I’m a fairly recent pen display convert. Like most people, my first attempts at going digital with my art came in the form of a Wacom drawing tablet. In my case, it was a Wacom Graphire 2 that I purchased in 2002. While it made coloring my scanned artwork easier, I found it too difficult to draw with. It didn’t take long before it was relegated to the Drawer of Misfit Gadgets™.
In 2009 I was doing animation in Adobe Flash for college. In class I used the school’s Wacom Cintiq monitors, but I wanted a way to work on projects at home. On the recommendation of my teacher, I picked up a Wacom Intuos 4 Medium. While it actually made creating hand-drawn animation in Flash possible, I personally couldn’t get the same level of control the Cintiq offered. After I finished college, into the drawer it went.
Fast-forward to 2014. I had just committed to doing illustration work as part of my job with the Target UX team. I had recently started using my Intuos 4 to draw again, thanks in large part to also discovering Manga Studio 5. However, this was my first professional illustration project, not just me toying around. I had a deadline, and it was coming up fast. I muddled through the project with my Intuos. Never had I struggled so hard to get what was ultimately a simple drawing. The disconnect between my hand and my eyes was too much. ‘Undo’ was my constant companion.
When more illustration work for Target started coming in, I knew I had to get serious. Digital drawing was the most efficient way to go, but I needed a screen. Plunking down the coin for a Wacom Cintiq wasn’t feasible: I needed something I could take to the office. The Cintiq Companion had just come out, but at $2500 it was well out of my price range. My MacBook Pro at the time was about 4 years old, so I was in the market for a new portable. Microsoft had just released the Surface Pro 3, and based on reviews, it seemed to offer a solid drawing experience. I sold my MacBook, rolled the money into a Surface Pro 3, and got to work. While it finally solved my disconnect problem, I personally didn’t find it as pleasurable to draw with as a Cintiq, even with a matte finish screen protector.
At CES 2015, Wacom announced they were updating their Cintiq Companion line. Two big things stood out for me. First, you could finally plug it into any computer and use it as a tablet display. This was something that was sorely missing from the original Companion (although its Android-powered cousin had this ability). Secondly, they now offered a wide range of machine specs, which brought the prices down into a much more affordable area. I recently had to exchange my Surface Pro 3 under warranty for a bad screen, and the brand new one was sitting unused in its packaging. I had just gotten fired from my UX job, and started on my path as a freelance illustrator. Without much hesitation, I sold my Surface Pro 3 and rolled the money into a Cintiq Companion 2.
Make no mistake: this is a serious machine meant for serious work. While devices like the Surface Pro and other Windows tablets offer solid drawing experiences, the Cintiq Companion is purpose-built as a hardcore production machine. The large bezel has a soft rubber coating, which makes it easy to grip. It also has large rubber feet built-in to prevent sliding when laying down (something the Surface Pro 3 lacks). The build quality is fantastic. Like Apple good. Solid is the word that comes to mind. And while I’ve had toothbrushes with better build quality than the detachable stand, it is sturdy. Speaking of Apple, if you’re looking for a comparison, it’s about the same size and thickness as a 15″ retina MacBook Pro. I should also point out that thing is hefty, weighing in at 3.75 pounds. To that I say: Excalibur is a heavy sword. Hit the gym and quit complaining.
The ExpressKeys. Personally, I love them. If they’re new to you: yes, it takes time to get used to them. My first experience with them was on my Intuos 4. At first it felt awkward to remember to hit the button rather than reach for the keyboard. But after a few weeks, you realize what a productivity booster they are. Now it is second nature. There were plenty of times with my Surface Pro 3 that I wished I had them. Now that I have them back, you’d have a hard time convincing me to live without them again.
On that note, I need to talk about the left-handed experience with this thing. Yes, I’m a southpaw. Now don’t panic: since this is A) a Windows tablet, and B) a Wacom tablet, you can rotate the device with no issue. Well, from a software perspective at least. While it’s nice that my ExpressKeys are now on the right side (see what I did there?), it came with a couple of issues…
First up: my speakers are now on top of the screen rather than the bottom. That’s fine. I rarely use them anyway, and it doesn’t change the sound much (ps: they’re weak). But it also means that now my volume buttons are upside down. Not a deal breaker, but I did have to get used to hitting ‘down’ to make the volume go up. The other issue is if the speakers are up top, that means that my front-facing webcam is now at the bottom of the tablet. I just need to remember to move back when starting a Skype call, lest the participants get a nice view up my nose. None of these have a real impact on my ability to get things done, I just wanted to mention them.
