Breaking The Studio Chains: A Drawing Tablet Comparison

breakchains

Why is PORTABILITY so great?

Currently, I work 100% digitally on a Gateway C-141 XL Convertible Tablet. It’s about 7 years old and has served me well, although I am stalking social media threads on similar devices in preparation for my next workstation. The key proponent of my Gateway tablet, one that has spoiled me so much that I cannot ever go back, is the PORTABILITY. Put it this way, I was a mac-head, I learned all the Adobe software on a mac, used it exclusively through art school and as a professional designer… yet the portability made me convert to a Windows machine. And you know what? Windows 7 ain’t so bad. And Windows 8 looks promising as well. Lets all just take a moment to relish in that fact that Vista is long gone.

Some people may enjoy having their studio space, a place that spurs their creativity and is private, quiet, and perfectly customized for their creation process. I get that. Especially when I penciled and inked my comics traditionally, I needed that space. But part of working 100% digitally is that ALL I NEED is my tablet. That’s it. My current work area (typically) is a tiny laptop stand in front of a very comfy chair, in my living room. I am one that can put on a TV show or game that is tolerable-yet-ignorable, or some music,  and even in a more social/open area of my home, be able to crank out comics or freelance work. In fact, I am sitting here right now with a random football game one as I type this. However, what I also like is that if a friend calls and says “hey, lets watch the game at my place”– I can, and also get work done. Or I can bring it on a trip. Or to a cafe. Or just to another room with a door, if I DO need privacy. I have flexibility. So, while I can understand why it’s not for everyone, I am the type of person that CAN work in many environments, and really appreciates the technology we have today that can offer me that portability.

So, what kind of PORTABLE devices are out there today?

Look, I’m not going to review all your options. There’s SO many. I mean, you could get an iPad and use apps like SketchbookPro if you don’t need a full OS on your workstation. Or you mac-heads could sell off an organ and snatch up those spiffy Modbooks (trust me, I’ve drooled over them). I even heard the Lenovo Helix is pretty decent. What I’m going to do today is review 2 of the most discussed devices, the Wacom Cintiq Companion and the Windows Surface Pro 3. These two seem to be pretty solid machines, for less than the price of a firstborn, while also offering you a pro-quality drawing experience. After my research, I can honestly say they are worth the money and neither is a terrible choice. It just depends which better suits your needs as an artist, which is easier on your wallet, and what else you may wish to do with this computer.

Personally, I have only ever tried the Surface Pro, and only the 1st one. I actually drew in Illustrator, like I do now, and it felt almost identical. I have yet to try out the Companion. So, I took to the internets and youtubes, read real reviews from fellow artists, watched a lot of videos, and did my best to compile some information for you. And, well, ME. Two main links I have for you, which I thought were very helpful:

Lots of fodder at http://surfaceproartist.com/, but mainly THIS  post.
Also, HERE’S a great breakdown of both, by an artist that was mainly using a Companion and then tried out a Surafce.

So, bring on the contestants!

Contestant 1: Surface Pro 3

Windows Surface Pro 3

The Basics (Surface Pro 3):

TechHead specs: Intel® Core™ i7 processor (suggested for design apps & drawing), Resolution: 2160 x 1440, 256GB+ with 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 5000 Card, OS: Windows 8.

Price: $1549

Screen size: 12

Battery Life: Up to 9 hours of web browsing (less for drawing)

Weight: 1.76lbs

Pen/Touch Technology: N-Trig, 256 levels of pressure sensitivity

Show me MORE SPECS. Show me the PCMag review. (rating: good, 3.5/5)

Things to keep in mind:

