I have owned my latest toy – the 16GB Wacom Cintiq Companion Hybrid – for roughly six weeks now so I can give a pretty good impression of the device: its warts, its strengths, and its oddities. The device in itself is somewhat perplexing at first glance. When plugged into a computer, it operates as a Cintiq 13HD with touch capabilities. Unplug it from the computer and it turns into a 13.3″ Android tablet running Jellybean 4.2. The two-headed nature of this device is what piqued my curiosity in the first place but ultimately, I’ve found myself using the device very differently than I first imagined.
A quick run-down of the specifications of the tablet:
Display Size: 13.3″
Resolution: 1920 X 1080
2048 levels pen pressure, natural feel and multi-touch
Processor: Nvidia® Tegra® 4
RAM: 2GB DDR3
Storage: 16 GB
Size: 14.8 x 9.8 x 0.6 in
Weight: 3.6 lbs
Price: $1199 from Wacom Store, $1499 retail price
Those specs are a mixed bag. The Nvidia Tegra 4 is a nice processor, though a touch outdated in late 2014. The 2GB of RAM is middling for a device that is engineered to drive large drawing images. The 1080p resolution is on the low end of the spectrum for a top-shelf tablet, though this is surely in place due to the limitations of HDMI before 2.0 rolled out earlier this year. The weight is… incredible. This device could be used as self-defense in a pinch, as it has almost four times the heft of my iPad Air 2.
Unfortunately, this is easily the weakest point of the Companion Hybrid. The Tegra 4 is a good processor but not a great processor and on a $1200 device, the hardware needs to shine. Coupled with the 2GB of RAM, the hardware starts to wear down as you tax it with a large PSD import. I tried at least four different drawing apps and every one of them crashed and/or stuttered under a heavy load. Some of those issues could have been software-related but after experimenting with every highly-regarded drawing app I could find for Android, the consistent nature of the issues led me to believe that it is, in fact, due to the lackluster hardware found in the Hybrid. If you’re working within a reasonable file size constraint – say, 5″ x 7″ at 300 dpi – the hardware performs adequately and without issue most of the time. Software crashes were the name of the game in my first week of ownership; the crashes were so frequent and irritating that I nearly returned the device right then and there. After adjusting my expectations a bit and learning to work smaller, the internal hardware became less of an issue.
The screen didn’t fare much better. While the 1080p display is acceptable – which comes to a 165 pixel density per inch at a 13.3″ size – it’s not going to blow you away. When you boot up the device, obvious light leakage is visible around the LCD display. Sigh. The display is an IPS screen, though, and once up and running it’s a pretty solid unit with good color and balance. It’s only when you put it next to an iPad or Nexus 9 that you start to see the cracks in the armor of the Hybrid. Compared to other high-quality tablets I’ve used, the Hybrid’s display is not awesome. It has a lower resolution, much lower pixel density, and the display leaks light around the borders. It’s not the weakest point of the device but on a drawing tablet, this should be the strength of the unit, not a middling piece of hardware.
Physically, the device is the typical fit and finish you expect from a Wacom device: it’s polished and the pieces fit together with near-perfection and the device has a quality heft to it. The problem with the last comment is that “quality heft” is a term that went out of vogue in 2010. The rest of the world is making mobile devices that border on featherweight while the Companion Hybrid clocks in at 3.6 lbs, just half a pound lighter than my 15″ Macbook Pro Retina laptop. Simply put, this device is too heavy and needs to hit the treadmill for a few days… or maybe a month. I mainly find myself propping the tablet on my knees, which works quite well due to the size and heft of the device but if you want to hold the device while drawing, plan on struggling with that after a few minutes of holding this brick-like device.
The standard ExpressKeys are there and they work with aplomb while using the device plugged into a computer. If you’ve ever used a Cintiq or Intuos in the past, expect more of the same here. Wacom found a good system a decade ago and thankfully, they continue to use it today. The pen is also like pretty much every other Cintiq/Intuos pen you’ve ever used. In other words, it’s the best digital pen you’ve ever used and Wacom has this part of the device locked down to the point of perfection.
