Back in November of last year Wacom released a smaller, more portable version of it’s Cintiq line of monitor/tablet combo devices, the Cintiq 12wx. This was of great interest to me because up until that point there was no really viable solution to doing PhotoShop color work while “on the road” in the manner in which I am accustomed… i.e. using a Cintiq’s “draw on the screen” style of working. This and the Axiotron ModBook, a third party modified, tablet style MacBook were the two most promising solutions for this issue.
Before I go on, and before I get a lot of e-mails or comments about how this or that person “gets by just fine” and does great work on a regular Wacom tablet, let me just say this: Yes, I could use a regular Wacom tablet and my MacBook Pro. I have done this and for many years I did my line-and-color work in this manner in my studio as well… but once you get used to using a Cintiq you find going back to a regular Wacom tablet awkward and very inefficient. Looking at the screen and not at your hand is a skill that takes practice and more importantly continued execution to stay proficient at. Case in point, this spring I had to work on the color stage of this product illustration job while travelling and I did one of the product illustrations with a regular Wacom and my MacBook Pro, and then the other using my friend Ed Steckley‘s Cintiq 12wx. I did the second one in about half the time it took to do the first. For me, finding a truly portable version of the Cintiq experience was a worthwhile endeavor.
On another trip this summer, visiting Ed and his wife in New York City, I ended up having to spend one evening finishing the color work on the last of the images from the “Super Capers” movie job, and I again borrowed Ed’s Cintiq 12wx to do the job. I ordered one of my own when I got back home. I have now had occasion to use it several more times, and am finally getting around to doing an in depth review of the unit.
The 12wx is a well designed device that is both light (about 4 lbs) and easy to work on with gently beveled edges and a pop out stand. The screen is a 12.1″ diagonal TFT widescreen (16:10 ratio) display with a native resolution of WXGA (1280 x 800). Both sides have the newer design of the Wacom Expresskey/Touchstrip sets of programmable shortcut buttons.
The overall dimensions are 16″ W x 10.5″ H x .67″ D (40.64cm W x 26.67cm H x 1.7cm D). The unit also comes with a power brick, a “video control unit” box, DVI-I to DVI-D and DVI-I to VGA video cables, a Cintiq cordless, battery-less pen, holder stand and replacement nibs.
It is Really Portable?
That depends on how you define “portable”. If you mean can you whip the 12wx out at the coffee shop and start sketching on it… then no. If you mean you can pack it all up in a medium sized shoulder bag and set it up in your hotel room in a few minutes… then yes. The 12wx is not a tablet computer. It is a supplementary device needing a laptop with a secondary display output (most have these) to work from, and room to set it up. It’s not anywhere near as convenient or easy to set up as a regular Wacom tablet, which requires no power itself and only a USB cable attached to the laptop.
In order to make the 12wx unit itself as light and comfortable as it is, Wacom moved much of the circuitry out of the unit itself and into it’s “Video Control Unit”, a 6″ x 4″ x 1″ box that acts as a bridge between the laptop and the 12wx. In the full sized Cintiqs, all this hardware is inside the unit itself, and a very thick cable protrudes from the back center of the devices and extends to the computer it is hooked to, splitting into a power cord (that in turn hooks to a power brick) a DVI video cable and a USB cable. In the 12wx, the only cable coming from the unit itself is a relatively slim (about the thickness of a power cord) one that emanates from the top right edge and hooks to the VCU. Then the cable parade begins. The other side of the VCU is where you hook up the video and USB cables that go to the computer as well as the power cord that goes to the power brick that goes to the outlet. That’s a lot of cables. However the VCU can be placed out of the way and the only cable you have to contend with when working is the one coming from the 12wx, which isn’t that much bigger or less flexible than a typical USB cable. Still, you have to have the room to put all this together, plus plug in your laptop unless you plan on only working for a short time. That requires a desktop area with two power outlets… you won’t be doing that on the airplane or at the bus stop.
For me, this is not a problem. I never intended to use the 12wx to do spontaneous sketching at the diner. It’s meant to be a portable studio, and that’s just how it functions. I can carry the 12wx, all cords, bricks and accessories in a messenger-style shoulder bag or pack said bag into my suitcase and add only about 6 lbs or so to the overall weight. If I need to work on the road then I need to work, and setting up somewhere suitable to get it done is a necessity regardless.
Using the 12wx
Here’s another quick sidetrack: When using it in the Mac OS X environment, there are two ways you can use the screen real estate of the 12wx or any Cintiq: as a supplementary area of your main desktop or as the main screen of your OS X desktop (meaning your main screen becomes the secondary monitor). PC users have it easier because of the way Windows programs and menu bars work as opposed to the Mac OS. In PC programs, the menu bar (i.e. the “File, Edit, View… etc.”) of any program is embedded into the window of that program. In other words, if you have two monitors hooked up, you can move the window of any program from the main monitor to the secondary one, and the menu bar will follow along. With the Mac, the menu bar is always along the top of the main desktop window, and it changes with whatever program is active. The bad part about this is if you want to work on a secondary monitor, you can move the window of the files you have open to the secondary monitor but the menu bar remains on the main monitor. Oh, you can move all the palettes and everything from PhotoShop over to the Cintiq manually, and you can save the setup you created in PhotoShop itself under if you want to under Window>Workspace>Save Workspace so you can set it all back up that way again if you want to. I don’t like doing it that way, because I cannot move that handy little palette dock that reduces the palettes to small icons on the right for easy access but easier hiding, and screen real estate is important with the 12wx. I hate having to switch back and forth from the Cintiq to the main screen, even though the Cintiq’s “Display Toggle” makes that a little easier, so keeping palettes on the other screen isn’t very appealing. Also, I do use the menu bar when working and like being able to access it on the Cintiq rather than switching to the main screen. Therefore what I do is actually switch the Cintiq to be the main screen of desktop. That way I get all the palettes the way I want them plus the menu bar on my work screen, and by turning “hiding” on to the dock I can get that out of the way as well.
