Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tips for using ZBrush on a Microsoft Surface Pro.

So,  I finally went out and bought my own Surface Pro.  First of all, I love it.  If you want to do ZBrush on the couch, in your car, at the park, etc.  Get one.  However, there were a few challenges on the way to getting things running smoothly and so I came up with this list to help other's benefit from my frustrations.

It is just a tad slower than my desktop i7, however it does not noticed in the routine sculpting workflow.  I only notice slowness when doing things like re-Dynamesh or Move Topology.  Projection can take a minute or two but sculpting is smooth and quick.  I commonly use Clay Tubes, Move, Smooth, Standard, Inflate and Form Soft.  All of the above work just as quickly as on the i7.  The Move Topology is the only brush so far with a noticeable lag.

Tips for using ZBrush on a Microsoft Surface Pro:

1. Install ZBrush LAST.

Chances are, when you first get your Surface Pro, you will want to install ZBrush right away to see if your $1000+ investment was worth it.  However, I advise you to exercise just a little patience and here's why. While installing other software and drivers, there is a chance that you may do something that will affect the touch or pen functioning.  If you get yourself into a system in which you have to do a rollback to a restore point and you already have ZBrush installed, it will nullify your activation and require you to ask Pixologic to deactivate your machine on their end and then get a new activation.  I did this 4x while dealing with a driver issue.

Get everything set up, do your updates and make sure the system is smooth and stable, then install and activate ZBrush LAST.

2. Install ArtDock.

You absolutely MUST install AutoHotkey and ArtDock.  These will allow you to use essential keys like Alt, Ctrl, Shift, Undo, Redo, Space, Tab etc. while using your pen.

  • Get AutoHotkey here.   Install it.
  • Get ArtDock here.  Downloading ArtDock is a little less smooth, but once you get it, unzip it into a folder and make a shortcut for it on your Desktop.  
  • Also, if you want/need to have the screen DPI set so that text is larger than normal (see below) then you must hack the ArtDock script like this:  Open the ArtDock.ahk file in Notepad and put in a line that reads "Gui -DPIScale".  But again, this is only if you don't set your text size to 100% which I highly recommend both for ZBrush and other apps like Sketchbook Pro.

3. Update Wacom driver

Go to Wacom and update the drivers for the tablet PC.  In theory this will come standard with Windows Update but on mine, I did not have pressure sensitivity in ZBrush or Sketchbook Pro until I installed this driver.

4. Set your screen size to 100%

Note: Earlier I had mentioned that Sketchbook Pro has some problems with DPI settings but these have been fixed in recent updates.  All features of Sketchbook Pro work perfectly on all DPI settings now.

The surface pro has a very high resolution, and to keep the average person happy with Desktop apps the Surface comes with the DPI adjusted so that text and other items on the Desktop will be 150% larger than normal.  If an app is aware of this, all is well, though even with ZBrush which handles the DPI perfectly, you lose some screen real-estate.  I can guarantee you that ArtDock does not handle the DPI change.    So, to save yourself some pain, just go to this Microsoft page to learn how to set things back to 100% and be happy.

If text is too small, I recommend getting some new glasses.  I actually did visit my eye dr the week of getting my Surface Pro.  I just got my new glasses from www.zennioptical.com and can see my Surface Pro comfortably.

If you can't live with the settings at 100% then you must adjust the ArtDock script to turn off DPI calculations.


  1. Thanks for these tips. I just got a Surface Pro yesterday and didn't realize the DPI was set to 150% by default. The bottom of the ZBrush interface was getting cut off and it was driving me mad. Luckily I found this page, set my DPI to 100% and now everything is well.

  2. I'm curious after some months of usage what is your verdict. Are you happy using ZBrush on your Surface Pro? As I too am looking for doing ZBrush sketches on the go but don't want to pay the Cintiq Companion price, it would seem that the Surface Pro 2 could be an option. I mainly want to use Photoshop, ZBrush and be able to sketch digitally wherever.

  3. Good question. Yes, I still absolutely love it. I have been able to do large amounts of ZBrush work while sitting in my car waiting for my kids to finish with various activities. The small size takes some getting used to but after a few sessions you may not notice it. Not to mention when I go back to my workstation it feels like I'm working on an IMAX screen :) It is literally life changing for me as the time that I am able to spend on my home workstation is limited. I spend a lot of time driving my kids around or waiting in parking lots. Often my workflow involves sitting in a car, pulling up reference photos on my phone and working on the ZBrush Surface Pro.

    I just finished a sculpt on my SP that I am sending off to a 3D printer. I'd say that 90% of it was done on the SP while I did do the finishing details on my desktop.

    Store EVERYTHING on Skydrive. Not only does this sync well with my desktop, but, it is a lifesaver if anything happens to the SP. I'll confess that I've had to exchange it twice. Once because of a factory defect that caused the keyboard to stop working and another because somehow my screen got cracked. Fortunately I had the Microsoft Complete protection, and I live near a Microsoft store so the exchange only took about 15 minutes. As I had kept everything on Skydrive, all I had to do was plug it in and let it sync overnight and I was up and running again in the morning.

    I can also say that I like the Windows 8 option of splitting the screen into 3rds. Often for sketching practice I like to sketch from random photos on Flickr. On the SP I open up a web browser to Flickr, find interesting images and then swipe to have 1/3rd of the screen with the image and 2/3rds for Sketchbook Pro. It works quite well.

    I probably need to update this post with a few more tips that I've found. One of which is to spend the $40 and buy a Wacom feel pen. It is so much better than the one that comes with the SP.

    In recent months, my use of the SP has expanded beyond just art, which would bring me to my only complaint. The camera. The camera is great for things like Skype (which I think is what it is designed for) but for scanning documents into things like Evernote, I use my iPhone. I hope that the camera is better on the SP2.

    1. Hi Charles, thanks for the great article. I recently got a 1st gen Surface Pro.. and although those do sound like good applications as an alternative, have you tried using something like a keyboard cover and a case (perhaps set at the most 'laid back' angle) as a more authentic desktop experience? I got a rotatory moko case and am going to be likely getting the power cover when ms releases that, and it seems to me would improve workflow dramatically compared to having to click function buttons.

  4. Thanks very much for the timely reply. I've chosen to go with the 256GB model. Mainly because of the extra storage and 8GB RAM. I just want to be sure I have enough RAM for running both Photoshop and ZBrush at the same time. I may play some PC games from Steam, but I'll mainly use it for doing digital sketches and other multimedia projects.

    Sadly though they are out of stock around my way, only ones available are the 128GB and they don't even have that 1.9GHz Core i5 speed bump. So just patiently waiting till some new ones are available.

    Curious do you happen to have a portfolio site online, mine is http://mgomesjr.tumblr.com/ I'd love to take a look at your work especially ones from using your Surface Pro. Thanks again for sharing.