You may be reading this and wondering if a review of the Surface Pro 2 is even relevant after the recent announcement of the Surface Pro 3. Like any technology, new and improved hardware is always just around the corner, but this doesn`t mean the older models become instantly obsolete.
Instead, think of this as an opportunity.
As people scramble to get their hands on the Surface Pro 3 they will no doubt sell the Surface Pro 2 they currently own, either because they feel they no longer need it, or to use the money towards the more desirable, and expensive model. You never know, Microsoft might also reduce the price of the older tablet/laptop combination once the newer model hits the shelves.
So as you can see, those of us with smaller budgets can now look a little closer at the Surface Pro 2 which, a year after it was initially released, still remains an impressive piece of hardware, whether you’re an artist, writer or blogger.
I`ll admit that after using Wacom`s Cintiq Companion for a few weeks the Surface Pro 2 had the potential to feel like a bit of a downgrade. Its screen, although a respectable 10.6 inches is smaller, and the stylus offers half the amount of sensitivity with “only” 1024 levels of pressure, and just the one button.
In addition to this there are no external configurable buttons on the device, so I wasn`t sure how well it would handle 3D applications.
However, once I pulled it free from its box I could instantly tell that this solid, well-constructed device was one which had a lot of time, thought and consideration behind it. For instance, the power adaptor also has a USB socket, meaning you can charge something else from the same plug. A simple, but clever and useful addition.
At the opposite end of the power cable isn`t your traditional pin which slots into a circular socket. Instead it’s a long, slim and almost flat plug which is held in place with magnets. The use of magnetics also extends to the supplied stylus and the keyboard, (which is bought separately), which again automatically connect when within close proximity to the power socket, or the base of the device.
These magnets are so keen that they almost pull the peripherals from your fingers, which is in some ways fun, and I found myself playing with this, just detaching and reattaching and detaching. I felt like a kid again.
Another thing I quickly realised with the keyboard is you can also attach it backwards. So, if you’re typing you have it forwards, like a laptop, and then when you want to sketch, sculpt or browse you simply detach it, turn it around, reattach it and fold it around the back. You obviously don`t need to always flip it, you can simply fold back the keyboard and it’s automatically disabled, yet stays exposed. It’s just nicer to hold if you aren`t touching the keys. In addition to this, when you’re not using the device the keyboard closes to act as a cover to protect the screen.
Again, such simple ideas but its nice not having to detach the keyboard and put it down somewhere while you work.
With the Surface Pro 2 everything stays together, and in addition to this you even get a stealth like, built in stand too which locks at two positions.
The first thing which struck me once I powered up the Surface Pro 2 was how quickly it loaded. Within what felt like a few seconds I was at the login screen and ready to work, and this was from the device being powered down, and not in sleep mode.
Once Windows was configured and updated, which again took a matter of minutes, Windows synced with my desktop, bringing across my theme, backgrounds, everything, so I was literally looking at a carbon copy of my office system. This was a really nice touch, and meant I didn`t have to spend ages configuring a new device.
I was now ready to work, and I have to say that the screen itself was lovely. It was bright, colourful and razor sharp, and even though the actual screen size is only 10.6 inches it still squeezes in a nice resolution of 1920×1080, so most applications fit well, even if their icons appear quite small in some cases.
In others, like ZBrush, the UI simply drops off the bottom of the screen. Luckily it is highly customizable so with a bit of work you can easily have a more Surface Pro friendly layout as you sculpt.
The only downsides I have found with the screen so far are its very reflective, so if you are outdoors you will see more of yourself than what you’re actually working on. To combat this you can increase the brightness, which does work in some cases, but also drains the battery.
It also seems to attract smudges and finger marks, meaning you are forever cleaning it, but this is no different to any other glass based screen on the market.
Now, if you’re a digital artist like myself, you will know that for most applications to work well you need to have a finger, or thumb, or both on other important keys. These being Alt, Control, Shift etc. The problem with the Surface Pro 2 is unless you are using the attached keyboard, there isn`t a way of accessing these while working due to its lack of external buttons.
This does have the potential to put a lot of artists off the device, people who want to hold the Surface Pro 2 like a sketchbook as they work, but also need access to these crucial keys.
All is not lost, because we have the ArtDock. This tool overlays a set of configurable keys onto the screen, so you have access to them as you work. In practice this works really well, and opens up the Surface Pro 2, making it more artist friendly. Now, it does have its down sides, and the main one being that with the palm rejection technology the key you are holding sometimes gets ignored, so you still have to adjust the way you work slightly to compensate.
With that said, without the ArtDock I am not sure I would be able to use the Surface Pro 2 as often as I do. Personally I think Microsoft should incorporate this into the OS, alongside the stylus settings, and make them both fully configurable per application.
I`d also like to see the option to dock it to the side of the screen, so once an application opens, its window resizes to it, rather than hides under it.
Even though the ArtDock is a nice tool, I did still miss having access to a few configurable buttons on the side of the screen. Maybe even allowing us to configure the volume control buttons might be a future work around?
You can download the ArtDock from here – ArtDock 2.0
The Surface Pro 2 in Use
With my key applications installed, along with the ArtDock, I was ready to test drive the Surface Pro 2, and to properly test it I thought I would actually do some work on it for a while, rather than just play about with the apps.
I was currently working on a contract which involved animation in Maya, plus a lot of texture painting, so it was the perfect excuse to dive back into 3DCoat. I forget sometimes just how nice and easy it is to use, and painting directly onto the surface of a 3D model, pixel by pixel is so much more intuitive than working solely in Photoshop.
The app itself worked really well, with the pressure from the supplied stylus coming through nicely, but more on the pen later.
