Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 A Digital Artists Experience

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When the Microsoft’s Surface Studio was first launched it has been both celebrated for its concept, screen experience, design and build quality and equally reviled for its component choices and hardware options. The concept of the Surface Studio was to take the Surface, itself a version of a tablet PC and create an All In One desktop. I’ve been using digital art and creative tools for a couple of decades now and have been working entirely digitally for ten years, so any new digital art technology is of great interest to me. I have always worked with Wacom’s Intuos, a drawing system which uses a digital pen that draws onto a blank tablet, the cursor then replicating what you are doing onto the screen. It’s a great affordable way to get into digital art and design, although it can take a few hours to properly get used to using it. There many other manufacturers that make this type of tool but I have only used Wacom’s version.

I’ve been working happily like this for 20 plus years but technology moves on and now screens exist which allow you to draw with the pen tool directly onto the actual screen. Having drawn traditionally for most of my life, I felt I really wanted to have an experience that was the most like drawing onto paper, while being able to create completely digitally. There are a number of manufacturers that create this type of screen Wacom was the first and now it’s more common place with devices like Apple with the iPad, Samsung tablets, Lenovo PCs and Microsoft with its Surface line of devices. See my previous post regarding digital drawing tools for more about this subject.

When moving to screen based technology, there were two important factors I needed for my choice of device; the first was the need for the largest screen area and highest pixel count I could get as I like work large and have enough physical space to make natural pen strokes. The second was a drawing experience that was as close to drawing on paper as possible. The big draw back with such a device is the cost, there are plenty of smaller screens available now for reasonable prices but I knew I wanted a big screen and with digital drawing tech; big costs. Finally when it came to the time for me to be able to purchase a device that would suit, I narrowed it down to two choices; the Wacom Cintiq pro 24 or 32 and the Surface Studio. Both devices have big screens and are 4K, Wacom has the higher amount of pen pressure sensitivity 8192 levels against Microsoft’s 4096. Pressure sensitivity is the ability the computer has to detect how firmly the pen is touching the screen, the harder you press the thicker the line, it’s the way the flow of a brush or pen can be replicated digitally. The higher the number the more pressure can be detected and better the line flows from thick to thin. It’s the main thing us digital artists obsess over, it gives energy to the line and life to your drawings. Wacom with it’s count of 8000plus is the best available. However the big difference between the two devices for me was the ratio of the screen, the surface has a 3:4 screen size which is a “squarer” shape than the more letterbox 16:9 size of the Wacom. 16:9 is really useful for animators and video makers because it’s the same ratio as a widescreen TV. Because I only do art, I decided the squarer size of the surface is better suited for me, plus the appearance of the Studio is like a traditional drawing table which I always liked. Microsoft have conceived the Studio to be a digital drawing board and that’s the experience I take away from it.

Drawing on the Surface Studio 2
Drawing on the Surface Studio 2

When you match that with an excellent touch screen experience with good palm rejection which pretty much ignores your hand when you lean on it, as well as being able to rotate your image by twisting it with your fingers as if it’s a piece of paper on a desk, it adds up to a very natural experience.

Rotating the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2
Rotating the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2

What is also very useful is the ability to pinch the screen so you can quickly zoom in and out on your image. Wacom’s screens also have touch versions, the 32 is available touch only so you can do the same thing with those devices. I can’t give a proper verdict on Wacom’s devices, I’ve only briefly tried the pro 16. My main worry with choosing the Studio was how the drawing experience would compare to Wacom who are the market leader in terms of digital drawing. However it has proved to have excellent pressure sensitivity not as standout as Wacom with double the pressure but more than good enough. I do adjust the pressure settings in both Clip Studio, my art software of choice and in the Windows Surface Pen settings if I’m not getting the kind of result I like and would do the same with Wacom, as it’s not a fixed thing. Also a major element in the performance of any digital drawing system is the software. The software creators have to support the hardware you are using, paid for software like Photoshop and Clip Studio support both Wacom and Microsoft pen systems. In terms of the drawing and the touch experience, the device it reminds me most of is the Apple iPad Pro with Apple Pencil. I have an iPad with Clip Studio and I share the same sets of pens and brushes across the devices. The glossy, glassy feel of the Surface screen is identical to the iPad as well, a lot of reviews of the Surface Studio tend to find the glossy feel of the screen a negative against the matt surface of the Wacom which is more like paper. It’s a personal thing but I have no problem with a glossy screen, the ability to draw directly on a screen far outweighs the unfamiliar feel of the glass and I like the brightness and contrast of the screen, as I said if you have used an iPad to draw on, it’s exactly the same feel.