  • N-Trig is a brand new pen digitizer technology that Windows decided to go with. I’ve seen many panic about this, some bad reviews about drawing sensitivity issues. Palm rejection, which is how the Surface decides to just read the pen and not your hand/fingers, isn’t as good as it should be for artists. But I’ve also seen this thumbs-up from Penny Arcade’s “Gabe”. Test yourself, to decide for yourself.
  • The Surface 1 and 2 used Wacom technology instead. They also seem to be decent devices, but the 3 has a larger screen and the usual improvements in the operating system, mainly the processor upgrade.
  • The stylus that comes in the package isn’t the greatest. May need an upgrade. But that’s hard to find for the Pro 3, as the N-Trig tech is so new. The Wacom Bamboo Feel worked well for the Pro 1 & 2.
  • Only 254 levels of pressure, right? Well, like I said, I tried out the Pro 1. My current gateway has 512 levels of pressure, and I couldn’t see a difference when stepping down. I think this feature may be a bit overhyped; not every artist may need 2000+ levels of sensitivity. Obviously, the Penny Arcade guys seem to work just fine with a measly 256.
  • If you like your express/hot keys, well… the Surface is void of them. You may wanna keep that keyboard close.
  • The Surface is a tad more portable, in that it’s lighter, has better battery life, and slightly smaller & thus more manageable.
  • Finicky? The Surface Pro’s noticeable gap between the glass and the actual screen can be distracting. Also, the Surface’s screen is more glossy than the Companion’s. One last one: awkward placement of the home button that gets in the way of artist’ hands.

Video review?? Found one for ya.

 

Contestant 1: Wacom Cintiq Companion

Wacom Cintiq Companion

 

The Basics (Wacom Companion):

TechHead specs: Intel® Core™ i7 processor, Resolution: 1920 x 1080, 256GB+ with 8GB RAM, Intel® HD Graphics 4000 Graphics Card, OS: Windows 8.

Price: $1,799.00

Screen Size: 13.3″

Battery Life: 6-8 Hours

Weight: 3.9 lbs

Pen/Touch Technology: Wacom, 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity

Show me MORE SPECS. Show me the PCMag review. (rating: excellent, 4/5)

Things to keep in mind:

  • Wacom remains the industry standard for pen digitizer technology. Even the artists who can deal with N-Trig tend to prefer Wacom. I haven’t anyone state they prefer N-Trig OVER Wacom, yet.
  • If your art style is very complex and you have a gentle painterly approach to drawing, the 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity will probably be more noticeable for you.
  • Solid stylus included, along with extra nibs and a carrying case.
  • 8 express keys you can program for those who would like to ditch the cumbersome keyboard when drawing.
  • The smaller gap between glass & screen, along with a matte surface to draw one as opposed to gloss, makes most artists happy. However, the Companion screen tends to scratch easily.
  • The Companion is nearly twice as heavy and bigger than the Surface. If you plan to go everywhere with it, think of the Companion like hauling around a full laptop as opposed to an iPad.
  • That extra 1.3″ inches on the screen can be a big deal.

Video review?? Found one for ya.

Two More Videos:

A handy one that compares the specs, hardware, screens, and more, geared towards what artists would want.

…and one that shows the differences in the ACTUAL DRAWING, with Wacom vs. N-Trig (using the Surface Pro 3, and 2– but the 2 uses Wacom like the Companion does). Y’know, the main purpose of this device for us creators. If you can’t actually try out each computer, this may be the best second option. Also, HERE is a very in-depth article on how that technology works.

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The Final Nutshell Breakdown

Like I said earlier, neither are terrible devices. You can feel pretty confident in your purchase of either. But, if you have the cash, the Companion is a better artists’ tool and won’t disappoint in terms of power and sensitivity for painterly intricate styles. If you want to do plenty of other computing stuff along with more simplistic cartooning, the more bare-bones Surface is better machine for that purpose, and cheaper. But honestly… $250 difference isn’t much. If price has really got you hung up, consider the Surface Pro 2– yes, the screen is smaller, but the wacom technology may be better anyway (that’s for those of you still fearing the N-Trig, too)

I welcome any reviews and helpful hints in the comments! Every artist’s style and process is different, and it’s good to see what others who work the way you do (or close) would have to say about each tablet.

