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I work for Toys for Bob / Activision. Posts here are my personal views, and do not necessarily reflect that of my employer. 

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wacom Cintiq Companion Review

I'm an early adopter of Tablet PC's, since my first one in 2002. That sucker was a brick, cost nearly $2k, but at the time was considered inexpensive for a Tablet PC. Jump a little over a decade later, and for about the same price, you get an art dream machine. The Cintiq Companion is one amazing device, there isn't much to dislike about it, so let me first just get the bad points out of the way.

It's expensive. Currently it's around $1800 for the PC 256GB version ( in this review). It is pricey when compared to a Microsoft Surface Pro/Pro2, or Samsung Ativ Pro, or other Tablet PC's with similar specs today. The Companion is many times more cost than the Samsung Galaxy Note line, reviewed here, or an iPad with the Wacom Creative Stylus that was previously reviewed here. Most Tablet PC's and the Galaxy Note line, also use Wacom's digitizer tech, but at a reduced pressure levels. So it is hard to justify the price jump to a Cintiq. 

Power button
Compared to the sticker shock, the rest of the issues feel minor in comparison. The power button has got to be one of the worse design placements of any tablet. You constantly hit it while picking up the tablet. Luckily windows 8 boots fast with Companion's SSD drive, wake back from sleep within 5 seconds, or boot up in about 8 seconds. When you get used to that sort of boot time, normal computers just feel really slow. But I've hit the power button accident so often, that I've disabled the button to power off. However, you can still use the power button to turn on, which could be a problem when it's carried in the sleeve. So I've set it to go to sleep in just 2 minutes of idle while in battery, in case it gets bumped on by accident. This is perhaps the worst thing about the Companion.... the power button should at least be recessed, and in a location that isn't easy to trigger.

The speakers are horrible, they sound like the volume is all of the way up on a pair of really cheap ear buds.  
One of the first things that I noticed with Companion, is the smell. It smells terrible. Not like a new electronics/computer smell, but like a toxic plastic smell. It was VERY strong, and took me a while to realize that it came from the sleeve that comes with the tablet. It is a beautiful sleeve, but the inside stinks! Once realized, I turned the sleeve inside out and let it air out in the garage for a few days, and the smell cleared.

I have a love/hate relationship with this stand. It works ok, the 3 available angles are good, but feels very cheap. I am disappointed mainly because it could have been so much better designed. I wished that it did two things: 1) that it locks into place. It doesn't, it just pressure fit into the slots, and can come out when you pick up the tablet 2) that is doubles as a cover for the front! Maybe Wacom will improve this in the future.

Now.... the good stuff:

The pen's sensitivity is buttery smooth, as you'd expect from the Cintiq line. I'm not sure how many people noticed, care, or can justify the difference between 1024 levels of pressure vs 2048 levels, but I do. I particularly notice the low end levels of pressure. Even on the Samsung Ativ Pro tablet PC, (also windows 8 tablet, with 1024 levels, using Wacom digitizer), I set up 2 pencils that I use to draw with, to cover light line work of a single pencil on the Cintiq. Don't get me wrong, 1024 levels is more than enough to work with, I'm just spoiled by 2048 of the Cintiq's. It is mostly because I have a very light hand when it comes to sketching, and notice the ultra low end levels. Even at the lowest level of a 1024 level stylus, it just doesn't feel light enough, once you get used to a Cintiq. If you have a heavy hand, I don't think this level difference will make any difference to you. The differences are minor, and it's more of a "feel", maybe I'm the only person who care..... but it does make a difference for me.

Painter Lite's Pencil recognizes tilt of the stylus.
These lines were created using one pencil
without changing brush size or opacity
On Painter Lite, the program recognizes stylus tilt. This allowing you to vary opacity with pressure, but line thickness with pressure tilt. It took me a good hour to get used to using it, it's a bit different than using a real pencil, but I now love it. The line weights, and the look of the pencil lines, makes it feel more like traditional pencil and paper. In fact, as I was trying to get used to drawing with the Painter Lite pencil, I would instinctively worry about smearing the pencil lines under my hand, before remembering that I was working digitally.

