By Brady Betzel
Not long ago, I was asked if I wanted to check out Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 12.5 on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I was dubious, and wondered, “Do they really think I can edit, color correct, and deliver footage on a tablet?”
I was incredulous. I really thought this seemed like a pipe dream for Microsoft and Blackmagic. Everyone who works in post knows that you need a pretty monstrous workstation to play, let alone edit, media. Especially media with resolutions over 1920×1080 and 10-bit color! Well, let’s see how all of that played out.
Thankfully, I received the higher-end version of the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet. Under the hood it was packing a dual-core 2.2 GHz Intel i7, 6650U CPU, 8GB RAM, NVMe Samsung MZFLV256 (256GB SSD) and an Intel Iris graphics 540 GPU. The display sports a beautiful 3:2 aspect ratio at 2736×1824 resolution; not quite the UHD 16:9/1.78:1 or true 4
K 1.9:1 aspect ratio that would be comfortable when working in video, but it’s not bad. Keep in mind that when working with high-resolution displays like an Apple Retina 5K or this Surface Pro 4, some apps will be hard to read even with the scaling bumped up.
Resolve looks great, but the words and icons might be a bit smaller than what you are used to seeing. The Surface Pro 4 weighs an incredibly light 1.73 pounds, measures 11.5×7.93x.33 inches and has the best stand I’ve ever used on a tablet. This is a big pet peeve of mine – terrible tablet stands — but the Surface sports a great one. I am on the go a lot, so I need a sturdy stand that, preferably, is attached. The Surface has the stand every other tablet manufacturer should copy.
I use Wacom products, so I am used to working with a great stylus, therefore, I didn’t have high expectations for the pen included with the Surface Pro. Boy, I was wrong! I was I happily surprised at how nice it was. While it doesn’t have the 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity present in the Wacom products that you might be used to, it does have 1,024, with great palm rejection. The weight of the pen was great — like really great — and it mounts on the side of the Surface by a strong magnet.
Aside from the mouse and stylus, the Surface Pro 4 has a 10-point touchscreen, but I didn’t use it very much. I found myself defaulting to the stylus when I wanted to interact directly on the screen, like in Photoshop or adjusting curves inside Resolve. Last, but not least, is the tremendous battery life. I was constantly running Resolve as well as playing music from Spotify and Pandora and the battery would last me most of the day. Once I got into heavy grading where I pumped up the brightness, the battery life went to lasting under two to four hours, which I think is still great.
Ok, enough gloating about the Surface hardware and onto the real test: Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 12.5 running on a tablet!
Right off the bat — and as you’ve probably already surmised — I’m going to tell you that the Surface 4 Pro is not going to stand up to a powerhouse like the HP z840 with 64GB of RAM and an Nvidia Quadro M6000. But, what I found the Surface Pro 4 excelling at was proxy-based workflows and simple color matching.
You won’t be able to play 4K clips that cleanly, but the Surface 4 Pro and Resolve will allow you to color correct, grade, add a few nodes for things, such as a vignette or qualifier, and even export your grade. But if I were you and wanted to use the Surface Pro appropriately, a nice simple color balance will run great.
Essentially. the Surface Pro is a great way to travel and grade your footage thanks to Intel’s pretty amazing Iris graphics technology. You should really check out Intel’s backstory on how one of their engineers went to NAB 2015 and talked with the Blackmagic crew and figured out what he needed to do to get Intel-based GPUs to work with Resolve. Check this out. Regardless of whether or not there is hyperbole in that video, it is very true that almost anybody can run Resolve, whether you are on a Surface or an Intel-powered desktop.
Oh, don’t forget that for many people, the free version of Resolve will be all they need. Resolve is an amazing nonlinear editor and professional-level color correction software available at anyone’s fingertips for free. This is a fact that cannot be understated.
To test the Surface 4 Pro, I found some Red 5K footage that I scaled down to 1920×1080 in a 1920×1080 23.976 project, did a simple edit, colored and exported a final QuickTime. When I had the debayer set all the way to full resolution, my Surface started to crawl (crawl would be the polite term — in fact, it was more like melt. This is why I suggest the proxy workflow. However, when I played back at ¼, more so at ⅛, I was actually able to work. I was running around 10 to 12 frames per second. While I know 12fps isn’t the best playback for a 23.976 5K clip at 1920×1080 resolution, it let me do my job while on the go. I like to call it the “Starbuck’s Test.” If I need more than that I definitely should be at home using a HP z840, or DIY custom-built 4K workhorse, which I am looking to build.
If you really want to get the Surface to sing in Resolve 12.5, you should stick to 1920×1080 resolution footage or smaller. With a couple of serial nodes I was able to consistently get 15fps playback. Yeah, I know this isn’t ideal, but if I’m on the run and can’t use a workstation with dual Nvidia Titans or GTX1080 GPUs, 64GB DDR5 RAM, running footage off a Thunderbolt 3 external SSD RAID (a set-up that would cost north of $5K), the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is a great alternate solution.
Something that is tough to deal with on the Surface is the small text and icon size in Windows 10. While there might be a way to fix it using registry key hacks, I don’t want to do that. I want to set it and forget it. For all I know, there is a way to make the text the right size, but I couldn’t find it easily.
There has to be a way this can be fixed, right? If you know of a true fix let me know on Twitter @allbetzroff. I would really love to know. I tried bumping up the icon/text zoom within Resolve and messing around with the zoom in the Window’s Control Panel, with no luck.
Another issue with using a tablet to color correct and grade is the lack of elegance and fluidity that professional color correction panels allow. If you do color at any sort of professional level you should probably have at the very least something like the Tangent Ripple or Element panels. Using a touch screen, mouse and/or stylus to edit and color correct gets old fast on a tablet.
Using the Tangent Ripple, which is surprisingly portable, I felt the elegance I know and love when using Resolve with a panel. (I will be doing a Tangent Ripple review later for some more in-depth analysis). I did love the ability to use the stylus to get in and fine-tune Power Windows and curves in Resolve, but you will definitely need some extra equipment if you find yourself doing more than a couple adjustments — much like any computer, and not just the Surface.
In the end, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (my version goes for around $1,600) is an exceptional tablet. I love it. In addition to running Resolve 12.5. I also installed the Adobe Suite of tools and did some editing in Premiere, effects in After Effects, transcoding in Media Encoder and even round-tripped my sequence between Resolve and Premiere.
The Surface Pro 4 is a great “away-from-home” computer to run very high-end apps like Resolve 12.5, Premiere Pro CC, and even apps like After Effects with hard core plug-ins like Imagineer System’s Mocha Pro 5.
While the touchscreen and stylus are great for occasional use, you should plan on investing in something like the Tangent Ripple color panel if you will be coloring a ton in Resolve or any other app — it’s even priced well at $350.
From the amazing battery life to the surprisingly snappy response of the Intel Iris 540 GPU inside of pro video editing and color correcting apps like Resolve, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is the Windows tablet you need in your mobile multimedia creator life.
Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Earlier this year, Brady was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Disney’s Unforgettable Christmas Celebration.