The Hybrid also has some external ports for various uses: the 30-pin connector is used to power it as an external monitor and charge the device. It has a USB 2.0 port, though I have yet to find a use for that. Thankfully, the device also has a MicroSD slot so you can add storage to the unit and avoid Wacom’s insane $100 surcharge for the 32GB model. Given that 16GB of SD storage can be had for about ten bucks, you’ll definitely want to pass on the 32GB version of the tablet.
The stand has been a much-complained about aspect of the Hybrid (and Cintiq 13HD) but honestly, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. It’s still quirky and if you’re not careful, the tablet will slip out of its slot and fall flat on occasion. Once I figured out how to secure the stand every time, it stopped being an issue. My tablet hasn’t fallen out of the stand in a month so it’s a non-issue to me.
Battery life is acceptable but won’t blow you away. I can work for 5-6 hours straight in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and the tablet will still have ~20% of life yet. That means you should get close to a full day’s worth of work out of it and on a device this capable (it may seem like I’m bashing it relentlessly but as you’ll read later, the Companion Hybrid is a capable device), that meets my expectations.
The Hybrid also comes with a slick carrying case and pen holder… The pen holder is absurdly high-quality, snapping open and closed like a high-end watch case. Despite the rather obnoxious price, Wacom has done all it can to make sure you don’t need to buy anything other than the device itself (and a screen cover). Like most Cintiqs, the Hybrid’s screen is prone to scratching from heavy pen use. Buy a screen protector. They can be had for $10 if you shop around and will keep your screen scratch-free.
It gets better, I swear! The Cintiq Companion Hybrid is running Android 4.2 Jellybean operating system with few modifications by Wacom (thank god, no awful Android skinning here). On a down note, Google is now rolling out Android 5.0 and Wacom is mum on the update front. Given the huge advances in the latest version of Android, it’s more than a little disappointing that Wacom hasn’t kept up with the Joneses and rolled out at least one significant update to the Companion line. Still, as-is the device is running a “good enough” version of Android that works well as a mobile platform.
Wacom has bundled in some software to get you started with drawing on the device: Infinite Canvas, Creative Canvas, and Manga Canvas. Like most preinstalled software on Android devices, I found these apps almost entirely useless and turned to the well-rounded Google Play Store (more on this shortly) five minutes after powering up the device for the first time. The sole piece of Wacom software I use on occasion is Manga Canvas, which is a decent app for thumbnailing pages and getting a feel for the pacing of a story.
Wacom also offers the Wacom Center, which controls the settings on the Companion Hybrid. Here you’ll find the typical settings for the touch interface, pen settings, ExpressKeys, pen calibration, etc. There is also a desktop version of the software that controls settings for the device as an external display.
Speaking of external displays, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid works almost exactly like the Cintiq 13HD when plugged into a Mac or PC computer with the added benefit – and it’s a big one – of multi-touch capabilities. When using desktop software, the touch interface speeds up the workflow considerably, allowing you to pan, zoom, and rotate on the fly as you’re working. I cannot state how much of an improvement this is over using the wheel or the native software’s rotate and zoom capabilities. Every Wacom device should offer multi-touch and I’ll never buy another device without it.
Pen pressure is also standard Wacom fare. It has a bit of low-pressure blowout in that it’s too difficult to draw a line at, say, 10% of overall brush width but this is nothing new in the Wacom world. Lines are mostly jitter-free and behave as expected once you adjust to the low-end brush blowout. Wacom has always shined in this regard and the Companion line continues that tradition.
