• Surface Pro 3 vs. Wacom Companion Review and Comparison

    Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Wacom Companion Comparison Review

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    Welcome to my review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Wacom Companion.

    A bit about me:

    I have been drawing digitally for just under ten years now. I started using drawing pads attached via USB and then worked my way up to a Cintiq drawing monitor. Lately, I find myself traveling a lot for convention work and having to put in hours away from home. I also still have dozens of drawing projects due every week for my Adventures of the 19XX comic, which led me to all the research for this article. Everything I draw is completely digital, from my sketches to my finished product, so I’ve put in quite a few hours with the digital pen. My drawing program of choice is Photoshop. Since I do so much design in addition to freehand drawing, it’s nice to have access to the full adobe suite. A great bonus that the new Creative Cloud comes with is the ability to save to a Creative Cloud folder that updates to all your devices. This feature is perfect for the kind of work I plan on doing on the road! I tested both products using the same version of Photoshop CC 2014.

    THE PRODUCTS

    • Surface Pro 3- 256gb Intel i7/$1549.99/256 levels of sensitivity/Screen Size 12”/1.76lbs

    • Wacom Companion-256gb i7/$1,799/2048 levels of sensitivity/Screen Size 13”/3.9lbs

    INTRO TO DIGITAL DRAWING

    If you haven’t drawn digitally at all, then you should know there is a bit of a learning curve with all tablets and digital drawing devices. The ideal situation is making the learning curve as minimal as possible. My main drawing set up at home is a Cintiq 24HD of the non-touch variety attached to a 2014 Mac Pro. This has been the cleanest drawing experience I’ve found, and it is the yardstick by which I measure all other drawing devices. But even then, it took several months for me to feel completely comfortable drawing digitally.

    When I decided to embark on this mobile digital drawing experiment, I dipped my toe in the water by testing out a series of drawing bluetooth pens. I was very excited at the time to try out these cheap new drawing tools with the many iPads that were already floating around my house. But they were all terrible. I won’t even bother going into the brands of pens I tried because the only thing I learned is that the iPad is in no way a professional drawing tool. It was clearly designed by engineers in Cupertino to provide the optimum platform for playing Plants VS. Zombies and Angry Birds.

    So I moved on and decided to go all in on the latest Microsoft Surface. After reading a couple reviews and trying out an i5 version of the Surface that a fan showed me at a convention, I opted for the i7 myself. I had cheaped out on the drawing pens and ipad combo, so I didn’t want to make that mistake again. You can see the stats for the Surface Pro 3 below. (But you can find those stats anywhere. You’re here to see how these devices actually stack up in the real world!) One stat I will mention is the levels of pressure sensitivity. Much has been made of the new non-Wacom driver in the Surface 3. The Wacom drivers deliver 2048 levels of sensitivity while the new Surface driver only gets you a 256 levels. Thats obviously a huge difference. I can tell you firsthand that, depending on the kind of drawing you do, the difference might not even be noticeable.

    Microsoftsurfacepro

    MICROSOFT SURFACE PRO 3

    I draw in several different styles depending on the project. Sometimes it’s fully rendered digital painting, and sometimes it’s black and white line art for my comic. The week I picked up the Surface Pro I was in the middle of inking some pages for my book. I had already sketched out the pages in blue line on my main rig and just needed to ink them while I was on the road. This is exactly the sort of thing I purchased the Surface to do. My first impression was joy. Right out of the box the Surface felt like a viable desktop drawing alternative. This was not a machine designed to get the most out of Candy Crush Saga. My only complaint was that I felt like I had to press a little hard to get through the full range of 256 sensitivity levels. Microsoft must have already known this was a problem because a few days after I bought the Surface, they released an app to control the sensitivity curve on the Surface stylus. I increased the sensitivity at the early pressure levels and had a much better drawing experience.

    Device lineup minus the companion

    Device lineup minus the companion

    Other reviews I read pointed out a few negatives with the machine, and I’m kind of convinced that these people spent very little time with it. One complaint was hitting the physical Windows button with your palm while drawing, which then kicks you out of the program and sends you to the windows mobile start screen. Yes, it was very annoying, but it was also easy to avoid. The device works from any direction, so if you just flip it over, the windows button is on the left for right-handed drawing. Problem solved. Another problem other reviewers talked about was the lag the cursor sometimes experienced when you jumped across the screen with the stylus to tap a menu option or something. I too experienced this lag. But then I adjusted my mouse settings within Windows and didn’t notice it anymore. Problem solved.

