Recently I gave my full review of the hardware and software of the Surface Pro 3, but in a way that was kind of a preamble to this review. Last Adobe MAX, Adobe let out kind of a bomb: they were partnering closely with Microsoft to product products that tickle our tactile fancy. What they were able to do nearly immediately was introduce Photoshop (and though it’s not included in this review because I’m not much of a digital artist, Illustrator too) to the wonders of creativity with a Surface-specific workspace. I’ll first admit I’ve been strapped to my Mac for years now. I’ve edited thousands of photos on my  iMac in a very specific fashion. But I’m willing to open myself up to new experiences.

So before I dig into it, I do want to point out that the Surface has its biggest competition in this arena with Wacom products, namely the Cintiq. In case you are unfamiliar, Wacom makes tablets and displays that work specifically with pens, and every single retoucher I know swears by them. Though the more portable versions of the Cintiq do require a computer in addition to themselves in order to function, it’s a matter of what can be done with them that makes them a seller.

So firstly, if you’re already a Surface Pro 3 user and you have tried to use Photoshop, you might have noticed that it’s not quite the perfect experience for touch you might have imagined. The pixel density of the screen makes the buttons on the screen much too small to effectively work with. You can enable the touch workspace by going to Edit > Preferences > Experimental Features > Scale UI Up 200%.

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace how to enable

You’ll then have to restart Photoshop, but afterwards all the buttons and options have been pleasantly upscaled, making them much easier to tap with a finger and, more importantly, the Surface pen. Since it’s located in Experimental Features, I would consider the workspace in beta somewhat, so if you experience anything wonky don’t be too surprised. However in my testing, nothing weird ever arose.

There was some lagging that happened when I opened a particularly large raw file, or attempted to move or zoom that file once it was opened. I chock this up more to the i5 processor and 8 GB ram that the Surface has more than anything. It’s why I recommend the beefier version of the Surface in my original review.

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace button size

I have to say, working in Photoshop on the Surface was a really cool experience. The Pen is gratefully touch sensitive, and very sensitive at that. Brushing was a wonderful experience, akin to what I have become used to working with Wacom products. Switching tools was like a painter going for a different color, dabbing the panel on the left.

One of the best features of the Surface was its ability to completely ignore my hand. Let me explain… when I write, or in this case brush, my hand lays on whatever I’m writing/brushing. Normally that’s a piece of paper, but here it was the screen of the Surface. Most screens I’ve used pretty much suck at being able to differentiate between the touch of my  hand and the pen, causing the cursor to fly all over the screen until I lift my hand off the surface of the monitor. This results in my uncomfortably holding my hand above a tablet or monitor in a way that I would never do with a pen and paper.

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace resting hand

The Surface didn’t care that I rested my hand on the screen, and that made for a truly pleasant, carefree and thought-free retouching experience. I’m not sure how Microsoft did it, but while wiping the side of my hand across the screen, never once did the operating system deviate from what the pen itself was doing. What this means is that the gap in experiences between analog and digital has really closed on the Surface. If you want to sketch on the Surface, you can sketch how you would on paper. For me, this is a gigantic leap in the right direction.

My personal favorite way to retouch on the Surface was to keep the kickstand folded flat, remove the keyboard and use the Surface like I would a piece of paper: flat on the table. This feels like this is how I should have been retouching my whole life. You can rotate the image quickly using two fingers, you can zoom by pinching, and you can move around the image using three fingers. The three finger move is the only touch command that is going to take a little getting used to, but all in all the experience from a software perspective was really quite nice.

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace zooming

There are a few hiccups with the Surface though, unfortunately preventing it from being a perfect companion for Photoshop in a touch environment.

If you recall, one of my complaints against the Surface in my hardware review was that the pen buttons can’t be changed to specific options per software that is open, or even be changed to anything useful at all. When using clone stamp or healing brush, Photoshop requires that you give those tools a location to pull from by using Option or Alt, depending on Mac or PC. Because of where the keyboard is located, keeping a finger down there during retouching is cumbersome and unnatural. If you somehow find holding a pen against the screen in the orientation of a traditional laptop comfortable, then you’re a better man/woman than me. It is heinously difficult to retouch like that for me, but unfortunately that is the only way the keyboard’s orientation works. If I could just assign keys to the buttons on the side of the pen, this problem would be resolved as I could do everything from my right hand, but unfortunately Microsoft hasn’t given that functionality out of the box like Wacom does with all their products.