The screen is awesome, it has some sort of coating on it, that is different than the 12,21,22,24 inch Cintiqs that I've used. It is not smooth, like any other digitized screens that I've ever drawn on. It has a slight texture to it, so that it's got a bit of drag to it. Using the default plastic nib works great on this new surface, and feels more like a traditional pencil on paper to me. I hope that Cintiq sticks with this surface for their future products, it is brilliant. The coating on it also makes it less glossy, and glare is reduced, yet clarity and colors look nice.

Where's the bloatware?
The Companion comes with no extra crappy software, how refreshing is that!? This is a computer for professionals, and it shows. It is so refreshing to boot up to windows 8 for the first time, and see very few tiles, and no notifications for useless software that I may want to try. However, because the machine is so clean, it doesn't come with a partition for recovery image. So back up!

I've delayed this review because I wanted to fully test it out. I've been using this for several months now, and have been using it for work when I work remotely at home, or dragging it to the coffee shop. I'm getting around 4 hours of battery on a full charge, in normal drawing mode, with the screen brightness about half way. That isn't great battery life, but it's not too bad either for a powerful laptop. Hopefully Wacom will update this with the Haswell chip in the future, and dramatically extend the battery life. But for now, 4 hours is not that bad. I'm saying that it's not bad, because the Companion is simply too big to really carry around like a sketch pad. If you think you'd want to carry it to the park, like they show in the promo videos, and do a 6 hour painting session... you can't, and you wouldn't want to anyway. It's mobile, but as mobile as lugging around a 15" heavy laptop. It's more of a nice portable workstation.... you can take it to places that you can plug in. If you want something that we nowadays consider mobile, it should be something smaller and lighter than the size of an ipad.... You'd better off using the iPad with the Creative Stylus, or the Samsung Note line, as mentioned previously.

Cintiq Companion with Painter Lite
I was really concerned about heat before getting this. Every Tablet PC I've used, get hot. Drawing with a Tablet PC on your lap usually means dripping sweat onto the tablet. The Cintiq Companion barely gets warm. This largely because of the stand, you never really lay it on your lap to draw, and so it dissipates the heat nicely. The fan seems to be on often, but isn't loud. Of course, fan volume is subjective, I just don't notice it very much while I draw.

The buttons are amazing, as with all Cintiqs. You can also set up onscreen buttons, which completely eliminates the need for Artdocks. And the customize-able physical buttons have nice tactile feel. You get spoiled with Cintiq buttons, and it's sometimes hard to go without them. Unfortunately, the round ring in the middle, are not touch scroll wheels like the ones on the bigger Cintiq's. They are 4 buttons with the windows button in the middle. However, the buttons are completely customize-able to whatever hot key you want, and with the conjunction with custom on screen buttons, you'll be able to work comfortably without a keyboard..... at least with programs that are designed to be simple for tablets, like Sketchbook or Painter. Even with these keys, I don't think you can get away using Photoshop, or zbrush etc. I think some programs are just too frustrating without a keyboard.

Speed and Power
No problems, even with very large canvas and big brushes in sketchbook. It has much less lag than ativ pro, when using large brushes. No complaints about CPU speed or memory, for the kind of art that I do, it's more than enough :) On Painter Lite, I don't notice any brush lag with big canvas etc. But I do notice when I have a lot of layers, that the zoom and rotate feel a little more chunky. Not something that prevents you from working, as the brushes always seem to retain their responsiveness, but just something that I've noticed. I don't use any of the more CPU or memory intensive programs, but have heard that it performs well on zbrush and Photoshop.

The design and build quality of the Companion is amazing. The back looks and feel like a MacBook. The soft rubbery parts are easy to handle, have a nice grip to it. I especially love the lack of loud logos on the front of it. It's clean, and the Windows, and Wacom logo, are subtle and sophisticated. The large bezel around the screen may feel awkward compared to the minimal bezels of today, but it is actually a very welcoming thing for artists. It lets you rest your palms, making the best use of screen real estate. Wacom is known for drawing tablets, not computers, so it's a relief that this machine came out feeling so well made.

