard cover lies completely flat and is always detached while in use.

The Z Canvas keyboard cover is one of tablet's quirkiest design choices. The keyboard is roomy, with good key travel and a large, good-not-great trackpad. But the keyboard lays completely flat and is always detached, so it's not ideally suited for long stretches of typing. I did write this entire review on the Z Canvas, but it was not the most comfortable experience.

When not working at a desk, the ZC is not what anyone would describe as "lap friendly." The large keyboard will lay flat on your lap, but you will need to grip the sharp metal stand between your knees in order to keep the display steady: an awkward, uncomfortable position, to say the least.

Clearly, VAIO intended its Z Canvas for pen users who only occasionally need to tap keyboard shortcuts. I appreciate that the ZC keyboard works wirelessly (not bluetooth) so that it can be stashed out of the way as you work but still function and I have long wished that Surface keyboards would follow suit. However, I think a smaller bluetooth keyboard with a better typing angle (like Microsoft's Wedge Keyboard) is a better approach.

The three-way power switch and power connector

The three-way power switch and power connector

The Z Canvas keyboard has a three-position power switch. The third position disables the trackpad. There is a small power connector in the upper right corner of the keyboard. While it can be charged separately via a micro USB port located along its top edge, whenever the cover is attached to the display, an amber light turns on to indicate that the keyboard is charging.

When it's attached, the keyboard cover is always drawing some power to recharge itself.

When it's attached, the keyboard cover is always drawing some power to recharge itself.

This is a little disconcerting if battery life is at a premium. I haven't been able to verify how long the keyboard charge lasts, but the tablet seems to hold about a six-hour charge with mixed use (high performance mode, web surfing, writing, at various display brightness levels).

One of the biggest selling points of the Z Canvas is its display and it does not disappoint. The 12.3 inch LCD WQXGA+ 2560 x 1704 IPS display boasts a wide gamut display with 95% coverage of the Adobe RGB spectrum. I have no way of verifying this claim, except to say that it looks gorgeous to me.

As I mentioned above, one of the shortcomings of the Z Canvas is its lack of a discrete GPU, but VAIO claims that its 4th generation Intel Iris Pro 5200 offers as much as 3.7 times the performance of the HD4400 processor found in the Surface Pro 3.

I purchased the $2200 "entry" level Z Canvas with 8 GB RAM and 256 GB Storage. The next model up offers 16/512 and a PCI Express x4 SSD upgrade for an additional $300. The top of the line model offers a 1 TB PCI Express x4 SSD for a whopping $3099.

Benchmark results. Click to enlarge.

The benchmarks I ran roundly defeated nearly every mobile device I own to date. (I can't explain the two slightly better scores the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 got on Fire Strike and Sky Diver). The dramatically better scores in the Geekbench multi-core test are entirely to be expected, given the Z Canvas' two additional cores. I'll include Surface Book comparison results in that review when I publish it sometime in the coming week.

The Z Canvas N-Trig pen is nearly identical to the Sony Active Pen and is compatible with all DuoSense2 devices I've tested. VAIO includes an optional rubber pen grip that I think makes the pen much more comfortable to hold for extended drawing sessions. The two pen side switches can still be accessed through the grip and I find that they are also easier to access this way. The actual pen buttons are almost flush with the pen barrel.

The VAIO Z Canvas pen (middle) is compatible with other DuoSense2 pens like the Surface Pens (3 and 4) and Sony Active Pen.

The VAIO Z Canvas pen (middle) is compatible with other DuoSense2 pens like the Surface Pens (3 and 4) and Sony Active Pen.

The control panel applet contains very limited button settings. You can swap between clearing and right clicking and you can set whether OneNote or the VAIO Clipping tool run when you hover click. There is no eraser tip on the AAAA-battery powered pen.

Button mapping options are limited.

Button mapping options are limited.

Pen pressure settings

Pen pressure settings

Setting tip sensitivity to Normal, Hard or Soft provides three different default pressure curve which you can further modify to your liking. To get the maximum pressure range, I set the tip to Hard. There's an interaction that occurs between this global setting and your favorite paint program that you will need to monitor. If you can set your pressure curve in your favorite software, it might be better to leave your global settings at Normal.