If you want to try it my way, here’s how you accomplish this:
First, you need to change the tablet’s focus from the Cintiq screen to the main desktop screen. This is easy to do, just open System Preferences>Wacom Tablet. Make sure you have highlighted the “Cintiq 12wx” on the “Tablet” window across the top part of the preference window, and then click on “Calibration”. Change “Monitor” from “Cintiq (2)” to whatever your main display (1) is. What will happen now is that the Cintiq will act like a regular Wacom tablet and moving around on it will move the cursor on your main screen. Do not panic, this is expected.
Now open System Preferences>Displays. You will see a window pop up on both monitors. The main one will be a little different, as it will have “Arrangement” and “Options” as choices not on the other box. Click “Arrangement” and drag the white menu bar from the left display square to the top of the right one. A red border appears on the display that is actively selected as the main desktop as you do this.
The result will be that now your menu bar and dock will be on your Cintiq, and the pen will again function correctly on the screen. Hide the dock if it’s in your way. Again, this is a personal preference on may part and does not affect the functions of the Cintiq in any way.
Back to the review…
The 12wx is a true Cintiq. With 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity it has all the functionality of it’s bigger brethren. In fact I feel no difference at all in it’s feel and use. You would think the smaller screen would be a hindrance, but I didn’t have any trouble working on it with any but the biggest of images. The 1280 x 800 resolution doesn’t give up THAT much to the 1600 x 1200 I get with my 21ux, and the 16:10 aspect ration of the 12wx helps. It give you a wider screen that allows the palettes to stay away from the work area, giving you the feel of more space than you actually have. Pressure sensitivity, surface feel, response time… it’s exactly like the full size units.
The rear of the Cintiq 12wx and the stand
I also thought I would miss the excellent rotating stand the full size Cintiqs have which allow for nearly 360 degree rotation of the screen instantly and is very stable. The 12wx has a static pop-out stand that keeps it at a stable angle from the table top but does not allow for rotation. There is a token “bump” in the center of the back of the unit that it can rotate on if the stand is folded in, but who works with it on a flat surface? This presented no problems, though, as the 12wx is so light and comfortable that it can easily be used in your lap or just turned as you need while working. The cord stays out of your way.
There is a vent located along the top edge for heat disbursement. There is some warmth that develops when it’s been on for a while but as many of the electronic guts of the 12wx are in the VCU, the heat is nowhere near as pronounced as it can get in the bigger, self contained units. In fact you can quite easily use in on your lap without getting uncomfortable (or sterile) from the heat.
The Expresskeys and Touchstrips also function in the same way as the full sized Cintiqs. I have the original 21ux in the studio, which is older and has the 4 buttons with the touch strip above configuration. Not the best design with the strips, as they are so easy to brush across and zoom your image in or out accidentally. The newer 20wsx has the 16:10 ratio and has smartly relocated the Touchstrips to the underside of the unit’s right and left edges, eliminating that issue. On the 12wx, the strips on on the surface of the unit on each side, but on the beveled part of the edge and therefore a little less likely to be accidentally brushed. The strips can be programmed for functions as well as each individual button. This is very handy. I have buttons set to increase and decrease brush size, switch to the “hand” tool for image panning, switch to the eyedropper tool for easy color picking, mode changes, etc.
One very welcome new feature with the Cintiq, and it’s with all the Cintiqs that have the latest drivers, is the “Display Toggle” feature. This is a drop down menu choice for any of the ExpressKey buttons that switches the control of your tablet from the Cintiq screen to your other screen and back. It used to be a real pain to have to access anything on the other screen, as I had to put down my pen and grab my mouse (another reason for my preference of making the Cintiq my main desktop monitor when working). Wacom used to make a “companion” mini tablet that connected to the side or bottom of the Cintig that would be set to control the other monitor, so you could just move to it with your pen to do something on that other monitor. Now with a touch of the “Display Toggle”, the surface of your Cintiq becomes like a regular tablet that controls your other screen. You can do what you need to do over there, then press the toggle again to switch back. If I can figure out how to move those palette docks I might eschew my switching-the-main-desktop strategy entirely thanks to this smart feature.
In a nutshell, for $999 this is a terrific device that could almost replace my studio Cintiq. Taking it on the road is not much of a hassle, and it truly allows me to be able to do the same type of work in the same way, and in the same amount of time, as I can from the comfort of my studio. If you are looking for a portable Cintiq-experience solution, or can’t afford the larger units but still want a Cintiq for your work, this is the ticket.