After several weeks of use, I’m finally ready to write a review and comparison of Microsoft’s Surface Pro to Apple’s iPad. Several of my readers have asked for my opinions between the two, so here we go.
To be specific, my review is of a Surface Pro 6 (16 GB) and an iPad Pro 12.9 (1 TB) as for how they apply for drawing political cartoons and suit my other needs. To be even more specific, the art programs also being compared are Corel Painter Essentials 6 (Surface Pro) and Procreate (iPad). First off, when you purchase a tablet or computer to draw in, get as much memory/speed/ram as you can afford. Trust me on this. It makes a huge difference. Also, keep in mind that I’m not a techie person. I can be a real moron with this kind of stuff. Also, cartoonists, well, older cartoonists HATE changing and learning new stuff. But here I am.
In case you don’t want to read this entire review (it’s long. I wrote it over three days), I’ll cut to the chase and give you a spoiler. When it comes to drawing, the iPad wins and it’s not even close. And if you want to keep reading, neither come off perfect or entirely terrible. I’m still using both tablets for my work.
Also, keep in mind that one is a tablet/computer hybrid and the other is a tablet.
Let’s start with some background: As you probably know, I’m a nationally syndicated political cartoonist (I’m mentioning this in case this review is published somewhere other than my site for my political cartoons). My work goes out to dozens of newspapers and news sites daily. You can also find me in The Week, GoComics, and occasionally in The Washington Post. I also draw a weekly cartoon for CNN Opinion’s weekly newsletter. I’ve been drawing digitally since May, 2016.
When I first started coloring my cartoons, I drew on paper and colored in Photoshop. In case you’re a total dimwit, Photoshop is on a computer. I would scan my cartoon (on a scanner) and then color in Photoshop. In 2016, I bought a Samsung tablet that came with a stylus. It was just for fun but I did draw a few cartoons on it even though it couldn’t compete in quality with cartoons drawn on paper. I also bought a very cheap Wacom tablet thingy that came with a stylus, and I used it to color my cartoons in Photoshop. It was basically a mouse but in pen form. All this made me take the leap into going full-on digital without turning back.
Before I pulled the trigger, I did a lot of research. And while most reviewers in 2016 felt the two systems were close, it seemed at that time all of them gave the Surface Pro higher grades for drawing. I also went with the Surface Pro at that time because I wanted it to be more than just a machine to draw on and still believe it covers more everyday territory than the iPad. But like with drawing, I may change my mind on that too sometime in the future.
I don’t have a lot of money so it’s a big deal when I purchase a big ticket item. Over the past decade, most big purchases have been for my work. Even the trips I’ve taken have been for work. I usually don’t make purchases on a whim, but I bought my first Surface Pro while drunk in a bar. It cost a thousand bucks and it was a Surface Pro 4 with maybe 4 GB. The next morning when I remembered the purchase, I was all like, “What have I done?” I surfed Microsoft’s site and bought a Surface with my phone…in a bar. To be fair and as I already said, it was something I had been researching and at that drunk moment, it was a “fuck-it” moment. But, it was probably the only good decision I ever made while drinking and probably the best thing I ever took home from a bar. I then bought a version of Corel’s Painter (while sober) for around $35 for the Surface. I learned the system and got used to drawing on glass fast. I like to hit the ground running. As soon as I got the device, my very next cartoon was drawn on it. About a year later, I bought Corel’s Video Studio which allowed me to record my screen and make videos of my cartoons. I kept it for about four years. I actually still have it. I was going to sell it but it’s not worth very much now and it came through as a backup in a crisis. More on that in a bit.
A couple of big benefits of going digital with either of these systems is that you can paint without the mess. Corel and Procreate are both much better for coloring than Photoshop. I said older cartoonists don’t like change and most of them will never leave Photoshop. Too bad for them. Also, when submitting ideas to editors, it’s so much simpler to drag your file, or cutting and pasting, into the body of an email. No scanning shit. Also, if you have to make a change to your cartoon after it’s done, it’s so much easier digitally than on paper.