 

This is an incredibly unnatural way to use a pen, but luckily Photoshop doesn't actually require the keyboard be attached.

This is an incredibly unnatural way to use a pen, but luckily Photoshop doesn’t actually require the keyboard be attached.

I most often found myself removing the keyboard entirely, and using the digital keyboard when I need the Alt or Control keys. In order to get those keys to appear on your screen, since out of the box the Surface only shows you basic keys on the digital keyboard, follow these steps:

  1. Click Settings
  2. Click PC settings
  3. Click PC and Devices
  4. Click Typing
  5. Reference the Touch Keyboard section
  6. Select “add the standard keyboard layout as a touch keyboard option”
  7. Open Photoshop
  8. Click on the Touch Keyboard icon in the taskbar
  9. Click on the new keyboard option

This would be great, if the digital keyboard did not suck up half my screen.Using the digital keyboard is also slower than using a traditional one, or using assigned keys with a Wacom product. The Surface has to think a bit when you’re using the digital keyboard to select areas. It’s not immediate like I’ve become used to on any other experience. It’s limiting, but not crippling. Annoying, but not crushing. What Photoshop Touch needs most is a way to assign buttons on the screen to these keyboard tasks instead of having to bring up an entire keyboard. Better yet, as mentioned, give me the ability to assign keys to the buttons on the pen (I know I am coming dangerously close to beating a dead horse here, so my apologies). What I am grateful for is the ability to just ditch the keyboard altogether and not really miss it. That’s an experience where using a screen like the Surface really shines.

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace digital keyboard

Review Surface Pro 3 Photoshop Touch Workspace alt key digital keyboard

I think Adobe is aware of my problems involving the keyboard and I would be surprised if it wasn’t on the top of things to address when working with Microsoft going forward. Though that doesn’t do a lot for my problems in the here and now, it is something to consider in the realm of the product’s future.

Another unfortunate problem that arises from the hardware is the lack of an SD card port. Yes, it has microSD, but none of my cameras, DSLR or otherwise, shoot to a microSD. That means I have to put the photos onto another computer to either transfer them to Adobe Creative Cloud storage or migrate them to a microSD just to get them on the Surface. Though I could buy an SD card reader for the USB, it would have been a lot simpler to just have the slot built in to minimize the number of things I have to carry with me when I use the Surface. I’m already afraid of losing the pen.

Pros:

  • Being able to rest my hand on the screen itself while using the pen on another area of the screen is a Godsend
  • The Adobe-built touch interface for Photoshop works beautifully
  • Commands are quick and easy, and getting lost in the edit was frequent (that’s a good thing)
  • Screen is bright and vibrant, colors pop and working on the Surface monitor was a pleasant experience
  • Having the full power of Photoshop in a customized environment on a very lightweight package is pretty amazing

Cons:

  • Lack of control over what the pen buttons do makes them basically useless in the Photoshop Touch Workspace and amount to simply wasted buttons
  • Needing access to certain keys on the keyboard was troublesome, Neither the digital keyboard or the physical one was anywhere near a perfect experience
  • Lack of an SD card port means either toting around an SD USB reader, or transferring data through another computer en route to using the Surface

Back at MAX, we were treated to this really great video of what could be possible with an Adobe/Microsoft partnership, and after working in Photoshop on the Surface, I have to believe that these artistic dreams will become a reality:

My problems with the whole interface, aside from the pen buttom complaints (ok I’m seriously done talking about those now, I promise), amount to basically small quips and minor inconveniences. For an experimental workspace that is just the first step of many towards a tactile digital experience, this was a wondrous success. It’s not better than a Wacom in all areas, but it’s cheaper than buying a laptop and a Cintiq, with some advantages like a compact size and the ability to rest your hand on the monitor while still using the pen tool. Any downsides to using Photoshop Touch on the Surface was due to the underperforming or incomplete hardware, not the software. So if you’re really into this kind of touch interface, then it’s absolutely worth it. Just make sure to get the more powerful Surface.

We give Photoshop Touch Workspace on the Surface Pro 3 a solid four stars out of five, for using the limitations of the Surface hardware to their utmost and delivering a mobile retouching experience that rivals industry standards from the likes of Wacom.