Yes, it's the 21st century, and everyone's got an iPad. The hectic rhythm of modern life sweeps a person in a totally unneccessary storm of tweets, statues and instagrams, workplace seeps into your home through the abhorrent concept of BYOD (bring your own device), and you're an artist, stuck in the middle of it all.
You need a tool to utilize every precious moment to do your arting, and let's be honest – the comfort of sitting hours before a screen with your trusty Wacom Intous is not for everybody. Certainly not for the working man – maybe for a NEET or student, but not when you need to show off that fat KPI to your boss.
So, the realization hits you. You understand you need a portable artistic device for quick sketching, concepting and serious artistic chops when needed, on the go – and it better be a mobile computer too. You gotta forge steel when it's hot, and you think that with the overabundance of tech on the market, it's an easy feet to go and grab the lastest and greates there is.
Most likely an iPaaaa-.... ho, hold your goddamn horses right there.
You look at that lovely aluminum body, and you maybe even buy it – and then feel horribly cheated by artsy hipsters, because it doesn't have an active digitizer, and you're confined to an array of clunky crayon-shaped styli and child-like painting programs that would make Nintendo DS users reel in disgust.
The horror, the horror! Nothing to satisfy a power-user concept-artist of the mobile, smartass generation.
Never fear, though. I'm here to briefly, and more importantly – concisely – guide you through the wondrous world of productivity digitizer tablets. Or maybe not so wondrous, because the selection is limited and in most cases, severely handicapped.
But it's a guide you'll never read anywhere else. I never reviewed these devices before, though I have had hands-on experiences, so I'll be posting 1-2 short reviews a day for this week.
First off, there's a few important points to be made.
We'll be looking at 10"+ tablets ONLY. While smaller form-factors might seem handier, for any serious work you need screen real estate. So Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Tegra Note and Asus MemoPad fall off this race.
Secondly. Platform is important. Full-fledged Windows 8 machines allow for installation of your favorite PC art programs, like Photoshop and Painter – but, because most often then not, the hardware is tablet- or ultrabook-grade, don't expect stellar software performance from them. These programs usually require graphical horsepower and RAM chops from the system, aaand that's not the case with these devices. So you trade the possibility of installing these programs for the actual performance of the device.
On the other hand, with Android tablets, you'll have to stick to more exotic and undercut software like say, Autodesk Sketchbook and Infinity artist, but the lack of familiarity and complexity of such software is rewarded by higher hardware optimization. Sketchbook will run virtually on ANYTHING – and won't eat through your battery like a fat chick through a box of chicken wings.
Thirdly: There are currently two main active digitizers systems utilized by tablet vendors. Wacom – DUH, and N-trig. The latter was mostly dropped due to performance issues, and none of the models we'll be looking at utilize N-Trig. However, older devices, from late 2011 and early 2012 did opt for the N-trig, like Lenovo ThinkPad and HTC Flyer, so watch out for these.
So let's start with the elephant in the room.
The Wacom (Cintiq) Companion and Wacom Companion Hybrid
Wacom, that had sold 5% of it's stock to Samsung, was late to the tablet race. A leader in digitizer tech, it took them long enough to move from the clunky Cintiq to something that is also a mobile computer. And everyone thought that being late to the game and so full of premium digitizer expertise meant that Wacom is going to change the market and bedazzle everyone with their devices.
It was meant to be messiah, over which female professional painters would not contain orgasms.
Eeeh, not really. I'd say that Companion is a flop, and a test of waters of sorts. A very rough product that undoubtely would find it's consumer in the professional art world, but that has so many stutters that keep them away from being an optimal solution.
So, what you need to know is that Wacom Companion comes in two distinct flavors. Windows 8 Pro and Android (Hybrid). They're both 13,3" slates, with a 1920 x 1080 Full HD IPS penabled screens, that allow for a 2048 level of pressure active digitizer setup, wrapped in a sturdy aluminum/plastic chassis, which speaks not of fashion, but ruggedness.