Palm rejection
Palm rejection works well, but it isn't perfect. You still sometimes draw with your palm or finger, but it happens less often than other Tablet PC's that I've used, running on the same programs. What works the best of palm rejection, is the Note 10.1's Sketchbook in "pen mode". That is because the android version of Sketchbook has the ability to turn off touch to draw, when you have a device with a stylus. You can touch to activate buttons, pinch zoom canvas etc, but never draw with your fingers. I've asked for that function in the android version a while back, and have now asked it for the desktop pc version, so hopefully Autodesk is listening, and can support soon!

Pinch zoom in Sketchbook 6.2.3 is very smooth. But the pen needs to be a certain distance away from the screen before it starts recognizing the two finger touch. Hopefully with the above suggested pen mode, the software can be smarter about when the user wants to touch zoom. Pinch zoom in Painter Lite is not nearly as smooth as Sketchbook. I end up using the navigator buttons, rather than pinch zooming with Painter Lite. With multitouch, I've also set up gestures to bring up the soft keyboard when I do a 5 finger tap, which is useful when you need to save and name your work while working without a physical keyboard. For Sketchbook/Painter, I can work just fine without a keyabord/mouse.

So in the end, should you get this? if you've got the money and want the best portable drawing experience, it's a huge yes. With the amount the Wacom got right with the Companion, it's hard to complain about the few things that they did poorly here. For most people, it's outrages to spend this kind of money on a Tablet PC, especially when the Note 10.1+, or the iPad/Creative Stylus, cost much less. If you need something that is a general laptop that you can draw on, there is the Ativ Pro, Surface Pro, or other Tablet PC's out there. I get asked often, what is the best drawing device out there, and if you really want the best thing JUST for digital art, this is it. The only thing that may be better, are the bigger Cintiq's. Wacom knows art, but their products come at a premium price :(

Sketch using Cintiq Companion / Painter Lite
-Silky smooth stylus, what you'd expect from a Cintiq
-Textured screen surface feels more like pencil and paper
-Great buttons and functions.
-Good size for art, powerful specs
-Stylus case and sleeve a nice plus
-Windows boots blazing fast (about 8 seconds)
-No bloat wear

-Battery ~4 hours
-Stand has nice angles, but does not lock or cover the screen

-Price is too high for most
-Power Button is too easily pressed
-Tinny speakers
-Toxic smell in the sleeve, until it airs out

Speed drawing of my wife and kids, using Cintiq Companion with Painter Lite

Cintiq Companion: http://cintiqcompanion.wacom.com/CintiqCompanion/en/

I should point out, that there is a more expensive 512GB version of this Cintiq Companion, as well as 2 Android versions, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid. The Hybrid versions are cheaper, and allows you to use it with a PC, or use the Android OS when mobile. Personally, I went for the cheaper Tablet PC version, and am very happy with that decision.

Software used for this review:  
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($60)
Corel Painter Lite ($50)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Doki Doki Universe

Before my life of Skylanders began, I worked at HumaNature Studios, along with my wife and a bunch of really cool people. Doki Doki Universe is an amazing little game, and I am so glad to see that it's finally out. The project has gone through many iterations, and evolved a lot since my involvement with it. It's a bizarre and quirky world to explore, and fun to play with the family. My son loves figuring out how to help every character, and I love the fun little personality tests.

This game is especially dear to my heart, not only because it is such a different "game" than anything else out there, but it's extra special to me because of where it originated from. The style grew out of stick figures that I would draw on little cards for my wife..... yeah gross. When my friend/boss Greg Johnson saw these little whimsical stick figures of us, he thought that it would make a cool world to play in. This was many years ago, and it eventually became what it is today - a heart warming world to explore, and what you choose to do in this universe, will tell you a little about yourself. Check it out on PS3, PS4, Vita :)

More Skylanders Tattoos

I'm starting to see more and more Skylanders Tattoos, which is just too surreal. My jaw dropped when I saw Michael Smith's tattoos. Just check out his Gill Grunt, and this insanely great Wham Shell! It's hard to comprehend the fact that there are characters that I've created, permanently on someone's skin. Thanks Michael, I'm honored!  

