A Year of Surface Pen-Testing

Working for more than a year with the Surface Pro 3 in screencast production it's time for some real-use review. Not those boring paid quills reviews.

A Year of Scribbled Illustrations

In my production of an ongoing series of technical screencast for my day job I have now gained more than a year of real-use experience.

The Surface Pro 3 tablet hardware has proved to be without any problems. The battery is still alive and has suitable capacity. The cover keyboard is also still in good shape.

Microsoft Active Pen: Too Much Realism

The disappointing part of the Surface Pro 3 are its active pens. Microsoft takes the experience of writing with a digital instead of an analog pen to new similarities, unfortunately. The (old) active pen design can be seen in the bottom half in the image below.

Microsoft Surface Pro active pens:
new type (top, one button and one rubber), old type (bottom, two buttons)

Pen #1: We Can Blot Digitally

My first Microsoft active pen (that came with the Surface Pro 3, two buttons) started after two, three months to, well, blot. Yes, you read that correct. A digital pen that blots. Blots digitally. What genius came up with that?

In fact, the Microsoft pen started to show irregular behavior in its pressure detection. From time to time it thinks that it gets pressed to screen all the time and all I get are blotted lines.

Sometimes, switching the screen off and on again helps as it resets the touch/pen controller of the Surface Pro 3. Sometimes, unscrewing the active pen so the AAAA battery gets disconnected and then waiting a few seconds before screwing the battery in again helps. Sometimes, rebooting helps. Sometimes, only waiting helps.

While AAAA batteries are not easy to get, the Bluetooth functionality requires additional two minature cells. In order to replace them, if you can get hold of any replacement cells of equivalent type at all, you need a minature screwdriver. However came up with this design should be sentences to watch The Life of Brian until Doomsday.

Pen #2: A Pen That Doesn't Write, Doesn't Need a Tip

So I purchased another active pen, same type. This time, after again two or three months, its tip started to fell off. Unfortunately, this small black piece of plastics is essential to the pen's operation. Without it, as without a battery: no game.

At least this doesn't blot.

Pen #3: It's Getting Better And Worse

Microsoft is currently touting the improved pen and controller design for the new Surface Pro 4 and new active pen. It turns out that the new active pen also works with the Surface Pro 3. You can spot the new pen in the top half in the image above.

One important change is that there's now only the dumb AAAA battery left, while the brain-dead micro cells are gone for good.

Another, more visible, design change is that the second button has now been integrated into the pen rubber. While this is a neat idea in terms of user expectations, it's still a dumb idea whenever you need to work precisely with a rubber tool in software. When you are using the rubber end you don't have a precise tip anymore.

The tip has been improved and now gives a much more realistic grip, simulating an HB tip on paper. While I never found the old simple tip design to be uncomfortable, the new feeling is in fact better. You'll get also a set of replacement tips with the new design, simulating pens of grades 2H, H, HB, and B.

So far, pen number Three works without blotting or loosing its tip. In fact, while the small replacement tip storage box also acts as a tip grip, the tips sit extremely firm. Microsoft, the company of extremes.