So when I got my SurfacePro3 a few months back one of the key reasons for getting it over other options was that comes with a pressure-sensitive pen that makes it a great tool for drawing. Having used a Wacom tablet in the past, I was pretty excited by the idea of being able to draw directly on the screen (while you do get used to the tablet after a while there is still always a bit of a weird disconnect where you are drawing in one place and the actual output is in another). A Wacom tablet is also not the most portable thing, sure you can hook it up to a laptop and draw on the go but that is still pretty unwieldy. Being able to draw anywhere is huge plus.
Ok, so I’ve sold the reasons for why you might want to draw on the Surface. Anyway, for the first few months I was too busy writing code to get much drawing done, so I didn’t really give it much thought. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago: with a bit of time on my hands I decided to give drawing on the Surface another chance.
First I tried out Autodesk SketchBook. Initially I tried out the desktop version and then I gave the tablet optimized version a try. Both work pretty well for basic sketching. The tablet version in particular is nice. It has even fewer features than the desktop version but in a way that’s a plus: it just gets out of the way and gives you a canvas to work on. The only feature I would like to see added to the table edition is the ability to create different canvas sizes. It just gives you one size and that’s it. I haven’t yet tried creating a different sized canvas in the desktop version and then opening it with the tablet version, although that should probably work. That’s more hassle than it really should be just to get a bigger canvas though. Overall, for some quick sketching the tablet version of SketchBook is fantastic though: simple, clean, and elegant. You can focus entirely on what you are drawing without worrying about the technical minutiae.
Next I tried out the staple of digital artists everywhere: Photoshop. I first tried one of the older versions (CS6) and that proved a catastrophe. The UI was tiny because of the high DPI screen, and the pen pressure did not work (apparently you can enable it with a special driver, but I did not try this). After some searching on the web I found out that newer versions are more Surface friendly, so I proceeded to install CC2015. This was a far better experience immediately. The UI is scaled by default so you can actually use it and pen pressure works out of the box. I did not spend a great deal of time drawing in Photoshop but from the maybe 2 hours or so that I spent on a sketch it worked very well. If I wanted to do any serious painting I think this is still what I would use. It is also still one of the best when you want to add that final bit of polish to an image. However, I wouldn’t use it for sketching, it just feels too heavy in the end. Of course that’s a matter of preference. If you really like Photoshop you certainly can use it for sketching and just about anything else.
Lastly I tried MangaStudio5. I had previously heard about this software and honestly dismissed it out of hand because of the name, after all I’m not really interested in drawing Manga. But several comments on the web mentioned that MangaStudio works particularly well with the Surface so I decided to try it out too. My first impression wasn’t the best: OMG what is that interface? There are about a million buttons and toolbars everywhere and it can take a little getting used to. So I decided to watch a couple of videos on YouTube to get a basic run-down of the interface and that helped. Once you get the basic hang of things it actually does work rather well. The interface takes a little time to adjust to but it isn’t actually anywhere near as bad as my first impressions had me believe. I still haven’t spent a huge amount of time with it but I suspect for any sort of comics work I’ll probably be using it from now on. The brush engine is fantastic and it is super easy to add nice speech-balloons, panels and other comic-y stuff.
Overall, all three software packages actually work very well with the Surface. They all use finger input for moving/zooming/rotating and only draw when the pen is used. All work well with the pressure sensitive Surface pen out of the box. They are all fast and responsive on the Surface hardware (those Intel integrated graphics chipsets sure have come a long way). Which to use really depends on what you want to do and personal preference. SketchBook is great for unencumbered sketching. Photoshop is great for painting and putting that final polish on an image. MangaStudio is great for any sort of comics work. A workflow could realistically incorporate all three, perhaps like this: SketchBook -> MangaStudio -> Photoshop. If you are planning on just using one and want the answer to the question: “which should I choose?”, then I would suggest giving them all a try (all have some sort of free trial available) and seeing for yourself because at the end of the day it really is highly subjective (though personally I would recommend getting SketchBook in addition to either of the other software packages, it is cheap enough that it shouldn’t be a problem and it is a great tool to just play around with ideas in).