Now, for this sad old Gateway…. I think a Companion may be in my future. If my clunker car doesn’t die on me first.

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DawnPicDawn Griffin is the resident “crazy chick”. She likes steak, Cleveland sports, video games and oh yeah, comics. She spent her formative years either playing street basketball, pitching, or drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates. Once she –accidentally– discovered the world of webcomics, the syndication route became a pointless hurdle. After all, “Crazy Chicks” do things their *&%$ selves. Dawn is the mastermind behind Zorphbert and Fred, and you can find her portfolio site HERE.  She can be easily bribed with ice cream.

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. Nice to see other people are jumping the portable bandwagon, it actually turns out some surprising results! I’ve gone SUPER portable by taking my work to my Galaxy Note 8 (the 2012 edition I think… it’s the one that’s a huge Note 2) and now on my phone with my Note 3, both with Sketchbook. You’ll have to be willing to make compromises since Sketchbook only goes up to 2830×2830 and even limits your layer count the higher you go, but with Wacom tech built in it feels a lot like using an actual tablet. Also, if you really want all those restrictions pulled out another awesome app is Layer Paint. The only issues there are that there isn’t a text tool or magic wand, and it was made for tablet’s so it might get a bit cramped if you’re drawing on your phone.

  2. I used to have a Modbook, but it unfortunately made a nasty popping sound one day and stopped working.
    I liked the idea of sticking with mac since I didn’t have any Windows compatible creative software (except Manga Studio). I could’t afford a new Modbook Pro, so I spent a very long time seeking out an inexpensive used Mac Book Pro on eBay. Once that was found I plopped out some tax return money and bought the Cintiq Companion Hybrid.
    I like the hybrid. It works well as a standalone Android tablet with a few clunky drawing apps included (and a friend got me a free copy of Sketchbook Pro, which works 100% with Wacom’s pen tech.) But when I want to draw in Manga Studio and Photoshop, I just plug it into my Macbook Pro. My MBP is a 15″ and when the lid is closed the hybrid fits perfectly on top, giving me a pressure sensitive pen and touchscreen for my laptop.
    The only downfall to this setup is the mac has to be plugged in to work with the lid closed. But with the laptops lid open and the display set to extended desktop, the whole thing works without being plugged in.

    • Have heard good things about the Hybrid, as well. I wanted to review stand-alone tablets that could feasibly replace your desktop and attached tablet/wacom bamboo/etc. It helps narrow down the options to a reasonable few that I could gather info on. But thanks for sharing your experience! Many others may find your set up works great for them.

  3. I absolutely LOVE my Surface Pro 2. My productivity has increased so much because of it. Now I’m able to keep up with my drawing so well that I was able to go from twice a week to three times, and I don’t feel the extra stress and pressure that I would have expected of it.

    Purchasing a Wacom Bamboo pen was also a huge plus since the plastic one that comes with the SP2 is okay but not great.

    The only downside is that it’s a Windows machine. It would have been nice if it could run OSX, but that’s such a moot point for me I’m not going to let that get in the way of a great device.

  4. I went and bought a “Genius” Pen mouse and I draw with that. Less than thirty bucks. I can sit in my recliner, outside in the Adirondack chairs, at the beach…[beware of the sand] and the list goes on, just need to have my lap table. Use pen w/ laptop, tablet, home PC. For me, going digital, this solved my mobility issue w/o investing in expensive technology that I’m not quite I’m believing is required [however, my love/hate relationship w/ technology fuels my opinions on the subject]. It may not be for everyone, but when it comes to being able to draw, I find less constriction w/ a pen mouse than trying to work within the confines of a tablet for sweeping motions. Most people scoff when I tell them I use this, I have no idea why, but I love using it.

  5. I was on the fence for a while between the Surface Pro 3 and the Cintiq Companion. I had played around with the SP1 and it just felt clunky and weird. They made drastic improvements with the SP3, and after seeing Ray Frenden’s review of it I decided to try it out.