The Windows 8 version runs on a 3rd gen iCore i7 CPU that makes sweet love to it's beastly 8 Gbs of RAM, and offers 256 or 512 Gbs of SSD storage and 2 USB 3.0 ports
The Hybrid packs a Tegra 4 chip, 2 Gbs of Ram, and has two storage options – 16 or 32 Gbs, expandable with a microSDXC slot.
Both have Wifi/Bluetooth connectivity, rear and front-facing cameras (2MP and 8MP) and dedicated hardware buttons, Wacom's patented ExpressKeys system, that will be familiar to the Intuos family users. And of course, there's the pen, with changeable nubs and grips.
Both tablets, being built on the same chassis, also offer a kickstand to be used in desktop mode scenarios. Wacom Companion and Companion Hybrid also throw in a few apps, like Wacom Creative Canvas and such, for those who want their painting experience right out the box.The hardware
So, how do these devices measure up to the hype of "It's a Wacom! It's a tablet! It's Superman!"?
First off, let's start with the screen. While the displays are of a commendable full HD resolution, the sharpness and density on a 13,3" inch screen doesn't seem as nearly as impressive when crammed into a standard 10-incher slate. While such a resolution is perfect on a notebook, which is meant to be used an arms length away from the user, the tablet form-factor implies that you cradle your darling closer to the face, and that shoves those gritty pixels right into your protesting retina.
While not so evident while watching movies or exploring pictures, the problem with the insufficient (by modern standard of the Retina displays, hailed by Apple) pixel density pops up when dealing with thin lineart and text, with blurring along the edges irritating to a pickier painter.
It also doesn't help that the panels themselves are not at the top of food chain. Sure, they're bright IPS screens, with good viewing angles, but they offer no truly vibrant color, or good sunlight visibility. Blacks look washed out, and yours truly found himself wishing for longer brightness bar than was present.
Wacom didn't offer information on brightness and contrast ratios of the displays on the Companions, and I hadn't performed RGB testing, but from a subjective standpoint, for the price-tag the vendor demands, the screens felt underwhelming.
The build quality is superb, though. The Companion's body design conveys functionality and professionalism, no gimmicky bells or whistles around – but it's not a tablet you're going to throw in your backpack heedlessly. It's size and weight commands respect, and the wide bezels around the screen seem to tell the unlooker: "we're not here for the looks, we're here for the job".
For some it might be a problem. The tablet is huge, the screen accentuated by the bezel, and it's no feather either. For those hoping to cozy it up with the Wacom Companion on the cough, leisuringly holding it like a fancy moleskin – nope, buddy. You're gonna use that kickstand desktop mode more than you think, and then wonder why you didn't buy Cintiq 13HD.
But maybe that's what Wacom opted for. Not a universally portable tablet, but an amalgam of a Cintiq and ultrabook, that only totes the possibility of being carried around. Also, since the device works with a clone of the Intuos pen, don't expect that fat fucker to have its own little hiding compartment in the tablet's body - it's to be carried separately, and God help you not to loose it. Or it's nifty little case.The performance
However, that's all talk. What we are interested in, is how it performs, right? How it draws out all those squiggly lines and color splotches?
Well, there's where the versions – the Windows and Android – start to differ. The feeling of the pen and the glassy screen I found to be geniuenly and brilliantly, Wacom. The pen is close to its Intuos sibling, has solid grip and amortized nubs. Nothing new there, just the solid, expected quality. For those who find the feel of slick glass uncomfortably while drawing, there's a sleigh of matte and grainy screen protectors.
Anyway. First things first – general experience with Windows 8 and it's tiles on Wacom Companion is comparable to the first Microsoft Surface. Even though the i7 CPU is a generation behind the cutting edge of Haswell chips, the 8 Gbs of RAM aided the Companion is smooth, and pleasant performance in most Office and browsing and playback tasks. But as for the actual painting, the experience felt rough and raw.
The Windows 8 version offered the freedom to upload the classic painting programs, but at what cost? The pre-installed Wacom bloatware and Artrage worked solidly, with minimal paint lag, the pressure sensors working through their tasks without a hiccup.
Then, Painter 12 and Photoshop took the center stage. And Wacom Companion lost it's sheen a bit.
