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Best Apps for the Microsoft Surface Pen

Derek Walter

Sometimes the pen is mightier than the keyboard. That's the case with Microsoft's Surface Pen, which can insert an extra layer of productivity that doesn't exist on a traditional laptop or desktop computer. While Microsoft has built in several pen-friendly features into its own software for use on a Surface Book, Pro or Studio, third-party developers have also innovated with their own applications.

To get the most productivity out of your Surface, tap into the power of these apps. The ideal choice is going to depend upon your use case, but you'll be a much happier and more productive Surface user if you do some exploration. Here are some choices to get you started.

Microsoft Office

The Microsoft Office suite is more capable on a Surface with all of the pen input extras that have been built in. You're probably well familiar with OneNote, which Windows will fire up with one click of the Surface Pen's button. But inking extends beyond that application, as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and even Outlook offers a ribbon tab that lets you access a number of useful inking tools. Sometimes highlighting a portion of a document or making a handwritten note is a better way to get your point across or serve as a personal reminder about work that needs to get done.

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Windows Ink Workspace

Microsoft built in several clever tools right into the Anniversary Update of Windows 10. The Windows Ink Workspace gives you three applications: Sticky Notes, Sketchpad and Screen sketch. The notes are a handy way to quickly jot down something that you want to remember without the need to grab a physical sticky note. The sketchpad is good for those who like to draw or want a blank canvas to get creative or to scratch out a few thoughts. Screen Sketch lets you grab a screenshot, with the added ability to mark things up.

Credit: Microsoft

Drawboard PDF

You just can't escape PDFs. Afterall, they're one of the default methods to share large files across an organization. On the Surface, Drawboard PDF brings many options for making written notes, highlighting or putting down your signature. Additionally, the app has a easy-to-navigate interface that helps you quickly zip your way through large PDFs with multiple pages.

Credit: Microsoft


The Microsoft Garage is where the company spits out some clever apps that serve as more of a freeform experiment compared to tried-and-true titles such as Office. One of the gems is Plumbago, a total rethink of a note-taking application for the Surface. It's very much a blank slate, with a organizational structure that displays all your notes in a grid so it's easy to move from one to another. The real star is the radial menu, which lets you swipe through the color palette to select just the color or pen style you want.

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The iPad has generally been the go-to tablet for a lot of creative tasks, such as music composition. However, there's a very good alternative in StaffPad. It's expensive, at $69.99, but it's designed specifically for the capabilities of the Surface Pen. Your written notation will be transformed into a typeset score. You can then go back and edit or play what you've written to get an idea for how it will sound.

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Notebook Pro

If you work with a lot of PDFs and want a way to ink them, then Notebook Pro may be a good alternative. You have a lot of color and pen options along with tools like a ruler to assist with better precision. When it comes to tweaking the settings, I recommend enabling the option to only make marks with the pen instead of your finger so you can focus on moving around the page with gestures and then making marks with the Surface Pen. While the app is free, there are in-app upgrades that will grant you additional features and kill the advertisements depending on which package you want.

Credit: Microsoft

Adobe Creative Cloud suite

Photo editing is another skill where having a pen can really make a difference. It gives you a more precise method for making edits or providing a more personalized experience. The Creative Cloud is the golden pinnacle of the Adobe suite, offering PhotoShop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and other pieces of professional software for creatives. The pen utility varies from one application to another, but some photographers have found that it's a transformative method for photo editing.

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When it comes to vector design, AutoCAD is one of the premiere names. If you're looking for a touch-screen version that's friendly to the Surface, then check out the AutoCAD 360 in the Windows Store. All the precision scaling and manipulation is made easier with the ability to pinch and zoom and make use of the Surface Pen.

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Autodesk Sketchbook

This is a great app for those serious about art, drawing or illustration. The key to the Sketchbook interface is learning to use the pucks. There are two discs that each control a different element: color and saturation. There are numerous pens, brushes and other drawing tools along with an easy-to-use color palette that will give you almost limitless control over the mark  that you put on your work. A subscription, which unlocks all the features, is $29.99 per year.

Credit: Autodesk Inc.


Nebo is another app that stands out due to the many clever gestures that you can use to quickly edit and format your notes. Just scratch out a letter to delete it, or swipe up to join two sentences together. There are so many cool tips that I found myself wishing I could use them myself when writing with a physical pen and paper. The Nebo interface is pretty straightforward, with white notebook paper and the ability to stuff the contents into different notebooks. While it performs well on the Surface, it would be even more powerful if there was a mobile version that you could sync your notes up with.

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While OneNote is generally the star of the note-taking show on the Surface, Evernote still has a legion of fans. The remember-everything service, which originally arose as a mobile-friendly alternative when OneNote was stuck in the world of the desktop, still has a lot to offer for those who may not be keen to OneNote. Your Surface Pen is a good aid for highlighting passages in articles you've saved or for writing down notes during your next riveting meeting.

Credit: Microsoft
Derek Walter
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Derek Walter is the founder of Walter Media, which offers writing and content strategy services. He is also the author of Learning MIT App Inventor: A Hands-On Guide to Building Your Own Android Apps.