Sunday, 6 October 2013

Windows 8 tablets for artists – a review

And the winner is ...
I've been deep in the process of preparing a grant application to the Arts Council of Wales for a new project recently. One of the things I want to fund is the replacement of my tablet PC, which after several years and a couple of repairs gave up the ghost at the end of my last project.

The last model was an HP Tx2500 series convertible tablet. It originally came with Windows Vista 32 (in Spanish), it weighed a ton, it had a battery life of less than 3 hours, and it overheated to the point where it was uncomfortable to hold, which was eventually the cause of its demise, as the graphics chip eventually de-soldered itself from the motherboard. I installed the Windows 8 Beta release on it, and it worked great, but I had to get it fixed twice, but eventually decided it was beyond repair and sold it for spares on eBay.

The point was, it had two major advantages – it had a Wacom pressure-sensitive pen for screen input, which meant I could draw on it, and it ran Windows. “Why would that be an advantage?”, I hear you ask ... simple – because my weapon of choice for making fabulous drawings on a tablet is ArtRage, a 'natural materials' graphics package which is absolutely the best thing for drawing on a PC. There is also a version for iPad, but Apple never designed that for a pressure-sensitive pen, so that makes it a no-brainer (that and the fact I want to run Zbrush and other packages on it as well).

So ... the tablet market is changing fast, and I looked for a comparative review of all the available models which might be specifically suitable for artists. Guess what? There isn't one, so.... here we go. Disclaimer – I haven't been able to try these – I'm just comparing features here. It took a while just to compile the list, and it will doubtless be out of date soon, but:

Some of these models aren't yet available at the time of writing (Oct. 2013) but are expected soon, so they're in. The list of features I've included in the table, by the way, won't be relevant to everyone, and is based on things that I've found an irritation in my current cheap Android not-very-arty tablet. The important stuff is there, though – screen size, resolution, CPU, memory, storage space, and price. Remember, the common factor here is – they all have pressure-sensitive pen input. I haven't bothered noting the number of pressure-levels, as my old PC had 512, so pretty much anything is an improvement.

I'm not going to discuss every model in detail – you can go read the manufacturers' blurb for yourself, but I will comment on a few particularly relevant points here:

Samsung ATIV Tab 3
First up is the Samsung ATIV Tab 3. It's just become available, and it gets a special mention because it's cheap and compact. Cheapest (£489) and most compact of all the models here in fact, so if you're on a very limited budget it's probably worth a try. It's basically like a Galaxy Note 10.1 with the Wacom S-Pen – except it runs Windows 8 instead of Android and will therefore run standard Windows 8 software like ArtRage. A very elegant solution as far as I can see. Not ideal in my case – low CPU spec, low memory, and I had the Note 10.1 for a while and found the S-Pen too small and fiddly, and it skidded on the glossy screen. As I say though, if you're on a budget and you'd like a Win 8 sketchpad – this could be ideal.

Panasonic UT-MB5
Let's jump to the other end of the scale – the humongous Panasonic UT-MB5 will be released shortly. It's a Windows 8 tablet with a 20 inch (yes, you heard right) 4000 pixel display. Aimed squarely at architects, car designers and the like who need precision ... maybe it would be great for art, but the pen looks quite big and clunky to me – not sure why it should be. Also, you'll be using it on mains power most of the time as battery life is a stated 2 hours (!). The main disadvantage, though, is the price of £4,500 – I can't see the Arts Council springing for that!

In the mid-range of prices there's quite a lot of choice, and I suspect one is pretty much as good as another with the choice being mainly down to looks, and where you get the fastest CPU/most memory/most storage for your money. The MS Surface Pro is a good bet at £719 for the 128GB model, but wait a bit and get the Samsung ATIV Tab 7 when it arrives and you'll get the same spec. with a bigger screen (11.6” as opposed to 10.6”) for £31 more.

The Toshiba is overpriced, and the HP is under-specced (plus, sorry HP but my previous experiences with your laptops have not been good – see above – and that's sadly not the only example). Panasonic have the extra-tough FZ-G1 on the cards, but it's much more money (£1,800) than similar spec. machines from other manufacturers. If being able to drop your tablet in a bucket of water from a great height and retrieve it unscathed is a priority, it might be for you, though.

The Lenovo ThinkPadTablet 2 looks like an elegant device. It's low-spec, but it's cheap at £540. It's one of a trio of devices with a smaller 1366 x 768 screen (most of the ones above are 1920 x 1080), the others being the Fujitsu Stylistic Q572 and the Asus VivoTab TF810C.

So - given that I'd like a large screen with as high resolution as I can, with decent CPU and memory, I'd pretty much settled on the Samsung ATIV Tab 7 as being the best feature/price compromise... but wait ...... !!!

Just as I thought it was safe .... I happened across this ...

The Wacom Cintiq Companion
... and it was love at first sight. Any artist who uses graphics on a PC knows Wacom as a manufacturer of PC graphics tablets, from the budget Bamboo to the designer's standard Intuos. If you're into design, you are also probably familiar with their Cintiq range of touchscreens – external monitors you can plug into a graphics PC or Mac which give you a write-on screen you can use with the whole super-sensitive range of Intuos pens. Now – they say in response to artists' and designers' not-so-subtle hints, they have released a couple of stand-alone tablets with their 13.3” screen. One, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid, operates as a normal Cintiq input device when connected to your desktop graphics machine, and as an Android tablet when on its own, with some sketchbook-type apps by Wacom themselves for working on the fly. Sounds nice, but ...

The other model, the Cintiq Companion, is a whole new ballgame... because it's a stand-alone Windows 8 tablet which will run things like Photoshop, Zbrush, Maya etc... and my favourite ArtRage – and has the fabulous Intuos pen with 2048 levels of sensitivity, tilt function, and all the other specially-for-artists features of the Cintiq range. Added to that, although the price is predictably quite high (£1,650 – mind you, that's still £150 less than the FZ-G1), the spec. is also higher than all the other tablets examined here. It's the only one apart from the Panasonic monster with 8GB of memory as standard, and 256GB of storage. It's the only one with a core i7 CPU instead of core i5, and it has Wacom's standard productivity devices (programmable physical and on-screen buttons) designed specifically for artists. The point, basically, is that of all the models compared, it's the ONLY one specifically designed for creative visual artists, so the choice suddenly becomes quite simple. I want one. Now.