Illustrator CC on Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Of late, I have become averse to using the computer—sitting at it, anyway—and this has been cutting into the amount of time I’m willing to work in Illustrator. For a while now I’ve been thinking about the Microsoft Surface Pro, imagining myself working while sitting on my couch or lounging outside. I had really been hoping to trick someone (Adobe, Microsoft) into giving me one to try out, but it would appear I’m not that well connected.

So, with some misgivings, I bought a Surface Pro 4 i5 with 8Gb ram. Here is my experience, after having it for a few days:

The Machine

The Machine itself is pretty gorgeous, and I love the blue keyboard (additional cost*), although it has a tendency to wobble up in the back when I’m typing**. The screen is sharp and rich, the pen is comfortable, though I wish I could program the top button to do things other than currently prescribed. In general the initiation process was smooth … ish. Cortana (MS Siri) was surprisingly difficult to get started (something to do with me being Canadian), and I have not done much in the way of setup, as my plan is to use this thing for work only, so no email, calendars or any of that personalization. Installing my printer was as easy as on a Mac.

There does seem to be something a little funky about the trackpad, and sometimes tapping it will open things (like web links), and sometimes it seems I have to press harder to click. Sometimes clicking gets what I want, other times it opens an unwanted contextual menu. I also have the option of touching the screen with my finger or the Surface Pen, so at the beginning I was doing a lot of tapping, poking, touching and a fair amount of muttering “wtf?” But if I keep away from the trackpad, and remember to lift the pen away before using fingers, it’s working most of the time as expected.

Microsoft has a login called “Microsoft Hello” which recognizes your face. Sometimes. This was amusing at first, but after it failed to recognize me several times it became annoying. I also don’t want to stare directly into my computer when I start it, but I haven’t figured out how to turn this off.

With the keyboard attached and the screen up with the little flap on the back out for stabilization, the whole thing takes up at least 10 inches of desk space. Fine for a desk, but for me, it keeps falling off the back of my lap-desk-thing, and would also probably be a problem on an airplane. Annoying. My Macbook Air, by comparison takes up about 7.5 inches of desk space.

**Astonishing discovery

I started writing this post on the Surface, but when I needed to make an em-dash I had to go to the internet to find out how. Did you know that PC users are still using the “character palette” or ASCII codes (ASCII CODES!!!!!) to get accented characters, and things like em- and en-dashes, copyright symbols, etc.? I can’t even figure out where the character palette is, and entering ASCII codes is too primitive to contemplate. (Did Apple somehow get proprietary use over using the Alt-key+letters, or holding down a key to get its alternates? If so, how did they manage to do that and NOT have proprietary use for pinch and swipe movements?)

So I will not be doing any writing on the Surface, which is a disappointment because I really do like the keyboard. The keys make a nice little “thwock” sound, and writing on it would have been a pleasure.

Illustrator CC

What I’m really here to talk about is Illustrator CC, because that is entirely the reason I bought the Surface. Illustrator on the Surface operates in 2 modes: as a laptop with keyboard attached, with the full desktop Illustrator interface (that you can touch and draw on); and in “Touch Workspace” mode with limited access to tools, but the whole display given over to the artboard. As soon as you fold the keyboard back, it enters the Touch Workspace. You can also access the full desktop interface without the keyboard by tapping an icon. More about this later.

I think I use Illustrator a little differently than most people. Judging by the tools available and the artwork I see produced in Illustrator, it seems a lot of people use it quite loosely, brushing and filling and texturing and who-knows-what. I use it as a precision tool. The reason I got the Surface is that I could find no other drawing program for the iPad that allows me to precisely control vector points. That is how I work. I draw, point by point, and then I adjust and adjust and adjust … and then adjust some more until every curve is to my satisfaction. I do not use the brush tool to make variable thickness lines, I do them by hand. I do not autotrace, I do not gesture, I do not spraypaint, I do not warp. I fiddle with vectors, sometimes to minute detail. And I cut things at precise points, and make things different colours.

So … what I like about the Surface is working on my lap or on a desk. I like leaning over the artwork and drawing directly on the surface. It’s taking a little getting used to, and the glass is a bit slick, but I like it. Adjusting vectors by their nodes and handles is working great (once I turned off “Smart Guides” which for some reason was making nodes near impossible to move, even though all the snap-tos were off). And I’ve gotten used to the “undo” button–in fact, what I love is that most of the time, I can use 2 hands: one holds the pen, and the other can switch the tools, and tap the undo. For some reason this doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s brilliant.

I did have to go into preferences and remove the time, sound, battery, and wifi icons from the lower right corner because I kept leaning on them and opening unwanted items. As it is I still accidentally open a bar of Notifications somehow, which I haven’t yet figured out how to turn off. Not too big a deal: one tap and it’s gone.

Zooming in and out with 2 fingers, or panning with 2 fingers works most of the time, though sometimes causes unexpected results.

However, there is a major flaw in that Adobe has decided which tools we are most likely to use in Touch mode and provided them, but there is no way to get to the others without switching back into Desktop mode. For instance: Layers. LAYERS. How more fucking basic can you get than Layers? I use them constantly, switching them on and off, locking and unlocking them. Now every time I need to, I have to go back into Desktop mode. Idiotic.

Also, I am a nudger. I set my cursor increments to 0.1 or 0.2 points, and I use the arrow keys to nudge points a little this way and a little that.

So, on the first day I was doing a lot of unfolding the keyboard (which automatically switches me to desktop mode), nudge with the arrow keys or activate layers, and then go back to the Touch mode … I also tried just leaving the keyboard out and working on the Surface in Desktop mode, but then my hands rest on the keys, and, well that’s fucked up.

On the second day I came up with a brilliant workaround. I detached the keyboard, and instead paired the Surface, via Bluetooth, with my Apple keyboard. Because this keyboard can sit anywhere, I can rest my wrist on the Surface, and use my other hand to use the keyboard. It wasn’t long before I gave up on the Touch mode altogether and am now working exclusively in the Desktop mode, using both hands. It’s working great! Already I’ve completed three projects I’d been putting off because I didn’t feel like sitting at the computer. Of course I’m still sitting at a computer, but it feels so much more like drawing, which of course it is. *So if you get one of these things, don’t get the keyboard, just use a Bluetooth one.

For the touch mode to be useful, Adobe needs to have customizable toolbars. The Touch Workspace has plenty of room on both the right and the left for more tools and menus. The user should be allowed to choose what those tools are depending on how they work. This is actually something I’ve wanted in all Adobe programs since the dawn of time, but now, with the Surface, it’s more important than ever. But in all honesty, aside from some extra space, I don’t really see advantage of the Touch workspace once you’ve got a Bluetooth keyboard on the side, unless you have difficulty with small icons, which I personally don’t.

The files are cross-platform, and Creative Cloud applications can be used on 2 computers, so I can use the same program, for the same price, on both the Mac and the Surface.

In a day or so I’m going to check out Photoshop, and maybe Lightroom (I’ve been doing a lot of photo sorting and tagging in Lightroom lately). I have doubts about Photoshop on the Surface over my iMac, but I  am curious.

If you have anything to say to me about this, comments are off, but you can email me at contact at this website address (or just go to the Contact page).