Surface Pro 3 for Illustrators

December 30, 2014

Surface Pro 3 for Illustrators

For about two months, I’ve been experimenting with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, to see if it could be the all-in-one mobile illustration studio that the marketing has made it out to be. Here is what I’ve learned.

Criteria

For my work, I mostly use Illustrator, Photoshop, Cinema 4D, After Effects and Sketchbook Pro with a Wacom Intuos 5 Medium on a Mac Pro with twin 24″ displays. What I’m looking for is something I can take with me when I’m away from the studio, in case a client needs a quick edit, comp, revision or render.

Since I do some 3D and video work, and I love having extra horsepower, I went for the top-tier Intel i7 processor. I decided not to get the Smart Cover, as other artists have mentioned that it just gets in the way when drawing with the pen. If I’m happy with the Surface, I might get a mini bluetooth keyboard or a gaming pad like the Razer Nostromo for hotkeys, and position it however it’s comfortable.

The Good

Overall, I’m really impressed by the SP3. The build quality is great and the design feels well considered. The screen is bright and crisp. The kickstand allows me to find the perfect angle for drawing, browsing or reading. The modern tile interface of Windows 8 is inviting (although not nearly as intuitive as an iPad) and the classic Desktop interface is just a tap away. The device was responsive, programs and files opened and ran briskly. All in all, the SP3 feels like a mature but still evolving product.

The pen tracks accurately and has a good tip feel. The Surface felt like a good size and aspect ratio for drawing, pretty similar dimensions to my Intuos. The pen customization options are limited compared to a Wacom product (only about six pre-defined pressure curve profiles) but I was able to find something that felt good. That’s about where the good things I have to say about the pen end.

What became immediately apparent when I tried to work on the Surface was how much I rely on modifier keys (holding down Shift, Alt, Ctrl, Space, etc. while clicking, dragging and so on). They’re pretty much essential in all the production programs I use, and even in how I browse or use an OS. Without a keyboard, the SP3 was a non-starter. Luckily, via SurfaceProArtist I found RadialMenu, a program that adds customizable, application-specific hotkey docks anywhere on your screen, as well as a namesake ring menu around your pen cursor. It’s not the most polished or stable program, but it’s absolutely indispensable when using the Surface without a keyboard.

Radial Menu RadialMenu in Adobe Illustrator RadialMenu in Cinema 4D

The Bad

The biggest weakness of the SP3 for me is the pen. Previous versions of the Surface used pen technology and, more importantly, drivers by Wacom, but the SP3 does not. While Wacom pens are powered by magic, the SP3 pen is powered by not one, but three batteries, one in the barrel and two button-cells in the top. The batteries add a nice weight to the pen, but rattle slightly with every movement. The barrel is matte aluminum and feels kind of cheap and fragile in the hand and unbalanced with the batteries.

As mentioned before, the pen driver is lacking in customization options. The two side buttons are not configurable. The purple top button can only open One Note, though I never got this working despite pairing, un-pairing, re-booting, re-pairing, removing batteries and replacing batteries, ad nauseum (yes, that one button is a separate Bluetooth device).

Surface Pro 3 Pen

Windows 8 was a new experience for me. I’ve been using Macs for about 12 years, but I want to say I went into it with an open mind. I find the modern tile interface appealing, but in practice I ended up turning off all the live tiles that flash news, feeds, updates and pictures, because they just distract me from what I sat down to do. At first, I thought Microsoft had done a good job of simplifying the PC experience, but it didn’t take long to realize that they’ve mostly hidden the complexity away.

The Desktop environment doesn’t seem like it has changed in the dozen years I’ve been away. It’s tricky to navigate without the pen or a mouse, but I guess the modern interface is more intended for touch input. Windows 8 would really be improved with multitouch gesture support, especially if it were customizable. I use BetterTouchTool on all my Macs, and the terribly-named TouchMe Gesture Studio got me close to that level of control.

The SP3 runs hot. I first noticed it while working in Cinema 4D, but soon I realized it was hot whether I was watching a video, browsing the web or reading a magazine. It seems like the processor is positioned in the lower right (if you’re looking at the SP3 in landscape with the Windows button on the righthand side) and it becomes uncomfortably warm when you rest your hand there while drawing. From other reports online, it sounds like the i7 suffers from this problem the worst, but all models tend to get warm to the touch.

The Ugly

Fresh out of the box, the screen on the Surface Pro 3 is shiny, crisp and black. After only a day’s use, it looks like this:

Greasy Surface Pro 3

Sure, this happens to iPads and every other tablet, but not as quickly or as severely. I don’t know what magical oleophobic coating Apple uses on their products, but the SP3 needs some of that, lickity split.

The Windows “button” on the front of the Surface is actually more of a touch or proximity sensor, which means if you’re right handed and drawing on the SP3, you’re going to hit it by accident. Constantly. The button takes you out of your program back to the Start Screen shown above. Microsoft has created a way to disable this button, but it doesn’t disable the haptic vibration motor that buzzes every time you brush past the button. Maddening!

