Wacom Cintiq vs. Graphics Tablet…

January 8th, 2007 | Posted in General

A lot of people are interested in digital painting and using the computer for color illustration. I am putting together an extensive tutorial on my line art coloring process, complete with screen capture video, for later this month, so look for that soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the tools I use for digital painting, specifically the Wacom Cintiq and how it differs from the traditional graphics tablet. I took the plunge about 3 years ago, and while I have never regretted it there are a few things I would like to see improved with the Cintiq.

For years I colored digitally using a Wacom Intuos tablet, which uses a pen not only for the movements of the cursor but also uses the amount of pressure you apply to the tablet surface to control things like the size of the brush and the opacity of the color. It was weird at first looking at a computer screen and not at my hands when I was coloring, but I quickly got used to it. It was pretty efficient and once I got the hang of it I could color pretty fast. The problems with it were related mostly to the fact that you don’t look at your hand as you draw. Doing simple things like parallel lines are almost impossible, for example. My main issue was that, while the tablet could be rotated easily, the monitor (and therefore the image) could not. I naturally draw at an angle with my paper, and not usually with the paper taped in a perfectly squared position where I need to move my body in order to achieve a natural arm movement for lines and such. Rotating the tablet would throw the cursors movement out of whack with my arm movement, so I had to keep the tablet square with the monitor. This was awkward at times. I felt like I could gain productivity if I could get a tablet with a screen, so I drew right in the screen and could rotate the screen/tablet for a more natural arm movement.

Enter Wacom’s Cintiq, a screen/tablet combination that was just what I was hoping for.

There were problems with getting the Cintiq, however. I was hugely expensive at $2500.00 plus for the 18x, and worse yet no one in Minneapolis/St. Paul carried the item for me to test out. I had to buy it sight unseen and hope it would work as advertised. Getting one was a leap of faith. I did it anyway, betting the increased productivity would offset the costs eventually. After years of using it, and even upgrading to the Cintiq 21ux, which has 1028 levels of sensitivity and a 1600×1200 resolution screen, there are still pros and cons to the unit. Does it really save me time? Here are some of the things I think are the most worthy of consideration:


Cintiq vs. Tablet

Cintiq Pros:

1. More natural feel to drawing and painting– While I quickly got used to not looking at my hands while using the Wacom tablet, there were lots of things that were difficult to do that are so much easier when you are working directly with your hands on the ‘surface’. Drawing parallel lines for one, as I mentioned before, especially at an angle. I like to turn my paper when I draw/paint so I am moving my hand in the most comfortable and controlled direction. I could rotate the tablet, but not the screen, so that made working like that difficult. (I have been told that Painter allows you to rotate the “paper” on the screen, but that’s just another digital way to do what is much easier by hand and eye). The Cintiq sits on a very cool standthat allows for ease of rotation, and adjusts the tilt as well. Doing delicate work like adding reflected light along the side of an object also becomes so much easier. It’s just much more intuitive in general to be working on a visual surface. Is the difference dramatic?… hard to say as I was pretty good at using the tablet. Let’s just say that what was quick and easy to do on the tablet is just as quick and easy on the Cintiq, but the stuff that was hard on the tablet is much easier on the Cintiq.

2. Ease of Use/Design– Plug it into a USB port, plug the monitor cable into your monitor port, load CD software, done. No kidding, worked like a dream. I have a two monitor video card, so my Cintique is an expanded desktop. I can have other work up on the main monitor and PhotoShop on the Cintigue, with lots of room. The best part is the design. It comes with a very versitile base that allows you to stand it almost straight up and down or lay it almost flat, or anywhere in between. The main cables also come from the exact center of the rear of the unit, surrounded by a ‘collar’. The unit itself rests on that collar in a socket that allows you to rotate it almost 360 degrees with ease. It’s perfect for setting up on the edge of a table and using like a drawing board. I can turn the screen at will to get my hand moving in that preferred direction. The newer 21UX model also have very useful programmable buttons on the sides, which I use all the time.

3. Good surface- Despite the fact that it’s an LCD screen, the surface of the Cintique has a fairly textured feel… under the pen it isn’t as slick at the Tablet was. Could use a bit more, IMO, but it still has a good feel to it. It’s also very stiff and stable surface, not like a laptop screen.

