Where we've been and where we're going

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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Here was boring old Microsoft, the enterprise company, delivering a key insight: we are all creators.

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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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. 

Our favorite illustrator/humorist/tech reviewer Brad Colbow is back with what may be his best video yet.

After his M3 Surface Pro 4 let him down due to some stroke anomalies, Brad turned his attention to the new Apple iPad Pro. Without a Pencil available to test, he has instead surveyed the wide array of iOS apps, especially those from Adobe.

I'll let him tell you the rest, but I agree 100% with his observations.

Got my new iPad but it will be a few weeks before I get the pencil and can review it. In the mean time I'm checking out what apps are out there and here are my thoughts on what Adobe is bringing to the table.

AuthorRick Rodriguez
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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.


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

The tech blog WinBeta.org sent artist Oliver Fuh to test a Surface Pro 4 and he wrote up an exhaustive post on his first impressions.

Rather than test with the default apps or Sketchable, Oliver was able to install the PaintTool SAI 2.0 beta. He captured the following video.

Check out http://WinBeta.org for more. Follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/WinBetaDotOrg

The store staff also allowed him to test the new pen nibs and his findings are fascinating and somewhat disappointing.

2H – the thickest nib of the four, and it’s SUPER slick. The slipperiest drawing experience I’ve ever had on a digital display, and that says a lot, as most of them are pretty slippery. It also feels like the softest of the four. I’d love to use this for super fast sketching, or for drawing extremely long, flowing curves.
H – similar to 2H in slipperiness, but with a much thinner, even a bit harder tip. It feels much more conducive to precision drawing. It’s extremely faint, but I detect just a bit more resistance when drawing with this nib.
HB – I’m can’t exactly recall, but this might be the same as the standard nib that comes with the pen. I haven’t confirmed that for sure though. This feels very similar the standard pen nib, which has a strong, if even slightly rubbery, surface resistance. This, and the standard pen (if they’re not same thing) both feel great for standard note-taking and precision stroke drawing.
B – the most grippy of the four, but only slightly more so than HB/standard. Truth be told, I had a really hard time discerning the difference between this and HB.

You can find the full post over at WinBeta.org.

AuthorRick Rodriguez
Categoriesnews, opinion
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