WACOM Cintiq Companion Hybrid: A review

About ten years ago I stopped using computer mice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I have never touched them since then; there is still always a mouse when I have to use someone else’s computer, but no mice are connected to any of my own computers. Instead I prefer to use trackballs and pens. The mouse was a great invention in the history of information technology that determined the development of human-machine interface over many decades when users were operating the computers through manipulation of visual metaphors – “windows”, “handles”, “buttons”, etc. Meanwhile the technology made huge steps forward. Operating computers with metaphors proved as efficient and is remaining, but the manipulation devices have evolved. Mice are still popular and adequate for the majority of use cases when typical operation system functions and applications, such as office software, have to be controlled. But now more sophisticated devices exist that better satisfy the needs of visual artists and photographers. Graphic tablets have belonged to them for over a decade. Pen displays are the next generation of such devices that is becoming increasingly popular. This review deals with one of them that I now constantly use in my digital graphics and image processing work.

Currently Wacom is worldwide “the pen tablet manufacturer”. In Japan this company delivers over 95% of pen tablets. Wacom’s market share worldwide is over 70%. After the patent for the electromagnetic resonance technology used in Wacom pens expired, some Chinese competitors emerged who are now offering much cheaper alternatives to Wacom tablets. Since I haven’t tried any of them, I don’t want to criticise anything here. One thing is sure, anyway: While such companies may be already offering quite useable tablets, they have no display products similar to Cintiq line of Wacom in functionality and quality. Of course, I would also expect from Wacom products better quality and compatibility with operating systems and software products of Adobe, Corel, Autodesk and others. Having used Intuos tablets for many years I still consider their relatively high cost justified. A price tag of 200-400€ may appear quite high but should be still affordable, considering the supreme quality of the professional product.

I got my first pen tablet long time ago – in the mid 1990s. It was made by Genius – a popular manufacturer of computer mice. The pen was attached to it via a cable and was almost useless, because natural feeling of working with a real pen wasn’t provided. Many years later, after I had used more advanced pens and tablets, I realised what was the reason: The Genius pen was neither pressure nor tilt sensitive. Pens and pen tablets have been so and available already for two decades. Modern graphic tablets of Wacom detect up to 2048 levels of pressure and 60 levels of tilt. My first professional grade tablet which was Wacom Intuos 2 back in 2003 was capable to recognise 1024 pressure levels. The next two tablets I owned – of the type Intuos 3 – had the same capabilities. It may appear a lot, and I was thinking so too, but after that the pressure sensitiveness has doubled, and with Cintiq I got a device that has it, I realised the huge improvement. Higher pressure and tilt sensitivity and other improved features were my reasons for an upgrade of the Intuos 3 that was using till recently. First I was thinking more about replacing it with a newer version of Intuos. The new Wacom Intuos tablets offer not only better pressure and tilt sensitivity but also are touch sensitive and can act as touch pads, thus allowing scrolling, zooming and panning of the image you are working on in a graphic editor. A Cintiq was also an option I was considering, but a better 24 inch HD version was just very expensive while I was regarding smaller versions with lower resolution as not adequate for my long-term needs. Then Cintiq Companion appeared and made me reconsider my plans. When I got a chance to try it out at this year’s Photokina in Cologne, I changed my mind in favour of Cintiq.

Cintiq Companian Hybrid (official image from Wacom Europe)

Cintiq Companion Hybrid – official product image by Wacom Europe.

Touch screen displays were another advancement of pen tablet technology. Cintiq is the premium product line of Wacom intended for digital art professionals that currently has no competitors worldwide. It is priced also accordingly, i.e. much higher than of other Wacom products and probably out of reach for many non-professional users. Modern Cintiq devices are high resolution displays with capability of touch screens that are also drawing surfaces for a pen. The 24 inch top model costs over 2000€ while the smallest, 13 inch model is priced at around 850€, i.e. is more affordable but, considering the small size, has still a very high cost per square inch compared with high-end monitors.