    The price you have listed is for the maxed out version. The versions with less storage start at about $800 without they keyboard cover. So if price is a concern, that’s a drastic cut from the Cintiq Companion’s $1,800.

    I picked up the mid-range SP3 for $999, then added the keyboard cover for another $130. That seems pricey to me for a keyboard, but in hindsight I think it’s well worth it.

    And man, I love this thing. It’s super thin and light (lighter than my iPad), and the battery life is crazy good. It’s fast, no performance issues at all. The larger screen size of the SP3 over the 1 and 2 is perfect. It’s much closer to an actual comic page. The resolution is great too, nice and sharp with good color. It’s lighter and thinner than the Cintiq Companion, and with better battery life and a lower price, it seemed like a win to me.

    As Saeed said above, the only down side is that it runs Windows 8.1. I’m an OSX guy, but this hasn’t been much of a hurdle. Since I only have Manga Studio 5, Photoshop and Firefox installed, I don’t really have to deal with the rest of Windows. 99% of the time I’m just in MS5, and it runs beautifully. The smaller storage of this model doesn’t really matter either, since I just sync my art over Dropbox or Copy anyway.

    I was a little nervous about the N-Trig digitizer and pen. But it’s grown on me quite a bit. Once I updated drivers and adjusted sensitivity to my liking, it’s been perfect. I wish the pen didn’t need a battery, since finding rechargable AAAA’s is nearly impossible. But since it’s powered, it means the tablet has really good palm rejection. I don’t like the pen as much as my Intuos 4 (on-desk) tablet, or as much as my Yiynova 19″ tablet monitor, mostly because the barrel is so thin.

    Overall, I’m super happy with the SP3. Drawing in the Yiynova 19″ tablet monitor is still a little better, but it’s really nice to be able to take the SP3 anywhere and be fully capable.

    • Hey Jeff, thanks for your in-depth review! I did max-out the SP3, as they suggested it for high-end work (Of course they want MORE money!), but it’s good to know that the mid-level one would suffice just fine too. I was getting more and more set on the Companion, especially considering it was only a couple hundred more. BUT… if I get the mid-level, and can save $800… that’s a huge deal!
      Damn you. ;0)

      • I’ve only had mine for a couple of months, so I may feel differently about those specs a year from now and/or when Windows 9 comes out. Hopefully not.

        One thing that concerns me – the pen nib is already showing a little wear. It didn’t come with replacement nibs, although Microsoft says they’ll send them for free if you ask. So maybe that’s a non-issue.

  6. One minor quibble to point out about resolution vs. screen size… Yes, the Wacom has a slightly larger screen but the Surface Pro has a much higher resolution. Whatever you’re “losing” in screen size, you’re more than making up for in work space. With the higher resolution, menus and palettes will be much smaller and you’ll have more workspace overall, despite the smaller physical size of the screen.

    • Plus, the SP3 screen will pack a higher pixel density and is a better screen overall. I have a Companion Hybrid and while I quite like the device, the screen is decidedly “not awesome”. It’s entirely mediocre and on a dedicated drawing device that costs well north of $1000, Wacom needs to do better than that.

      My iPad screen flat-out embarrasses the display on the Companion line of products. It’s not better, it’s embarrassingly better and my iPad was $600.

  7. I’m pretty happy with my Aspire R7. The screen flips so the computer can be used like a tablet. The screen doesn’t lay totally flat, but I haven’t had a problem with it. I keep a wireless mouse and keyboard handy for when I’m using it in tablet mode.
    Mine has a 15.6″ screen and a 1TB hard drive. It didn’t ship with a stylus, but it uses an N-Trig stylus which is pretty inexpensive.

    I also use a Note Pro 12″ Android tablet quite a bit. Sketchbook for Android doesn’t have all of the features of the PC version, but it’s handy. I would LOVE to see Manga Studio release an Android app, but they said they weren’t planning on it.

    I have an iPad, but without an active digitizer, it’s pretty much just a paperweight now.

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