I like to think I’m a person who strives for simplicity, and I have no issue spending good money on something that works well until it falls apart (or, ideally, gets repaired and keeps working for a handful of years). As such, I am always skeptical of new gadgets.

Earlier this year I came out of my cave and showed how I had wrangled one of my favorite, well-made gadgets (my iPad Air 2) into my illustration workflow, successfully simplifying things a bit and giving some much-needed flexibility as to where and when I could create digital illustrations. But as it came time to replace my old work computer, I decided to look into this newer crop of 2-in-1 computers to try and find a unicorn, something with the power to handle complex designs with a touchscreen sensitive enough to accurately render drawings with a stylus. Turns out the Surface Book is just this sort of beast.

A Better, More Powerful Surface

The Surface Book is like the Surface Pro: Professional Edition. The Pro series boasts some fairly impressive hardware, like brand new i7 processors, terabyte solid state drives, and up to 16 GB of RAM, which is enough raw power to outperform many laptops, let alone tablets. But for doing graphics work, even moderate Photoshop and Illustrator use, they tend to run in the red due to the lack of a dedicated graphics card. It’s still really a tablet. The Surface Book, however, boasts a dedicated Nvidia graphics card housed in the keyboard casing (plus an additional battery, woohoo!). This, along with the larger 13.5-inch screen, means all the hardware is there for a lightweight and powerful graphics machine.

My only hesitation was the touch capabilities. Earlier models of the Surface Pro were fine for taking notes, but for doing fine illustration work the precision just wasn’t there. And as I’ve discovered over the past couple years it takes great hardware AND finely tuned software to compete with Wacom, the powerhouse of the drawing tablet industry. The great thing about the Book is, instead of relying on a nicely built but feature sparse app that frequently runs into memory issues (Adobe Illustrator Draw), I can just use full-on Adobe Illustrator with plenty of headroom. No jumping from Adobe’s Sketch to Mix to Draw, then sending a piece of a final drawing to Illustrator on my desktop to combine, layout, and finish. Now I can gather reference images, photograph sketches, and render everything on one tablet-sized device.

Tablet Focused Software

There is something to be said about apps designed specifically for the touch environment. A program like Adobe Illustrator is laid out for desktop use, and when the Book is in tablet mode it can be challenging to accurately select and use some of the tools. For tablets like this, Adobe introduced a new workspace specifically geared towards these devices.

Drawing in tablet mode using the Adobe Illustrator Touch Workspace. Note the simplified tools on the left.

The touch workspace offers a more stripped down toolset, larger buttons, and an emphasis on making an uncluttered space for drawing. This new view for Illustrator takes some getting used to, but once you start getting the hang of it drawing becomes a lot of fun. I miss my blob brush tool and layers panel to death, however, and wish there was a way to integrate these. The layers are especially missed since I like separating my colors. Having to exit the touch workspace and select the next layer I want every time I brainstorm ideas is a pain, but I’m working on changing my flow to minimize this. I’ve also found wonderful new uses for the pencil tool in touch mode. Its super-fast and snappy, I have lots of fun quickly filling up the artboard. I’m still fine-tuning the brush in touch mode, however, because out-of-the-box it doesn’t taper to as fine a point as I’d like.

As with all new gadgets, there is both a learning curve and some tune-ups that can help optimize performance between the hardware and software. On the software side, downloading the Nvidia control panel lets you set the system up to maximize the discrete graphics card performance with your favorite graphics programs. Inside Illustrator and Photoshop, it’s important to go into Preferences and enable GPU acceleration as well. This will allow you to take full advantage of the graphics card for optimal performance.

This level of optimization has been a sticking point for the PC-over-Apple crowd for years. Typically I don’t like messing with things too much in my operating system; I like things well designed and optimized out of the box. But when it comes to design and illustration, your tools need to be customizable to suit your personal needs. With access to full-blown Windows 10 and desktop applications, I can tweak to my heart’s content instead of having to make concessions with a suite of mobile apps that only offer partial options.

Simple, Adaptable Hardware

I like simple design. It keeps things from getting cluttered, and in product design, it makes things more durable and usable. The Book functions simply. It has a solid hinge with an adequate range of flex for a standard laptop, but while other 2-in-1 devices opt for a fully foldable design (like the Yoga), Microsoft focused on making the tablet detachable and reversible. This feels very solid, and when placed in tablet mode it feels like a high-end Wacom drawing surface while still allowing you to jump to Chrome or other programs. This “everything-in-one” feel keeps the design and illustration workflow completely contained in one powerful package. It’s like something from the future, man!

Pretty much this.

The worst part about trying to draw on anything besides the iPad Pro is the lack of a good, precise, pressure-sensitive stylus. I found one that I liked, the Adonit Jot Pixelpoint, but it always felt hard and slippery drawing on the iPad. Plastic on glass, gross. Plus, drawing needed to be very deliberate and slow, since varying the angle of the pen on the surface caused connection issues. Microsoft’s stylus has great weight and a precise rubber tip that has a pleasing drag on the screen when sketching. You can also erase easily with the top eraser button, and you can program that and the second button to perform other functions important to your workflow. There are even options for switching out the pen nib for a different shape if you prefer more or less drag.

After one long weekend drawing and designing in the comfort of my living room lounger, I couldn’t be happier with this machine. It’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do on the iPad for a couple years now; simplify my workflow and make digital illustrating feel natural. Whereas on the iPad I had to make constant concessions to thin mobile apps, the Surface Book gives me the real deal with full-on desktop software. There IS a caveat – the price. At $2600, it ain’t cheap. But you essentially are getting a MacBook Pro that you can draw on, and Windows 10 is probably the best Windows OS to come out in a decade. I’m not one to drop money willy-nilly, but the payoff so far has been well worth it.