When I purchased the Hybrid, I expected to use it as an external display the vast majority of the time with the Android side of the device only getting the occasional use when I didn’t want to be tethered to a computer. Much to my surprise, the inverse has been true. Despite some of the shortcomings of Android, I’ve moved almost entirely to the operating system for drawing work. Post-production – lettering, page formatting, etc. – are still done on my Macbook but the Android drawing options have flourished in the past two years as more people look at the operating system as a legitimate workflow alternative to a desktop operating system. With most programs (grrr, more on this in a bit) offering extensive Google Drive and Dropbox support, I also find myself not using most of the 48GB of available storage I have on the tablet. Finish a drawing, throw it in Dropbox, and then pick up the workflow on my PC down the road. We’re far from the point where you no longer need a PC to create a comic but I’m shocked at just how far we’ve come since the iPad’s invention in 2010.
With that said, here are some of the apps I’ve used on the device:
Photoshop Touch – It would be nearly impossible for me to be more disappointed in this application.The feature set is ridiculously limited. At $10, it’s the most expensive piece of software I’ve purchased for the Hybrid. It doesn’t offer native support for exporting/importing files from DropBox, Google Drive, or pretty much any cloud storage system not named “Creative Cloud” (good luck getting me to buy in on that shoddy push at hooking me into your ecosystem, Adobe). The pen lines are jittery and frustrating. Brush options are non-existent. In short, pretend “Photoshop Touch” really means “Ebola Virus” and react accordingly. It’s bad software.
Infinite Painter – I was very bullish on this software when I first saw its feature set. It looked like a true painting program but unfortunately, it was extremely slow and prone to crashing. In the past two weeks, the app has updated with better support for OpenGL which may have cured its issues on Android. For $4.99, it’s worth a spin and is one of the most polished painting programs available on Android… If you can get it to work.
ArtFlow – Intriguing but just not good enough compared to the final entry on this list. It’s a rather well-rounded piece of software but ultimately, I was unimpressed with the brush options and quickly ditched the software. Its UI is pretty good and I don’t recall the program crashing on me, so there’s that.
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro – I’ve used this software off-and-on for a few years and for my money (all $5 of it), it’s still the best of the Android crop. Its UI is a bit irritating at first but once you acclimate to the hockey puck brush/color controls, holy moly is this software fast on the draw (heh… heh… derp). From a small hockey puck element on-screen, you can control your brush, size, opacity, and color. It’s bloody fantastic. The line control is a touch jittery but then again, any software without line correction (not something I’m a fan of) is going to jump around a bit. The major flaw in this software is that, again, it’s a little buggy. Every couple of hours I find myself relaunching the app because something went wrong. Thankfully, it’s a 15 second affair to get back into the application and drawing again so it’s not a crippling flaw.
I opted for the Hybrid because I didn’t want another Windows machine in my house and all the hassle that goes with maintaining another personal computer. As a professional web developer, I already have too many redundant devices laying around the house and didn’t want to add another full-fledged computer to the stable. Yes, Wacom offers the Companion – a full Windows 8 computer – for a few hundred dollars more and I thought I might regret the purchase of the Hybrid after a few weeks. As I’ve adjusted to working with Android, I view things very differently now. While the Hybrid (and Android) aren’t quite there yet in either hardware or software options, it’s getting bloody close and in a few years, I think we’ll see artists shifting wholesale to the smaller, more portable devices offered with Android or iOS. This is a first generation device and has the foibles so often found in devices of its kind: it’s too heavy, too big, crashes more often than you’d like, etc. but the potential is there for so much more as the market matures.
All in all, I’m happy with my experimental purchase, even if it ran me a couple hundred bucks north of a grand. I think the truest testament to the Hybrid’s potential – both realized and unrealized – is that the moment Wacom announces a new, lighter version with more horsepower, I’ll buy one. Screw you, Windows/OS X, I don’t need you nearly as much as I thought I did. There’s a new wave of ARM-processor powered options for artists and the Companion Hybrid, despite its quirks, is leading the way. After several weeks with the device, there isn’t another drawing tablet/computer on the market that I’d rather own.