4. Up close and personal- One thing that used to drive me crazy was that I couldn’t really lean in to my screen to get a closer look at something when doing detail. I’d have to zoom in digitally and that cost me time. You can lean away and close to the surface of the Cintique like a real painting when you want to, and that adds to the more natural feel of the work. No more aching neck from looking up all day. Now it aches from looking down all day. Sigh….


1. Cost- This thing isn’t cheap.

2. Color of screen- LCDs don’t display certain color ranges very well, particularly browns, oranges and other earth tones. I’ve tried calibrating it and adjusting it, but the printed versions of my colors look more different from the screen than they did when I was looking at a CRT monitor. If you have a two monitor setup, you can just drag your image over to the CRT monitor and check the color if you want. I’ve quickly gotten used to the difference, and know what colors I need to make much more intense and garish on the screen to get them to look right in print. I only use LCD monitors these days, and just work knowing there will be, and compensating for, a color shift.

3. Too close and personal- This is my main con with the Cintiq. The resolution is limited to 1600×1200 with the 21ux. That’s not terrible (the old 18sx was only 1280×1024) but coupled with the closer proximity to the work, I have a tendency to waste time over-rendering an area that is much smaller in print than it appears on the screen. At 100% a 1 inch square area of a 300 DPI page is about 3.5 inches square on the screen. This has ended up causing me to have the tendency to render the crap out of some face that ends up only 1/2 of an inch high on the page. That’s wasted effort, since most of that careful detail is melted away in the printed piece. So, I sometimes work at 50% to speed things up. That’s a good compromise. A 300 dpi image at 50% is approximately 150% larger than it will physically print, and that’s a good percentage to work at for painting.

4. Pressure sensitivity/ tablet accuracy- The 18sx has only 512 levels unlike the Intuos which has twice that. I did notice at first but quickly got used to the difference. However the 21ux has 1028 levels, and that makes a difference. Unlike the 18sx, however, the 21ux has some issues with the cursor lining up with the pen tip. This is especially true in the corners and edge areas. This bothers me a lot and causes me to have to drag my image around so I work in the center of the screen more.

5. Unit gets hot- Sometimes it gets a little warm, but I have been known to work for days on end to finish a parody and only notice that occasionally, so it really is a workhorse.

If anybody is planning on thinking about this, I’d advise you have a high end workstation computer with a DVI video card for the best image possible. I’d also recommend the two monitor setup.

The final verdict for me is: I like the Cintiq and feel it was worth the investment. I think my color work improved with it, allowing me a more natural feel to the actual painting. Does it save me time, however? Perhaps some but not an appreciable amount. I end up taking just as long to do a job, it seems to me.


  1. cedricstudio says:

    Wow, thanks for posting this Tom! This will be super helpful to me in deciding whether or not to buy a Cintiq myself.

  2. SteveH says:

    Interesting information Tom, thanks for sharing. I am using a Intuos3 A4 size tablet that I have had for almost a year now, it is cool and I enjoy working with it. Eventually I shall move to a cintiq but for now I am saving my money for plane tickets! BTW Dad is home and doing OK!

  3. I really appreciate this review. While I’m nowhere near getting a Cintiq, I’ve been wanting a graphics tablet(Intuos, specifically), but haven’t found much information on what it’s actually like to use one. I never thought of the paper-turning problem, so your mention of Corel Painter letting you turn the digital paper gives me more reason to look into Painter. I also appreciate the mention of browns and oranges not showing up accurately on LCD screens. I’ve noticed that on projectors but hadn’t thought of it for artwork on laptop/iMac screens. I’ll be sure to up the saturation of my earth tones on print projects and make my second monitor a CRT.
    No idea when I’ll be able to afford my first graphics tablet, though, considering I have to replace this 4 year old iBook before I even consider peripherals.

  4. ragtag says:

    Thanks for the comparison. I’ve been using Wacom tablets for years, but have lately been looking at either Cintiq or TablePC/ModBook. I’ve found that I have somewhat less control with drawing on a tablet than I do on paper. Simple things, such as tracing a curved line accurately or drawing parallel lines, becomes difficult. One thing I’ve noticed on videos of people using TabletPCs, is that it seems the mouse pointer or the paint stroke they are making lags a little behind the pen. Is this the case on the Cintiq, and does it really make a difference?

    As an aside, Painter, ArtRage, OpenCanvas, Manga Studio, ComicWorks and probably a few others support rotating the work surface. I find this makes a huge difference when drawing with a tablet.


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