If you're a tablet user who likes to draw, you know that the experience offered by an iPad or other consumer-oriented tablet is pretty limited. Wacom, maker of drawing-specific digital interfaces, now has a portable and powerful solution in the Cintiq Companion. It's great at one thing, but sometimes that's just not enough.
What Is It?
A Windows 8 tablet with a 13.3-inch full HD display and Wacom's signature touchscreen/stylus combo with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity. Inside is an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor. You can buy it with a 256GB SSD for $US2000, or a 512GB SSD for $US2500.
There is a cheaper version called the Cintiq Companion Hybrid; it runs Android and has limited functionality when not tethered to a computer. We didn't test this model, and it seems like a different experience altogether.
Why It Matters
Serious designers are no strangers to Wacom. Its Cintiq line has been used by luminaries like Marvel's Joe Quesada. But those products were always peripherals you had to tether to your desktop or laptop. Only with the Cintiq Companion do you have a fully self-contained drawing tablet that you can take anywhere. There are general use tablets that feature pressure sensitive stylus capability, most notable the Microsoft Surface, but where the Surface is small and built for versatility and consumption, the Companion exists as an all-out artistry machine.
The Cintiq Companion doesn't exactly have looks to kill. It's clunky simply by virtue of being a huge 13.3-inch tablet. The silver shell is solid and elegant enough, but the back side and huge bezel have a few too many seams and competing shades of black to be swoon-worthy. The Companion maintains much of the feel of the Intuos line, with a series of customisable ExpressKeys on the left side. The keys are set in far enough to not get in the way, and have a nice grippy surface to them. On the right are two USB 3.0 ports, micro DisplayPort, headphone jack, and a microSD slot. The device is sufficiently light for the guts it packs.
Wacom's stylus is comfortable to hold, large in diameter with a rubberised grip. It does rattle when shaken, which has no effect on functionality but kind of undermines a premium feel. The three-tiered stand that's bundled with the Companion, however, is awful. It's a flimsy, ugly sheet of plastic that is annoying to lug around and doesn't even attach to the tablet in a very secure way. After a couple of times using it, I tossed it aside and never wanted to look at it again.
Compared to trying to draw on an iPad, making marks with the Cintiq Companion is a delight. This is Wacom's specialty. The company knows how to implement a drawing stylus, and this one is just as effective as you might find on the older Cintiqs that tether to your PC or Mac. Where an iPad stylus is usually a soft rubber nib that is too large for any detailed work, the Wacom stylus is solid and precise. After some quick calibration involving a few simple steps of pointing your stylus this way and that, creating art that responds to pressure and doesn't let your palm interfere is natural and easy.
I mainly used the Cintiq Companion with Adobe Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro, and Adobe Illustrator. The most difficult part is learning to get around Windows apps without a mouse, since most of the apps you are using were not built for a touch-screen. The act of drawing on an Illustrator or Sketchbook Pro canvas is great. Response time is fast enough to make your strokes feel natural as they appear under your pen, and the pressure sensitivity was always hitting the mark. It's a lot of fun. However, as soon as you have to access a menu item it gets frustrating to pinpoint icons and takes you right out of the joyous rhythm of drawing.
There are various ways to reduce these interactions, like using the customisable ExpressKeys on the side of the tablet, but eventually you will have to locate a menu or toolbar item, and it's not fun. This points to a wider problem whereby professional content creation apps are simply not yet built to accommodate stylus interaction in the way that certain iPad apps, for example, are built specifically for touch.
Despite these complaints, it should be noted that those most likely to use the Companion are serious enough about their work that they are willing to invest time in developing a workflow. For them, everything doesn't need to be as seamless and "user-friendly." Still, such a natural way to draw digitally deserves a UI to match it.
As a fully functional Windows 8 tablet, the Companion is adequately powerful with a Core i7 chip and 8GB of RAM. I rarely experienced any hang-ups when navigating Windows 8. The documents I was working with were mostly moderately sized, and when I tried working on some beefy Photoshop files, there was a bit of lag. Battery life is listed as 6-8 hours. If you are using it for non-stop heavy lifting like a file with 30 layers, expect more like 4 hours.
The display is not the best for doing normal computer things. The matte quality emits a glimmering sheen that has a disorienting effect. It's nothing like looking at a Surface, Nexus 7, or iPad. The 1920 x 1080 13.3-inch screen size is large but very narrow, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is great for watching movies, but bad for nearly anything else. Text in particular is not a joy to look at.
Really, the large size of the device in general makes it just too unwieldy for almost any casual tablet use. Using it to browse the web while lying in bed or carrying it from room to room is a pain. It felt similar to touting around a Macbook Pro -- burdensome.
Drawing on the Companion feels natural and is worlds better than what you get from most tablets. The device itself seems well-built and meant for rigorous use. Its guts provide enough power to run intensive creative applications like the Adobe Creative Suite. Startup time is nice and snappy thanks to the SSD.
The large size and aspect ratio are not ideal for a variety of casual tablet uses, like browsing the web and reading ebooks. The included stand is a flimsy annoyance. The matte display can be distracting. Most content-creation apps for pros, like the Adobe Creative Suite, are not tailored for touch-screen use, making menu functions and tool selection a pain. Also, it's SUPER expensive for such a niche purpose.
Should I Buy It?
Unless you are hardcore digital designer who has been longing for an untethered drawing tool with that matches the power of the older Cintiqs, it seems incredibly hard to justify plunking down a minimum of $US2000 for a tablet that probably won't replace your general purpose computing device.
If you want a better drawing option than an iPad, but don't necessarily need all this real estate, think about the Microsoft Surface Pro. It features the same type of pressure-sensitive stylus as the Cintiq Companion, and because it's smaller and the display is clearer, it is better suited for other more casual tablet-esque uses -- and it's half the price. The guts of the Cintiq Companion will take you farther in processor-intensive projects though, and for most people looking into a dedicated tool for art, that's pretty important.
Australian pricing and availability is expected to be announced soon. [Wacom]