Lately we’ve been seeing quite a few discussions around various SolidSmack social media outlets discussing the best portable digital sketching tools. Sure, most people will gravitate towards an iPad and the Microsoft Surface based on cost and applications for other uses. However, if you consider yourself a professional designer with the need to have full-blown workstation power, then the Wacom Cintiq Companion is clearly a top-contender capable of knocking the iPad and the Surface out of the water. We spent some time with one to give you the rundown from an industrial designer’s perspective. Let’s take a look.
What is the Cintiq Companion ?
If you’re familiar with the existing lineup of Wacom’s Cintiq Displays, then consider this the ‘Sony Walkman-esque’ portable version of the otherwise behemoth displays that you see various designers hunching over day-in and day-out. When used with a stylus pen/eraser combo that features 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, the screens allow users to have the closest experience to traditional media in a digital package. While traditional Cintiq displays require a separate workstation, the Cintiq Companion presents a new product category for Wacom that offers their own standalone Windows 8 system…essentially liberating the user from the tangle of cords required to power and connect a desktop Cintiq display to another workstation. This liberation comes in the form of an enclosed Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor—all of which rival specs seen on the latest Macbook Pro models. With 256 or 512 GB storage options as well as an included microSD card slot, there is plenty of on-board storage room—especially considering how many people are using cloud storage these days. Oh yeah, it’s also a touchscreen tablet for navigating content just like an iPad or Surface.
The Cintiq Companion is a sort of hybrid between Wacom’s Intuos Pro lineup of matte black-rich surfaces on the front, and an Apple-esque brushed aluminum rear housing for the back. At 375 x 248 x 14 mm with a 13.3 in screen size, it is far from being as portable as an iPad or Surface, however with that extra room comes a lot more breathing space for serious designers. Since the Cintiq Companion is aimed for the designer-on-the-go, we did a size/portability test with multiple backpacks and can confirm that the device will fit snuggly in most standard laptop pockets in modern bag designs. Following suit with the Intuos Pro’s form inspiration, the left side of the device features Wacom’s customizable ExpressKeys encased in a grippy bezel for holding while sketching. The right side of the device features two USB 3.0 ports, a micro DisplayPort, a headphone jack, and a microSD slot.
The Companion also includes two accessories that bring the whole system together: The Grip Pen stylus and the three-tiered stand. The Grip Pen stylus is on-par with other Wacom stylus designs and includes a durable, sturdy case with plenty of storage for extra nibs—nothing much to phone home about but it does feel well-weighted in the hand and has a nice balance for doing those fun 180-degree pen flicks for quick erasing.
The three-tier removable stand on the other hand, is quite possibly what could be the least-favorable aspect of the entire system. To begin with it, the stand itself looks, feels, and performs like plastic. To get from one tier to the next takes surprisingly more effort to un-stick from the subsequent tier and the entire process just feels like a mess. Additionally, the stand itself feels like it could fall out at any moment if you haven’t double-checked to ensure that it has been aligned properly in the slots of the main body. To be honest though, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if you are considering the product. After a few uses, the tiers become smoother to work with and the main body seems to accept that you are attaching something else to it…despite the slight awkwardness. I personally wouldn’t mind if the device was 1/4″-1/2″ thicker and the tiers consolidated into the design of the rear housing itself with three locking doors for three different working angles. Despite this design shortcoming, it never once crossed my mind that it would be the deciding factor for purchasing or not…Apple’s iPad Smart Covers aren’t great either but they don’t dictate my purchase for an otherwise powerful device.
To properly test the portability-focused Cintiq Companion as an industrial designer, I chose to go to a few coffee shops around Brooklyn and Manhattan with the intention of testing out various stages of a design process using various tools ranging from Sketchbook Pro to Adobe Illustrator and Autodesk Fusion 360 to Mcneel Rhino.
After settling down with my scalding-hot Americano at coffee shop number one, I naturally opened up Sketchbook Pro as a starting point. The first thing that hit me was: “holy crap, I am sitting at a tiny little table in a tiny little coffee shop in the middle of a bustling city with a Wacom Cintiq !”
As somebody who previously used the bulky Cintiq displays and was confined to one spot at my desk, this entire experience felt sort of surreal. Once it dawned upon me that I could actually ‘lean back’ and maintain my Cintiq experience, I did just that…and an hour went by as I transitioned easily from looking up inspiration images in Chrome to flipping back to Sketchbook Pro…all with a quick one-touch gesture of sliding between apps. Along the way, a few people stopped by my table to ask me what I was using and were instantly impressed after I showed them the pressure-sensitivity of a straight line right there in Sketchbook Pro. The outside world proved to be a ‘tool’ of sorts in aiding my inspiration and helped get rid of that ‘just another day at the desk’ feeling. Once I finished up my Americano, I hit up coffee shop number two.
