Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Cintiq 22HD Touch

I bought myself a Wacom Cintiq 22HD touch. This is a dedicated graphics tablet which enables users to digitally draw directly onto the screen. After many years of using a standard Wacom Intuos tablet, I felt it was time to upgrade to something that would give me a closer connection between hand and eye. Here are my initial thoughts on the device…

Setting Up
I bought the 22HD Touch via PC World online. At £1750 it wasn’t the cheapest (Amazon UK sell it for £1699, Wacom Europe sell it for £1900) but it allowed me to pick it up from my local branch. For something this big and electronicky, I much prefer the convenience of a retail store to buy from instead of waiting for the courier/post who may or may not deliver on the timeslot I asked for.

The box is huge and the Cintiq itself is nestled within several layers of cardboard, like a Russian doll. Physically setting it was very simple – despite the copious warnings describing imminent decapitation and death, the Cintiq stand did not seem snap close when I handled it incorrectly. 

Plugging in was a problem however. The tablet only offers a DVI interface and my tablet did not have one. The online and printed guides did not help much other than simply suggesting we buy an adapter. So I bought a DVI to HDMI adapter – mistakenly thinking it would work. It did not (the screen was crippled by interference). 

Apparently, despite being digital only, a HDMI connection is not compatible (at least not with my laptop). So I bought a mini-displayport adapter, which did work. From my understanding, if you don’t have any digital interface, then you are screwed! Okay not really, you need to buy a proper digital to analogue adapter box thingy but I dunno, all this technology and no included adapter or versatility on connection? Hmmm.

After downloading the most up to date driver, my laptop recognised the pen input perfectly. A minor calibration requirement and then I was away. Sadly the new Wacom driver overrode my old Wacom driver so it no longer recognised my Intuos tablet. With my new set-up, it is not a massive loss, but annoying nonetheless. 

My first impressions of the display was that it was simply, okay. It doesn’t zing super brightness or hyper colour saturation and the anti-glare graininess means it doesn’t have that MacBook Pro level of super pin sharp pop out brightness screen resolution. In fact you could argue reading text and other fine level detail it can appear a tad soft. But it doesn’t matter, it is still very good and good enough to convey the depths required for digital painting and photographic work. In my day job, I use an Eizo FlexScan 24 inch LCD screen and it is visibly better than the Cintiq…but not by far. The default settings seem fine and I did not feel I needed to adjust anything. It is also infinitely better display than the one that came with my laptop (which is admittedly quite yucky for viewing images).

Using the Cintiq in Photoshop is very fluid and utterly intuitive. It is literally as simple as drawing pen on paper. My debut Cintiq effort didn’t even make use of the multiple expression touch buttons or gesture commands. I simply put pen on tablet and drew as I would have done on my sketchbook. With my keyboard placed slightly further away now, it was less easy to use my favoured keyboard shortcuts. In the near future, I will program the Expression keys to perform this role, or maybe buy a mini keyboard to place in front of the screen. In Photoshop I use the zoom in zoom out shortcuts (alt + -) a lot as well as the drag (spacebar) and undo (ctrl z). Here is what I did with the first use of the Cintiq:

(1) you can see I used the pencil tool and sketched away as I would on paper. There is a wee bit of friction, I was wondering if my nib was too sharp and even scratching the Cintiq surface but no, it seems fine. The gap between pen touching screen and digital line appearing is tiny, so no parallax problem. There was no discernable lag and I was sketching quite furiously at some points. At this point, it was doing the job perfectly.

(2) I decided to play with various layers, thicker brushes, blending effects and so on. Again, I miss having keyboard shortcuts to hand. There is a LOT of screen real estate and it was quite a revelation to be able to move my arm so freely and over such wide open space. I had the Cintiq erected almost to its max upright posture. I felt like I was painting on an artist's easel.

(3) I did lots of save points and on each occasion, an error box popped up. It did not prevent me saving nor block operations but it's worrying to see. I just deleted the error box and carried on. The final image again used lots of layers and with the huge amount of RAM installed, altogether it worked very very well.

