Sketching with the Microsoft Surface pen

This past week I was faced with a full test of my commitment to a paperless life.

I wanted to sketch.

Now, this isn’t artistic sketching. This is sketching ideas. Specifically, the structure of my presentation on how cloud computing is changing the way we do business.

In the past, I would grab my big paper sketchbook, flip to a blank page, and start structuring ideas using shapes, lines and notes.

Once I had sketched out the key ideas and structure, then I would fire up the computer and begin creating the presentation.

sketch01This is how I have operated my entire career.

The big blank page was so inviting, just saying to me “here you go, fill me up with amazing ideas.” So I would, with ideas that were amazing to me anyway.

The thought of losing that big, blank, paper canvas was awful. I figured that being restricted to a small screen for my big ideas was limiting and a pain to navigate. I was apprehensive, to say the least.

But I hauled out my Microsoft Surface 3 tablet – purchased for this very scenario – to test my theory.

The reason that I purchased the Surface 3 was the pen. I wanted a tablet that had a pen interface so that I could make notes and sketch. The Surface is purpose-built for this requirement.

I started to sketch out the structure and key ideas of the presentation.


With the power of OneNote and the Microsoft Surface, it actually worked. In fact, there are some features to the digital experience that made it even better than the analog sketchbook:

  • With OneNote, you can expand your canvas as big as you need it. So if your idea is so big that it keeps stretching, your OneNote canvas will stretch right along with it.
  • If you truly want to backtrack and scratch out an idea, the erase function is brilliant. You can erase pixels (like you would be erasing a paper-based sketch), or you can erase objects, removing large parts of your diagram in a single stroke.
  • As always, the sketch becomes available anywhere, anytime, on any device. I referred to my sketch a few times as I worked on the presentation on different computers. Awesome.

The Microsoft Pen

The key to the experience, beyond the Surface 3 and OneNote, is the pen.

The new Microsoft pen is a gorgeous work of industrial art. The latest version has been redesigned from the ground up.


The pen has a very smooth tip, a button along the spine, and an eraser / button at the top.

Incorporating these three elements, the company has created a few key features that are thoughtful and helpful.

Click to OneNote

Once you have paired the pen with your tablet, a simple click of the eraser button launches OneNote and sets up a new page.

Double-Click for Screen Capture

Double-clicking the same eraser button grabs a screen capture of your tablet. Very easy to share the stuff that you are working on.

Click and Hold for Cortana

Cortana is the Microsoft version of Siri on the Apple or Alexa on the Echo. A digital assistant. Clicking and holding the eraser button brings Cortana to life.

Flip to Erase

On the old version of the Microsoft pen, there were two buttons on the spine. To erase something on the tablet, you would click and hold one of those two buttons while erasing the element on the screen.

Not sure which rocket surgeon invented that one, but it was absolutely hard to use and navigate with.

However, some smart Microsoft engineer was watching someone sketch with a pencil, and noticed that they turned the pencil over to erase – using the eraser on the end of the pencil. Simple, easy and effective. So that engineer replicated the action in the new Microsoft Pen. You turn the pen over and use the eraser on the end to erase. Brilliant.

Multiple Tips and Pressure

sketch04Microsoft has studied sketching and has tried to replicate the experience digitally.

The first invention was to create pressure-sensitive sketching. The pen has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, so that you can alter the depth and breadth of a line using pressure alone.

The second invention was a set of different tips to suit different sketching and drawing scenarios.

The company has included 4 styles of tip: 2H, H, HB, and B – riffing on the same designations for pencils. The standard tip on the pencil is an H tip. Perfect for sketching ideas and diagrams.

My One Struggle

There was one small struggle that haunted me through the experience, one that has haunted me my entire life. I was hoping that the digital world would fix this problem. It hasn’t. My issue is that I am left handed.

Left handed people tend to write and sketch with their hand in an awkward position. It is so that we can see what we are writing as we fill the page from left to right.

Even with the “left-hand mode” enabled (the digital world is at least trying to solve this issue), I found that the Surface would sometime overrule the pen with the input it was getting from my hand resting on the surface of the tablet. Your hand moves the page around, whereas the pen inputs the images. So occasionally I would find my page moving around unexpectedly. My hand would be pushing the page rather than the pen laying down my sketches.

It wouldn’t happen all of the time, but when it did, it was frustrating.


So even after all my apprehension, my first idea-sketching experience was excellent. I had a large-enough screen (10”) to provide a decent sketching platform. My canvas was unlimited, so I was able to grow my sketch as I grew my ideas.

The tools worked. The Surface 3 and the new Microsoft Pen are a very accurate pair, giving me the detail that I wanted. OneNote was a good platform – fitting into my note taking methodology very easily.

My struggle with the page moving around under my hand will hopefully be rectified in the future. The system can generally distinguish between the pen and my hand, but when it doesn’t, arghhh! However being left handed my whole life has left me (pun intended) with these struggles before this exercise. This isn’t something new.

My big win – I am still paperless even after being tempted by an inviting blank empty page on a notebook.

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