Have you ever met an atheist, member of any religion, or vegan who tried to convert you? Yeah, I’m not trying to convert you. When I started in this business in 1990, cartoonists made jokes about the question, “What do you draw with?”. It was usually a question for newbies. Now, even the old guys want to know what you’re drawing with. But I’m not trying to change minds or talk anyone into doing it the way I do it. Each artist should work with what works best for them, whether it’s on paper or glass. We used to debate pens Vs. brushes and some really old dudes would argue that it was cheating if you used a pencil. Really.
I will make the argument that if you do have to send multiple ideas through email, you should go digital just for that. And if that’s the only use for it, you can use any system…even a very cheap one. Then after your cartoon is approved, you can go back to paper and watercolors. Just a suggestion, dudes and dudettes.
After I went fully digital on the Surface Pro, I didn’t tell anyone. This included friends and readers. I wanted to see if anyone would notice a difference. Nobody said anything until I came clean about a month and a half later. Then, some people were like, “Oh, I could see the difference, blah, blah, blah.” I told the entire world I was switching to the iPad before I even got the thing. I was pissed.
The biggest thing I had to get used to drawing on a Surface and glass was lettering. Cartoonists don’t write letters. We draw them. Usually when you see a typo, the cartoonist knows how to spell the word. But since he or she is drawing the letters, not a lot of attention is being given to the actual spelling. I don’t listen to anything when I’m lettering as I’m prone to “drawing” a word I hear. I once drew “skater boi” while an Avril Lavigne song was playing. Now I mute my TV and don’t listen to any music until the lettering is done. But my greatest challenge with lettering on the Surface was keeping the lines in conformity. One line would be larger than the next. Usually, I’d start smallish and each succeeding line would be larger….or maybe smaller. It probably took me a few months to even notice I was doing that…and probably a year to get out of the habit…mostly.
The reason you make one line larger than the next is because you’re not working on paper. When you letter on paper, you’re looking at the entire page. The only way to zoom in is to put your face closer to the drawing, which is something I did my entire life. On a tablet, you do zoom in and then you’re not seeing the entire drawing or more importantly, the letters you just drew. So it can be a little wonky. Also, lettering is the thing cartoonists hate doing the most…that and drawing grass and crowds.
Another great reason to go digital is for when you travel.
In 2019, I was coming home from a cartoonist gathering in North Carolina (where they make horrible barbecue) and I was drawing in the dining car on an Amtrak. I love being able to draw on a train and email to editors and clients. I was racing to meet a CNN deadline. During this trip, the air conditioning broke down on the train and I discovered my Surface did not like getting hot. The entire screen was shaking while I drew. I would turn it off, let it cool down, turn it back on, continue drawing until the shaking resumed…and then I’d repeat and repeat and repeat. I was getting very frustrated.
After this train event, the Surface started doing the shaking thing more often. This was no way to live. What am I? Amish? But, that Surface had helped me become a Herblock Prize finalist which came with a cash award. This enabled me to upgrade to a newer and better Surface. My drinking days were well behind me at that point, so the replacement was bought while I was fully sober.
The replacement was a Surface Pro 6 with 16GB. Microsoft says the screen size is 12.3 inches, but that’s not the drawing space you have. You have about ten inches of width. This baby flies while Corel makes it lag a bit. This time, it didn’t come with a stylus/pen. My first one did. Apparently, Microsoft figured they needed to make more money and if Apple could get away without providing a stylus with their tablets, then Microsoft can get away with it too. But I still had my old Surface Pen, so HA-ha! Joke is on you, Microsoft…until that pen died within weeks. So, off to Best Buy to purchase another Surface Pen…which had gone up in price 50 percent. What did Microsoft do to justify the price of their pens being jacked up 50 percent. I don’t know. I drew with the old pen for at least four years and I couldn’t find any differences in the new one. Also, the buttons don’t always work so I never used them. The Surface also does not come with a keyboard, but the one I bought with my Surface Pro 4 worked just fine with my Surface Pro 6….until it literally ripped to pieces. Literally. I removed it one day to put the tablet into the tablet configuration and the magnet doo-hickey in the keyboard that attached to the tablet just ripped right off. Guess what. The prices for keyboards went up too.
Is Microsoft more evil than Apple? I think Apple wins in that category too but Microsoft is trying to catch up.
