Recently I was fortunate to be asked to review the new Cintiq tablet screen from Wacom. I am a digital sculptor at Gentle Giant Studios in Burbank. At Gentle Giant we work on everything from modeling for visual effects and games, scanning props, actors, and sets, to creating high end collectables and toys, and design maquettes for the entertainment industry. If it is a sculpture of any form, digital or practical we make them here. I spend my day at the computer trying to bring sculptural form into a 2D realm, the computer screen.
Since the introduction of the mouse in 1973 the computer industry has been trying to further simplify the interface between humans and the machines that have become such an ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Nowhere has this challenge become more apparent than the attempt to create a union between the artist and the computer.
Wacom helped this process along with their popular pen tablet technology however there was still an uncomfortable level of abstraction when looking at a screen for feedback while at the same time working on a completely separate plane.
This offset can be overcome with a modicum of hand eye coordination and practice but it remains an unfortunate hindrance. Despite their superiority over the mouse working with tablets was still fundamentally clumsy.
Wacom has made a huge step forward with the Cintiq 21 UX. An update to the previously reviewed 18SX the 21 boasts a larger screen, hotkeys placed on both sides of the screen and 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. It is also worth mentioning that the unit weighs considerably less and has a thinner more streamlined footprint.
The Cintiq does not represent the first screen tablet but the first in a price range reasonable to the average professional or small studio. The Cintiq has opened the doors for all manner of artists and designers using the computer as a medium. It facilitates the transfer of real world approaches and existing muscle memory to the digital realm. This review will look at the Cintiq from the perspective of a digital artist focusing on painting and digital sculpting applications. Specifically we will examine the Cintiq with Zbrush for digital sculpture.
The Cintiq itself is composed of 2 units; a sturdy metal base and the tablet screen itself.
The tablet interfaces with the base by a single T-post on the center back. It is from this central location all the cabling emerges in the form of a single cord. At the termination of the cable all the necessary connectors diverge. This reduces cable clutter to a bare minimum and allows for maximum maneuverability of the screen while working.
Screen resolution of this monitor is 1280X1024 with 24 bit color and 27ms pixel response rate. Measuring at 18" the LCD screen is enclosed in a sturdy smooth gray housing. The screen itself resists abrasion but be wary of rough handling. The screen features dual plastic coatings, one to minimize glare while the outer coating has a fine tooth which simulates the feeling of paper against the pen nib. This seemingly minor feature is quite an enhancement to the experience of working the pen against the screen. It no longer feels like drawing on plexiglass. The pen is a standard Wacom pen and the unit sports 1024 levels of pressure.
The cable bundle is a sleek and efficient. A single wire extends from the back terminating in every possible connector from USB, power, VGA, DMI and Serial. The power supply attaches here at the end of the main cable.
This minimalist approach to engineering allows a high level of maneuverability for the unit. In its lowest position you could feasibly rotate the Cintiq through 360 degrees!
The tablet rotates easily in about 15 degrees around the Z axis as you work in full upright position or through 180 degrees when reclined. It is even possible to remove the unit and place it in the lap but I found this position a little unwieldy. Anyone accustomed to working in a sketchbook knows many lines are easier to pull when you have the capability of rotating your support. With a standard tablet this process is not intuitive or accurate often resulting in several false starts, undos, and lost time. Having the ability to turn the screen and see exactly where your line is and where your stroke is going is invaluable. Some applications will allow you to rotate the canvas but again this is an extra keystroke and rotating the work surface itself is a far more natural approach to many people. My only complaint here is the inability to raise the monitor to allow a further degree of rotation when in its most upright configuration. If the stand is lowered into a reclining position there is far more range of motion for the rotation.
The 21UX model has but a single power button on the upper right face and a LED power indicator. There is also a screen top mounted pen holder. Both sides of the unit feature programmable hot buttons which ar elow enough to be easy to avoid but still easily accessable when needed. The buttons are "chordable" which means they may be programmed in combination allowing nearly total freedom from the keyboard.
There is a small bank of configuration buttons on the rear right and are easily identifiable by touch
These allow you to control contrast, menu, color, backlight, and presets without having to look behind the screen itself.
The screen is bright and of high quality. The surface is strong and seems to resist the distortions apparent when pressing on a typical LCD Screen. My initial concern was letting my hand rest on the screen as I worked. After a month of continuous use I see no problems or even signs of skin oils or mars on the unit. When not in use as a tablet the screen can be raised and serve as a second monitor.
The unit easily lifts from the stand to be set in the lap or the stand itself can be leaned back by pulling the two levers to easily slide the tablet to the point it is nearly perpendicular to the table. I find the weight of the unit makes the stand friendlier than placing in the lap or otherwise trying to manipulate the screen itself free from the base.
Wacom’s documentation mentions the screens may be susceptible to burn in. With the 18SX test I found this to be the case after my unit remained on overnight and the screen saver did not initialize. On returning I discovered my desktop icons were plainly visible ghosted on the screen. Luckily when I turned off the unit for 24 hours and returned to it the next day the ghosted images were gone. This is quite a relief as I have seen many tablet PCs with Photoshop menus permanently emblazoned the borders of the display. Wacom notes this problem is easily avoided and recommends using a blanking screen saver as well as power management to turn off the monitor after a period of inactivity. I have not been inclined to test screen burn with the 21UX...
