I recently had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with Wacoms latest addition to its arsenal of hardware, the Cintiq Companion.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Cintiq brand, these are essentially large graphic tablets with screens, which attach to your computer. They act like an extra monitor but using a stylus you can draw directly onto them with 2048 degrees of pressure sensitivity. This makes the act of drawing, painting or sculpting feel much more natural and intuitive when compared to the standard graphic tablets where your hand and eyes are in different places.
The Cintiq Companion takes this to the next level, combining the power of a multi-touch screen, mobile tablet with Wacoms technology, offering you the ability to work away from the office.
It currently comes in two flavours.
The Cintiq Companion is a more expensive Windows based device, making it ideal for those who have key applications, like ZBrush, Maya or Modo, and need to use them while on the move.
The Cintiq Companion Hybrid is a lower priced, Android based version, acting more like your typical, day to day tablets.
For this review I wanted to test the Windows option, mainly so I could use the same software I work with in my office. I also didn’t want this review to be bogged down with hardware specifications, but instead be focused on what the device is like to use on a day to day basis, as a digital artist.
After removing the Companion from its box I was impressed by the sheer quality of the build. It was solid and sleek with even its protective case feeling luxurious, like its own fur lined sleeping bag.
The Companion comes with a generous 13.3 inch screen, and next to this is a series of configurable buttons called Express Keys, and a Touch Ring. For those familiar with Wacom technology you will know that these buttons are an essential part of any artist’s workflow so it’s great to see them included here too.
The size and weight of the tablet was something I wasn`t expecting. It’s roughly 15 by 10 inches, so it’s not small, and at a hefty 2kg it’s not something you can comfortably hold in one hand while you work. This is a sitting device, one which is best used when at a desk, or propped up in your lap.
The power supply has caused some concerns across the community. Firstly, the Windows authorisation key is on the actual power brick, so if you lose one, you lose the other. Also the power jack is tiny, almost fragile looking. You almost feel that if you press it in too hard it will break, and I’m sure if it’s pulled out incorrectly it will.
Digging deeper into the box I found that Wacom have also included a stand. This attaches to the back of the device allowing you to then prop it up at three key levels. This is one of the next areas I wasn`t entirely convinced with. The stand felt almost like an afterthought, and in practice attaching it to the back felt a little clumsy.
Sometimes I didn`t entirely trust it would hold the device as it only slotted into two shallow grooves, which on a few occasions it slipped free of. When collapsed it also added to the bulk of the tablet, and was too big to detach and leave lying around.
Ideally a stand built into the casing would have been preferable, one which almost disappeared when not in use, like you see in the Surface Pro 2 & 3.
Updates, and more updates
I then hit my next issue, not with the device as such but with Windows 8. I needed to update to 8.1 but before I could Windows had to download and install an initial 65 updates, a process which took over an hour.
8.1 finally began downloading, but this took an additional half an hour…Luckily I had plenty of other things to be working on, but before long it was finally ready for me to sit and play with.
First I installed ZBrush and Maya 2015, mainly so I could try the new multi-touch controls, which worked well. This was followed by Photoshop and Krita. With that all set I decided to head downstairs and work on the sofa. Well that’s the idea behind this device, right? What’s the point in having one if I stay shackled to the office?
As it was a nice day I thought I would chance a trip outside, but the glare on the screen meant I couldn`t really see what I was doing, and there wasn`t a suitable shady spot available, so I retreated back in doors.
The Companion in Use
The stylus which accompanies the companion is a Wacom Pro Pen. It comes in its own case with a handful of replacement nibs, and the coloured rings for personalisation. This slots nicely into the Companions case too.
ZBrush was going to be the first test for me and initially it performed well, although I admit I wasn`t doing anything too complex at this stage. The pen worked well, just as you would expect, with the pressure sensitivity allowing me to create the finest of strokes.
I did seem to spend most of my time trying to find a comfortable configuration for the Express Keys and Touch Ring where my thumb wasn`t being contorted into odd positions.
