Which portable drawing tablet reigns supreme for digital artists?
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3.
I just received a review unit Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft. My Wacom Cintiq Companion is my most used art device. It’s my entire studio stuffed into a bag. It’s going to take a fantastic piece of hardware to unseat the Companion’s position as my alpha dog for art creation.
The Surface Pro 3 is a fantastic piece of hardware.
I won’t be delving too far into the specs of the machines in this first impression write-up, but I will boil down the differences between the two that have an impact in your workflow. What are the practical realities of using these devices? Why should I get one or the other?
A few years ago, no device akin to either of these options was mature enough to even consider for professional work. These two hardware juggernauts slugging it out spur innovation. No matter which device “wins,” ultimately we, as artists, are in a better place. But let me ease your mind. No matter which piece of art hardware you choose, you haven’t made a bad choice. Both are good in different, complimentary ways.
The Companion is a workhorse. I’ve beaten the crap out of it for months. I regularly draw files north of 18"x24" at 350-600dpi for as many as eighteen hours a day.
I’ve assigned my most frequently utilized shortcut keys and tools to its hotkeys and seldom use a bluetooth keyboard while working. Zooming, panning, rotating, color picking, brush resizing, undoing and redoing are all accounted for using the hardware hotkeys.
An example of work created entirely on a Cintiq Companion.
The matte screen is relatively high PPI. At 13" and 1920×1080, it’s one of the clearest screens I own. It isn’t reflective and colors are accurate with a wide gamut. The matte screen feels more like drawing on paper than glass.
The matte nature of the screen is provided by a thin layer of adhesive, anti-glare protection which is prone to scratches. From normal use, my screen has noticeable marks in my most stylus-scraped areas. I suspect that one could peel off this coating (as I did on older, desktop Cintiq models), but then you’re left with a glass, slick surface to draw on.
Distance between the glass and the screen causes cursor offset and parallax. All Wacom Cintiqs exhibit this behavior, but the Companion has the smallest gap of all of them. If it bothers you here, there are scant alternative options with less severe parallax.
Strokes are smooth with a bit of lag, but that’s the case with all Cintiq hardware. There’s little to no jitter in slow strokes. The 2048 levels of pressure are an industry leading figure. After breaking in the stylus, the first half of the pressure levels are met within a quarter of pressure applied to the stylus. Made less technical, that means that drawing feels a bit loose at light pressure. Ratcheting up your firmness at the driver level, or using app-specific pressure curve tweaking, ameliorates the problem, however.
The battery life could be better. The Cintiq Companion uses a slightly aged Intel processor that’s less energy efficient than its newer brethren. Heavy use in intensive art apps saps the battery in a few hours, tops. I carry a portable charger in my laptop bag and resign myself to charging the Cintiq whenever and wherever I can manage.
The Companion is sized akin to a powerful laptop that doubles as a tablet monitor with a level of portability to match. When I travel, it’s in a bag with some accompanying accessories. When you do unpack and plug in that required kit, however, you have a fully capable studio on the move. It’s no more or less portable than a mid-sized laptop. It’s no MacBook Air, but it’s not a 17" behemoth either. I split my time this year between two locations and was able to carry my whole studio in one laptop bag.
The Surface is more akin to an iPad that you can draw on while using full featured art apps with extreme portability. It feels like a sketchbook in form, function, and potential capability.
The screen is an astounding 12" at 2160×1440. Pixels are entirely indiscernible. This clarity is nice, but comes at a price. At times, you can feel the Surface sputter and chug as it attempts to zoom in on a canvas of a large art file. Rendering those pixels taxes my middle specification i5 model. As an art guy, I’d rather have performance than pixel density if I could only choose between the two. Both the Surface and Companion have beautiful displays with wide viewing angles and accurate color.
The, er, surface of the Surface is a glossy, slick glass. Drawing feels slightly less accurate than on a matte surface. A screen protector would likely fix the issue. The glass isn’t prone to scratches like the Companion. This category is pretty much a draw.