The Surface Pro comes with a kickstand and the iPad does not. But funny thing, I think Microsoft is now making the kickstand much weaker than they did before. I think they made the kickstand for the Surface 4 out of Adamantium and are now making them out of graham crackers. As I said, I still have my first Surface Pro (the 4) and the kickstand is still going strong. The kickstand on my Surface Pro 6 broke within a year. If you’re not drawing and putting weight on these things, then this probably won’t be a factor for you. But, I told you about that Herblock money, and a week or so after purchasing the Surface 6, I changed my mind and bought the extended warranty and boy, am I glad I did. That sucker got me a totally new and probably refurbished Surface Pro 6. Thankfully, I still had my Surface 4 as a backup (told you it came through). One interesting side note, Microsoft messed up my address and the FedEx guy dropped off my new two grand Surface Pro at the door of a gang member with a face tattoo. A violent-looking face tattoo. This is another story.
For the most part, the Surface was good to me while Microsoft was not. They were about as nice as Face Tattoo guy. My biggest complaint with the Surface is that the tablet has a hard time telling the difference between your hand and the pen. I draw with my hand on the screen, not suspended in the air. The problem of the tablet differentiating would come and go, and even with a drawing glove it’d still give me problems. This bug can be extremely annoying and sometimes impossible to work with. And then, my pen just stopped working.
The pen would stop working and the only way for me to get it back would be to reboot. It got to the point of having to do this at least once per cartoon. Sometimes it’d happen several times per cartoon, usually while lettering. When I letter, I don’t stop until it’s done because I want it over with. It’s even worse if you have to reboot if you’re in the coloring phase…or have added layers to your drawing. By closing Corel on the Surface, it compressed and flattened your layers. If you have ever worked in layers, you understand the problem of returning to a project with layers that’s no longer in layers. You have to create another layer to finish coloring and, even when picking the exact same color, they don’t match. However, it’s great in helping you create brand new curse words.
I searched the web to troubleshoot the pen problem. Yes, I changed the fucking batteries, thank you. I watched numerous stupid YouTube videos where the slow-talking creator takes forever to cut to the chase. I went to Microsoft geek forums. I even looked on Reddit where everyone is a lunatic that wants to “lock her up.” I even bought a cheap $20 stylus to see if that would be a solution so I wouldn’t have to reboot until the cartoon was finished…but nope. That one would die too. It wasn’t the pen, it was the Surface. I found solutions to a dozen other problems with the Surface Pen but I couldn’t find the one I needed. So I called Microsoft which led to the end of me drawing on Microsoft’s Surface Pro…for the most part.
Microsoft had no idea how to fix their own product. Microsoft didn’t seem to have any interest in fixing their product or understanding the problem. Microsoft expressed no desire to help me, a long-time customer, to continue using their product. What they did was invite me to give them $40 to join some Microsoft help center club thingy and then they’d have a tech assist me. Fuck you, Microsoft. What’s bizarre is they were very easy to swap out a $2,000 tablet ($1,600 bought refurbished) but total dicks over a pen. Do you know why? Because they had no idea how to fix the pen issue. “Have you tried changing the batteries?”
To leave Microsoft was not easy. You need to appreciate how heavy it was for me to leave to leave Microsoft, or at least stop drawing on it. I was invested. I got five years into this shit. I got the pen…twice, the keyboard…twice and even the Surface mouse. Hell, I’m literally on my third Surface Pro. But I could not live with the rebooting during cartoons, the system not being able to tell the difference between the pen and my hand, and I didn’t even mention how you had to zoom in big time to draw something small, like eye balls or a period. The Surface doesn’t like it when you draw little things. Some of these issues were the Surface and others are with Corel. My editors got used to my roughs not containing punctuation.
I bought the latest iPad. Again, I wasn’t drunk (but I was on my way to get some street tacos). And of course, I had to purchase a keyboard, a kickstand, and an Apple Pencil. I also purchased Procreate. This iPad is 12.9 inches but you don’t have that much drawing space. You might have a quarter more than you did on the Surface. You might have a half inch more of height on the iPad than you do on the Surface.