While using the Cintiq in Photoshop was an effortless and intuitive experience, akin to drawing and painting with real materials, Illustrator was slightly different. The main reason being that I now had to think about how the pen nib and my finger tips would obscure the paths I had just previously drawn. It is a bit like writing left handed and the writing hand obscuring the words as it proceeds across the page.

I tend to mostly use the Pen tool in Illustrator and slowly use the pen to tap away, progressively adding anchor points often very tightly placed (hence the difference to Photoshop, where I use longer more expressive strokes which are not as hampered by my own hand). On the Intuos, I just clicked away without hindrance but drawing directly on screen meant that I had to think about drawing away from the direction of my finger tips in order to avoid my own hand obscuring the past few anchor points. It is a bit slower than using the Cintiq with Photoshop, but still faster and more accurate than via the Intuos.

Another annoying flaw with Illustrator is the lack of rotation on the artboard. I could of course rotate the Cintiq, but this only works if the tablet is oriented horizontally. When positioned vertically, the rotation is limited as it hits the table top surface.

Apart from the niggles, the Cintiq on Illustrator is an improved experience compared to using the Intuos. The huge drawing real estate allowed more expressive strokes to be drawn and fashioning Bezier curves was a dream. In the near future I may have a look at Manga Studio, which has good reports from graphic tablet artists and can draw vector lines and rotate the artboard.

General functionality
I’ve not been playing with the Cintiq long but I have of course fiddled around with the Expression keys and touch strips. I think it will take me a while to transition away from using keyboard shortcuts and rely more on the tablet keys. I may in fact never fully transition, in which case, a mini keyboard might be needed for central placement below the screen. I might also invest in a Cintiq arm extension. The included stand is definitely very good, but I want to explore drawing while standing up and other positions. I tend to get arm and neck pains if I sit in one position for too long – a legacy of my jiu jitsu training sadly.

The touchscreen itself operates perfectly. I like switching it on and off depending on what I am doing on the computer. But it recognizes the basic hand gestures for zooming in and out, panning and scrolling. Pretty handy when working on more complex pieces where one needs to view in great detail then zoom out to see the overall composition frequently. I am not sure if the touch screen aspect is a deal breaker. Cintiq offer the cheaper non-touch 22HD for around £1500. Personally now that I have it, I wouldn’t want to be without it, but if I bought the non-touch version, I don’t think I would feel hard done by.

In the beginning I just mirrored my desktop to both screens (laptop and Cintiq showing the same thing) but I realized I could get a lot more if I extended the screens si the laptop could display reference images or Facebook, while the Cintiq was solely dedicated to drawing in Photoshop or Illustrator. In order to utilize this display set-up, I had to assign one of the Expression keys as a toggle display button so I could switch between using one display and then popping over to the other quickly.

Initial conclusions
Some people may baulk at the seemingly hefty price of the 22hd touch. In total it actually costs more than my computer. But I think you get what you pay for. Here is pretty much a dream machine for digital artists. The ability to draw on screen makes a massive difference to workflow and accuracy. Previously, using the Intuos, I would often be frustrated at the hand-eye disconnect. Some projects certainly felt like hard work trying to achieve the lines I wanted. But not anymore. You do need a lot of desk space however and although the basic function of drawing on screen is easy peasy, to make the most use out of all the Cintiq features does take some time experimenting with.

There are of course other digital drawing tablet options if the 22HD Touch is too much. The smaller 13HD is by all accounts a mini-beast of a graphics tablet and worth considering. Its much pricier brother, the Cintiq Companion is even better, allowing you to draw on the move. Moving away from Wacom, there is the Surface Pro tablet and even just a basic Samsung Galaxy tablet with stylus allows you to scribble on the go. One artist I know used to use a Yinova graphics tablet – which is like a budget priced Cintiq equivalent – but in the end he bought a Cintiq 13HD simply because it is a better device. So I think the conclusion here really is, you get your money’s worth with the Cintiq 22HD touch so if you are considering it, I think you won’t regret the purchase once you do.

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