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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:

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)


  1. Hello,
    I'm thinking a lot about buying companion but being zbrush user I wonder if there's a comfortable way of setting buttons so I will be able to use ctrl alt shift and combinations of these three as that's how most tools work in zbrush?

    Is it possible to set ring buttons and press couple of them like ctrl+alt+shift? I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on that.

    1. Yes, it is possible to set up hot key combinations for the hardware keys, as well as you can set up soft keys that are on screen buttons- similar to artdock, so you can end up with lots of shortcut buttons. I'm not a zbrush user, but a coworker is a zbrush artist by profession, and has the companion. He said that he still uses a keyboard with it, even with all of the keys setup, zbrush just often needs more, at least for him.

  2. thanks a lot for response, although more precisely I'm wondering if it's possible to press 3 buttons simultaneously with one finger on the ring buttons.

    such way I wouldn't have to set more buttons for combinations but only use those three ring buttons as alt ctrl shift.

    1. Yes, you can set up modifiers. Specifically all 3 modifiers ctrl+alt+shift as a button. You can also set up other keys as well, I haven't found a combination that I couldn't set up as a button, they are easy to assign, and can be set up for each program - i.e. when working with zbrush the keys are a certain set, but different if you use photoshop etc. You just choose the program, then set up hot keys for it, and whenever the program is being used, it would use button sets associated with that program automatically.

  3. Nice review. Thanks!

    I believe at this point there is no real good reason to buy Companion as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is about to be released. According to many reviews that I have red Surface is just better in most of the aspects and brings better value for money.

    1. I don't have or used surface pro, but did look a lot into it before purchasing companion. Surface pro 3 switched from wacom digitizer to n-trig.... I have tried other n-trig devices before and didn't like it as much as wacom. I have a samsung ativ pro, which is very similar to the surface, but I like the companion much better, due to size, side buttons, and increased pressure sensitivity. I also have Note 10.1, which is also a great mobile art device, you can see my other post reviewing them. Ativ pro and surface pro, and other tablet pcs are amazing tools, but non of them are made specifically for art. They are business tools, but artist rely on them as mobile platforms. Companion is made from the ground up for art, and it shows. Unfortunately it is really pricy in comparison, but well worth it in my opinion. I'd only choose other tablet pcs, like the surface pro, only if you need the small form factor. The companion is just a little too big to easily work compared the smaller devices.

  4. Bonjour, oui eh bien j'ai acheter une companion en juin 2014, nous sommes mi novembre de la même
    année et j'en suis à ma troisième, et bientôt quatrième machine
    Problème de batterie, problème connus.....
    La vocation commerciale de Wacom est l'encéphalogramme d'un poisson.
    Quand tout va bien, c'est à dire aucun contact, commander, payer, commander, payer.
    problèmes, contact, temps de réponse, ..... 2ou 3 ou jamais............. re-contact, temps de réponse .........parfois au téléphone on vous réponds sèchement que c'est un problème connu, Mais parfois un interlocuteur qui vous connais 3 machines quand même comprends votre désarroi. Mais les techniciens là-bas en Allemagne, pas de contact et un silence, un silence
    bref, si par hasard vous avez un problème d'ordre irréparable échange, eh bien prenez votre mal en patience parce que ce n'est pas rapide pour peu que ce soit un jour férié ou un week-end c'est foutu. Maintenant avec le temps je prends sur moi mon désespoir.
    je me fout de recevoir la tablette dans 1 mois ou 3 mois de toutes façons il va falloir l'échanger, d'ici là. c'est un manège qui pourrait
    aboutir à une mise en perspective ou en abime plutôt du gars qui cherche à tout prix à avoir la dernière technologie pour créer.
    Mais, mais , mais , Mais non. aller
    au revoir.
    client oui mais rapport froid avec la firme, Wacom c'est Chinois ou Japonnais? Parce que les deux puissances font des courbettes
    quand ils se saluent des tas de courbettes eh bien pas chez Wacom.