    Surface options from the Microsoft store

    Surface options from the Microsoft store

    The Surface Pro 3 is a great drawing machine. Its compact size makes it easy to toss in a bag and pull out almost anywhere. And it looks just like any other tablet, so you won’t get too many questions about what the heck you’re doing drawing on a screen. The built-in stand works great. In my experience, the battery life was fine. I probably went about three or four hours at most without a charge, but it held up alright with plenty of battery life left afterwards. I’m sure you could draw for almost five hours before frantically searching for an outlet at a convention hall. I think If I had this purchase to do over again, I would probably buy the i5 chip model. It’s nearly half the cost and would still offer plenty of power for inking, which brings me to the biggest negative of the Surface Pro 3. 256 levels of sensitivity is plenty for cartooning or simple line art, but I never felt comfortable enough on the machine to do very loose sketching or detailed digital painting. When I tried to draw in those styles, I didn’t feel like the screen was catching every aspect of my pen strokes. So the question about whether to purchase a Surface Pro 3 or not really comes down to price and use. At $999, the i5 model will work well for a ton of drawing tasks. Add a mouse and Illustrator, and you can get all kinds of design work done. I inked several pages of my comic, and I can’t even tell the difference between the Surface pages and the pages I finished on my home computer. I mean it; I can’t tell! I was going to show you a side-by-side comparison, but I can’t remember which ones I did on which device! If you are going to opt for the i7 chip, then the price puts you north of $1600. And there is another device in that price range that you might want to look at.

    Digital Comic Book Inks Dieselpunk

    Digital Comic Inks

    wacomstrip

    WACOM COMPANION

    I sat and agonized over specs for these two devices when I was originally deciding which one to purchase. You can cherry pick specs from either model and decide which one sounds better, and that’s partly why I purchased the i7 model of the Surface Pro 3. A big pro that the Surface has is a cheaper entry price, but I wanted to see how these two stacked up with the same chipset. The Wacom Companion comes with the same Intel Core i7 chip and the same storage space.

    When I finally received my Wacom Companion, I noticed a few things right away. The first was that the Wacom online store service is terrible. Really terrible. I must have called them at least twenty times about the device. Their website never sent me a confirmation when I purchased the device, so I had no idea if it went through. I paid for expedited shipping and then waited eight days for it to arrive after they told me they automatically hold shipments for one to four days for fraud prevention. Why even offer expedited shipping if you’re going to ship the device out whenever you feel like it? And why do you say “one to four days” when it’s obviously going to be four? Terrible.

    Wacom Companion

    Anyway, the next thing I noticed about the Wacom is its size. It is considerably larger than the Surface. Sometimes that’s good, like in the case of the screen size. The slightly wider screen really makes the device feel more professional and gives you more breathing room to draw. The device is heavier than the Surface Pro, but once it’s in a case and in my messenger bag, I don’t really notice it. This might be a drawback if I was on a cramped airplane like another reviewer mentioned. But in most situations, I quickly forgot about the negatives of that aspect and just enjoyed the larger screen size.

    The next problem I noticed with the Wacom Companion is the stand. The Surface Pro has a really nice stand that blends in seamlessly with the machine and unfolds to perfect angles for drawing. The Wacom has a ridiculous stand that disconnects from the machine—I assume because Wacom knows you will quickly grow tired of using it and hurl it into the garbage. The Wacom Companion stand must have been designed by the same people who run their online store because it makes no sense.

    stand

    So, at a similar price point with the same operating system and the same chipset, how is the Wacom Companion different from the Surface Pro 3? In addition to the terrible stand I’ve dubbed the “Widow Maker” for its habit of collapsing mid-drawing and slamming on the table, causing everyone to hurl their heads around and potentially get whiplash, the Companion comes with a pretty nice case. This sounds like a lame addition, but I spent hours, yes hours, looking for a suitable case for my Surface Pro 3 and ended up with some really cheap case because I got tired of looking. So the Companion’s case was a very welcome addition! It has a loop for holding the pen, which is awesome because I already left my Surface Pro 3 pen behind in a hotel room in Tulare, CA and had to get the nice folks in housekeeping to track it down for me and ship it. Thanks Best Western! (Don’t worry; it was a suite, which was much nicer than it sounds!) The Companion case also has a separate pocket that holds extra pen nibs and a slot for papers or any extra stuff. The inside is lined with a soft material that feels like it dusts off my Companion every time I slide it in. And the flap to the case has magnets that hold it shut, and I can only assume aren’t strong enough to erase my hard drive each time I snap it closed. Hey, you would think they covered that, but these are the same guys who created the Widow Maker stand and nine-day, two-day expedited shipping.

    With all those are external features, though, how does it draw? After drawing for a few weeks on the Surface Pro 3, the device had sold me on a new feature that my Cintiq drawing monitor doesn’t have: The Touch Feature. It’s really nice to drag the canvas around and pinch to zoom in and out. But it also reminded me of a feature that I absolutely needed to keep my drawing speed up: Physical Buttons. The Wacom Companion has some great physical buttons on the left side of the device. I always have two buttons set to save and to undo. These two things need to be so easy for me that they’re automatic. I have to be able to mindlessly save while I’m drawing so I don’t lose any work in case of a program crash or a power failure. And if I take a bad approach to a line while I’m drawing, I need to be able to undo it just as easily, so I constantly have my left hand gripping the device with my thumb near these two buttons. The Companion lets me customize those buttons and comes with the nifty Wacom click wheel menu. There is a download for the Surface that lets you use a similar click wheel menu, but the physical buttons are just not there. In addition, the Wacom pen click buttons on the side feel more responsive and, while the Surface Pro 3 stylus has a button on the back that for some reason is non customizable and only opens the One Note program when you click it, the Wacom stylus has an eraser when you flip it over.