This year Wacom has released a new type of Cintiq devices, called “Companion”, with two models – “Companion” and “Companion Hybrid”. It was company’s response to the growing demand for portable pen displays. Since Cintiq Companion, to fulfill its tasks, has to combine an input device with a computer, Wacom has entered the computer market with this product. Certainly, this is a step that may be regarded with a grain of skepticism, but, for technical reasons, it was unavoidable. So far it also looks promising because Wacom managed to bring to quite unique products to this now highly competed market of portable computers and tablets. Of course, the Companion devices are probably the most high priced tablets – more expensive than even the newest Apple iPad models. Wacom explains this by higher production cost due to specialisation of Cintiq devices for graphic professionals. If so, i.e. if the Cintiq Companion would remain a specialised device and not intended for mass consumers, then the higher price level is, of course, justified.

So what Cintiq Companion actually does and what was my reason to choose it, more precisely the “Hybrid” version? As the name “Cintiq” suggests, it belongs to pen display product line of Wacom and follows the same concept as the desktop models. In fact, it looks and functions very similarly to the 13 inch Cintiq that has existed already for awhile. The main difference is the portability: While other Cintiq devices, just like any computer displays, have to be always connected to a computer, the Companion can be used as a standalone computer. Actually, the non-hybrid is not a display anymore, but only a portable computer with a touchscreen driven by Microsoft Windows operating system. Ironically it is much more expensive than the “Companion Hybrid” which combines both functions – of a display and of a mobile computer. Since I rarely need portability and since all my computers are Macs, the non-hybrid version wasn’t an option for me at all. When Cintiq Companion Hybrid is connected to a Mac, it acts as a screen for it, and you can use all Mac OS features and software normally. When it is disconnected, it functions just like any tablet computer with Android OS, but has an extended pen support, so you can draw on it. Of course, the graphic software for Android isn’t as powerful as for Windows or Mac OS. Therefore, it can’t be used for serious work, but more for sketching and notes on the way, or for presentations. The non-hybrid version of Cintiq Companion is, of course, a full-featured Windows system where you can have all your normal creative workflow. This may appear as advantage to someone at first, but a closer look reveals big deficits. Windows was always known for its high demand for processor speed and system memory. This applies to graphic software of Adobe even more. Since all this needs much more computing power than the hybrid counterpart, Cintiq Companion is much more expensive but at the same time not so flexible. Even for someone who doesn’t need to run Mac OS on it, the biggest problem remains: It is hardware that becomes outdated every couple of years due to rapid progress in personal computer systems and development of even more “resource-hungry” software. Every computer user knows that urge of modernisation. In desktop systems the problem can be solved to a certain extent through upgrade of components. In portable computers this is somewhat compensated by currently very low prices that allow you to replace the whole computer by a new one as soon as it becomes too slow. Both doesn’t work with Cintiq Companion where you pay 2000 euros for a portable computer that will be outdated in two or three years, and that you won’t be able to upgrade. So, even if you don’t need a Macintosh system, this is a strong reason to choose Cintiq Companion Hybrid.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid when it is used as pen display with a desktop computer can be compared with non-mobile 13″ HD Cintiq. Indeed, it looks almost identical, and the 30% price difference is a good reason for thoughts in favour of non-mobile version. However, there is another advantage of Companion Hybrid that may justify the choice of it: Its screen is touch sensitive. Ability to move the image just with your free hand while you are drawing or retouching, to zoom in and out by a simple gesture is nice to have because it makes your work easier and quicker.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23″ display.

As you see in the picture above, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid occupies very little space and fits nicely in front of the main screen of my computer so that I can comfortably use both. Of course, not enough space for the keyboard remains, and I had to remove the full-sized keyboard that I was using previously and replace it with a much smaller bluetooth keyboard that has no numeric block.