I bought a very cheap kickstand and it does the job. I did not buy an Apple keyboard, instead getting a Logitech that also works as a binder and so far I like it very much. The keyboard is bluetooth and it charges while connected to the iPad. There are other styluses you can purchase other than the Apple Pencil, but if you’re going to draw in Procreate on an iPad, don’t cheapen out on the experience. You gotta get the Apple Pencil. It and Procreate were created for each other. It’s really amazing.
My iPad was still on order when I went to New York City at the beginning of June and right there on 5th Avenue (a block or two from Trump Tower) is an Apple store. You walk into a big giant glass cube, through security, and then you go underground via a winding staircase and OHMYGOD. That place is dangerous. You could blow so much money in there. I got out unscathed. There’s also a Microsoft store on 5th. The people at the Microsoft store don’t appreciate tourists sticking their heads in just to scream, “Fuck you Microsoft!” I bet that happens a lot. Ironically, I had my Surface Pro on me.
As I mentioned, my first version of Corel costs me about $35. I later bought an updated version for around $50. Corel Studio was the same price. It’ll also infect your system with Corel pop-ups, which I keep thinking I have killed but they keep coming back. How much is Procreate for the iPad? It’s $10,000. Oops, typo. It’s $10. No typo. Ten freaking bucks. Corel has versions of its software that costs hundreds of dollars and I can’t see any of them being better than ten-buck Procreate.
Procreate is better than Corel. I don’t have to zoom in to draw an eye ball. It doesn’t bug out as much as Corel. It doesn’t freeze as much as Corel. It can usually tell the difference between my hand and the pen. But even when it does confuse my hand for the pen, it doesn’t prevent the pen from working. It does have this one quirk where it jumps from pen to eraser without warning. It does this a lot. Fortunately, there is a back button. There is also a quirk where you have to hit the brush you want multiple times. I often give up using the pen to select the brush and instead, use my finger. I asked my buddy and fellow cartoonist, Kevin Necessary, a political cartoonist who lives in Cincinnati (home to chili with cinnamon), and has been using Procreate and iPad for years and he said it happens to him too.
You can rotate the canvas in both programs. In Corel, there’s a button and then you drag it to rotate the canvas. There’s also a zoom button. In Procreate, there isn’t a button to zoom or rotate the canvas. You simply use two fingers. It makes drawing much easier.
I do get a lot of lag in the Surface. Sometimes a line would freeze, and while screaming at the system, it suddenly appears but it’s nowhere near where you placed it. So far, I haven’t detected any lag or delay on the iPad. The back button in Corel only goes so many steps back while in Procreate, I haven’t found a limit yet.
Another complain with Corel on the Surface is some of the buttons are too close together. The eyedrooper tool is next to the pen. If you hit the eyedropper by accident and then try to ink or paint, the color will usually change on you. The back button is also right next to the save button. Ever after five years, I still hit the wrong buttons. This also reminds me that you have to save in Corel.
After I first purchased Corel and while doing one of my cartoons at 3:00 A.M, I took my dog for a walk without saving the cartoon that was almost completed. While walking doggy, Microsoft decided that was a great time to update and reboot the system. Not only did I get to restart that cartoon from scratch, I got to create more curse words. That experience taught me to hit “save” a lot during a project. In Procreate, you NEVER have to hit the save button. It automatically saves everything. Really.
Another thing I do on Procreate that I never tried in Corel is move stuff around and resizing. It’s really easy in Procreate. I’ll lay down some text and then move it to another location and make it larger. It’s just some tracing, dragging, and pulling. I’ve done the same thing with characters. In the past, I’ve made text larger and moved it around in a cartoon I drew in Corel, but I’d do all that in Photoshop, make it a new file, then reopen in Corel. I don’t think we’re ever going to hear someone go to Corel from Procreate.
Being able to adjust sizes really helps with the lettering issue I mentioned before. My tendency to make text sizes off from each other has carried over to the iPad and Procreate. Also, I find that a lot of my lines in Procreate have a tail to them. Say I draw a straight line. At the end of that line, it’ll veer off a little either left or right. I think this might be me still getting used to draw on the iPad glass. Or it may be me getting used to a faster system. Yes, you draw faster on the iPad than on the Surface.
