My New Mobile Studio: Wacom MobileStudio Pro and MacBook Pro
This is a post about my new digital studio, but to put the excitement I have for this setup in context, I think it’s a great idea to backtrack a bit. A couple of years ago, I posted about my ‘new’ Cintiq companion – new, at least, when I got it, and worked well for onsite work – now, though still functioning, feeling a bit left behind, since nowadays too many colleagues are sporting newer Cintiq Companion 2’s and leaving me feeling ancient and crusty. Additionally, I’d STILL been using my old stable workhorse, my trusty Cintiq 20WSX, as a ‘home’ setup (with my 2008 Mac Pro) – I loved this thing and can’t imagine where I’d be in my career without it. Thus I want to take a moment to honor these great tools, which technically are still with us, and great testimonials for the usefulness and longevity of Wacom devices, though now formally decommissioned and placed into storage.
Part 1 – The Past
Not all digital artists love Cintiqs. Drawing on a Wacom display screen, whether 10 years ago or today, apparently isn’t for everyone. But 10 years ago, I was in a place where I was all of a sudden drawing very regularly for more than 8 hours a day on an original 6×9 Intuos tablet (another device that served me so well in it’s time) and it became clear that I would need to upgrade my hardware for the sake of my neck and back, if nothing else. So plunked down the $2000 I barely had to make that leap into true professional hardware, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did my aches and pains swiftly become alleviated due to a more supportive drawing posture (the large Cintiqs are akin to ye artiste’s draughting desques of olde and thus more compatible with classic drawing ergonomics) but I noticed something that I didn’t anticipate – as I would (because I could) take my Cintiq (connected to my MacBook) along with me, via a large suitcase for transport, to onsite commercial storyboarding day-jobs, I would often be the only artist in a building of artists who had one, and other artists noticed, and would wander over, and gush over it, and ask about it, and ask to try it, and man, that’s such a great feeling. Producers, even ones on other projects, could instantly and easily see that I was a serious professional, because, hey, look at all his gear. This guy came to draw. Nobody else we hire brings their own high-powered weaponry like this.
Aside from aesthetics, this setup really allowed me to comfortably crank out drawings, whether onsite or at home, and thus, my career flourished. But, with time, newer options became available, and the shine on my Cintiq faded, and though my setup still worked fine, nobody was commenting on how cool my stuff was – it was my turn to ask questions about their gear – some artists were working on Tablet PCs, and then Microsoft Surfaces. I needed a leg up. And, a break from the constant packing and unpacking my 30 pounds of gear everyday when working onsite. Also, my suitcase transport worked fine in most circumstances, but not so elegant when going up 3 flights of stairs when the elevator goes out. Or legging it 3 blocks when convenient parking is unavailable. As it was, I went through 3 suitcases in 5 years because the rubber wheels kept wearing down to nubs. I no longer had an elegant solution. It was also clear that the color gamut available on this screen was inadequate for accurate color work, the accuracy of the pointer was always a bit off, and the thick glass provided as much parallax as it did screen protection – surely the tech had advanced by now?
At about this point, luckily, a promising development arose – the Cintiq companion. Wacom already had been producing 13-inch Cintiqs (my mother made use of one for years) but as these were still encumbered by large arrays of connecting cords and power supplies, they never seemed to be much of an upgrade. Now, there was something different – a battery-powered, self-sufficient drawing tablet, with touch input – you didn’t even need a keyboard! I ordered one straight away – again, about $2000 – but money well spent.
The promise of the Cintiq Companion was true: Portable and Powerful (faster in many ways than my previous mobile and even my Mac Pro setup), and I’ve done some of my best work on the device, but in full retrospect there were many issues that hampered my productivity enough to keep me always looking out of the corner of my eye for another solution. For one, the small form of the device made it less comfortable for drawing over long periods of time. I found myself drawing ‘small’ with my more strain on my wrist and fingers than on my shoulder and elbows. I felt cramped and less at ease with the drawing postures I had to adapt. Another drawback- it solely ran on Windows and thus was outside of my usual comfort of a mac workflow. Windows has some advantages but none that I required- mostly I didn’t really trust it- my attempts to keep the computer updated seemed to cause turmoil with the various drivers needed for stylus input. So, I had to keep it at base factory settings- meaning it was stuck in a time capsule of operation- newer apps wouldn’t run on the outdated system. The greater pressure sensitivity really didn’t have any affect on my workflow. And though the pen was more accurate, and had far better tilt support than my larger older Cintiq, there were still ‘dead zones’ that seemed to send cursor wildly off course, or nullify the effect of the pen tilt, meaning accuracy was only achievable on certain areas of the screen, and none of them were in my natural drawing position. It was not to be. True, it was a step in the right direction- and I was grateful for it’s small size on the few occasions I made use of it in bed or on an airplane- and it was very quick to flip out of a messenger bag and get right to work. But nobody ever gushed over it- it was too small and subtle to catch the eye of anybody who wasn’t already right next to it. And by now, drawing tablet PCs were all over the place- we had already entered the era of the modern iPad and equivalents.
