Fun with a Surface Pro 3

Micosoft’s Surface Pro 3 is, or should be, pretty much a perfect sketchbook device. Nice aspect ratio, high resolution, pen included. Of course, the screen is glossy and the pen isn’t a Wacom. But when it was cheap with the keyboard cover thrown in for free I got one anyway — as a test device for Krita on Windows.

In the end, hardware-wise, it’s nice and light, it just looks good, the keyboard doesn’t feel too bad, actually, and it’s got home, end, page-up and page-down keys, a trick that Dell hasn’t managed. The kickstand is rather meh — it’s sharp, hard to open and doesn’t feel secure on my lap. Still, not a big problem.

Windows

I can handle Windows these days, even Windows 8. It’s OSX that I truly despise to work with. However, when I got home and switched it on, I got my first shock… After the usual Windows setup sequence, not only did the device refuse to install the 70 or so critical updates, any and all https traffic was broken!

Turns out that the setup sequence picked the wrong timezone, and that in turn broke everything! Now, I might be a bit of an idiot, but I knew for sure that I had chosen Netherlands as location, US English as language, US English as keyboard. And besides, if your average Linux distribution can automatically set the right timezone, Windows should be able to, too! Since then, I’ve used the restore option a couple of times, and it seems to be really hit and miss whether the setup sequence understands this set of choices!

N-Trig

So, I restored to blank and started over. This time it did install everything. So, I installed the N-Trig wintab driver, Krita X64 2.9.0 and gave it a whirl. Everything worked perfectly. Cool!

Then I tried some other software, and when we released 2.9.1, I restored to blank, installed 86 updates and Krita 2.9.1. Now the 64 bits version of Krita didn’t work properly with the pen anymore: no pressure sensitivity. That’s something others have reported as well: the 32 bits version worked fine… Now N-Trig releases two versions of their drivers: 32 bits and 64 bits, and they claim that you need to use the x86 driver with x86 apps and the x64 driver with x64 apps, but… No matter which driver is installed, x86 Krita and x86 photoshop CS2 work fine. I don’t have any other x64 based Wacom-based drawing application to test with, but all of this sounds very suspicious.

Especially when I noticed that on their other wintab driver download page, they will send you to a driver that fits your OS: 32 bit driver for a 32 bit Windows, 64 bit driver for a 64 bit Windows. I’m not totally sure that the N-Trig people actually know what they’re doing.

And then I tested Krita 2.9.1 on another Windows 8.1 device with a more modern (1024 levels of pressure) N-Trig pen. With the 64 bit driver both x64 and x86 versions of Krita had pressure sensitivity. But… The driver reports the wrong number of sensitivity levels, in one place it claims 256, like the old pens, in one 1024, so Krita gets confused about that, unless we hack around it.

Still, this must be an issue with the drivers installed on the Surface Pro 3, and I haven’t yet managed to make it work again, despite a couple of other wipes and reinstalls. Copying the drivers from the Intel N-Trig laptop to the Surface Pro also doesn’t make a difference. Installing the Surface Pro 3 app doesn’t make a difference. I guess I’d best mail the N-Trig developers.

For now, it’s irritating as heck that I can’t run the 64 bits version of Krita on the Surface Pro 3.

Linux

OpenSUSE 13.2 boots on it, and the pen even moves the cursor around. No idea about pressure sensitivity because while the trackpad is fine, the keyboard doesn’t work yet, so I couldn’t actually install stuff. Google
suggests that kernel patches might help there, but it’s the pen that I care about, and nobody mentions that.

As a drawing tablet

A good artist can do great stuff with pretty much everything. People can do wonders with an ipad and a capacitive stylus with no pressure sensitivity. I’m not much of an artist. I used to believe I could draw, but that was twenty-five years ago, and is another story besides. But I spent an evening with Krita 2.9.1 and the Surface, to get a feel for how it differs from, e.g. the Wacom Hybrid Companion.

The screen is glossy and very smooth. That’s not as nice as the Companion’s matte screen, but the high resolution makes up for it. It’s really hard to see pixels. But… Every time you touch the screen with the pen, it deforms a little bit and becomes a little bit lighter. That’s pretty distracting!

The pen also lags. Not just in Krita, not just when painting, but when hovering over buttons or menus, the cursor is always a bit behind.

There’s no parallax, which is really irriting on the Cintiq. There’s also no calibration needed, the pen is accurate into the deepest corners. That is pretty awesome, especially since it lets me use the zoom slider with the pen. The pen really feels very accurate. In Krita at least: in Photoshop CS2, it’s very hit and miss whether a quick stroke will register.

The tablet itself is nice and light, the form factor pretty much perfect. I can hold it in one hand, draw with the other one, in portrait mode, for quite some time. Try that with a Companion!

The hybrid companion doesn’t get hot, though I heard that the Windows companion does. The Surface certainly does get hot! But the heat is located in one place, not the place where I held the tablet, it was only noticeable because I rest my hand on the screen while drawing. Note for other Surface users: disabling flicks in the control center makes life much easier!

For Krita

I have had reports that the virtual keyboard didn’t work from a Cintiq Companion user, but it works just fine for me on the Surface. I can enter values in all the dockers, sliders and dialogs in desktop mode.

As for the N-Trig pen, we support pressure sensitivity, but the two buttons are weird things and I don’t know yet how to work with them. Which means, no quick-access palette, no quick panning yet.

In any case, we need to do a lot of work on the Sketch gui to make it as usable as, e.g., Art Flow on Android. Heck, we need to do a lot of work on Sketch to bring it up to 2.9! But a good tablet-mode gui is something I really want to work on.