In the short time that Skylanders has been in existence, it has skyrocketed beyond my wildest dreams. It's been a crazy ride, and this infograph really puts it in perspective.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wacom Creative Stylus & iPad Air Review/Mod

I am in love with this rig. iPad Air with the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus. Check out the reivew and mod video:

Wacom Creative Stylus with Teflon tip.
Still fits in the case!
Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus is a Bluetooth stylus for the iPad. It's got 2048 levels of pressure, and comes with a case, battery, and a couple of extra nibs. I wasn't sure what to expect from this stylus, but it has exceeded my expectations, it simply works great. But I quickly noticed the low pressure levels to be lacking, and surfing around I found this official Wacom response.

An official Wacom rep on the European Wacom forums, confirming that the new iPad Air does have different hardware, making the stylus lack the ultra low pressure feel: http://forum.wacom.eu/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=16265&start=10 Wacom sez "It seems that the iPad Air touch sensor is a bit different than in previous iPads. Reports say that the glass is thinner (less layers) and probably there is a difference in the power to the touch sensor. This can require some more pressure with the pen to get any reaction independant of the Bluetooth connection"
Mod with JaJa Teflon tip

So when I saw that post, I thought of using a non rubber tip, perhaps one of the disc types. When I started digging around to see if it's been done, I found this: http://procreate.si/forums/index.php?topic=2910.0 and sure enough, I tried it and it worked great. Thanks Germs770 on the Procreate forums for sharing! I've improved how it's attached on, but credit goes out to him for the first to try it. Funny enough, I think maybe Wacom may have had something like this in mind? The tip has a hole it it, and the case has extra space for it as well. It's almost like it's made for it!
Seeing through the circular tip

And for the record, I did try the stock nib on the iPad 4th generation, and can confirm that the low pressure feel works great. And even with the lack of low pressure feel on the Air, I'd still recommend it for the Air.

One thing that I did forget to mention, is that there are 2 buttons on the stylus. For Procreate, they are for Undo and Redo. I did find that I hit the bottom button often by accident, while pinch zooming..... Strange, because I never do it on the Cintiq while pinch zooming, and the pen feels nicely balanced. I guess I'll probably get used to it with time.

Supplies list in the video:

The palm rejection pads used are: Targus CleanVu Cleaning Pads

The disc tips are: Hex3 JaJa Percision Teflon Tips

The plastic thermal plastics are: Shapelock

And as promised, here are my pencils to use with Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus:

All Purpose is the one that I use the most. I spent way too much time tweaking with it, to make it look and feel like a pencil:

Solid is one that lacks texture, and looks more digital and clean. It's good in conjunction with All Purpose pencil as well, to punch up the details.

Shading Graphite is just a modified version of the stock. I've modified it slightly to make it feel more natural.

Procreate forums also has a lot of really great custom brushes here: http://procreate.si/forums/index.php?board=20.0 and has instructions on how to download/upload them. Try them, I've found a lot of great brushes there. Make sure that in the brush settings, that the Size/Opacity Limits in "General" are varied for Max and Min, since most of them are not made with pressure sensitivity in mind. If pressure levels feel weird, try changing the "Pressure" in the "Dynamics" tab. It's best when it's not 100%, but somewhere in the 75-95% range. Strangely enough, 100% feels too sensitive and hard to control the full range. Of course tune to your own taste :)

I was finally able to find some time over vacation break to do some sketches with this rig. It's funny, but after designing Skylanders characters for so long, it's hard to do something outside of my own style. Here are some Speed Drawings, some are very rough and loose, and some are tighter.... testing out this combo:

This is the only image here that were done with the stock nib,
and using Sketchbook Pro instead of Procreate. Even lacking the
low pressure levels and with the big nib, you can still get
nice line weight and detail

Overall, this is the best thing ever for the iPad. The pressure levels are just amazing, feels almost like a Cintiq (I will try to find some time to do a review on the Wacom Cintiq Companion soon). And with the Procreate combo, along with mods mentioned, this is one amazing mobile sketchpad!

So, should you get it? If you've already have an ipad 3,4, or mini, and love to draw, then you'll probably love this! if you have an Air or Retina Mini, and either don't care about low pressure levels, or you love to modify things, then it's a no-brainer.