Striking the perfect price vs performance ratio is always the challenge when I’m buying hardware. While the i3 is the cheapest of the bunch, you’re stuck with a pretty clunky processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and a paltry 64 gigs of storage. While it’s fine for light use, that simply won’t do for my needs. Sitting at the highest end, you have the beast model packing a Core i7 5557U, 16 gigs of RAM, 512 gigs of storage, and a heart-stopping $2500 price tag. I’m a poor freelance artist that’s just starting out. No dice.
So that leaves us with the two middle models. The i5 and i7. Both have 8 gigs of RAM, with the i5 having only 128 gigs of storage. Well that’s no big deal: My applications don’t gobble up that much space, and all my long-term projects are kept on the 12 TB of RAID 5 storage on my NAS. Both chips have the same Intel Iris 5100 graphics, so that’s a tie. And when you look at actual benchmarks between the i5 4258U and the i7 4558U, they pretty much come out neck and neck. Well, at least close enough where you’d have hard time justifying the additional $400 to step up to it, unless you *really* needed the extra storage.
So with all that said, I went with the i5 model. For my illustration work, I tend to keep things at 11×17 with 600dpi, and I’ve had no troubles. The ‘pinch to zoom’ gesture can make things stutter a bit, but using the keyboard or ExpressKeys to zoom is as snappy as can be. One thing to remember is that the Cintiq Companion 2 is a 2560×1440 panel. So that little Intel GPU is doing its best to keep up with not only driving that resolution, but also with keeping Windows running at 200% scaling due to the high DPI. If the little stutters get to you, you can easily turn the resolution down to 1080p and watch it melt away. Honestly though, it’s hardly a show stopper, and I’d rather keep the native panel resolution for the clarity.
You may have also heard about the fan noise. Yeah, it’s there. It can get pretty annoying at times if you’re used to silence. I am not. I generally keep a fan running in my studio. Between that and the street noise, I can’t hear it. One thing I found interesting is that there are two blower fans in the tablet. Depending on the orientation, it switches which fan is running so that the hot air is always being blasted out of the top. Nice touch, Wacom.
Performance wise, this thing does so well that I use it as my primary studio machine now. My desktop/gaming PC now lives on the living room television set, where it’s R9 280 GPU can be put to good use. *cough*gaming*cough*
I should also mention that you can
easily take the apart the Cintiq Companion 2 for upgrades. The RAM is standard SO-DIMM sockets, the SSD is m.2 based, and the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module is in a mini PCIE slot. The downside is that getting to them is a bit of an ordeal. You carefully remove the feet to expose the screws, then pry the friction clips away from the screen using a guitar pick or something similar. If you’re not careful, you will break something. Hell: even if you are careful, you are likely to break something. You know what: forget I said anything…
Oh, and Cintiq mode works great. Plug in the HDMI and USB into your external PC, plug in the 30 pin Wacom connector into the Cintiq Companion 2, and you’re off. Something to point out for our Mac friends: your machine has to have native HDMI out if you want the full panel resolution. If you’re converting from Mini DisplayPort to HDMI, you’re going to be limited to 1080p. Sorry. It’s not Wacom’s fault, it’s just how the DisplayPort spec works. I should also point out that you cannot enable ‘retina’ scaling on Mac OS by default (but you can using this command line trick). That one you can thank Apple for.
Should you buy one? Are you an artist? Does having a pen display enhance your workflow? Then by all means, go and pick one up. You’re likely leaning that way anyway. It’s a fantastic device, and for me, proved a worthy upgrade from my Surface Pro 3.
But you need to remember what you’re buying. This is not a tablet that has drawing abilities because it came with a stylus. This is a hardcore art machine. While I used to read comics on my Surface Pro 3 in bed, I’d never even consider doing the same with my Cintiq Companion 2. It’s far too large and unwieldy for that. Additionally, the battery life on this will get you 3 hours at most while working, and that’s being generous. But again, it’s not meant to be an all day tablet. It’s meant to be the end-all-be-all of portable digital art devices. It makes no compromises to give you this experience.
If you want the ultimate portable studio, then go for it. But if you’re looking for a tablet that also allows you to get some sketching done, you may be better served with something else. Personally: I’m glad I made the switch. I finally feel like I have the drawing device I dreamed of when I bought that Graphire 2.
Edit: fixed my horrible grammar and added the bit about being able to enable ‘retina’ resolutions on Mac OS. Seriously Apple: what’s up with that?