For the longest time I have wanted to find a truly portable digital art studio solution that would allow me to take actual work on the road and be able to do that work without a boatload of compromise and hassles. I just wanted something I could turn on, open up whatever piece I am working on, and be able to work on it with the same results as I would get had I been sitting in my studio at home. This was a pipe dream for a long time. The closest things on the market to what I wanted as either the Modbook, a Macbook/Macbook Pro that was Frankensteined into a tablet computer by a third party company, or smaller versions of the Wacom Cintiq like the 12wx or the 13.
I never tried the Modbook for two reasons. First it was outrageously expensive. Second, the company had a bad reputation of making a flaky product and not responding to user tech support well. Eventually the original Modbook company disappeared and a new entity took it over, but I’ve still heard mixed reviews on how well it works and it is still outrageously expensive. I did own a Cintiq 12wx for several years but “portable” it was not. It needed to be tethered to a laptop, needed power, and had so many cords involved in hooking it up I needed a road mad and a huge amount of room to set it up. Basically it was only good to use in a hotel room with a big desk.
Enter the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2.
Finally, here is a no-compromise portable digital studio built with a working artist in mind. It doesn’t run on some half-way wannabe smart device operating system like Android or iOs. It is a full blown laptop running (unfortunately) Windows and therefore full versions of PhotoShop or your favorite desktop graphics program. It has a fully functional Wacom digitizer screen with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity as well as tilt sensitivity, and a nice compliment of Expresskeys and touch rings on the sides.
The Companion 2 operates as both a stand alone unit and as a tethered Cintiq, meaning you can either use it completely without cables, right in your lap as a true tablet computer or hook it to your laptop and use it like the Cintiq 12wx or 13HD. This is a huge plus for me, as I can easily switch from one to the other depending on if my environment allows me to spread out in relative quiet or I need to work truly on the go. Since I am a Mac person having the tethered option, which works perfectly well with a Mac laptop as it would with a Windows one, means I can truly duplicate my studio setup on a smaller scale when I have the space. Incidentally there is only one cord going out to the computer and then your power cable for tethering the Companion 2, a far cry from the “brick” and many cables my old 12wx used to have.
I’ve had the Companion 2 for a year now, and have really had a chance to stretch it out both just experimenting and doing real time jobs on it. Here are my observations and pros/cons on it:
As you would expect from Wacom, the tablet itself works great. Up until recently I worked on a Cintiq 24HD in my studio, which is a huge tank of a unit. Despite it’s small size, I noticed no lags in using the pen either coloring or sketching on the Companion 2, even when working on a pretty big piece. All the tools are here and work as well as they do on my big Cintiq, both stand alone and when tethered.
The “touch” features are nice but unnecessary for me. I tried them out and occasionally use them but often turn them off when I am really involved in some piece. For those who are not familiar with this feature, the Companion 2 and newer Cintiqs are actual touch screens, meaning you can use your fingers to “pinch and spread” zoom in and out, rotate and move the image on your screen like you would any image on an iPad or similar as well as use the stylus for drawing. The “palm rejection” technology, which makes the Companion 2 ignore finger input if the pen is in play, works pretty well but does still cause weirdness at times. For example, I’ll find an odd mark now and again that happened when my left hand touched the screen when my pen was too far away from the screen to disable touch or if I try and use my fingers when the pen wasn’t quite far away enough touch won’t work even when the pen is moved away, causing me to have to click out of PhotoShop for a moment and go back to it. If you are careful it works great but it just a little too unnatural in real time use for me.
When using it as a stand alone unit, once I get past Windows and open PhotoShop it’s a breeze. By hooking up a bluetooth keyboard, I even have my left hand going on the keys while my right hand is busy drawing just like at the studio! I have to admit if I am in a situation where using the keyboard is impossible using the Companion 2 can be cumbersome at times… the Windows onscreen keyboard works but it’s awkward and intrusive. That’s not the Companion 2’s fault, if it’s going to be a tablet part of that is not having a keyboard. I much prefer using the bluetooth keyboard when I’m able. Only on a plane or similar is that really impossible, and then you are still only inconvenienced rather than shut down.
Beyond the touch features, which work as well as they are able, working on the Companion 2 is a joy. If there is a bad aspect to it, it’s just that the screen is small. Again, not the Companion 2’s fault. It can only be of a size that allows the portability required.
