The digital sketchbook

Ever since the first iPad came out, I’ve been waiting for the portable, digital sketchbook to arrive. While I have used mobile painting apps such as Autodesk’s Sketchbook Mobile and Infinite Painter by Sean Brakefield, the limitations of using a finger or touch-capacitive stylus has prevented me from viewing tablets as a viable medium for digital work.

I was excited at the arrival of the first Galaxy Note, but found the stylus tracking to be painfully lacking for the accuracy needed for drawing or painting. So when Microsoft revealed that their Surface Pro tablet made use of Wacom technology to provide pressure sensitivity, I was cautiously optimistic. Mike Krahulik (aka Penny Arcade‘s Gabe certainly gave it a glowing review, but his style is a far cry from my own and I was certain that Wacom must have had something up their sleeve.

It is no shock to me then that Wacom has now released two mobile Cintiq units, while Microsoft is now pushing ahead with their improved 2nd range of surface tablets. The technology I’ve been waiting for is here, but is it actually worth the investment?

Microsoft Surface Pro 2

Since the Surface series is actually available in shops, I’ve been able to try one and it has to be said, its an impressive piece of kit. Although it retains the same chassis as its predecessor, don’t listen to the complaints about its weight until you’ve held one for yourself. It may be significantly heavier than the iPad Air, but this doesn’t make it feel bulky but provides a sturdy feeling that I found quite comforting. The Windows 8 navigation is smooth and responsive and the in-built kick-stand is a very pleasant tactile experience.

The screen size feels slightly off to me, which may affect your painting experience, but this may just be due to normally working at a 4:3 rather than widescreen ratio. The much advertised keyboard cover is sold separately (at a significant price point) and in my opinion the physical Type version is a better choice than the Touch. Whether or not you need this much advertised, very neat feature probably depends on whether you want to use the Surface as a laptop replacement.

The Pro’s pen has plenty of sensitivity, although you’ll need to make use of Wacom’s own drivers to get the best from it. However, it doesn’t feel as solid as an Intuos pen and lacks tilt sensitivity, which may be important to some Painter and Photoshop users.

Wacom Cintiq Companion
Wacom has two offerings at the moment, the full Windows 8 Tablet Companion and the rather bemusing Hybrid. The Hybrid is an Android tablet which you can connect to your desktop and use as normal Cintiq monitor, but considering it costs only 30% less than the Companion, I’m not sure why you would want a device that won’t run full versions of your usual software.

The Companion meanwhile has specs similar to the top of the range Surface Pro 2 but benefits from a full Cintiq interface, with all the sensitivity, tilt and hot keys that goes with that and using one of Wacom’s own pens is certainly enticing. The screen ratio seems a little more pleasant, although with a separate stand and keyboard options being limited to bluetooth or usb devices it will require a little more forethought to transport around.

Until somebody out there wants to send me both for a full comparison, I’d recommend you check out this excellent review by the very talented Noah Bradley.

So which is better? Both machines are capable of running your favourite 2d software, making the digital sketchbook (or more accurately, canvas) a reality. On the basis of specs, the Cintiq is the clear winner, with the faster processor and full range of Wacom tools making it the superior tool for creating digital artwork. However, lets take a look at the price points:

You can pick up the basic Surface Pro 2 for £800. You can pick up the full spec 8GB RAM model, with a Type cover for under £1,150. The Cintiq Companion meanwhile is going to cost you a minimum of £1,650. That’s a price difference that nearly covers a year’s subscription to Adobe Cloud, or if you can’t be parted from your Apple products a new iPad Air on top of your Surface tablet.

It’s a huge difference and one that should make you seriously consider whether the Companion is going to justify its cost. It could potentially replace your desktop with the addition of an external hard drive, as long as your work isn’t too processor intensive. However, it wouldn’t be enough to part me from my twin-screen set-up and that makes it a very expensive additional tool.

If money is no object then the Companion is perhaps the better choice, but the Surface Pro’s portability and optional integrated keyboard makes it as easy as an iPad or Android tablet to carry around and that is a very reasonable compromise for a £1,000 price difference.

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