Almost all the tech reviews I’ve read or watched have identified the choice of older hardware specs as a huge draw back to the Surface Studio particularly the first version which had a spinning hard disk. I do agree the hardware options could be less than ideal for users creating video and possibly high end 3D animation particularly if you need to create 4K content. The version of the Surface Studio I have is the base model with 16GB Ram and I work on 300 dpi files 8000×6000 pixels in size, about 60x40cm in final print size with no performance issues.

Zooming into the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2
Zooming into the Workspace on the Surface Studio 2

When deciding on the Surface Studio, I studied as many reviews I could find. Although the reviews were honest they mainly judged the Studio from the point of view of an all in one PC product which might have interest to creative types. From that point of view it comes across as an expensive device with lower than expected hardware for its price point, it’s a fair assessment but it misses the point. The main strength of the Surface Studio is as a creative art tool like the Wacom Cintiq, so I wanted to give my opinion as an artist using the Surface Studio to create professional work. In those terms the Surface Studio is an excellent piece of kit for creative’s who draw digitally as part or all of their practice. The other huge plus for the studio is the much celebrated patented zero gravity hinge which allows you to move the screen from an upright position to a 20 degree angle plus all points between. Many reviews have demonstrated the lowest setting as its default drawing position. However I have drawn on the screen in a variety of angles, changing the position constantly and although I lean onto the screen with as much weight as I need and it does not move. Again this a huge plus considering how much back pain is caused by long drawing sessions in the same posture. The other advantage of the Studio being an all in one drawing screen, stand and PC is that you do not need to buy anything else in order to work. Again I wanted a large 4K screen drawing surface which meant I would need a new computer to run it also a stand or Ergo type arm which are extra costs. Again considering I needed completely new equipment, my current PC was in its eighth year of service, I knew would have to spend a lot of money. There are better value options, a smaller Wacom Cintiq together with a decent laptop Mac or PC would be excellent for someone who wanted to move to an on screen experience or an iPad Pro with pencil is equally recommended.

So, as this is a digital artists experience of the Surface Studio I think it’s a fantastic digital drawing device. I wanted to share my thoughts about the Surface Studio, since I feel a lot of reviews don’t give a creatives experience of it and sell it short. Yes there are a lot better value PCs with much better specs to be had and I’ve seen bad reviews which are just excuses to troll Microsoft for charging so much money for a PC. There are things to criticise, ports on the back (given it’s design I don’t know where else you could put them), lack of bass on the built in speakers, using touch on apps like Clip Studio which have small icons can be a little tricky (it’s recommended you set the screen display size to 200% for the best touch experience, I have set it to 175%). However these are completely outweighed by how good it is as a digital drawing workstation. It doesn’t compare that well in tech specs compared to a high end iMac, but they are different beasts, for one the iMac isn’t supporting a touch screen. The biggest issue with the Surface Studio is how very expensive it is, but so is all professional level hardware whatever the manufacturer. I wish it wasn’t but that’s always been the case with top tier creative tech. On the other hand it’s a golden age for creative technology, both in terms of hardware and software.

At the end of the day I wanted something I could create on and would help my work improve and progress. I those terms the Surface Studio does what I want it to do and does it really well.

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