The small footprint has also its drawbacks. The screen is only 29 x 17 cm in size but has a resolution of 5080 lpi and 10:9 ratio, i.e. 1920 x 1080 pixel. All controls in the software that you are using – scrollbars, buttons, icons, menus, etc. – look tiny on it and therefore often hard to use. A 24″ Cintiq would be better in that sense but unfortunately much more bulky. To operate the system and the programs I still use trackball that provides a normal mouse-like cursor that is more precise than a finger but at the same time not so fine and better visible as the pen.

For use on a desk, Cintiq Companion Hybrid is supplied with a separate foot, or holder. It attaches to the rear side of the tablet and holds it very firmly. The angle of tilt is adjustable in three positions. I have chosen the middle one, and find it very comfortable. When the tablet is standing like this, it feels rock solid.

Overall Cintiq Companion Hybrid has a very solid construction. Unlike in Intuos tablets I previously owned, its enclosure appears to be made mainly of metal. Compared to any of now popular tablets, it is large and heavy. A fan of iPad of Samsung Galaxy would certainly dislike that. But don’t forget: We have a specialised professional device here – not an all-purpose entertainment gadget. Of course, large size and heavy weight are reasons why I wouldn’t use it for mobile work without strong need.

Also unlike in majority of modern consumer devices, the screen of Companion Hybrid has matt finishing that has two roles: It provides friction needed for drawing with the pen and reduces reflection of the ambient light. Again, users of iPads and Android tablets may criticise the reduction of contrast and of colour brilliance caused by this. Indeed everything looks less crisp and the colours aren’t as intensive as on screens of commonly used mobile tablets. However, for graphic work non-reflecting screens are simply a must.

The screen of Cintiq Companion Hybrid is very good. It has contrast ratio 700:1, lightness of 210 cd/m2 and covers 75% of Adobe RGB gamut. It can be calibrated also not as easy and reliably as a normal desktop display. Also separate controls of brightness and contrast create a problem when lightness needs to be set to a certain value required for calibration. When I was calibrating my Cintiq Companion Hybrid with Spyder 4 PRO, I set brightness to 65 and contrast to 75 – the values that appeared to me reasonable. I calibrated it with 6500K temperature and 2.1 gamma, and it looks okay.

To be used as pen display Cintiq Companion Hybrid has to be connected with a cable to a Mac or PC. Unfortunately, the computer has to provide a HDMI port, that no Macintosh computer except the newest Mac Pro has. Obviously, to use Cintiq as second display you need either a dedicated HDMI port or second display port in your computer. Since my Mac Pro was built in 2009, it has no HDMI. Fortunately there is a quick and easy solution for this problem – a HDMI-to-DVI adapter that I got in a nearby electronics shop. Portable Macs, nowadays have only mini display ports – one, like in my Macbook Air, or two – like in Macbook Pro. To use Cintiq Companion Hybrid with them, you need also an adapter that is also very easy to purchase.

Like almost always with newly released hardware, there are issues with drivers and support by already existing software. Adobe CC programmes – Photoshop and Illustrator – work generally well with Cintiq Companion Hybrid. The only issue that I experience and that I haven’t yet found a solution for is recognition of one-finger touch that in Photoshop and Illustrator activates the tool that is currently selected. If, for instance, it is brush, a simple touch of the screen will leave a line or spot in the image you have currently opened thus spoiling your work. If eraser was active, something will be erased, and so on. Sometimes this drives me mad! I want to block one finger gestures, but can find a way for it neither in current Wacom driver nor in the programmes. Fortunately it is possible in Corel Painter, the programme that I use with Cintiq Companion Hybrid the most. Corel has made own support of Wacom pens in this programme. When it is active, one-finger touches on the drawing surface aren’t recognised. This is a very good news, but unfortunately there is also a bad one: The support of two-finger gestures needed for zooming and panning in Corel Painter appears to be still extremely buggy.