Hard pressure curve

Hard pressure curve

Soft pressure curve

Soft pressure curve

The hardware shortcut menus are accessed by tapping the L button along the top edge of the tablet

The hardware shortcut menus are accessed by tapping the L button along the top edge of the tablet

VAIO and/or Sony clearly worked very closely with N-Trig to get the most out of that tech, which now reaches 1,024 pressure levels. It's unclear whether the improvements in the Z Canvas are the same as those in the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, now that Microsoft owns N-Trig. I need to test them side by side when my new Surfaces arrive, but I think the two results are nearly identical.

The biggest drawback of the VAIO pen is its extremely hard nib. If you don't like the feeling of drawing on glass, you probably won't like the Z Canvas experience. I found the loud taps of the pen tip against the glass pretty annoying after a while. A screen protector that helps deaden the sound is almost a requirement. Unfortunately, VAIO doesn't yet offer its factory-installed film in the US and couldn't offer any information on when that option would be available. I tested the VAIO pen on a Surface Pro 3 with a Photodon screen protector and while it doesn't eliminate the tapping, it lowers the volume quite a bit.

The new Surface Pen is also compatible with the Z Canvas and that pen's default nib is much softer and quieter. Once again, I'll need to test more extensively, but dedicating a Surface Pen to the VAIO may be the way to go. (Although the pens are compatible, their nibs are not interchangeable.)

Setting aside my issues with the tip hardness, the pen experience is the best I've ever had on an N-Trig device.

In Clip Studio Paint, with pen stabilization off, there is very little diagonal jitter on slowly drawn lines. Speeding the stroke slightly eliminates it altogether. A stabilization setting of 15 is the most I think I would ever need. By contrast, I would often crank the setting up to 45 on the Surface Pro 3.

Drawing lag is definitely, a software-specific issue. In Clip Studio, on an A4 canvas at 350 dpi, I could draw rapidly with a 500px Colored Pencil brush. In Photoshop CC 2015 on the same size canvas, a 475px textured brush might take half a second to catch up.

Hover lag has been improved, but can still be distracting. If it bothers you too much, I recommend disabling the hardware cursor. In Clip Studio, I change the Cursor preference from Brush Size to Single Pixel Dot.

Software that I find unusable on other tablets is now an option on the Z Canvas thanks to the ability to quickly turn touch on and off with the press of the R button (located on the top edge of the tablet). Sketchbook Pro and ArtRage are among many applications that I never use on other tablets because I'm always leaving stray marks with my knuckle taps.

The L button calls up the hardware shortcuts menu (far left). This overlay is a great artist-friendly feature that eliminates the need for 90% of third-party add-ons like ArtDock, etc.

The second overlay provides quick access to other innovations like fan speed control, color temperature and pen control. The settings shortcut accesses the control panel (below) that allows you to configure your own sets of shortcuts.

The device already includes shortcuts for popular Adobe CC software like Illustrator, Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as Clip Studio Paint, Corel Painter and Autodesk Sketchbook.

All of the preset shortcuts can be customized.

 

 

The hardware shortcut keys include configurations for top applications.

The hardware shortcut keys include configurations for top applications.

Limiting the Z Canvas to just drawing is also thinking too small. Based on its benchmark results, the tablet should be ideal for video and 3d applications (except those that use GPU rendering).

If you use one of those applications you'll notice the ZC's fans, because it generally runs absolutely silently. I think I've only managed to get the fans to rev up briefly during the Blender render. And despite its horsepower, the tablet stays pleasantly cool to the touch.

Compared to the Surface Pro 3, the VAIO Z Canvas is much better suited for creative users. Due to its speed, size, advanced features and very quiet operation, the ZC is even worth considering versus the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2. The latter has a slight edge thanks to its additional pressure levels, tilt support and textured screen protector. It is also available for less than the VAIO's steep starting price.

It's a shame that the new Surface releases have stolen so much of the thunder from the VAIO Z Canvas. It truly is an outstanding device that deserves a lot more attention.



Posted
AuthorRick Rodriguez
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