By Jason Kruse
Thinkpad Yoga 14:
I wanted to love both the Thinkpad Yoga 14 and the Surface Pro 4. I really did but unfortunately, both fell short.
I can only do a micro-review on the Yoga because, frankly I didn’t keep it long enough to do a full-blown review. First, the good:
It’s very affordable at around $1099 (and I had a 10% Movers Coupon at BB + $100 off for the holidays so it came to $899). It has a small Wacom pen built-in to the lefthand side which uses Wacom’s new AES technology. Plus, unlike a lot of the other new Wacom pens, it’s rechargeable when you place it back into its silo. Big, bright 14” screen with a number of viewing modes (laptop, tent, tablet, etc—though I generally draw in plain old laptop mode to easily hit the shortcut keys) and it was very solidly-built.
And now the bad which caused me to return it. First, Adobe apps tend to run at the wrong scale on the screen. They’re tiny but with a tweak to the program files, it was fixed. Annoying but not a deal-breaker.
There were, however, two showstoppers for me which rendered it fairly unusable for me. There’s a bug, I believe with the new Wacom tech, which makes only around half the pen strokes in Adobe Illustrator register. I’ve heard there’s a fix coming but I had too much work to do and couldn’t wait. The other—and this one really drove me crazy—was the touchpad. For some reason Lenovo made the decision to switch from Synaptics to Elan for their touchpad. At first I thought I could deal with it but the more I used it the more it drove me crazy. The cursor had a tendency to jump all over the place, the “right click” function would pop up when I was on left side of the pad and randomly while I was working. It drove me crazy. Even after I updated the drivers when it was suggested on the tablet forums they could help. I thought I could deal with it but after 4 nights of practically screaming, it went back.
Surface Pro 4:
Now, onto the Surface Pro 4. It’s such a gorgeous, powerful and well-built machine. I’ve also been rooting for someone (n-trig in this case) to take on Wacom successfully. It was so very close this time. So, so close but no cigar.
So, the model I’d gotten was the Surface Pro 4, core i-7 with 8gb of RAM. I also bought the Type Cover (which I still think should come standard). The kickstand is nice but I bought a case from Amazon which rendered it useless. I also bought the extra set of nibs that change the hardness or softness of the pen tip. And, unless you like the feel of drawing on very smooth glass, get a screen protector with some tooth. I got one from Photodon which made it feel similar to my Cintiq at work.
My first thoughts were that the display was stunning, the digitizer was responsive and all the programs I installed ran quickly and at the right resolution. It’s easy to pair the pen and holding the eraser button down launches OneNote (which I never use but it’s nice for those who do). I’ve heard that older versions of Adobe have the same difficulty as I’d had on the Lenovo where certain apps run way too small but CC installed just fine. I was shocked at how much power they crammed into such a lightweight machine. It’s truly impressive.
Now, onto more specifics.
First up, the pen. I have mixed feelings on it, honestly. At first it seems like a really nice piece of hardware. It’s built of the same metal as the computer itself and this time has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity whereas the Surface Pro 3’s pen had 256. Normally, I’ve found that increasing levels of pressure sensitivity is akin to increasing megapixels in cameras—it’s the law of diminishing returns—but in this case it’s noticeable. Even better, the Surface App (downloadable from the Microsoft Store) enables you to adjust the sensitivity curves which really helps particularly with initial activation force on the pen. Basically, that means if you want to you can put down more “ink” with less pressure or vice versa. It’s really personal preference. The pen nibs are also a very cool option but I think most people will prefer the standard nib it comes with which they say is HB. Honestly, none really feel like a true pencil but I have yet to try a stylus that does. One really cool thing is that the eraser does feel like an actual eraser. Oddly, I’ve found when I’ve used various tablets I rarely turn the pen over to erase. I usually just hit the eraser tool. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, there’s no pressure sensitivity with the eraser. Not sure why Microsoft did this.
Now, while the pen is a step forward from the Surface Pro 3’s version, it still fell short for me. For one thing, though the metal is premium, it’s actually too heavy. I like some weight but this was too much. Another thing I hadn’t noticed while at the store was that because the pen is not circular (it’s edged) around, it started to dig into my fingers. I’d say within an hour it felt like I’d been drawing all day. My fingers got sore and it was fairly annoying. A rubber grip of some kind would’ve been helpful. Most of my fellow professionals think I’m crazy but I never use the side buttons on my tablet pens. I have a nasty habit of accidentally hitting them so unfortunately I can’t comment on how good they are. Apparently, you can customize them now too which is nice.
I spent most of my time sketching with Manga Studio which has usurped Photoshop for me, personally. A common complaint with the Surface Pro 3 was the strange jitter that inking using the N-Trig pen caused, particularly when going slowly. A number of reviewers have stated that while it’s been mostly alleviated, it’s still there. I can confirm it. I found sketching quickly to be okay but when I went to final inks I found it very difficult to get the line-quality I wanted. Even with Manga Studio’s “line stabilization” feature, I didn’t care much for it. It felt like it took more effort to get the line to look the way I wanted. Maybe I ‘m just too used to Wacom. For me it was a step up from the Pro 3’s pen but it’s still not there.
Another strange thing that N-trig does is it leaves strange “tails” on the end of the line. I’ll see if I can find a pic (forgot to take a screen cap, sorry) but it kept bugging me the more I used it. It happens in both Photoshop and MS. Hopefully, N-trig is working on the problem. I will say N-trig has better “edge accuracy” than Wacom’s EMR tech so that’s a plus.
One thing I absolutely loved and hated to give up was the Type Cover. It’s so vastly improved from its previous incarnation. I really have no complaints about it. It was responsive and nice and “clicky”.
As I said earlier, the screen was gorgeous and I didn’t miss going from my 13.3” Fujitsu t901 screen to the Surface’s 12.3”. Oddly, the glass is so thin that it kind of “bends” while you’re drawing on it. I believe it’s Gorilla Glass and I tend to have a heavy hand when drawing so I really don’t think anyone’s in danger of breaking it easily.
I was also very impressed how cool the machine managed to stay. I mean, it gets fairly warm but not uncomfortably so. The speakers also seemed to be loud and clear so that was nice and my bluetooth headset paired easily with it.
The final reason I decided to return the unit though was Adobe Illustrator—it had a similar issue/bug to Wacom’s AES tech. It was only registering half my pen strokes. I thought that maybe it was the screen protector but it turned out not to be the case, unfortunately. It seemed to be only the pen tool though. I looked into it more but there doesn’t seem to be a fix. So, between this issue and the others I’ve mentioned I decided that as nice as the Surface is it’s just not there yet. Not for me, at least. I know a number of other professionals using it may disagree but it just wasn’t for me. Maybe the next iteration will fix my complaints. I know I’m hoping so but right now it’s simply too expensive a purchase to wait beyond the return window I had for fixes.
One bug I encountered that is apparently something with Windows 10 and not exclusively the Surface line is that the MS Store App wouldn’t open. I found a number of work-arounds but ultimately to get it working again I had to do a reset that kept my files but forced me to re install my programs. On the plus side, I didn’t encounter any blue screens or sleep bugs that I’ve read about.