Both programs have thousands of brushes and you can import new ones. Corel is always trying to sell you new ones. I don’t know if Procreate does that. You can find what best suits your style. Kevin took one of my old cartoons and traced over it with several different pens in Procreate which was a really cool thing for him to take the time to do. He picked the one he thought fit my style the best and sent it to me through Twitter messenger. I didn’t know you could do that. From there, I downloaded it, and expecting great complications, it went straight to Procreate. It was easy. It was unnamed so I named it Kevin. I’ve been using my Kevin Pen for each cartoon since.
I mentioned before how I would record my drawing. I did that with a separate program on my Surface. On the iPad, Procreate already records every pen stroke. On the Surface, I was recording the screen. If I took a break to stare at my drawing, it would record that break. If I jumped to another window, it would record that. So if you plan to publish your drawing video, don’t look at porn while doing it or type in any passwords, social security numbers, or private messages. Though in Corel Studio, you can edit all that stuff out. For me, I was always recording Facebook messages with my two proof readers. I’d also forget to turn off the recorder at times. In Procreate, it only records the pen strokes which makes the recording a lot shorter. With the program in the Surface, I would have to edit the videos and adjust the time-lapse, which is pretty limited. Procreate already does that and you can adjust the speed of your time-lapse, though I’m happy with the way it came out of the box, so to speak. You can also turn off the recording in Procreate if you’re not into that and you want to save space. In Corel Studio, you choose the format you want your video (and you want it to be MP4. I let out a huge sigh of relief when I saw that Procreate also saves the videos as MP4s.
The Surface is a Windows system. All my drawings would go into the pictures folder as a jpeg (you have to set that up). Then, I could simply drag that file into the body of an email…or send it to Photoshop. I have to create four files for each cartoon. This is extremely easy on the Surface and it’s where I think the Surface is better than the iPad. The Surface is great for when you have to send rough sketches and ideas to an editor. Just drag the file into the body of your email and click send.
How do I do this on the iPad? You share from Procreate. You can share to any apps on your iPad. Also in the share feature, you can copy and paste the cartoon. So, I paste it into the body of an email. I also take the share thing and send it to Instagram. For everything else, I share it to my Google Drive and then open that on my Surface, where I then take it to Photoshop and create all the files I need to send to my clients. It’s just simpler than monkeying around with it on the iPad. You also have several options in file formats to share. I share a jpeg, but you can share also a tiff, PSD, etc. I share it as a jpeg, which goes out as an RGB, and then I create other formats for it in Photoshop (so I only have to bother sharing it to myself once).
I also share the video this way. I send the full length video to Google Drive for me to create a YouTube video with it. I still create this with my Corel Video Studio, which contains my intro and outro videos. I can also share a 30-second time-lapse video to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I have discovered more readers will give you 30 seconds rather than four minutes, especially when they don’t have to click a link. Your readers can watch them directly on the social media site and on their phones, which they would rather do than click a link. People on social media hate clicking links almost as much as they hate paywalls. Best of all, you can share your 30-second time-lapse video to TikTok and add music to it. Now don’t tell other cartoonists I’m doing this because they haven’t figured it out yet and I like being the only political cartoonist on TikTok (except for you, Alex).
You used to have to plug your Apple Pencil into your iPad to charge it. Now, you just have to lay the Pencil on top of the iPad where magnets connect them together and it charges that way. There is no battery for the Apple Pencil. The Surface Pen still uses a battery and it does last several months. I’ve gotten close to getting a year out of them. But, you will probably only find the batteries online or at a battery store as they are AAAA. Even places like Staples, Best Buy, and Office Depot don’t carry these batteries and the people who work there will look at you funny when you ask. When your battery finally runs out of juice at 2:00 A.M, you will not find a replacement at Sheetz where they too will look at you funny because if you need batteries at 2:00 A.M, they probably think you’re doing something disgusting.