After ordering Americano number two at coffee shop number two, the first thing I did was pull up Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Illustrator CC. Both apps started up lighting-fast thanks to the SSD (faster than my Macbook Pro, actually). I copied an image of a robot from Chrome, pasted it in Photoshop, made a few level adjustments, and then brought the updated image into Illustrator. One of the biggest speed-boosters in my own personal workflow when using a Cintiq (Display or Companion) has been when using the Pen tool in Illustrator. Nothing much has changed here, but the experience of enjoying my Americano in a coffeeshop and creating a vector illustration on a Cintiq while the snow fell outside in Tribeca surely amounted to something. It was here that I realized the true power that the Cintiq Companion offers: the freedom to innovate with tools that we have become accustomed to using while glued to our desks…which is simple in theory but huge when you are actually sitting down and doing it.
It’s important to note that while getting by in Sketchbook Pro without a keyboard was ‘doable’, the use of Wacom’s ultra-slim and portable keyboard was an absolute necessity once I dove into the Adobe apps. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend using the Cintiq at all without the keyboard if you are somebody who takes hotkeys seriously. While the on-board pop-up keyboard is ‘usable’, it would be a workflow-killing nuisance if time wasn’t on your side (and let’s be honest, it never is). With that being said, the wireless keyboard proved to be an indispensable device once I started getting into more serious apps that demanded more tool-switching. The keyboard is considered an additional accessory for $50.
As an industrial designer, testing a CAD workflow on the Companion was a must for both performance reasons as well as user experience. Traditionally I use a 3D mouse when navigating my models, so I knew that going into this with a stylus would be a learning curve in itself. After throwing out a few initial shapes, I found the combination of having the portable keyboard and the two-button Wacom stylus to be a highly-manageable solution. Between using Rhino and Autodesk Fusion 360, I was able to model up a couple of simple designs in roughly the same amount of time that it would have taken me back at the office with my traditional setup. This is actually quite a powerful notion if one were to look between the lines: I am able to do some inspiration image gathering within Chrome, rough out some concepts in Sketchbook Pro or Adobe Illustrator, produce a CAD model in Fusion 360, and then send it to a 3D printer back at the office…all from the cozy confines of a Tribeca coffee shop. Try doing that on your iPad or Surface.
While I would never knock the convenience and simplicity of sketching in a pocket-sized notebook with a Bic pen borrowed from a barista, sometimes I would prefer to sketch digitally without resorting to my iPad…which I still find to be a cumbersome experience with or without a ‘designer’ stylus.
Additionally, even if I technically never wanted to go outside with my portable high-powered ‘tool kit’, the Cintiq Companion works just fine as a stationary desktop tool. As a matter of fact, I even prefer it’s size to the bulkier display units and it’s independent performance capabilities mean that I can run a system-sharing program like Synergy to go from a sketch on the Cintiq Companion to a model on a separate workstation without sacrificing performance or my mouse hand. On the contrary, the Cintiq Companion can also power an external monitor if you choose to use it as your main workstation.
So…should you get it?
At $2500 (for the 516 GB, $2000 for the 218 GB), the Cintiq Companion is definitely at a price point that could turn away quite a few potential buyers and create discussions centered around what else is out there that could match it. Frankly, there is nothing else out there that could match it in the portable digital sketching realm when considering that you can start up multiple performance-sacrificing apps within seconds and work on heavily-layered Photoshop files with ease. If serious design work is what you are trying to do, it’s hard to not argue that the Cintiq Companion is the best solution for today’s ever-increasing modern, demanding, and nomadic designer.
If the Sony Walkman liberated music listeners from the confines of their living rooms, then the Cintiq Companion is the device that will liberate designers from the confines of their office environment. For a lot of designers I know, there is no price tag on that.
- Active Area: 293.8 x 165.2mm
- Data Ports: USB 2.0 port
- Native Resolution: Full HD 1920 X 1080
- Physical Size: 375 x 248 x 14mm
- Pressure Levels: 2048 on both pen tip and eraser
- Screen Size: 13.3 inches (measured diagonally)
- Stand Adjustability: 3 angles and detachable
- Price: $1,999 (256 GB) and $2,499 (518 GB)
Available at the Wacom Store