8 ways the Surface Pro 4 makes artists miserable

Why Cintiq Companion or iPad Pro might be better options.

I’m a big fan of the Surface Pro 4, but there are so many horrible things about the hardware and software! Everything has its flaws, but some of these feel completely unnecessary.

More than anything, I think the Cintiq Companion is a better solution than the Surface Pro 4 for MOST artists. I also think the iPad Pro is a better option for some people too. The Surface Pro 4 suits my needs, but that’s mostly because I’ve spent a long while working around its limitations.

1. No Wacom style ExpressKeys on the hardware

For artists, shortcut keys are a crucial part of using art software. Most digital artists keep one hand on the keyboard while drawing, and devices like the Cintiq and Intuos offer a range of physical keys called ‘ExpressKeys’ on the frame to mimmick keyboard inputs, and the Surface Pro 4 completely drops the ball here.

These buttons on the Cintiq Companion make a HUGE difference to artists

The lack of ExpressKeys shouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is, but the Surface Pen drivers make things worse.

2. Surface Pen buttons can’t be customised

Wacom vs Surface Pen options. The Surface Pen options are useless.

There are no useful options for how the side button and eraser button should behave. Every Wacom tablet since the mid nineties has had options of what the buttons should do, and even different options per application. This is absolutely essential to making the pen usable without leaning entirely on keyboard shortcuts.

3. Photoshop (and other software) offer no options for pen buttons

Most drawing software seems to have a default behaviour for how the eraser and side button should behave, but this can’t be reconfigured! Photoshop maps the second button to a brush selection menu, but really something like the Eyedropper (colour picker) tool would be more useful.

Clip Studio Paint defaults the second button to eyedropper, which has proved a great aid when painting, but it has no options to change this behaviour. PaintTool Sai has options, but no touch screen controls for zooming, etc.

It’s only because Clip Studio Paint has a sensible default that I like the Surface Pro 4 as much as I do.

4. No touching the screen while using the pen

The Surface Pro has pretty decent palm rejection, because it ignores all touches when the pen is within 5–10cm of the screen. The side effect is that sometimes you’ll be holding the pen in your hand, and the screen will ignore your tapping the screen with your fingers.

This often makes multi-touch gestures like zoom/rotate unreliable unless you hold your pen away from the screen and use your non-drawing hand.

It also makes it impossible to create software to act like shortcut buttons that must be held, like Ctrl / Alt /Shift / Space…

5. Keyboard input defaults to handwriting

If your pen is anywhere near the screen, and you trigger keyboard input (such as saving the drawing you’ve just finished) it’ll pop-up the handwriting input.

Even in 2016, handwriting input is very unreliable. You can manually pop-up a QWERTY keyboard, but this is pretty bad too, often obscuring the typing area.

6. Software solutions for shortcut keys are horrible

Microsoft and Windows don’t offer anything in the way of virtual buttons on the Surface Pro 4, so you’re at the mercy of various sloppy third party options. I’ve written about them before, but they’re all difficult to set up, and pretty unreliable.

A typical horrible setup screen from ‘TabletPro’. Toolbar solutions for virtual buttons are ALL a nightmare to set up.

These toolbar solutions act as toggle for buttons such as Alt (because of the multi-touch problem), so don’t imagine you’ll be keeping your fingers on the screen in the way you do with your keyboard.

7. Windows 10 swipe gestures pop-out menus while you’re drawing

Windows 10 pops out ‘Action Centre’ if you swipe from the right side of the screen, and ‘Choose Application Focus’ if you swipe from the left side of the screen.

Hey Windows please don’t pop-out a gigantic side menu.

This will cause major frustration while you’re drawing, because it will often recognise a swipe gesture from the side of your hand and stop you from drawing until you’ve cleared away the menu.

It’s especially a problem when holding the device in portrait, so I ended up buying a glove specifically to avoid this problem.

8. Photoshop for ANTS

Photoshop versions CS2-CS6, CC and CS2014 have teeny tiny UI with unintelligible text and icons that are hard to press. This is also true of lots of software on a high-DPI screen, such as 3DS MAX. (CS1 and earlier works just fine, thankfully!)

Despite this, I recommend the Surface Pro 4

There are so many problems with this machine, but it’s still the most I’ve enjoyed drawing on a computer in so many years, as I already wrote effusively.

I love how compact the device is, I know I wouldn’t carry it every day if it were much larger. I love that I can run Windows software like Clip Studio Paint. The microSD slot makes the limited internal storage go a long way. The pen feels fantastic on the screen thanks to the high friction tip, and the screen is amazingly sharp.

I just wish Microsoft would finally start offering some options for the customisation of the pen, and windows itself, to address some of these problems. We’re already at version 4 of the hardware, but I’m holding out hope that Microsoft will start taking the Surface Pro seriously.

Did I miss anything? Any thoughts? Grab me on twitter as @docky.

I’ve been an artist for games, comics, and mostly for fun since 2002. If you want to see more of my artwork, check out dockydraws on instagram.