By the way, I’ve found battery life to be pretty good. I’ve worked for 3-4 hours straight on battery power and only seen it dip a little below 30%. I’ve never run it flat, so I am not sure what full battery life really is, but I’m guessing about 4-5 hours with heavy use. That is more than enough IMO.
I cannot tell you how important it is to me that I can use the full version of PhotoShop on the Companion 2. The iOs version of that software is a toy compared to the real thing. If I want to get real work done I have to use real software. This is why the iPad Pro or other smart tablet-based solution are useless to me. Yes, I have seen some great work done on these devices, but they are usually exercises in getting around the limitations of the software involved, or the technique used began life on the tablet. No thanks. I’m too busy to try and figure out how to do something in three or four steps I can do easily in one in PhotoShop. With the Companion 2 there are no compromises. I have the Mack Daddy (or had, they’ve come out with some bigger and badder versions since I got mine a year ago) version with the i7 processor and 256 GB HD and 8 GB ram, so while I cannot speak for the slower units this one runs even big files in PhotoShop without a hiccup.
Best of all, between Adobe Creative Cloud and a cloud file service like Dropbox you can work in the Companion 2’s cross platform environment without missing a beat. Say I am working on an illustration in the studio on my iMac/Cintiq. I save the file to Dropbox, and head out on some trip. PhotoShop CC allows me to use it on up to two devices, and it doesn’t matter what OS I use. Since I already have PhotoShop CC active on my MacBook Pro. I simply sign off on my studio iMac, then sign on on the Companion 2 in the Windows OS. I now have both a Windows and Mac version of PhotoShop ready to use on the road. When want to work on the illustration on the go, I open up Windows and PhotoShop on the Companion 2 itself, open the DropBox file and get to work. PhotoShop is the exact same in Windows as it is on the Mac. Then when I am done I save the file. Maybe later I’m in my hotel and have more room to work, so I tether the Companion 2 and use my MacBook Pro to open the same DropBox file, this time in Mac OS X, and get back to it. When I get back home my illustration is waiting for me in Dropbox to get back to work on in the studio, once I sign off on the Companion 2 and back into Adobe Cloud on the iMac. Flawless.
The Cintiq’s software itself works well and is easy to use. The “Wacom Desktop Center” acts as an interface between the driver and the device, opening up system preferences when needed to allow me to change any setting I need to change. Other features like the radial menu, etc, I frankly really do not use, but I can see how they would be helpful to those not too lazy to set them up and get used to their operation (like me). Wacom also recently started their own cloud service that saves your preferences and settings, so you can move between devices and have the exact same customized ExpressKeys, etc. instantly.
The only complaints I really have regarding the Companion 2 are mostly a function of its necessary form factor and the resulting physical limitations, and one design flaw. The screen is too small, but making it bigger would make it less portable… it is what it is. I would LOVE to have an actual Mac version of the device, but likely it’s Apple’s fault that is not happening (famously draconian concerning the licensing of their software is Apple). Still, that’s high on my wish list. It’s also pretty heavy, which is something I hope they will continue to decrease as the technology improves. My only other complaint is the fan noise… the fan on this unit runs at high speed all the time and it’s pretty loud. I guess I;d rather have that than overheating though.
The design flaw? The flimsy stand. The Companion 2 comes with this plastic “stand” that is supposed to snap on to the back and allow for a couple of different angles created by choosing which size flap you pop up and fit into a slot in the back of the unit, except is doesn’t work very well. It comes off easily and the flaps don’t really fit into the back slot. I’ve had the whole thing flop down flat on me in mid-drawing more than a few times, unless I sit it exactly right. That needs some work. Otherwise this is a home run in portable digital art technology IMO.
I’m looking forward to seeing where they take the next generation!
Here are a couple of pieces I either partly worked on or did entirely on the Companion 2:
I colored about half of the above splash page on the Companion 2… some of it while sitting in the passenger seat of my car while my son Tom did some of the driving on our way to San Diego Comic Con last July. That’s right… IN THE CAR. It was a little bumpy. I did more work on it in hotel rooms as well, with the Cintiq tethered up to my MacBook Pro.
I basically did this entire cover on the Companion 2, except for the caricatures that I drew and inked traditionally and then sent separately to MAD with the painted illustration. Most of it was painted either in my hotel room in Las Vegas where I was doing a couple of fundraisers or at Jeff Keane’s kitchen table on a visit to LA for an NCS event. I used it both in tethered and untethered mode at various points of the project.
701 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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