WORKING WITH ZBRUSH
For the purpose of this review I decided to start a new sculpt in Zbrush to help get a feel for the entire process as executed on the Cintiq. As I began I immediately sensed the speed increase the Cintiq provided. No longer picking up and placing the pen I was able to lay down strokes with confidence as I only ever do in clay or on paper. The size of the screen too allowed me to be far more physical and sweeping on my motions.
In most traditional art training the need to develop a painting, drawing, or sculpture with a gestural approach from the very beginning stages is constantly stressed. There are three major arcs your arm can make, a large sweeping arc from the shoulder, a smaller one from the elbow then a tight arc at the wrist. When approaching a sketch or clay I am capable of thinking in these terms but at the computer it just didn’t translate well. On the spacious Cintiq screen I was able to use this range of motion in the sculpting process. Larger standard tablets will allow for such motion but again the confidence you gain from the immediate feedback of placing your pen at the origin of the stroke is invaluable!
As I was working I did notice an issue when accessing the right click menu in ZBrush. My hand would invariably be covering the menu options when invoked. These same options are accessible from the top of the screen but I prefer to access them via the floating menu. Moving the hand back a bit on the pen helped as well as simply “getting used” to the menu’s position and knowing where I need to click by habit anyway.
Another solution is found in the configuration screens of the Wacom control panel. It is possible to create a small offset in the pointer position in relation to the pen tip. By setting this offset I could invoke the menu and see its options without my hand obscuring them.
General sculpting in Zbrush was a breeze. There is no ramp up to getting accustomed to the tool since it is such a close analog to real world drawing. One application in Zbrush which is far easier with the Cintiq is painting masks. Often tight areas of a sculpture are accomplished by masking off portions and affecting the unmasked areas. This is tricky in complex masks around the wings of the nostrils or the eyes. The Cintiq enabled me to directly paint the mask areas with no hesitation increasing my speed substantially.
After blocking in gesture, form, and proportion I decided to try the Cintiq functionality inside Projection Master. Here was where the tool really shines. While trying to create fine line wrinkles and details it is important to be confident in the placement of your pen position and also the need to remain loose and gestural remains. I was able to quickly hatch in wrinkle patters as I could normally in clay, layering on texture quickly and easily. As I began to refine strokes and selective accentuate details I was not guessing at all where the wrinkle is going. It becomes quickly apparent how much time is actually lost with false starts and undos when you are trying to replace your pointer inside an existing line to selectively enhance it. I could be far more specific and exacting where and how I applied the tools.
I used this unit in the office over several weeks and had occasion to try it with multiple applications. Often I will remesh a model using Paraform. This can be a tedious process since the curves drawn need to fall in very specific places depending on the underlying form of the original model. The tablet screen made placing my curves infinitely easier and twice as fast. I rarely needed to edit CVs to reposition. It was all a matter of drawing the network where I saw it needed to be.
While testing on the job several traditional sculptors gave the unit a shot. This was the real test; How would someone who does not work with a computer all day and has little to no Zbrush experience react to the tool? Many of them sat down and immediately took to the tablet. One sculptor remarked how his experience in clay seemed to translate so quickly and so well to the tablet and Zbrush. The process of placing pen to screen and working directly on the model seemed a natural and even pleasant approach.
I find the Cintiq has become an integral part of my own work. I could not imagine returning to a standard tablet and being content. The one occasion I have had to work without the Cintiq since adopting it for this review I was painfully reminded of how much I was leaving behind. I believe this unit is superior to a tablet PC as it not only serves as a second monitor when not in use as a tablet but it is fully independent of your other hardware. If you need to upgrade your machine the Tablet can be easily moved over. Kudos to Wacom for coming to market with this outstanding product. This is the first peripheral I can say has completely changed the way I work for the better.
Direct inutitive approach to drawing with a tablet.
Highly manuverable in the stand.
Sleek cable design.
High resolution display resists pooling artifacts when toouched.
Makes applications like Zbrush much easier and more efficient to use.
Many of my inital cons for the 18 SX have been directly addressed in the 21 UX and I am happy to report it is an improvement in the product line.
The wider footprint of the 21UX accentuates the issue of getting maximum rotation in upright orientation. This is easily resolved by lowering the stand.
Potential for screen burn.
Product Specs of 21 UX
21.3" LCD with UXGA resolution (1600x1200)
Enhanced electronics for ultra-high tablet resolution (5,080 lpi)
Color accurate display with X-Rite premium ICC profile
Integrated pen holder for extra convenience
total pixels: 1,920,000
pen tilt sensitivity
tablet resolution 5,080
Pressure levels: 1024
unit is priced at or around $2,499 USD
Product Specs of 18 SX
Size: 18" screen area
Backlight life: 25,000 hours
Pressure levels: 512
Buy It (or get your studio to) !
Related Links: Cintiq Product Info
Scott Spencer is a a digital sculptor at Gentle Giant Studios in Burbank, as well forum leader on the Zbrush in Production Pipelines Forum