With the Surface Pro 2 weighing just 2lbs you can easily hold it in one hand while working, yet after a while mine began to warm up quite rapidly, to the point where it was uncomfortable to hold. Now, this could be more of an issue with 3DCoat being power hungry rather than the device itself, but the battery life also dropped dramatically from over 7 hours to just 2.
To compare I decided to work in Maya and ZBrush for a while, using both from a full charge. ZBrush initially started out with over 7 hours of power, but I find devices like these need a little time to settle into a workflow so the battery meter can properly assess what you are doing. With the power setting set to Balanced it stabilized at over 5 hours, and after over an hours sculpting with Dynamesh it had only dropped to 4 hours, which was pretty good. Plus the device was still quite cool, and the fan hadn`t kicked in yet.
With Maya I decided to use the Surface Pro 2 as more of a laptop, with a keyboard and mouse. This time the system estimated nearly 9 hours of battery life, but again this eventually settled to around 6.
After an hour spent UV mapping a 4,000 polygon model, with Viewport 2.0 enabled, the battery still showed a respectable 5 hours of power. I did test the system briefly with High Performance enabled and the power estimate was slashed to under 2 hours. To be fair though I didn’t feel the need for High Performance to be active as Maya worked very nicely under a Balanced power option.
The one thing I did miss while working in Maya was the Insert key, which as you might know is essential, especially when rigging, and is strangely absent from the keyboard.
In conclusion I found the Surface Pro 2 to be a good device to work with, and it allowed me the opportunity to sculpt, work in Maya, paint in 3DCoat, Photoshop or Krita (which is lovely on the device too) while also having the option to use the Surface Pro 2 as a laptop to write with. I`m actually writing this on it as we speak.
We now come to the stylus which accompanies the Surface Pro 2, and even though it does its job, it is one of the devices weaker points.
Its plastic, light and thin like a pencil meaning it’s easy to pick up and use, but as you draw on the screen you don`t get any sort of feedback. It’s just plastic against glass essentially, so it’s maybe a little too smooth and rigid. There is also a noticeable offset of the mouse pointer compared to the tip of the pen, so this takes some time to get used too.
The single button on the side of the pen, which also slots into the power socket, is quite solid too, and sometimes can be hard to press. The fact there is only one button does present some challenges, especially to those of us used to using a two button stylus. For me I prefer having the middle mouse button active on the pen, as well as the right click, but with this stylus if you specify one you lose the other. Yes, you can hold down the stylus on the screen for a second and this acts as a right click, so you can get around it this way, but it still feels quite unintuitive.
There is a second button on the end of the pen, but so far this has proved useless. There are no options to configure it and in most applications it just does the same as the tip.
The stylus does run on Wacom technology, so you are offered some basic Wacom drivers which are an essential download if you want to configure the stylus, and gain the full 1024 levels of pressure. Again, if you’re coming from another Wacom device these settings are very limited. In recent releases the drivers have been improved to now offer a radial menu, but this is a global setting and again if you have this active you lose the other mouse clicks as you can`t add these to the radial menu itself.
I would like to see the option to configure the pen per application come in future updates, as Wacom do on their own devices. The code exists already to do this, so I’m not sure why it isn`t present already. In fact, they should just update their own drivers to work with this device, so we get all the configuration options already present. At least then we can export our settings from the desktop, and import them here.
I do plan to test alternative pens soon. I will be looking at the Wacom Bamboo Feel initially as this has been suggested as a good replacement, so I will let you know how it goes.
Another day and another business trip, so this time I decided to take the Surface Pro 2 out with me to see how it felt to carry around and use while on the move.
The Surface Pro 2 is light weight and compact, so its essentially like carrying a sketchbook around. It fit nicely into my bag, and when on the train I didn`t feel like I was encroaching into other peoples space as I worked.
If you read my Cintiq Companion review you will remember how the sun plagued me, making the screen difficult to see. Unfortunately the same can be said with this device, except because it’s smaller and lighter, it was easier to move around to gain a better angle.
I spoke earlier about the batter life, which on this trip was equally as good. Once I arrived I still had over 4 hours left, and this was with me working a little in ZBrush and Microsoft Word as I travelled.
In short it performed well while on the move, and slipped into my bag without adding much more weight or bulk.
Should You Invest?
Given that the Surface Pro 2 has some really good design choices it does get a little let down with the battery life on high end applications, (when and if you need to use High Performance while on the move), and its stylus, which for artists is a key area. To be honest though, if the stylus isn`t right for you there are some much better alternatives available for not too much money, so you can simply replace it. Plus hopefully the software will be developed over time to give us much more freedom and configuration options.
For me the Surface Pro 2 ticks all the boxes. I personally need a device I can carry around, write on when I need to and also have the option to work from too. I don’t think I could work on one for the duration of a project, although I do plan to test this, but being able to use ZBrush, Maya and other key applications, along with a decent amount of pressure sensitivity, gives me a lot more options. Far more than my previous iPad and laptop combination which I used to take out with me.
If your budget is tight and your choices are to wait and buy a lower end Surface Pro 3 or a high end Surface Pro 2 then I would say go for the Surface Pro 2, and also treat yourself to a new stylus.
The Surface Pro 3 is still an unknown entity. Yes it looks and sounds like a really nice piece of hardware but there are still question marks floating around the stylus and its pressure sensitivity, which at the time of writing doesn`t work with a number of key applications.
With the Surface Pro 2 you get a powerful system which is mobile, versatile and works with all the applications you want it to, making it a great all round tablet and laptop in one neat package.
Although Microsoft supplied the device for me to to test, the opinions offered in this review are my own.