So, I recently acquired a Surface Pro 3, with the intent that it would replace my iPad as a tablet that is much more capable for real digital art and cartooning. Short version: mission accomplished. But, I after getting it, there was a lot of things I discovered that I wish I had known before getting it, that I would like to share with artists considering getting a Surface Pro 3. Just so you know what you’re getting into.

Why I wanted a Surface Pro 3

Surface_Pro_3_Photoshop_Drawing_DigitizerThe iPad, for comics artists, was both a blessing and a curse. It really opened the door for comics distribution on a digital format in a way that was unthinkable before. This was huge especially for independent creators/comics. At the same time though, a lot of us artists were excited to think about the artistic possibilities on a such a portable touch input device. And believe me, there have been no shortage of art apps on iOS (and good ones, to boot). But, the lack of pressure sensitivity was, and still is, a huge setback. I’ve had an iPad for years, and love it for what it is, but no app, or attempts at pressure sensitive styluses that I’ve tried have ever lead me to have a satisfying artistic experience.

Enter the Surface Pro. Guys, I’ve owned a TabletPC. It was cool for what it was, but the convenience factor never reached that of a iPad. Not even close. Better for drawing, yes, but even being a laptop, I still felt that the portability was limited. The Surface Pro, however, seemed to have it all – It’s thin, small and tablety, is natively pressure sensitive, and, best of all, is a legit computer with a desktop OS that can run full versions of software that I actually use to get stuff done – you know, Photoshop, Illustrator, Manga Studio. Combine that with some cartoonist pals talking favorably about it online… I was sold.

The N-Trig digitizer

Surface_Pro_3_Art_Cartooning_Manga_StudioThe N-Trig digitizer was the biggest thing for me to overcome in my decision to get a Surface Pro 3. I’ve only ever worked with Wacom tablets, including my TabletPC. The Surface Pro 2 had a Wacom digitizer, but Microsoft opted for N-Trig this time around. Wacom renowned as the industry standard for graphics tablets for artists, and as such has the widest compatibility. So, I was worried that I would run into some compatibility issues with N-Trig. I did some research, though, and discovered that all of the applications I wanted to use were compatible, though some required a little legwork on my part. Here’s a site that lists Surface Pro 3 friendly applications for artists. You’ll see it’s quite extensive and includes some of the most popular software for artists like Photoshop and Manga Studio 5. In fact, Photoshop CC 2014 and Illustrator CC 2014 were both built with the Surface Pro 3 in mind. Well, sorta.

The other drawback was that the previous Wacom digitizer feature 1024 levels of sensitivity, and the N-Trig on the Surface Pro 3 only offered 256. Most of what I read from other artists was that this was not a big deal. And in fact, I’ve used Wacom tablets with 512 and 256 levels of sensitivity in the past and never really had any issues or gripes about it. So, I didn’t worry about it too much, and after using it on the Surface, I didn’t find it to be an issue there either. But it’s an area of concern, so I thought it was worth talking about.

So the legwork I mentioned earlier. I discovered that in order to maximize compatibility with software on the Surface Pro 3, you will need to go to the N-Trig website and download the latest WinTab driver. WinTab, apparently, is what makes the magic happen. Photoshop seemed to work fine “out of the box” but Manga Studio 5 (which is probably what I was most excited to use) had some hiccups. When I first installed it from my old installer, I discovered that the pressure sensitivity did not work. I updated the WinTab driver, like I said above. Still nothing, finally I realized that I needed to update Manga Studio 5 itself, so I headed over to the Smith Micro site and took care of that. Boom. Problem solved. With the latest WinTab driver installed, I haven’t had any issues with software yet, as far as the N-Trig digitizer goes.

Stylus Button Mapping/Remapping

Surface_Pro_3_Manga_Studio_5_Photoshop_DrawThis is the one thing I did not think about before taking the plunge, and I almost felt completely devastated because of it. Once I got all my software loaded onto the Surface Pro 3 (which took for-ev-er – if you’ve ever installed from Adobe Creative Cloud, you know what I’m talking about here, and then add two kids watching Netflix on the network, ugh!), and got all the Manga Studio 5 issues out of the way, I started to actually use it for drawing, and about pooped a brick. Of course the default mapping for the stylus buttons didn’t do anything I wanted them to do, and so I went to look into how re-map what the stylus buttons do, and lo and behold, there are no native settings for remapping for those buttons! The only customization you can make to the stylus functions is to the sensitivity.

Since, at least for drawing and art, I planned to 99% of the time to not have the keyboard attached – making key commands impossible, this was a HUGE set back. A literal “what have I gotten myself into” type of thing. I SCOURED the internet looking for a solution. Luckily, I found one, and it turned out to be even better than I had hoped!

Surface_Pro_3_Artist_Cartoon_RadialMenu_N-TrigEnter a little piece of software called RadialMenu. Not only does this software allow you to re-map the stylus buttons, but it allows you to call up a (go figure) radial menu that you can map to whatever custom key commands that you like, just like a Wacom Cintiq or Intuos Pro has. It also adds an additional tool bar that lays over whatever software you have open. Cool right? It get’s cooler because like the Wacom customization, RadialMenu let’s you set up individual profiles for each application, and it will automatically switch profiles as you switch between programs. RadialMenu MAKES the Surface Pro 3 for artists. If this software didn’t exist, I would probably have returned the SP3 already. So, definitely put this at the top of your list for things you need to get for your SP3. You can get it here.

Final Analysis

Surface_Pro_3_Manga_Studio_5_RadialMenu_TabletOkay, this is far from final. I will most certainly do a follow up post, once I’ve actually put in some real drawing time with the Surface Pro 3. It will probably be loaded with more tips and insight.  But, for the time being, has the SP3 accomplished what I hoped it would: replacing the iPad as a more capable tablet for art, graphics, and cartooning? I would have to say yes. Sure there have been a few hurdles to get it set up and working the way I want, but the payoff is well worth it. Last night I sat on my sofa while my wife watched TV and doodled a Cat in the Hat drawing for Sketch Dailies in Manga Studio. Finished it and uploaded it to Twitter. Good to go. Doing the same on the iPad, I would have felt like I was fighting the software all the way through it. This, however, was a dream. So far… so good! I’ll keep you posted, guys!

Are you an artist, cartoonist, designer, or illustrator that uses, or is thinking about using, the Surface Pro 3?  If so, please share your thoughts, tips, questions, and general musings about the Surface Pro 3! I’d love to hear from you!