This Sunday, I suddenly found myself thinking “I want to be able to work in Illustrator on a tablet badly enough to deal with Windows”.
I’ve avoided running Windows for my entire computing life, which stretches back to before MS-DOS existed, so this was a pretty surprising thought.
My first impulse was towards a Wacom Cintiq Companion; after reading some reviews and chatting about it with Mel, I found myself zeroing in on Microsoft’s tablet/computer hybrid. Which starts around $500 for the lowest-end Surface Pro 3, and goes up to around $2000 for the snazziest Surface Pro 4. Plus accessories, of course.
I started thinking about Things That Would Annoy Me As A Long-Time Mac User, googling around, and talking about these things on Twitter.
Tuesday, the cashflow-unclogging I’d been working on at the end of last week finally happened. And I still felt like this enterprise was a good idea. So I walked out to the Microsoft Store that sits lost and lonely across the University Village parking lot from the Apple Store. Seriously, there’s like a dozen people staffing it who mostly just sit around playing with the things only a few people an hour are coming in to look at. It’s gotta be kind of dispiriting to look out their door and see the always-bustling Apple store.
At any rate, I wandered in and chatted with the guys at the door about my desire to look at the Surfaces, and my intent of using it for Illustrator. I think they know that “people who want to run the Adobe Creative Suite on a tablet” is a not-insignificant portion of the Surface’s market, as they had Photoshop and Illustrator installed on the demo tablets. I played with AI a bit, doing the beginning of a doodle, and finalized the decision I’d pretty much made well before I started walking: I was gonna buy a mid-range Surface 4.
I ended up getting the Surface/Office/keyboard/sleeve/whatever-Microsoft-calls-their-version-of-Applecare bundle, for a total cost of about $2080. I’d discovered in my test drive that that the Surface’s stock keyboard/screen cover is powered by the Surface, and stops working when it’s detached, so I got them to let me get a cute little folding Bluetooth keyboard instead of the Type Cover. Ultimately I would end up returning all of these things except for the Surface and the extended warranty, and using it with a spare Apple bluetooth keyboard I had in the closet, as the folding keyboard was too floppy to balance on my knee and blindly hit shortcuts with my left hand. Not having a cover feels kind of weird, so I’ve got a couple lightweight ones coming from Amazon – the only non-keyboard covers they had were SUPR TACTICAL PRO DEFENSE cases, which are very Not My Aesthetic.
The Surface unboxing experience was pretty nice. One might even say Apple-esque.
Little details like this “pen magnetically attaches here” icon on the plastic covering the tablet’s screen made me anticipate an Apple level of polish throughout the whole thing. Surely I’d have it seamlessly running Illustrator in an hour or two!
Why, it even shipped with power in the battery! Cool. It’s ready to get going as soon as possible!
A screen or two into the setup. Hey, that’s a pretty neat idea! Especially if you can change it to do other things. Which you can.
Friends had noted that Windows 10 is super snoopy and sends home insane amounts of telemetry. So my reaction to this screen in the setup was “uh, nnnope, gee, I like how tiny and unimportant the links to actually look at what permissions you’re giving it are.”
All of these switches, of course, default to on. I might have turned on the “typing data” one to let the screen keyboard autocorrect better, but I’m really not intending to be doing a lot of typing on this thing.
Here are some well-intentioned ideas that my inner security researcher burst out laughing with delight at. Because she’s absolutely sure all of these have been rigorously tested for edge cases and overflows that can be exploited maliciously. Possibly I spend too much time reading Hacker News. But nnnnoooo. I’m not taking these risks when I’m using an OS that generally looks like a giant walking security hole from outside.
Not planning on using the stock Windows browser, don’t have any other Windows machines to share updates with. Though that’s a clever idea. I guess giving all users of Windows 10 a unique advertiser supercookie is clever too, but not in a good way. There were a lot more pages of switches to turn off than this; I only photographed the ones that I wanted to tweet snarkily about. I think I left one switch on in pretty much every page.