How long do the nibs last for each stylus? The nib can last over a year on the Surface (they have for me and I draw more cartoons than most cartoonists). It’s a good thing they last so long because Microsoft sells them in a pack of four for a thousand dollars. I’m kidding. It’s $20, but still, fuck you, Microsoft. They’re nibs. I can’t tell you how long the Apple Pencil nibs last because I’ve only had this a little over a month…and this Pencil, my second, for just a week or so. Right now, I’m hoping my second Apple Pencil will outlast its nib. But like Microsoft, Apple nibs come in a pack of four for about $20.00. They’re tiny bits of plastic. Fuck you too, Apple.
I mentioned Apple is more evil than Microsoft. A week after getting the iPad, my Apple Pencil died. The pen was the reason I left Microsoft. Sorry, I forgot to shout. THE PEN IS WHY I LEFT MICROSOFT!!!! This really pissed me off. Yes, they gave me a new one, but I had to drop it off at Best Buy and there, they wouldn’t simply swap it out with another Apple Pencil despite there being hundreds of them in the store. The Geek Squad looked at me funny. An Apple representative in India told me they would simply replace the pencil. Nope. I had to return to Best Buy three days later to pick up the one Apple sent for me specifically. And, I highly suspect they sent me a refurbished pencil. If they did, that pisses me off because I did not pay for a refurbished pencil. It came in an unmarked box. Also, I was out money paying for rides back and forth to Best Buy. But it has been over a week with the new pencil and I think we’re good…knock on wood. But once again, fuck you, Apple.
I did buy my iPad at an AT&T store, and the nice lady who sold it to me was going to simply swap out the pencil for me the day I came in (it’s right down the street from me) but they didn’t have any. My ex-girlfriend would tell me stop feeling so entitled…and to stop flirting with the AT&T girl.
For me, drawing on the iPad isn’t just a little better than drawing in Corel on the Surface. The iPad is light years ahead of the Surface. The best thing I can tell an artist that they will understand is…it’s fun. It’s more work and frustration in Corel on the Surface. When my Apple Pencil was out, I had to go back to my Surface for a few days and it was like going back to draw on a cave wall. I did a little dance when I was able to return to iPad and Procreate…and I’m not a dancer. It. Is. That. Much. Fucking. Better. But still, I don’t recommend the iPad entirely. You do not simply move everything you do from the Surface to the iPad.
The Surface does some things better, or at least better for me. I was originally going to sell my Surface but then thought, I don’t want to do all these other things on the iPad. I asked Kevin, the human, not the pen, if it was weird for me to keep both (Kevin the Pen just looked at me funny). He sent me a photo of his office which has about 27 dozen computers in it…so it’s not weird I’m keeping both, or I asked a person with a hoarding problem.
I’m still creating the YouTube vids on the Surface. I’m still doing all my cartoon business-related work on the Surface. I’m doing all my messaging on the Surface. I’m doing all my blogging on the Surface. I’m writing this review on the Surface. The only thing I’m using my new $2,000 (I’m making payments. Think of it like a brand new car made in eastern Europe in the 1980s) iPad for is drawing, a few emails to my editors, and sharing the videos to social media. The next time I make an animation, because dragging files is so much easier and I make them with Corel Video Studio, I’ll do those drawings back on the Surface.
As I said before, the Surface is more like a computer. It operates just like a desktop. It’s a Windows system. Everyone is used to Windows so you already know how to use a Surface Pro for everything in your life. The iPad tablet is a tablet. Everything on it is an app.
I have taken my Surface Pro on the road with me. I’ve drawn in cars and trains. I’ve drawn in coffee shops, bars, and McDonald’s. I’ve taken it to New York City (where I drew in a coffee shop in a subway station), Washington, D.C, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Coldwater, Mississippi. On my next trip, wherever that may be, I’ll take both tablets.
I can’t tell you which system will be better for your needs…but when it comes to creating cartoons, I’m confident you will like Procreate on the iPad much better, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys slamming his penis in a door. If you do purchase one of these systems, I hope the stylus works for you and the FedEx guy drops it off at the right house.
Final summation: Draw your cartoons in Procreate on an iPad. For drawing, iPad wins hands down. For everything else, you don’t need a Surface Pro but you should have a computer in addition to your iPad. My relationship with the Surface Pro itself is a love/hate one. My relationship with both corporations, Apple and Microsoft, is strictly hate.
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