The 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface is a lot more accommodating of portrait oriented drawing than the 16:9 of the Companion. The Companion is nearly too large and cumbersome to hold in your off-hand while you draw with your dominant one. The aspect ratio of the screen, and the lighter, smaller shape of the Pro, all contribute to the digital, portable sketchbook nature of the device.
Vertical drawing on the Companion is less than ideal.
When working with the Companion I sit the device on my table or lap using the provided stand and draw in a landscape orientation. When drawing on the Surface I tend to hold the device with one hand, portrait, while drawing with the other.
The lack of hotkeys impedes production workflows with the Surface. In much the same way that the aspect ratio and weight of the device lend it the air of a digital sketchbook, so does the lack of hardware bound shortcut keys.
I forced myself to use the Surface without a keyboard and clumsily plodded my way through tool selection, brush resizing, and color picking with my free hand using the touch screen. Apps that embrace the tablet based nature of the Surface work best. Manga Studio allows for a tablet forward interface option and it’s warranted here. Even with some apps making concessions for use on tablets, I was still slower on the Surface than the Companion while drawing. The hotkeys matter if you’re doing serious arting and the Companion has them in spades.
The most controversial aspect of the Surface ended up being one of the least worth remark. Ditching Wacom’s tablet technology, the Surface instead uses Ntrig’s art digitizer. I found touch input more reliable on the Surface than the Companion and stylus navigation outside of art apps less laggy on the Companion and slightly floaty on the Surface.
Pen pressure is reported as 256 levels but you’d never know it. I never left wanting for more pressure fidelity. The actuation pressure for the stylus feels steeper than comparable Wacom hardware. You’re lightest marks can sometimes be lost if you’re extremely light of touch.
The distance between the glass and stylus is lesser here than in the case of the Companion. Gains of accuracy that the lessened parallax might provide are lost by overall less accurate tracking of the pen tip. There’s jitter with slow strokes and a smidge more lag when drawing with the Ntrig than a Wacom digtizer. I have very steady hands. I make fast, fluid strokes. If your working style skews towards slow, deliberate mark making, bear the caveat of the jitter in mind.
Art app compatibility is a concern with the alternative hardware. Ntrig’s website has a driver update that adds WinTab compatibility to the Surface. At time of writing, I haven’t thrown a heap of apps at the Surface, but none have failed so far after installing the optional WinTab update.
The Surface Pro 3 would be better with a Wacom digitizer, but, in practice, I didn’t find the Ntrig to be a terrible detriment. Its inclusion is not reason alone to dismiss the Surface.
The Surface battery lasts for ages and uses a newer, more energy efficient processor than the Companion. I don’t bother to bring a bag when I take the Surface out with me. It, its type cover, and its pen are all I need to art on the go. It’s only slightly more of a burden than carrying an iPad and the portability trumps the more laptop-esque nature of the Companion if that’s your primary concern.
If you have a primary art workstation already and are looking solely for a digital sketchbook that’s easy to transport, has a stout battery, and runs full featured art applications, the Surface is a no brainer. If it were the only tablet monitor I had, I’d make due. It’s perfectly functional for production work.
The Companion is heavier. Its battery life gets lesser seemingly by the day. Its screen scratches easily. But it’s my personal choice for my primary art making device. The singular nature of the Companion overlaps in more areas with my needs as an artist. The pen digtizer is slightly better. The hotkeys speed up my workflow. It’s that simple.
However, you’d have to pry my Surface from my cold dead hands. It’s a sexy piece of hardware. It’s heaps more portable than the Companion and lasts longer to boot. Where I’ve taken the Companion to a coffee shop to work in the past, I’m almost certainly going to take the Surface now.
Each is a good choice. They just service slightly different use cases. If portability trumps efficiency, get the Surface. If you don’t mind losing a bit of freedom of movement and ease of toting to and fro, but need a full desktop replacement, get the Companion.
This is exactly the sort of use case where I’d rather be toting the Surface.
I’ll be offering a full review of the hardware mentioned in this article soon. In the meantime, you can support my digital art hardware reviews by purchasing Amazon products using my referral link.
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