This, on the other hand, sounded pretty nifty and I said hell yes I will sign in with my face.
Cortana, on the other hand… I almost never use Siri on my iThings. I’m just not interested in talking to my computer. I said nope.
Then it ran out of power. I’d been wondering how long it would make it; there wasn’t a battery indicator visible anywhere in the welcome screens. Whoops! I plugged it in and hoped it’d recover gracefully.
After a wait just long enough to make me wonder if I’d bricked it, the Surface started booting again.
It had a couple other lines about “welcome to Windows 10” before this. Then it just sat here long enough that I was beginning to wonder what was up.
Which took a few minutes longer.
and then it did it again, and then it did it again. Four times that little progress bar filled up. With no indication of how many more times it might be intending to do this, how long it expected this to take, or what these four phases of the update were. Nice job, Windows. Good show.
And then I was off learning a lot of things about Windows. Here are some of the things I learnt about Windows 10 and the Surface:
- If you use SharpKeys to swap the Control and Windows keys so you don’t have to try to retrain twenty years of hitting the key immediately left of the space bar plus some other key to trigger shortcuts, the neat eraser-click feature quits working. Because internally the Surface pen is presenting itself as two devices, a stylus and a keyboard, and pressing the eraser button sends a press of the Windows key instead of sending a nice sensible “BUTTON_2_PRESSED” sort of event. I dithered back and forth and ultimately decided that “not tying my fingers in knots trying to press control instead of command” was more important than “clicking the pen button to launch Illustrator”. Some people have suggested that an app called Radial Menu can maybe remap the Windows key in a more subtle fashion that doesn’t interfere with this; I have it installed but haven’t tried playing with it yet, as turning off SharpKeys will involve a logout.
- There are two entirely separate preference programs. One of them is a very cleanly-designed tablet-friendly app called “Settings”, and is accessible by a nice friendly gear icon in various places in Windows 10. The other one is called “Control Panel”, and it reeks of 1995 up in there. Sometimes little windows from 1995 will come up when you type stuff in the search bar, with no immediate way to summon their parent to go looking at all the available switches; ultimately someone on Twitter told me you access it by right-clicking on the Windows icon and selecting “Control Panel” in the menu that pops up. Which is not a thing I would have ever discovered, given that tapping that same button summons the nice friendly Start menu.
- If you want a program to automatically launch itself on power-up, there is no easy way to do it. Everyone will tell you to just add it to the “Startup Items” section of the Start menu, but that doesn’t exist in 10 anywhere I can find. The only way I could do it involves visiting 1995: you have to navigate to a hidden directory by right-clicking on the Windows icon, choosing “run”, and typing “shell:startup”, then put an alias to the program in the directory window that pops up. Good luck finding out where the program lives; I ended up launching the program and using the Task Manager (found in that Windows icon right-click menu as well) to reveal it in the directory structure, then alt-dragged it into the Startup directory. Which worked for Illustrator, but not for Evernote. Because I’d installed the app store version of Evernote, which meant that it’s installed somewhere I don’t have filesystem access privilege to. The OS pointed me towards where I’d need to go to temporarily get admin access to do this, but really, as long as Illustrator auto-launches I’m happy enough here.
- One of the control panels hidden away in 1995-land is called “Pen and Touch”. It has a tab called “Flicks”, where you can set up things to happen when you rapidly slash the stylus vertically or horizontally. If you’re an artist who’s learnt to draw with confidence, this is probably going to happen fairly regularly once you get going. And this defaults to on. You’ll want to type “flicks” into the search bar and turn that off.
- Sharing. Windows sharing is a giant hot mess. You will be asked to learn about things like “workgroups”. Don’t bother. Just don’t bother. Install Dropbox and use that to copy over the preference files Illustrator no longer offers to sync between your computers. And use it to sync with your art files, as well, while you’re at it.