I initially settled on the four main controls, Ctrl, Shift, Alt and Space on the touch ring. This also meant I could press two keys at once, which you need to be able to do at times in ZBrush – This however was soon to change, multiple times.
Firstly, the device is a joy to use, as you would expect from a Wacom device. The high definition 1920×1080 screen is large enough to fit the entire ZBrush UI on it, which is great and means that the UI doesn`t suffer as it does on smaller screens.
The sculpt started well but ZBrush began to stutter once I hit a Dynamesh resolution of above 200, especially when I zoomed in. This wasn’t ideal as I was already thinking of heading back to the office. What good was working on the Companion if it couldn’t even handle a basic head sculpt?
I was about to call it a night when I noticed the battery icon had hardly dropped, which was impressive. This also reminded me of the power save options, which I quickly checked. It was set to Power Saver. Once I switched to High Performance ZBrush began to behave and run much smoother, and on par with my desktop machine.
I then tried Photoshop, with a large, untidy 500MB file full of unnamed layers and masks, you know the type. This time I compared it directly with my desktop, checking for any noticeable difference in lag or performance. I am happy to say there were none. Both files worked the same on both devices, with the only lag I found also being present on my desktop system.
It was time to test the mobility of the Companion, so I decided to take it on a trip to London. I was going to be on a train for a few hours, so thought it would be a good opportunity to test it out of the office and see how it felt to carry around, work on and also present work to clients.
Firstly, as mentioned previously, this is one big, heavy tablet, so I wouldn’t recommend any lengthy hikes with it strapped to your back. I also struggled with my usual bag as the Companion, when in its case, was much larger than I am used to, so I had to source a larger back which would also fit my other equipment in, and the charger.
On the train I grabbed myself a seat with a table and power point, thinking this would be the ideal spot. Unfortunately I was plagued by the sun which made the screen almost impossible to see. I also struggled with the movement of the train which meant I couldn’t do any precise strokes or movements.
This was frustrating. I couldn’t see what I was doing or get comfortable, plus my pen strokes were more like erratic streaks. I was also praying that no one sat next to me, as because of the size of the Companion I was already straying into my neighbouring seat.
In the end I moved seats, so I then occupied two seats with no table. I sat with my back to the window, legs half up on the seat next to me and the Companion in my lap, without the stand. I found this to be a much more comfortable way to work, and I was now also shielding the screen from the sun.
The Companion worked really well from here on. I was able to work on a document, although I used the touch keyboard and not the supplied Bluetooth one, and also dip into Maya and ZBrush.
I was also impressed with the battery life. At the start Windows estimated over 7 hours of life, and this had dropped to around 4 after the journey.
At the meeting in London the Companion came into to its own, allowing me to quickly show and share work in Maya without worrying it was going to be laggy.
Should You Invest?
For me, I liked the Cintiq Companion. Coming from a Wacom Cintiq 24HD it did feel like I was taking a smaller version of my office out with me. The stylus behaved in much the same way and you even have the configurable buttons to help you as you work, all this plus a multi-touch screen and a decent battery life.
I am not sure it should have been dubbed the “Companion” though. I think a true device like this, a true companion, should be something you put into your bag and almost forget it’s there whereas going out with the Cintiq Companion is almost like taking a small child out for the day. You have to consider your luggage because of its size and weight, and also work out if you will have enough room on the journey to actually use it en route.
With the Cintiq Companion Wacom have produced a true, artist orientated device. It looks and works well, but unfortunately a few poor design choices do let it down. In giving us the larger screen, the 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity and the Express Keys Wacom have continued to put artists first, but in doing so they have also sacrificed some of the mobility this device is meant to offer.
At the price, (around £1,899 for the top end model), which is pretty much the same as a Cintiq 24HD, I think I would rather invest in its larger, less mobile brother as I would simply use it more often, but if Wacom can lighten the load, incorporate the stand a little better and perhaps reduce the screen glare, then version two might be more tempting.
Although Wacom supplied the device for me to to test, the opinions offered in this review are my own.