On my birthday last month, I became the proud owner of a Windows Surface Pro 2, bought for me by my lovely boyfriend so that I can get better at digital illustration, something which I haven’t done a lot of up until now.
I thought I would write this review as it may be helpful to other traditional artists looking for a stepping stone into digital illustration. I know that I’m a few years too late and other models have come out since this one, but I can only comment on the device I have!
Just as a disclaimer, I haven’t been paid to write this review; everything below reflects my honest opinion. I am certainly not an expert in technology, so I’m just going to brush over what I don’t even understand and just talk about the user experience.
If you’re not interested in the review of the device itself, skip straight to my review of free drawing apps for the Surface Pro 2.
Windows Surface Pro 2 – Good points
As I mentioned above, I am using my Surface Pro 2 primarily for illustration purposes, therefore the excellent pressure sensitivity was a real draw (despite it being a present, I did have some input!).
Those who have been following my blog for a while will know that I’m quite attached to my traditional pen, paints and paper, so when transitioning over to drawing on a screen I wanted to keep the experience as similar as possible. The Surface Pro 2 has stepped up to the mark – there’s very little lag when drawing which helps with quick sketching and writing. However, fine details are a trademark of my work and without zooming in, I find it hard to replicate quite the same level of intricacy that I can achieve on paper. This is mainly because of the pen, which while a lot finer than some pens I’ve tried, it still isn’t as teeny as my favourite ‘real life’ pens – the Pigma Micron 005!
The sensitivity of the screen has enabled me to do some quite realistic ‘airbrush’ style digital paintings. In fact, I was surprised at how easy I found it to adapt to. These are my first couple of drawings using the Surface Pro 2 (can you tell I like turquoise?) using a free program called SpeedyPainter (see my review of free drawing apps for the Surface Pro 2 below).
By touching the screen very lightly with the stylus pen you can get a very faint line (or thin depending on the drawing tool you’re using) and by pressing harder the line becomes more defined (or thicker). It doesn’t have quite the same responsiveness as a pencil and paper though – for example if you barely touch a piece of paper with a pencil, you’ll still see the faintest of lines, but you need to apply slightly more pressure to see anything on the Surface Pro 2.
Being the lovely boyfriend that he is, Sam also bought me a Wacom Bamboo pen which takes advantage of the Wacom Feel technology with which the Surface Pro 2 is compatible. I have no idea what that actually means, but I believe it is good and from my point of view it makes for a more realistic drawing experience. The pen has a bit more ‘drag’, if that’s the right word to use, so the resistance makes it feel more like drawing on paper. My Dad has also offered me a screen protector sheet which has a paper-like texture, which will hopefully improve it even more.
It’s also a lot slimmer than other stylus pens I’ve used, which makes it feel more like a real pen or pencil in your hand.
Sam also bought me a keyboard, which in turn acts as a cover. This is ideal for those who are looking to use the Surface Pro 2 as a laptop. The keyboard is great, and the two positions of the kickstand mean it’s easy to use it comfortably. The magnetic connection makes it really satisfying to connect and easy to deconnect when you just want to use it as a drawing tablet.
Windows Surface Pro 2 – not so good points
The Surface Pro 2 that Sam bought had been a demo model, so wasn’t full price. However it is pretty much as good as new. When it first arrived though, after a few hours of use the battery died (not a problem, you would have thought) so I put it on charge. It wouldn’t turn on after a few minutes, so we left it for a few hours, and then over night. After trouble shooting online, we realised that the problem was with charging, rather than the tablet itself. The charger is designed to connect so you can have the lead trailing up or down on the right hand side, but mine only seems to charge one way. While doing our research, it does seem that the Surface Pro 2 can have a few problems switching on sometimes, but mine has been fine since we discovered the problem (touch wood).
There is a micro SD slot, but not a normal sized one, which is a bit of a pain for me as I take photos on my camera for my blog and for reference photos for drawings. I think that if you a buy a brand new model, however, they come with an external SD card drive (but don’t quote me on that!). This makes it a bit less convenient to use on the go, but would solve my problem.
The edges of the pressure sensitive screen aren’t quite as well aligned with the nib of the stylus as the middle of the screen. We knew this when Sam bought it and, to be honest, I never draw at the edges anyway as it’s so easy to move your drawing around the screen.
Free drawing apps for the Surface Pro 2
The first thing I wanted to do when I got my Surface Pro 2 was draw, but I had to try out a few apps before I found one which suited my style of illustration and the way I’m used to working.
Fresh Paint came ready loaded onto my device and it’s a very good app, but not for professionals. If you’re into adult colouring, you may like to try this one as you can load a line drawing and colour it in with oil paints, watercolour, pencil or pastel. The media are rendered quite well and there’s a handy little fan icon which you can press to ‘dry’ your layers of colour.
Inkscape is an excellent program which I have used for a long time to convert scanned drawings into vector images so that they can be resized and coloured digitally. From what I can see though, it doesn’t support the pressure sensitivity of the Surface Pro 2, so drawing using this program doesn’t have much character. Also, as you draw each line a set of nodes appears, so it doesn’t make for a very natural drawing experience. It is a fantastic tool when used in conjunction with other programs such as SpeedyPainter though, as I like to draw a jpeg image in these, and then convert to a vector using the ‘Path->Trace Bitmap’ tool.
For some reason I really haven’t got on very well with Krita, although it is raved about by others. I can’t seem to get it to work with the pressure sensitivity of the Surface Pro 2, which seems to be a problem for a lot of users. I’ve also just tried loading it and using it with my Wacom pen but it seems to have gone a bit crazy and is drawing lots of squiggles if I just touch the screen once. If I could get it to work, it seems as if it would be quite a versatile program though – I need to spend a bit more time getting to know this one, and as it’s free, it would be worth downloading to see what you think.
SpeedyPainter is my favourite free app that I’ve downloaded. The possibilities are probably not as endless as in a paid program such as Illustrator (I don’t know, I’ve never used it), but for what I do, it’s great. I’ve enjoyed drawing with the airbrush tool, and there are lots of other tools to experiment with. I was surprised that the airbrush was the one which I took to the most. You are able to use layers, which is great for digital artists which like to work in that way. One of the best features is that you can easily see a reference image side by side with your drawing, but remember you need to load it up before you start!
And that’s that! I hope this post has answered your questions if you came across it in a search. I would definitely recommend a Surface Pro 2 to digital artists – it’s a great, portable device which has all the usefulness of a laptop or desk top computer.