- Yep. Illustrator no longer syncs preferences between multiple machines. Adobe added that feature a few versions back, then quietly dropped it. Presumably because it was buggy, I dunno, I never used it. Photoshop still has it of course. Photoshop gets all the developer love over at Adobe. Despite all the time they’ve been putting into Illustrator features designed for touch devices lately, it refuses to run in portrait mode – other programs are fine with it, but as soon as you flip over to AI you’re locked in landscape. Nice job Adobe.
- You will probably only want to use Microsoft’s “Edge” browser long enough to download a different browser. And you will want to stick an ad-block plugin or two into that new browser. And you will want to turn on Windows Defender, and back that up with one of a few different programs. I chose Chrome, with the Adblock and Ghostery plugins, and backed up Windows Defender with Malwarebytes, whose website has a big friendly robot giving you a thumbs-up.
Seriously look at this dude. EEEEYYYYYY. I and my friends have decided that “Crush Malware” is Robot Fonzie’s name, not a description of what Malwarebytes does, and want to see him popping up when the program has something to say. “CRUSH MALWARE HAS A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS FILE, LADY BUTTERPANTS!” Ideally with gloriously monotone text-to-speech that you can laugh at, and turn off.
- The Windows 10 equivalent of Apple’s Exposé is activated by putting your finger on the left bezel, and swiping right into the screen. I don’t know what they call it in WinTenLand but it’s just as handy for swapping between apps as it is in OSX. Mirroring that gesture on the right side will get you their version of the Notification Center. Trying a vertical version of it on the top or bottom of the screen does nothing.
- It’s real easy to run installers multiple times because it can take a moment for anything to happen after you click on them. So you click again, with no response. And again. And suddenly you have three copies of the installer running.
- The thing at the bottom of the screen is called the “taskbar”, and is a mix of the Dock and the right side of the menu bar. If you search for settings relating to it you can move it to the top of the screen where it will feel more natural to a Mac person. You can also drag those menu bar items on the right around, but do NOT long-press on them – you’ll summon their menus if you do that. You can also set it to auto-hide, and it’s hard to get back with your finger or the stylus. Right now I just hit the control key on my keyboard to summon it, which gets remapped to the Windows key. Also you can hide the Dock aspect of it, which I kinda like.
- I find that the Surface works best if you set it to ‘tablet’ mode. Mostly. The app store won’t show its back button, I guess because it expects there to be one in the taskbar I’ve set to auto-hide. And there are a few other things like that springing from the fact that I’m making UI settings nobody raised on Windows would make.
- The Start screen is made up of a bunch of tiles. You can drag them around. If you long-press on them, you can delete them by hitting the little safety pin on their upper right, and resize them by poking around in the menus that come off the “…” on their bottom right. Which will probably be hidden by your hand. Windows 10 is trying really hard to be a touch-oriented OS, but the mask keeps slipping.
- Despite the general impression I have that Windows tends to fall over and die when you ask it to sleep or hibernate, the Surface seems to hibernate reliably. I’ve set it to hibernate when I press the power switch while it’s on battery, and sleep when it’s plugged in. I also set it to hibernate after two minutes of sleep, to prevent it getting accidentally awoken in my bag and sitting there wasting battery and overheating. You can do this by searching for ‘power options’, choosing ‘edit plan settings’, then doing ‘change advanced power settings’.
- It works perfectly well with a Mac bluetooth keyboard. I had a spare one in my closet that now lives in my purse. Turn it off when you put it in the bag, turn it back on while you’re waiting for the Surface to wake from hibernation.
- The calendar app was quite happy to connect to my iCloud calendar. It wasn’t updating when I was on battery for a while because I’d turned off background apps while on battery in the Battery Saver settings; I went in and allowed that to go through. I’m pretty sure it’d be equally easy to hook up the Mail app to the GMail account that sits between my Apple devices and the mail server on my host (it makes a great spam filter), but I really don’t want to do email on this thing. I’m trying to make it a sketchbook, not a distraction machine.