    Wacom Companion Review Comparison

    The last aspect of the Companion I want to review is those pesky 2000 or so levels of sensitivity. Like I said earlier, if you have a more simple drawing style or you just need the tablet to do inking or color flatting, then you are probably not using all those other levels anyway. And unless you need those extra levels, you may not want to pay the additional $1,000 to get them. But I will tell you that the Wacom Companion is one of the smoothest digital drawing experiences I’ve ever had. Drawing on it feels as natural to me as drawing on my Cintiq 24HD monitor at home. Sometimes it feels even more natural, with the touch screen features. I was able to produce any line with the same quality that I would be able to draw on my larger Wacom drawing monitor. It can be difficult to explain why you need those extra levels of sensitivity, but the result is a closer connection to the line I was trying to make and the line that shows up on the screen.

    Dieselpunk Bioshock Infinite Art Close up Digital Painting

    Digital Painting Close Up, done previously on my Cintiq

    FINAL VERDICT

    The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is a great drawing device and has two very reasonable entry point prices of $799 for an i3 chip and $999 for an i5 model. If you’re considering putting down the extra change for the i7 model  and can afford it, then you should really put in an extra couple hundred  for the 2,048 levels of sensitivity, physical buttons, and larger screen size that the Wacom Companion offers. So at $999 and under, the Surface is a pretty good portable backup to a drawing computer. At $1,799, the Wacom Companion has enough drawing features to replace a desktop drawing rig. Just don’t pay for expedited shipping.

    $400

    DEVICE
    ipad 2, iPad 4, iPad Mini
    PROS
    You can play Fruit Ninja anywhere!
    CONS
    Anyone under 10 will constantly ask you what games you have on it and then very confused if you tell them you have none.
    STARS (OUT OF 5)
    1 (-1 if you have 10 year olds around)

    $799-$1,699
    DEVICE
    Surface Pro 3 i5-i7
    PROS
    Compact size, excellent physical design, great drawing experience for the price
    CONS
    No case included, pressure sensitivity might limit some art styles, i7 chip now worth the price difference from the other models
    STARS
    3.5

    DEVICE
    Wacom Companion i7
    PROS
    Great drawing experience, physical buttons, larger screen, case included
    CONS
    Expensive, but worth it, widow-making stand
    STARS
    5

    $3,000-$6,000
    DEVICE
    Cintiq 24HD
    PROS
    Great drawing experience, physical buttons, even larger screen!
    CONS
    You have to buy a desktop to use it, and if you’re buying a high end Mac Pro or work horse PC running Windows Professional, that can get pretty pricey
    STARS
    5

    websignature
    Paul Roman Martinez
    Creator of the Adventures of the 19XX series
    UPDATE:
    I know I just posted this article but I already have an update. After dealing with the long chain of customer service about the expedited shipping charge from Wacom I learned that when you select Expedited shipping your order is flagged for fraud protection and then goes through a review process for up to four days. I know, it doesn’t make any sense. But they promised send me one of those fancy Wacom art pens for my trouble. So that’s pretty cool. And make sure you don’t select expedited shipping if you need it in a hurry I suppose!
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    Categories: Art, Comics, Design, Tabletop, Uncategorized

    • I tried a surface pro when they very first came out. The biggest problem I had was that when the pen was angled the “point” on the screen was off from the nib of the actual pen. This compounded with certain angles I could hold the pad at, which was VERY important to me, because I constantly spin it around in my hands as I draw. (I normally draw on a clipboard instead of a table.)

      So I would like to know if you have seen any such problem with either of these tablets.

      Also there were issues with the pen’s API not being supported with various programs. Is that still an issue, and would you be willing to test it with GIMP? Does GIMP properly respond to the pen input on these devices, utilizing the pressure sensitivity?
      When I was using the Surface GIMP could not differentiate between the pen and a mouse.

      • PRM

        Yes, that is a problem with all digital pens because of the distance between the glass and the sensor. It also becomes a problem if you calibrate your pen at one angle then shift your screen around when you draw to a very different angle. But if you calibrate your pen to match the angle you draw most in, then the difference can be minimal. On the Surface Pro 3 I didn’t have much of a problem with that, nothing noticeable anyway. I may have to download GIMP and give it a try. But I’m sure you could go to their website or support forums and ask around. Other people have probably tried it already.

        • I thought Wacom pens were supposed to be able to sense the angle you hold the pen, though.
          And on the Surface when it first came out, that point would be off by an inch and a half some times.