-Amazing pressure levels (except for low levels mentioned above)
-Comes with battery, case, and extra nibs
-Battery seems to be lasting forever
-Stylus is heavy for a Wacom, but somehow feels really nicely balanced. I don't find it heavy while drawing.

-Need mods for low pressure levels for the iPad Air and Retina Mini
-The buttons are too easily triggered when pinch zooming
-Not too many apps support it. Some of the listed apps don't work, or are way laggy. Palm rejection doesn't work well, even on Wacom's own Bamboo Paper App.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Baby Sketch with Wacom Creative Stylus + iPad Air + Sketchbook

Another baby sketch.... sorry!

This time I'm giving the iPad air with Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus a proper test drive. I'm using Sketchbook Pro, which works wonderfully with the Wacom. I'll try and do a proper review on this combo when I find some time, but initial results are pretty good! The WICS does require a little more pressure on the low levels on the Air, as compared to older iPads, which is a shame. But it's only for the extreme low end pressure, it still feels amazing. More on that later...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Skylanders Swap Force

Skylanders Swap Force is out now! The guys at Vicarious Visions did a great job of taking on this third installment of the franchise, and the positive reviews are rolling in!

Official Skylanders Swap Force site:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Speed Painting Baby

We had another baby, a healthy little poop machine he is turning out to be. I took this paternity leave opportunity to do a quick painting of him with Sketchbook Pro, on the Ativ Pro. This took 1 hour 15 minutes, in between diaper changes :)

I feel much more comfortable with drawing, but I wanted to get a little practice in on my weak spot. Painting is always a struggle for me, it always feels like putting out fires, constantly trying to make something that sucks, suck a little less, one strokes at a time. Need more practice.....

Sunday, September 15, 2013

SFBT-3 Artist Figure Review

It's hard to define S.F.B.T-3, is it a toy, action figure, model, mannequin, maquette, or a doll? Whatever purpose it's made for, I am reviewing it as an artist pose-able figure, for concept art.

Useful artist mannequin are hard to find. There are lots of them out there, but most are useless, lacking pose-ability or not enough attention to anatomy. The wooden ones that you see in any art supply store, are especially useless. I've been in search of a good pose-able figure to drawn from, for quite some time now, and I'm happy to have found an amazing ultra poseable figure. It works amazingly well for figuring out poses.

We are all hard wired to read body language. We subconsciously notice the most subtle of poses with the human body, which makes drawing compelling figures especially tricky. References always makes the art better, and having a really good pose-able figure at your finger tips, can really help. I find it easier to figure out poses on this figure, than to do it via 3D software with a good rig.When you squint at this figure, you can really read the forms, and even make out the general muscles and shapes. This figure serves as a good model, and works great for seeing shadows across the body. It also keeps the silhouette extremely well, due to the massive amount of plastic parts, with the sole purpose of keeps the form as you pose. The attention to detail, and the number of parts, are insane. There are no screws, everything seems to just fit together. I've had the wrist and feet come loose several times, but they just fit back in easily. So far there hasn't been any loose joints that will not hold shape, only time will tell, how well it will hold up over time. I'll be keeping a special eye on the ball joints that supports weight. Luckily, the shoulders has 3 independent joints, which will help relieve the stress on a high use area. I've been posing this figure a lot for a week, and so far no issues of holding the pose.

SFBT-3 has over 80 points of articulation. The shoulders, arms and fingers, are especially impressive. There are even rotatable eyes and eyelids. It is made from a very hard plastic, and does not feel cheap. This is the only figure in this line, there are no other body types etc. I'd love to have a version with the breasts toned down... they are rather high and ahhhh... stylized. More optional heads would be cool too. I'd actually love to have a more faceless head, just enough to read the angles and shapes. But even as is, for purposes of concept art, it works great. I'm finding that I am able to pose this female figure, but adopt it to different proportions and gender, without much trouble.

In full disclosure, I got this free from the Japanese manufacturer Dolk Station, to do this review. Unfortunately this figure is priced at $300, ouch! But considering what it must have went  into making this figure, and how useful it is, it will be worth it for some. I just hope that it becomes successful enough to see a price drop in the future. It really is an work of art, and engineering marvel.

