Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for Photoshop and Lightroom review

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Photography is a profession that's closely tracked developments in the world of computing, from the first days of desktop publishing to today's world of high-resolution digital photography and its associated cloud services.

Before digital photography, the word was divided into those who used darkrooms, and those who had their photographs processed in a lab – either in a store, or by sending films off to a processing service. Now it's a world where software rules, and photographers need a hefty machine to handle processing ever larger images. That means plenty of memory, a large amount of storage, and a processor with enough power to handle it all.

So when it recently was time to upgrade my carry-along device, my photography needs were a big part of my checklist. I'd been using an original Surface Pro as my main tool for processing images, using a mix of touch, pen, and keyboard to drive my photo workflow. It worked well enough, though its 16:9 aspect ratio made it hard to work with large images without collapsing the tool panes in my usual software.

As I was also looking for a device that could also work as an on-the-road writing machine, I needed something light, with a good screen, and with plenty of battery life. There wasn't much that met my specifications on the market. The Surface Pro 2 was one possibility, as was the MacBook Air.

Then Microsoft launched the Surface Pro 3.

Why it works so well for me

It certainly ticked many of the boxes: it was light, it was fast, it had plenty of storage and memory – and it had a much better screen than its predecessors. But what looked likely to seal the deal was the work Microsoft did with Adobe to tune its creative tools for touch and pen.

While a new version of Photoshop was center stage at the Surface Pro 3 launch, I actually use Lightroom, Adobe's photo-processing tool, much more. It's yet to get the same touch-optimization treatment as Photoshop, but it turns out that even without touch optimized hit targets it works well on a high DPI tablet.

Lightroom tilted the tables, but it was the hardware specifications that sealed the deal. A Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB flash drive would make an excellent platform for editing images, and its USB 3.0 connector would simplify pulling large RAW images off a SD card.

The Microsoft Store's generous return policy meant that I could try out the Surface Pro for a couple of weeks, and if it didn't suit my needs I'd be able to reset the device and return it.

One facet of the Surface Pro 3's design that I hadn't considered when making my initial evaluation was the new kickstand hinge design. It turns out that with the hinge folded down as far as possible, you're presented with a nicely angled work surface that makes working with pen and touch – turning tablet into a draughtboard. It's an interesting way of working, and would have been impossible on a traditional laptop, or a traditional tablet. With the option of adding a Bluetooth keyboard for keyboard shortcuts, the combination of Surface Pro 3 and Lightroom turned out to be ideal for the way I work with my photographs.

Cloud-based setup is a revelation

Adobe's Creative Cloud makes the whole machine easy to set up. The morning after I purchased my Surface, I used a friend's WiFi to download the Creative Cloud app (which fits the Surface Pro 3's larger screen, unlike earlier Surfaces where it flowed under the taskbar), and then installed the latest Lightroom and Photoshop. Cloud-based software distribution really is a game changer, simplifying device configuration.

With subscription software through Office 365, Creative Cloud, MSDN, Xamarin and Steam, getting a new PC up and running is a matter of an hour or two, with software and settings migrating from machine to machine through the cloud. Tools like Box, Dropbox, and OneDrive do the same for data; synchronizing files while software downloads and installs. I used to have to budget a day or so to get a new PC up and running the way I want; now I'm ready to go in a couple of hours, files and all.

I've ended up taking a couple of steps out of my photography workflow, no longer using the obsolete Windows Live Gallery to extract files from SD cards, instead using Lightroom's more intelligent photo import tools; and while I'm yet to invest in a USB 3.0 card reader, I'm finding the Surface Pro 3's USB 2.0 performance more than adequate when importing a few hundred RAW images from a SD card. Light and portable, it fits neatly in a backpack along with my camera and a couple of lenses.

Why I didn't go with the iPad

Even though there's an iPad with 128GB of storage, it didn't make the cut. Adobe also offers a simplified version of Lightroom for the iPad, which synchronizes with a cloud service – but there's no support for direct import. It's a useful tool, but lacks many of the fine-tuned processing tools built into the Windows or Mac versions, and requires that you're connected to its cloud service before you can edit a picture. Lightroom Mobile works by carrying out non-destructive edits on a copy of an image, which are synchronized back to the desktop copy.

That means you need connectivity, and you need a separate device to upload and manage your RAW images. If you're trying to quickly triage and edit a batch of photos in a hide somewhere on a mountainside, you're not likely to be connected to fast WiFi (let alone a 3G or even 4G mobile device). Sadly that combination renders Lightroom Mobile near useless where you're likely to want it most. It's fine for tweaking some images while on the sofa, but not for editing in the wild.

It's now well outside the return window, and I'm still using the Surface Pro 3. It's turned out to be a key component of my photography workflow – as well as a note-taking, writing, and development device. 

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