- Oh, the stylus: Not quite as nice as a Wacom stylus. One button on the barrel that takes a fair amount of pressure to press. No padding, I may end up trying to kludge a pencil cushion onto it or something. Eraser doubles as a second button with very limited function. Decent pressure response, supposedly has 1024 levels. Not sure if it has tilt or twist, I never use those anyway. Google says it doesn’t. Also I should probably buy a spare one in case I lose this one. (About $45-50 on Amazon, $60 from MS.)
- For the record, here’s everything I’ve installed on it to make it something largely dedicated to drawing in Adobe Illustrator: Chrome, Dropbox, Evernote, f.lux, ManicTime (tracks time spent in various apps, has a display similar to Time Sink, which I use for that purpose on the Mac), Malwarebytes, Radial Menu (for maybe remapping some keys, maybe doing some homebrew key shortcut panels or stuffing a lot of menu items into things I can quickly invoke with the stylus), Sharp Keys (also for remapping keys), Telegram (for talkin’ to people a little, but not too much), TimeMe (for a big clock on the homescreen, plus weather and battery status), and the Kindle app for maybe reading a book on a plane or something. Though really I’ll probably just take the iPad for that still. Oh and of course Illustrator, and some plugins for it. I still need to copy over all my fonts and get my brush libraries settled in.
All in all, I feel like it’s been worth the money and the day or two of setup. I spent about $1900 for a device with about half the storage of my 13″ Air, the same amount of RAM, a moderately faster CPU, and an alien OS that I had to spend a solid day wrangling with. But it’s also a device that weighs about half as much as my Air plus the Wacom tablet (.7kg vs 1.8kg – not much more than one of the black-covered hardbound sketchbooks I carried around for years). And it’s pretty close to print resolution – 267ppi. I can finally turn off anti-aliasing in Illustrator and stop seeing rendering glitches when I draw masked shapes, which I’ve been wanting to do for years. And I can draw on the bus, or on a plane, something I really can’t do when I need to plant the Wacom tablet next to the laptop. I still have to find a place for the keyboard under my left hand (maybe sitting on top of my bag to raise it to a comfortable level), but it’s a lot more compact than the computer plus tablet.
Taking it out is a lot quicker too; instead of taking out the computer and the Wacom, then taking out the stylus, stylus stand, and the USB cable, then plugging them together, I just pull out the Surface with the stylus clinging tenaciously to its side, turn it on, then pull out the keyboard and hit its switch. Pull the stylus off and I’m ready to draw in not much longer as it’d take me to pull out a sketchbook and my pencil case, find the next blank page, and choose a drawing tool. And it’s really nice to have that kind of casualness to drawing again. Windows is a colossal pile of alien hassle to me, but after a solid day and a half wrestling with it (and a lot of helpful suggestions from various folks on Twitter – thanks a ton, everyone!) I’ve gotten it to a point where it’ll mostly just stay the hell out of the way and let me enjoy my magic sketchbook.
I probably could have been happy with a lower-end Pro 4. Or maybe even a Pro 3, but I wanted the high res screen of the 4, and eight megs of RAM. Mostly because my Air has 8M and I know Illustrator won’t go into swap hell when I do complex painterly things or super-dense stuff like the climax of Rita. I haven’t tried any serious torture tests on it yet but I’m confident it’ll do fine, as even the low-end Surface 3 has more CPU than my late 2013 Air. It won’t be replacing my Air for everything (in part because I really would rather have something that runs OSX) but it’s damn close, and I don’t think the Air is going to be leaving the apartment much any more. The only thing it has over the Surface is better battery life (advertised at 12h vs 9h) and twice the SSD (512gb vs 256, though I could have spent more for a 521gb or 1tb Surface.). And costing about $800 less when I bought it a couple years ago, and running an OS I have thoroughly tamed.
Final verdict: A pretty cool magical sketchbook if you’re willing to spend a couple days wrestling with with all the 1995 buried inside it, and can afford about $2k. It’s a no-brainer if you’re already used to Windows and have that kind of money handy.