Some pose examples:

-It is the most pose-able figure on the market
-Beautiful, an engineering/artistic feat.
-Nice hard plastic, does not feel cheap
-Comes with display stand

-High price. As of Sept of 2013, it is priced at $300 US + $14 shipping from Japan to the US.

To order SFBT-3:
English: http://dolk.jp/s.f.b.t/en/
Chinese: http://dolk.jp/s.f.b.t/cn/
Japanese: http://dolk.jp/index.php

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sketchbook ArtDock for Ativ Pro / Surface Pro

I've been using the Samsung Ativ Pro as my main home laptop/tablet, it's a great artist tool and computer. I previously had the Samsung Series 7 Slate, and used Artdock for it. Artdock a great tool that allows you to disable touch for the tablet, except for the shortcut Artdock buttons. Essentially it gives you a bunch of hotkey buttons on the side of the screen, so that you can work without the keyboard. Someone made an Artdock for the Microsoft Surface Pro, and it worked on the Ativ Pro, but I didn't like the layout, and it did not have my most commonly used functions. Since I use Sketchbook Pro for 99% of my art, I got rid of the other programs with Artdock, and made it my perfect tool bar for Sketchbook Pro. As much as I would like to use Artdock with Photoshop, I just find it impossible to work without a keyboard.

I created a boring text bar first (right), but then created an image only tool bar (left). I found that when drawing and painting, I need a visual interface, using text icons just hurts my brain and slows me down. The beauty of Sketchbook, is in it's simple and visual interface, and I find a graphical Artdock interface work well for my workflow. I'm not sure if anyone else will find either dock useful, but figure I'd share them anyway.  This should work on Surface Pro as well, since they have similar resolution and screen size, and the original script that I modified from was for the Surface Pro. Since I don't have a Surface Pro, I can't tell for sure. If you have a Surface Pro, and have tried it out, please comment below!

When you first open up the ArtDock.ahk, you'll get a little bar on the bottom left of the desktop (below), where you can choose to use the Sketchbook Pro dock, or the Text Sketchbook Pro dock. You can also choose to ignore touch, so that only the tool bar will have touch. With touch on (by default), you could draw with your fingers, which happens accidentally enough to get a little annoying. If you decide to turn off touch, you'd need to log out of windows to take effect. With the Ativ Pro, you can also use Samsung Settings to turn off touch, but you still need to re log in to take effect.

The tools on this Artdock should be pretty self explanatory. I've put my most commonly used tools where my natural thumb is when holding the device. At the top is redo, then undo. Undo is lower because it's easier to get to with my thumb, and I use it far more than I use redo. The Last Used Brush tool is one of my most used tools. I use it to switch between pencil and eraser, or between 2 paint brushes when painting and coloring. Zoom and move view is also something that I use constantly, as well as the eyedropper for sampling colors when painting. The Move/Rotate/Scale is also a tool that I can't live without, and deserved it's own button. I put Save As, as one of the buttons, because I am a little bit of a save freak, and like to save versions rather than save over files. Lastly, the bottom buttons are to hide/unhide the UI to maximize screen space, and zoom to full view. This give you the biggest and cleanest work area, for a small screen like this. These are the tools that I use most often, and mimics the buttons that I use on the Cintiq. If you feel the need to change the buttons, you can edit the ArtDock.ahk with notepad. I've made the buttons large enough for a finger, but not so large that it takes up too much screen real estate. If you need to adjust the size and placement, you can just edit the ArtDock.ahk text. I made the graphic icons just with the default pencil in Sketchbook Pro, so you can also add and change the images in the img folder, and change the hotkeys to fit the tool :)

This amazing script was created and modified by many. Originally developed as RawInputControlTest.ahk, and then Konartist3D modified for the Series 7 and ep121, then refined for the Surface Pro by DoctorBunsenHoneydew.

1) Install AutoHotKey
2) Download and unzip SBPDock
3) Double click on ArtDock.dhk and you are ready to go!

SBPDock with graphical icons interface
SBPDock with text icons interface