Reviewing the Cintiq 12wx

September 12th, 2008 | Posted in It's All Geek to Me!

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 Hardware

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.


  1. meredithd says:

    I’ve had my 12WX for about six months now, and I love it. However, I have the problem that my practical drawing screen area is reduced because as the stylus is moved closer to the edges of the screen, say within 1 1/2 inches, the cursor starts to jiggle and I can’t draw a straight line. Have you (or anyone else) had this problem? I wonder if it has anything to do with using it in close proximity to my laptop (stray electrons and such). I don’t like to think that my $900 tool is defective.

  2. Tom says:

    Well, I do notice some miscalibration when near the very bottom of my screen, but no jittery effect. Certainly not at far away as 1.5 inches. I would definitely say that is some kind of hardware problem. I have not had occasion to deal with Wacom’s customer service or tech support, so I don;t know what to expect. However I think you should call them and troubleshoot it. $900 isn’t cheap, and you should have a fully functioning device.

  3. Dan says:

    Hey Tom you seem pretty computer savy I was wondering if you had any problem similar to mine and if so what you did to resolve it or if you know how to.

    I recently got a Cintiq12 and the problem I am having is the colors on the Cintiq and that of the computer monitor are not the same. For instance I will paint a piece completely on the Cintiq and when I drag it over to the main desktop monitor the colors look totally different and in most cases this makes the whole piece look like crap on the monitor but good on the Cintiq. I don’t know if any of that made sense but thats the problem I am dealing with. Other than that really like working with the Cintiq.

  4. didntyouhear says:

    Threadless is giving away a 12WX as a prize in their latest Threadless Loves contest: Could be a great way to score one if you don’t have one already.

  5. Mugshotz says:

    Thanks for the review, Tom, I’ve been looking at getting one of those for a little bit now.

  6. Oluseyi says:

    I’ve dealt with Wacom customer service before, and found them very friendly, professional and highly knowledgeable. Give them a call.

    Sounds like you need color calibration, buddy.

    Nice review! I’m still more interested in the 20wsx, as I do very little computing on the go (and use a traditional drawing pad or sketchbook when I’m away from my desktop). I am considering a notebook as a backup/accessory, though, for when I’m traveling, and your review – more in terms of how you use it than the actual hardware review, as I’ve read several of those – has made me marginally more interested in the 12wx.

  7. shaunyue says:

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the great review. One thing I was wondering was if you wanted to use it as just a standard wacom tablet without the screen capabilities, are you able to unplug the tablet from the VGA/DVI port on the laptop to free it up for an external monitor? For general non illustrative uses..

  8. Tom says:

    Dan- Oluseyi is right, you need to color calibrate your monitor. Color profiles exist specified for each monitor and there is software (and hardware including a USB sensor) that allows for calibration of each monitor as well. My two monitors do not match but I don’t really care about that, because all I need is for one to give me a good approximation of print color and I base my work on that.

    Color calibration is important in that respect, but I would only be concerned with how it looks on your Cintiq, as that is where you do the work. I calibrate my monitor using the “eyeball” method. Basically I a printed piece and hold it up to my cintiq, then adjust the RGB and temperature setting to match the colors and values as best I can. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty workable.

    Shaunyue- yes, you can unplug the video cable and the Cintiq becomes a regular Wacom tablet. Likewise you can unplug the USB and it becomes just another VGA monitor.

    I’m glad folks liked the review.

  9. c.k. says:

    Hey thanks for this review. It helped me decide to get one of these for myself, and I recently did a first look review of the device over at Obsessable:
    I also added a link to your review on our product page for the device:
    I’ve just had the 12WX for about 5 days now and I absolutely love it. After I have spent some more quality time with the device I’ll be writing a more detailed review. I was wondering if after soaking in the device for a while, so to speak, if you’ve noticed anything new / any revisions you would add to this review.

    Also, how do you deal with all the cables associated with the device. I bought a few cable turtles and have the USB and DVI cable going from my laptop to the converter box wrapped around them, but I find myself wanting to look for some smaller cables for the distance between the computer to the box, as the display’s integrated cable is plenty long enough for moving the tablet around and drawing on it.

    Thanks for this great review.



  10. Tom says:

    C.K- I mostly use my full sized Cintiq 20 at the studio so my time on the 12wx has been limited. Still, I have used it a fair amount and after reading over my review I would have little to add or subtract. Great review, BTW.

    As I only use this with my MacBook Pro the cable lengths are not an issue with me. I have a few simple velcro cable ties that I keep the cables wound up with in my carrying bag, and these are useful for wrangling the cabels when in use as well.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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