April 10, 2015

In which I purchase, and almost immediately return, a Surface Pro 3 (, , )

by fluffy at 5:07 PM

Lately I've been getting a lot more serious about my art, and while I upgraded my dying Intuos 2 to an Intuos 5 just over a year ago (holy cow, has it been that long already?), I'd recently been bitten by the Gotta Have A Cintiq bug yet again (mostly because I was chatting about tablets with Jake, since he'd upgraded from a Yiynova to a Cintiq a while ago).

So, I looked at Wacom's current offerings, and found that a few months ago they've released a new version of the Cintiq Companion, which is a pretty clever device in that it's both a standalone tablet PC and can work as a Cintiq when connected to your (presumably more-powerful) main computer. I was looking at its specs, but there were a few things about it that turned me off:

  • A huge bezel (which is par for the course with current Wacom devices)
  • A similarly huge price tag
  • A fairly tiny screen (13" diagonal)
  • A bit heavier than my 13" MacBook, and a bit larger than a 15" MacBook, meaning it wouldn't be so convenient to just carry with me everywhere (and might not be comfortable to hold while I sketch on the couch which is one of my big use cases)

Since certain webcartoonists with gigantic fanbases are absolutely in love with the Surface tablets, I decided to look over on that side of things. The Surface Pro 3 seemed absolutely perfect for what I wanted; reasonably-priced, reasonably-powerful, a screen just as large as the Cintiq Companion, but in a much lighter and more compact form factor. I had some misgivings about the stylus, though, because it's based on N-Trig rather than Wacom, and my history with non-Wacom styluses has always had me going back to Wacom after not too long, due both to terrible drivers and terrible tracking stability.

But, living in walking distance of Seattle's downtown Microsoft Store, I figured, hey, I could try it out in person, and so that I did, expecting to be very disappointed in it, but I ran every single worst-case tracking stability test I could think of and it passed all of them with flying colors — even better than my Intuos 5. So I was sold, sold, sold.

I spent a bit of time deliberating over which specs I wanted (i5 or i7? did I need the larger storage space?) and decided to go with the 256GB i7 because I figured that since it was only going to be a standalone device it should be as powerful as it could be, and then as a bonus I'd be able to finally play a bunch of games that are stubbornly Windows-only. I found a deal on Amazon for around $1300 with free shipping and no sales tax, and was amazed because the equivalent configuration in a Wacom Cintiq Companion would go for $2000.

So a few days later, I received the tablet (after a bit of shipping-related drama which isn't worth relating here) and set it up, played with the amazing tracking in OneNote a little bit more (you know, testing it out), and started to install Photoshop. Halfway through the installation, I got an alert that a mandatory firmware update was being installed immediately and Windows rebooted without even giving me a chance to make it, you know, not do that.

After the system rebooted, and then installed some updates, and then rebooted, then installed some more updates, and then finally rebooted one more time, I got Photoshop installed. And I started to paint a picture.

And the tracking stability was absolutely horrible.

I figured I just needed to spend some time calibrating it. I found every calibration method I could, even setting up a custom 25-point grid to try to get it as absolutely spot-on as possible. I found the official N-Trig drivers and installed them. I tried out Lazy Nezumi as a workaround. Nothing helped. I was just having ridiculously jumpy unstable tracking.

And then last night I went to my usual cartooning meetup, and one of the others there (who works for Microsoft) had his Surface Pro 3 as well, and he said he'd never noticed any problems like that, but his drawing style is very fast, straight scratchy lines — which is a technique which tends to hide tracking issues (and which a lot of artists develop as a way of compensating for a shitty tablet, because they don't realize it's the tablet that's shitty, they just think that they're unsteady inkers or something).

He tried his stylus on my screen. Same problem.

I tried my stylus on his screen. Same problem.

He tried his stylus on his screen. Same problem.

"Huh, I never noticed that before," he said. "Oh well."

I got home from the meetup and found a support thread on Microsoft's forum. It turns out that, hey, you know that firmware update that was forced upon me? It broke the tracking last July, and they haven't been prioritizing a fix. The last update they gave on it is that the next firmware would fix it. The firmware went out in November. It didn't help. (EDIT: They also gave a rather vague answer on a Reddit AMA a few days ago, as it turns out. They blame people for using rulers in doing the test. Uh...)

So I packed the Surface Pro 3 back up, clicked the "return item" button on Amazon, and ordered a Cintiq Companion 2.

We'll see how that works out.