Wacom Mobile Studio vs Surface 4 Pro

I spent some time with both of these devices this year. They’re both pretty similar in a lot of respects: a nearly-300dpi screen, an i5 or i7 processor, and Windows 10. Which means they can run Adobe Illustrator – which is the entire reason I am interested in a Windows device.

The dream is to have a 13″ tablet that runs Illustrator so I can work in AI as easily as I used to work in my sketchbooks. Sitting on the bus, waiting for the bus, lounging on a park bench, sitting in an airplane, lounging around a cafe, slouching around home… wherever. Right now I carry around a 13″ Mac Air and an Intuos tablet, and that works okay, but I have to have room to spread out, and time to set up and tear down – I can sit in a cafe easily, but I can’t cram the computer and tablet onto my lap in a single seat on the bus, nor can I easily stuff it into my bag when I realize I’m at my bus stop and I’ve only got a few seconds to pick up my stuff and get off.

So let’s compare these two devices and assign points based on their relative merits to me. Both start with zero…

Price and computing power. This summer, I paid $1600 plus tax for a 2.2ghz i7 Surface 4 Pro with a 256g SSD and 8g of RAM. I am now using a $2000 Wacom Mobile Studio: i7 of unknown speed, 256g SSD, 8G RAM. The Surface is $400 less for much the same power; 1 point to the Surface.

Size. The Surface has about the same footprint as my Air, and fits in my favorite bag – a soft-sided one that has room for it, my wallet, keys, a few other small essentials, and really not much more. The Mobile Studio is a good inch and a half wider than the Air, and doesn’t fit in that bag. It’s not going to fit into any bag sized for a 13″ device. -1 point to the Mobile Studio.

Stylus. The Surface comes with a hard plastic NTrig stylus, with two hard-to-press buttons on the side, and an eraser that doubles as a button. The Mobile Studio comes with a typical Wacom stylus: soft plastic grip, two easy-to-click buttons on the side, an eraser, and a gentle flare just above the tip for an overall shape reminiscent of a brush. -1 point to the Surface. 30 points to Wacom, for scores of -1 vs 29.

Stylus attachment. The Surface’s stylus has magnets inside it that match magnets on the side of the Surface. They snap together pretty positively. You wouldn’t want to carry the whole thing in your bare hand, but I didn’t have any problems with it ever coming off in my bag. The Mobile Studio, meanwhile, comes with a little plastic dingus that you’re supposed to cram into the security slot, which will hold the stylus against the side of it, obscuring the charge port. 5 points to the Surface, -1 to Wacom, for scores of 4 vs 28.

Drawing surface. The Surface is hard, hard glass and its pen skids around like, well, plastic on glass. And it’s ultra-reflective, to boot. You will want a matte screen protector – once I got one of those off of Amazon for a few bucks, both of those were fixed. The Mobile Studio has a tiny bit of tooth to it, and is not terribly reflective; it doesn’t feel as nice to draw on as pencil on paper, but it’s a lot better out of the box than the Surface. -1 to the Surface, 3 to Wacom. 3 to 31.

Weight. The Surface is .78kg. A black hardcover sketchbook .87 kg. The Mobile Studio is 1.38 kg. And the Air is 1.35 kg, though if I add in the Intuos it’s about 2.16 kg total. The Surface weighs less than a sketchbook. And while the Mobile Studio is less to haul around than the Air plus a drawing tablet, in practice I’m discovering that 1.38kg is way too heavy for a thing I tend to want to support in one hand. It has to be supported by whatever it’s sitting on; trying to lift it up for a better angle makes my hand start to complain very quickly. 1 point to the Surface; -30 points to the Mobile Studio. And that makes the Surface start looking better: 4 points vs 1.

Support. Half of the Surface’s back folds out on a hinge, to make a very stable kickstand. It’s easy to adjust, stays where you put it, and lets you have it at a wide range of angles. It is a wonderful thing, and nearly every Windows 10 tablet computer on the market has stolen it with Microsoft’s blessing. Except for the Mobile Studio. Which has… nothing. You can buy a big awkward plastic stand for it, or you can carry around a little one. Or you can do what I’ve done, which is to take one of the lightweight wire stands I use for books at conventions and tape it to the back of the Mobile Studio, because with a thing this heavy there is really no point where you’re ever going to want to use it without a stand. If I keep it I will probably try to find something slightly more elegant, as it’s constantly catching on my bag when I try to stick the Mobile Studio back into it while getting off the bus. 20 points to the Surface. -7 to Wacom. 24 vs -6.

Cool Widgets. The Surface has a camera that does “Windows Hello”. It seems silly at first but it is really pretty damn cool to turn it on and give it a good angle on my face to log in. And then it smiles and winks at me, which is just really charming. It also happens in like two seconds with no interaction on my part. I think the 16″ Mobile Studios might have this but my 13″ does not; I have to use a password or PIN to log in every damn time I take it out. And the keyboard doesn’t automatically pop up when the password/pin fields appear; I have to hit the ‘summon keyboard’ button at the top of the screen no matter how I play with Windows’ screen keyboard settings. Very annnoying. On the other hand, the Mobile Studio has a row of six buttons and a little wheel running down one side of the front. They’re configurable to a lot of things; I’ve traditionally ignored these on my drawing tablets, preferring to keep one hand on a keyboard, but I can see them working pretty well to hit a few very basic keys and summon a customizable radial menu when you’re using it without a keyboard. They are also why it is too wide to fit in a bag. And honestly once I get the hand-held keyboard I bought along with the Mobile Studio configured, I’ll probably never use them*. 7 points to the Surface for making logging in not just painless, but fun; 5 to the Wacom for having some extra buttons at the price of being too huge for my bag. 31 vs -1.