Painter 12 crashed several times, but that's not the point. The worse thing is that the companies are a bit sly in their marketing.
The Companion's pen input did start lagging slightly in both of the "big" art programs, with ghosting sometimes quite evident. But it did so when there was a bigger canvas to work on and more complex brushes.
With simple brushes and 2000 pix canvases the lag was mostly in existent, but when the sizes climbed up, or brushes became more textured (this especially was obvious with Painters RealPaint brushes), the tablet began having troubles calculating it, despite the desktop-grade RAM. It also started to significantly heat up due to increased workload.
Zooming in became a bit choppy, and programs tended to loose some interface elements when minimzation happened.
While this issue isn't exactly serious – not everyone works with big canvases or complex brushes – it leaves an unwanted impression that the tablet isn't as omnipotent as it's marketed. It sets some sort of inner limitation, which isn't a good feeling when you decide to shell out $2000 on a professional tool.
Still, the experience of drawing directly on a such a big screen, is awesome. The pen is accurate, with little gap felt between the tip and the on-screen cursor, and I really liked the flow of it on the glass.
Now, what of the Companion Hybrid?
It's safe to say that it doesn't suffer from the software-related issues of the Windows 8 Companion – mostly though, due to the fact that there's no such software to overload a Tegra 4 CPU in Google's Play Market.
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, my Android program for drawing of choice, worked smooth and nice, but the pen input, suprpisingly, felt more lethargic and less accurate as on the Windows 8 version, reminding me strongly of Samsung Ativ Smart PC tablet. While the software-hardware relationship on the Companion Hybrid felt more organic, it also subjectively felt slower, than on a normally performing Windows Companion.
The rest of Android antics, including homescreen flippings and handling of Angry Birds, worked through the Hybrid well and zippy.
But the solid performance of the Wacom slates were all underhanded by the battery issue.
Wacom didn't optimize energy use at-fucking-all. The Windows machine was the worst offender – with turned -on Wifi and fired-up Photoshop CS in the work, with occasional browsing, it squeezed out about 4 hours. Not a device you'd want to take for a workday in the office without a USB cable or a powerbank.
The Tegra 4 device fared better, clocking up to 5 and a half hours, but still a miserable cry away from the market leaders. Of course, it could be pointed out that that the huge 13" screens account for such results, but if Ultrabooks can do it, why not Wacom Companion.
For the Windows machine the answer is in following – the older chip. Wacom Companion could have benefited from the more efficient Intel chips, but the company came out with the device a tad too early. Patience is a virtue, and Wacom should've heeded that notion.
Another let-down – at least for me – is the lack of cellular connectivity that we've all come to expect from tablets.The Good:
Wacom Companion, both Windows and Android boast a seamless integration of their digitizer tech, a must-have for tablets. The size of the screen, couple for best-in-class, 2048-pressure level, accounts for a desirable artist tool, that now also double as a portable computer. Wacom Companion has a lot going for it – a Full HD screen, ability to upload professional artist software, finely crafted hardware and mostly solid performance in the artistic department. Think of it as a Cintiq in an iPad's skin. The Windows version allows for split-screen multitasking.The Bad:
The size and weight for this duo of tablets are not for everyone's taste. Despite the marketing, the potential buyer should realize that the Wacom Companion's portability is second to it's classic desktop display mode. The screen could have been better, both in colors and resolutiion. The performance in painting isn't bug-free, and has it's limitations – something not everyone would be ready to accept for the premium price Wacom is asking. Battery life is on the abysmal side, once again, it's not truly portable device. No 3G/4G connectivity – don't have WiFi, forget about livestreaming.The Dough:
I've already mentioned that the features and performances of the Wacom Companion's don't quite live up to it's pricing. Well, here it goes: $1.499 for the base version for the Android model, $1.899 for the Windows machine. Ouch.
In these series, I will not advise or talk you out of your consumer choice. The Wacom Companion will find it's loyal follower, and it's in its own class of devices anyway.
The big, fat, Wacom computer class. I'm sure loyal fans of the brand and artists that hope for future polishing of the products firmware, would feel pleased with Wacom's first foray.
Let's hope it's not the last.