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Put away those MacBooks
You might tend to associate the trendy graphic and web design crowd with Mac computers, but they have a lot to gain with the Surface Pro. Like art applications, design software works best with a stylus, but absolute, pixel-perfect fidelity isn’t quite as crucial, and elements can be easily adjusted after they’re first placed. Here are our impressions after trying a large variety of design software on the Surface Pro.
Using Adobe’s vector-drawing application Illustrator on the Surface Pro is, in a lot of ways, similar to using Photoshop. The two programs have similarly laid-out interfaces, with tightly packed trays of small buttons. With the stylus it’s not too hard to select the tools you need, but the stylus’s accuracy drops off as you near the edges and corners of the screen, making it quite hard to hit the menu bar at the top of the program.
Flash’s interface is even more packed, with the important timeline requiring some extra-precise stylus work to use. We’d recommend a separate mouse for anyone doing animation work on the Surface Pro.
Like all the Adobe products, neither Illustrator nor Flash currently offers pressure sensitivity with the Surface Pro’s stylus. Fortunately, for creative work, pen pressure is a lot less critical in vector-based programs than in Photoshop, as most linework is done with the control-point-driven Pen tool, rather than freehand.
We opened several very large Illustrator and Flash files, and neither ever showed any signs of slowing.
3D modeling is the sort of high-precision, involved work that isn’t likely to migrate off the workstation and onto a tablet anytime soon. But Sketchup (formally owned by Google, now Trimble) offers a more design-centric take on 3D, letting you build up low-poly 3D models with minimal mousework—an excellent candidate for the Surface Pro.
Sketchup is a blast to use on the tablet, even if the stylus slows you down.
Adobe illustrator’s pen tool makes it easy to draw without pressure sensitivity.
The program runs perfectly smoothly, and building 3D objects by extruding and morphing basic shapes using the touchscreen is very satisfying. For any sort of precision, you’ll need the stylus, which is a natural fit for drawing lines and shapes on the screen, then extruding those into 3D. The major drawback is that the stylus lacks scroll-wheel and center-click functionality, which makes zooming and rotating the scene a chore.
Dreamweaver suffers from some of the same interface issues as the other Adobe software, but on the whole there’s very little drawback to using it on the tablet. The stylus is enough precision for most tasks in Dreamweaver, and the Type Cover is convenient when you need to quickly drop into HTML view. The only thing we’d like to see in a future version of the Surface Pro is 3G, for mobile publishing.
The Surface Pro is an excellent platform for designers who can pry themselves away from the Mac ecosystem. Full-featured design programs like Illustrator work like a charm on the Surface Pro, and the stylus issues that gave us grief in art programs are much less of an issue here. If you’re looking for a way to do high-quality design work during boring meetings or while sitting on the couch, you won’t do better than the Surface Pro.
Don’t sell your workstations yet
If you’re a digital musician looking for a capable, portable tool for music creation, you’ve probably given a lot of thought to the iPad, which offers a number of excellent—if limited—digital instruments and music apps. As a competitor, the Surface Pro is a mixed bag. To start with, the app support just isn’t there yet. The Microsoft Store is a little barren, and its minimal design and low number of user reviews makes it difficult to find the best picks. On the positive side, many apps in the store offer a trial option before you buy, which can be a big help in choosing the music tools that are right for your purposes. Additionally, we found the Surface’s widescreen aspect ratio better suited than the iPad’s for simulating keyboards and a variety of virtual instruments.
The Surface’s real advantage comes from its ability to use the full desktop version of your favorite Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) on the go. We tried out Cakewalk Sonar X-2 and FL Studio on the Surface Pro, to see how it fared for mobile music production.
On one hand, it’s sort of unbelievable to have the sort of powerful production tools like Sonar in your lap on a small(ish) tablet. On the other hand, the Surface’s hardware just isn’t quite right for the software—DAWs are notorious for having cluttered, tightly packed interfaces, and we found it very hard to use them without a mouse. Even with the stylus, which normally serves as a decent mouse-replacement, navigating both programs’ interfaces was hard on the wrist and eyes.
Digital audio workstation FL Studio is just a little too dense for the small Surface Pro screen.
Of course, you could plug a mouse and external monitor into the Surface, but at that point you’d be better off with a workstation, or at least a laptop. The Surface Pro’s 4GB of RAM will start to hold you back in these programs, too, especially if you’re working on a project with multiple sampled instruments.
Using big-boy music production software on a tablet is novel, but it’s just not a great fit.
Up to the task, if you are
Going into our testing, the area where we most expected the Surface Pro to run into performance problems was in video editing. Rendering and encoding HD video are two of the most hardware-intensive computing tasks normal users do, and the Surface Pro’s hardware is good, but hardly cutting-edge.
We were surprised to find that the Surface holds its own quite well in Premiere Pro. HD video rendering wasn’t lightning-fast, but it was well within what we’d consider the acceptable range for home use. In our x264 encoding tests, the Surface Pro clocked in at around 6 frames per second—a decent score that we’d expect from a low-powered desktop PC.
The only real issue we had with video rendering or encoding was that the Surface Pro—which has a tendency to run hot and loud—runs at its absolute hottest and loudest while performing these demanding tasks. It’s not a deal breaker, but the Surface gets hot enough that it’s uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time, or hold directly on your lap. In addition, we saw battery life drop precipitously while working with video.
Premier Pro running on a tablet? We never thought we’d see the day.
The Premiere Pro interface is hardly touch-friendly, of course, and the software’s interface is a little too dense. On the plus side, HD video looks so good on the Surface Pro’s top-notch screen that you might not miss your larger monitor.
The Surface is a surprisingly capable video editor, and is a valid choice for putting together vacation video in a hotel room, or other low-level jobs. For professional or hardcore hobbyists, the Surface Pro’s limited hardware will send you scrambling for your workstation.