Operating system. Both of them run Windows 10. Both of them come with terrible defaults: “pen flicks”** are on, the Surface wants to wake halfway up in your bag and check for new email on a regular basis and tends to end up waking all the way up and wasting half its battery warming up your bag, the Wacom isn’t very thrifty with its power out of the box either, hitting the command key on the Apple keyboard I’m connecting to them brings up the desktop instead of acting as a meta key, why the hell is Apple not making a device in this space damnit. All of these things can be fixed but it’s annoying to someone who’s spent the past sixteen years on Macs, and I’m not pretending to be rating the appeal of these things to anyone but myself here. -5 to both; the score’s now 26 to -6.

Adobe Illustrator compatibility. Here’s the big one. This is the art tool I’ve been using for the past sixteen years, the one I know how to use without any conscious thought, the one I have drawn an entire graphic novel in. The one program I am buying these things to run. The Mobile Studio works just fine with it, as I expected. The Surface? Drops the first half-second of my stylus motions every time I draw a shape with Illustrator’s pencil or brush tools. And… my workflow is based almost entirely around drawing shapes with Illustrator’s pencil tool. The Surface is therefore basically useless to me. The Internet has told me to both install a driver and to delete one; installing the driver made things even worse, and the one I’m supposed to delete doesn’t exist. There is one last suggestion I haven’t tried, and will probably visit a Microsoft store to check out soon, but I have no hopes of it working. -600 points to the Surface.

Final score: -574 to -6. Nobody wins.

From what I have heard, nearly every art program out there works fine with the Surface, except for Illustrator. Clip Studio Paint had issues, but got updated; Flash supposedly doesn’t see the stylus at all. I didn’t try either of those programs, or indeed anything else but Adobe Illustrator – the whole point of getting these tablets for me is “a Magic Sketchbook that lets me use Illustrator on the bus”. If I was willing to change applications I’d just switch to something that runs on an iPad Pro and spend about $900 for that and the Apple stylus, which is a damn nice stylus aside from the terrible recharging setup.

If the Surface worked with Illustrator, I wouldn’t have bothered with the Mobile Studio. And if you use a program that works with the NTrig stylus – which apparently is just about every other art program in the world – I really can’t recommend that you bother with it either, unless the Wacom hotkeys and popup menu are worth paying about $500 more for a device that’s really too heavy to comfortably use on your lap. And maybe for stylus rotation/tilt, I never use those. The Surface’s stylus is less comfortable than the Wacom, but if I’d kept it I would have gotten one of those little soft plastic pencil cushions that cost like maybe 35¢ and lived with the shitty side buttons. Take the $500 you’d spend on a MS, use $200 of it to buy a Twiddler and spend a few days configuring that.

When I initially wrote this, I had about a week and a half left to return it. I’m down to about a half a week left and I think I’m getting used to the workarounds I’ve done; using my second-favorite bag until I find a new bag that fits the Mobile Studio and not much else feels like less work than packaging it up, returning it, and visiting the Microsoft Store to try that one last little tweak to make it work with AI, and possibly do without a Magic Sketchbook until I find a Surface clone with Wacom drivers, or the “universal stylus initiative” I’m hearing about starts showing up in new tablets, and I can get pretty much any tablet and buy a Wacom stylus for it. Or until Apple pulls their thumb out, gets OSX running on mobile chips, and makes an Ipad Ultra-Pro. I am not holding my breath waiting for that last one.

The next post in the Magic Sketchbook series will probably be a love letter to the Twiddler, with some notes on technical woes I encountered while setting it up. It’s the last piece in the Magic Sketchbook puzzle for me.


* Later: I still use them a tiny bit, mostly either when I don’t want to take the Twiddler out, or for one keystroke I can’t generate with it for technical reasons – and I just thought of a way to get around those if I’m willing to change how the stylus buttons are mapped.

** “why is my screen scrolling sometimes when I draw fast?” Pen flicks. Type ‘flicks’ in the system search to find the relevant control panel and turn that shit off.

  1. I’m primarily a Photoshop user and have stuck with the Surface despite many, many, many….many issues. I’m still not entirely satisfied with it but it’s super lightweight and the beefy battery life offered by the Surface Book version is a huge selling point for me (I can take it with me and use it all day without worrying about finding a place to charge).

    The N-Trig tech just doesn’t seem to be up to par with my experiences with Wacom based screens on tablet PCs like my old Toshiba Portege. The strokes don’t match up as well, there’s a nasty taper-off bug that results in ugly looking lines and MS seems incapable of fixing it. Frequently the stylus imply stops working altogether and you’re left there waiting for it to start registering again.

    I’ve had the thing for almost a year now, and I have to stress that it does the job, but I wonder if I would have been better off returning it and picking up a regular tablet PC from another hardware manufacturer.

  2. Now that I’ve gone freelance (yay!) and given “my” iPad Pro back to my former employer I’ve started using my Cintiq Companion 2 again, and it’s… tolerable, now that the driver issues have been fixed, but it still has terrible parallax issues and it’s Too Damn Heavy. And its built-in stand is garbage.

    I had nothing but trouble with the NTrig stylus on the Surface Pro 3, which is why I went with the CC2 in the first place, and when I got to use the MS in person I was very impressed with it but I also didn’t get a chance to use it for very long. Disappointing that it still has many of the problems of the CC2 (especially the weight), as well as the lack of built-in stand.

    I wonder why the crap Wacom can’t just make a decent tablet, or why the whole deal with Microsoft had to go sour (since the Surface tablets used to use Wacom technology and all).

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