I love magazines, so naturally I’m a big fan of Next Issue. I was happy to find out they have an app in the Windows Store. Unfortunately, I found that the video and interactive components in many of the magazines did not run properly on the Windows version. This is obviously no fault with the Surface, and out of the control of Microsoft, but it’s a reminder that Windows is no longer the priority platform for developers and startups.

Conclusion

In the end, I returned my Surface to the store. I really wanted to like it, but the pen was a real deal-breaker for me. My wishlist for the Surface 4 is short: Better pen drivers, third party pens, and better heat dispersion.

I might pick up a Wacom Companion in the new year to see how it compares.


Darpa Robotics Challenge Course

December 22, 2014

Darpa Robotics Challenge Course

I illustrated the tasks in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge finals for Science News magazine. The bots are supposedly being designed for disaster response, but they look equally capable of causing disasters. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.


Technology Spot Illustrations

December 22, 2014

Fixing Blind Spots with Augmented Reality

Robot Hand Sweat Sensor

 

Some recent spot illustrations for IEEE: Spectrum magazine. A system that uses a camera, projector and retroreflective fabric to reveal blind spots to drivers, a more sensitive robotic hand, and an adhesive sensor that analyzes sweat.


Brain Hacks

November 27, 2014

 

Electroconvulsive Therapy Deep Brain Stimulation Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Spot illustrations comparing various methods of electrical brain stimulation. For a Science News article on at-home brain stimulation for improving working memory, increasing attention span, and overclocking math skills, as well as potentially reducing depression and chronic pain, some studies suggest. Thanks to Marcy for the really interesting project!


Ford Transit Campaign

November 27, 2014

Ford Transit Ad Illustration Ford Transit Ad Illustration Ford Transit Ad Illustration

I worked with Y&R Canada to produce this series of line illustrations for a campaign for the 2015 Ford Transit. Look for it in small business and trade magazines. Big thanks to Mario and Natee for the great project!


Architectural Cutaway for Missouri S&T

November 26, 2014

Architectural Cutaway Illustration

I recently worked with Mindy Limback and Nikkole Pirch at Missouri S&T Magazine to create this cutaway illustration of Bertelsmeyer Hall, a new sciences building on campus. Below are some rough sketches to explore possible angles.

Rough Drawings


How To Drive

October 9, 2014

How To Drive by Ben Collins

Ben Collins, perhaps best known as The Stig on BBC’s Top Gear, has a new book out in the UK today entitled How To Drive – The Ultimate Guide From The Man Who Was The Stig. I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Collins to create some instructional illustrations to help explain some of the concepts in his book.

Rotational Steering from How To Drive

Topics covered range from the fundamentals like sitting posture, hand placement and visualizing potential hazards, to more – um – practical instruction like how to skid 180° into a parallel parking space.

Handbrake 180 into Parallel Parking Space

It was an honour to work with Ben and to have a chance to swap stories with an automotive icon, like driving an Aston Martin for James Bond, or beating on a rented Hyundai Accent (guess whose story is whose). Hopefully the book will see a North American release soon!


A Breath of Fresh Air

September 22, 2014

JamesProvost.comWelcome to the new JamesProvost.com. The changes may seem subtle, but everything has been redesigned from the ground up to look great no matter what device you’re using.

I’m particularly proud of my new portfolio. The images are larger and clearer. Projects are presented more cleanly. You can see my whole breadth of work at a glance, or you can filter it down by style or subject matter. I’m so happy to be able to share the great projects I’ve been a part of, and want to thank all my clients for the opportunity.

I look forward to writing more about recent projects, my illustration process and maybe a tutorial or two in the near future. Keep in touch on Twitter, Dribbble, Behance, Flickr or my RSS feed.

If you’re not a big fan of redesigns, my previous site has been archived in its entirety. If you’re encountering any problems with the new site, please let me know.

Many thanks to everyone who helped make this happen!


Cutaway Illustration Process

February 5, 2014

Cold Compression Wrap Cutaway Illustration

I recently worked with Game Ready to create this cutaway illustration of one of their cold compression wraps.

The process began with a conversation about their goals for the illustration, the function of the device, and the features and details to be highlighted. Game Ready sent me a prototype device to photograph for reference as well as some sample materials to cut open.

Reference Photos

Next, I produced a series of sketches to establish the content of the illustration, the viewing angle, and appropriate locations for cut away sections.

Sketch

Once the sketch was approved I created the line art, a tightened line drawing based on the sketch. The line art is separated into layers, allowing me to later ghost out certain layers of material.

Line Art

Finally, the line art is painted to communicate the colours, materials and finish of the product. Arrows are added to describe the function and operation of the device. For more, visit my technical illustration portfolio.

Many thanks to Winston Albert and Kelly Hansen for this great project.


Can-Am Off-Road Showdown

October 24, 2013

Off-Road Vehicles Illustration

I recently completed a series of line illustrations for Can-Am’s Off-Road Showdown, a tool for comparing 39 competing ATVs and side-by-side vehicles based on their performance, handling and design. The illustrations also appear on point-of-sale displays in Can-Am dealers. Check out my Line Illustration portfolio for similar work. Thanks to Sarah and Xavier for the great project!

Flexible Solar Panels

I’ve also added new work to my Motion Graphics portfolio including an interactive module on flexible solar panels for MIT’s Technology Review.