How the Surface Pro 3 exceeded my expectations for design work on a tablet

 In End-User Devices, Hardware

When approached to try design work on a Surface Pro 3, my feelings were mixed. I was excited to test this Microsoft tablet, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary, but my glass-half-empty mindset made me wonder if it might be inconvenient to set aside a powerful laptop workstation and work on a smaller device.

After years of learning to use a mouse and keyboard — instead of my hands — for creative expression, I admittedly started slow with the Surface Pro 3’s pen and touch screen. I connected the Surface into the dock, and hooked up my keyboard and mouse to replicate the setup I was used to. When I finally braved tablet mode and got more comfortable working with the device, I started to recognize its benefits.

Here’s what I was working with, and my impressions after a few weeks with the Surface Pro 3.


Photo by: charnsitr /

A closer look at the Surface Pro I worked on

The Surface Pro 3 I worked with featured an i5 processor and 4GB RAM (some come with i7 and 8GB) and ran Windows 8.1. For me, the OS was almost as big a learning curve as using some design applications in tablet mode, though this may be less of an issue with the next version of Windows.

The screen is vibrant and has good color depth. It’s on the larger side for a tablet, but still small when compared to a laptop, so access to a larger monitor may be advantageous. The glass is very smooth, which makes the pen glide easily without traction. The resolution of the screen does cause menus on your programs to appear tiny, but menu display size is adjustable in the application settings.

Being a tablet novice, it took practice to master the pen. Navigating menus and items with one takes some adjustment, and though I found a mouse offers precision, I grew increasingly comfortable using the pen. The Surface app allows users to adjust pressure sensitivity, as well. I did still miss keyboard shortcuts, though.

After some initial minor hiccups with the docking station, I found the experience as seamless as using any regular laptop. And there’s one more thing: I found the kickstand to be revolutionary. The kickstand allowed me to stand up the Surface (to use with optional keyboard cover or without) or flip it to rest in a slightly propped position, which was ideal when working in touch mode. The detachable keyboard cover is a really nice feature, but I was more comfortable using my regular keyboard when available (more than one USB port when not docked would help here).

The pros and cons of designing on a tablet

I’m not specialized to one area of design: I bounce between InDesign, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Acrobat, and Photoshop to design brochures, sell sheets, web pages, email blasts, signs and event booths, presentations, diagrams and illustrations, and reference materials. Most of my design work occurs on a Mac or Windows machine, and I hadn’t used tablets/Wacom devices for work before this Surface test.

For text-heavy work in Dreamweaver, InDesign, and Acrobat, I preferred working with the device docked and linked to another monitor (or at least with the keyboard), but the touch support in these programs allowed me to scroll, pan, and zoom pretty easily. Once I had all of the text boxes and elements in place for InDesign projects, there was a benefit to using tablet/touch mode to freely move elements around or plan layouts. Plus, the handwriting recognition component was nice for adding short text once it learned my chicken scratch.

For work in Illustrator and Photoshop, the ability to use the touch screen with the pen in the full versions of these Adobe programs was productive. Illustrator’s Touch Workspace is convenient and easy to work with, but its tools are limited. I preferred having all options from my workspace available to me.

When using the pen to draw in Illustrator and Photoshop, the programs only picked up pen strokes, even with my palms resting on the screen. With practice, I recognized the touch screen and pen tool can provide more control in illustrations and when touching up photos.

I asked a coworker who works with video to give the Surface Pro 3 a spin with After Effects and Premier files. Yes, there was lag, but it will do the job for files without an abundance of effects or video you need to edit when travelling.

Overall, the performance was better than I expected. For most projects, I didn’t experience lag and battery life was good (though I was conscious of keeping open only what was needed and saving externally). The few times the device lagged was when I tested its limits, editing large files and using very complicated brushes with big strokes. For what I need to do, the Surface Pro 3 did the job.

The takeaways for designers thinking about Microsoft Surface

Make some investments. The accessories really helped ease the transition to the Surface Pro 3. If you plan on using it as a laptop replacement, think about purchasing a docking station, additional monitors (you can hook up one monitor to the Surface and another through the dock), mini display port adapters, and a keyboard cover (or other keyboard/mouse).

Accept (or embrace) what it is. The Surface Pro 3 performs like a laptop, but it’s not a workstation. If you plan to edit the next hit movie, you might not want this as a primary machine. If you illustrate, edit photos, or design while travelling, it’s definitely worth a try.

Remember, this device performs like a laptop, but it’s also a tablet. Give the pen and touch screen a chance, and did I mention the kickstand?

There’s a learning curve. No doubt, you’ll have to adjust your work style on the Surface Pro 3. Remember training yourself to use a mouse and keyboard shortcuts instead of a pencil/brush?  Unlearn some of that. The pen is helpful, but don’t assume you’ll get it right away. In Windows 8.1, rule #1 is swipe up to get to your programs. When in doubt, do an Internet search.

The pessimist in me was pleasantly surprised by the Surface Pro 3. With the right accessories, you can use a Surface much like you’d use a laptop to do design work. It’s a really versatile device, and the touch experience will make the artist in you happy. It’s hard to give up some of the power I have with my regular machine, but can I keep this too?

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