Part 2 – The Problem
So this year, I was on the hunt for the next setup to replace my ancient Cintiq 20wsx at home, and I was at a serious dilemma- There was of course the newer Cintiq 22 HD, a fine machine, but really, it was running on nearly the same tech as my previous device- only a couple inches larger (which I was convinced I didn’t need) and still using the same umbilical cord of DVI (ugh! enough of this shit) and power and USB squid cable all-in-one-kinda. There was even a ‘touch’ version that seems interesting, but in practice is mostly unusable (I have it off most of the time on my Wacom touch devices- it ‘works,’ but only after a few tries, and thus, takes more time than a keyboard shortcut, but they’ll probably get this stuff working right eventually, and I’m looking forward to that day). Then of course there is the leviathan 27 QHD, a mammoth machine that leaves basically no room on your desktop for a keyboard or anything else- its kind of ridiculous actually, I’ve seen other artists using these machines, and I’ve tried them, and they were really no more accurate or functional that anything previous, and sporting a weird floating expresskeys controller, which I guess is a good alternative when you can’t hope to reach the sides of your display. And of course, even that model has a weird display controller hub that becomes a rat nest of cables on your desk. More ugh.
The big hangup for me was the cable connectors- all options were still using the same octopus-tentacle cable solution that they introduced 10 years ago. DVI bullshit- why? Surely there was something better? Why not output to Displayport or Thunderbolt 2 connectors? I already knew from experience that any new Wacom using DVI was going to be impossible to hookup to any model Mac Pro without using display adapters, which I was already doing on my old Cintiq, which coincidentally was failing at the point of the display connectors- setting up and tearing down my setup day after day was straining and bending the DOZENS of fucking pins on those DVI connectors. Who the hell thought up that crappy tech? Wouldn’t it have been better to simply line up six USB connectors in a row? Anyway, the connectors were failing and I wasn’t about to just buy fresh new shit connectors. That’s simply going to put me in the same spot I am now, looking for a more elegant and future-ready solution. I resolved I wouldn’t buy any new Wacom Tech until I knew that they had a new solution for their display connectors.
THEN – a few months later, no warning at all, I saw a random tweet about the new Mobile Studio Pro- seems like something was leaked perhaps, because the unveiling to the ‘press’ overall for this device was pretty haphazard, with poor documentation online and not really much of an attempt to tease to the audience with a sexy promo video. Nevertheless, I poured over the specs and liked what I saw, in a big way. Bigger screen, higher resolution, faster processors, more memory, etc etc – a big leap forward in hardware, sporting an independent windows 10 os in tablet mode, AND the ability to charge AND connect to an external Mac via the fancy new USB C. Finally! I resolved to buy one as soon as I could, but they weren’t going to be available to ship until mid November. Even though there wasn’t a Mac out yet to hook up via USB C directly, I knew that eventually there would be, and I had gotten used to Windows enough recently to bridge that gap.
Sooo, I stuck with my deteriorating systems and fantasized all the while about the new device. Meanwhile some additional developments cropped up– Microsoft OUT OF THE FUCKING BLUE released the Microsoft Surface Studio and MAN does that thing look awesome! A Cintiq-like screen but more like an iMac in many ways. I got chills looking at the demo videos. Some great PR movements there- completely stole the show from Apple, who next day released their newest Macbooks, with the optional touch-bar. Man, who gives a crud about that touch bar? BUT it has USB C… and only USB C… well, looks like I’ll be needing some dongles!
UNLESS… could I just go with the Surface Studio and make it my SOLE machine? At 20 pounds and however big it is wide, I could easily fit it into a suitcase and take it to gigs- why not? I did that for years with my older Cintiq 20WSX. It would have all the power I needed and be top of the line! People online were tossing around phrases like ‘cintiq killer’ and ‘wacom killer.’ And of course I’d turn heads with it, nobody else would have one (at least for a little bit). Big problem though, is that they weren’t shipping until early 2017. That’s months away! My current systems are sucking now! For example, my 2008 Mac Pro was recently unable to support the latest operating system update to Mac OS Sierra. I got a LOT of use out of the system- a great testament to the longevity of Macs, at least of that era- but it couldn’t keep up now. Technically it was functioning but the bad outweighed the good- It was an incredibly heavy, bulky machine, with ungodly amounts of peripheral wires flailing out in every direction, no less than 4 external hard drives for my haphazard backup system, blasting heat all day long, burning tons of electricity, CD tray was jammed, and recently the usb ports and video card began intermittently failing- sometimes it would fail to boot, and just give a flashing power light, but then boot just fine on restart. These are not good signs. I needed to act!
THE NEXT DAY Apple released their 2016 Macbook Pros, and I was pleased to see that if nothing else, it would be available about the same time as the Mobile Studio Pro (MSP), and sported USB C connectors, which means I could use it to power the MSP, much like I did my Cintiq. Was I impressed with the specs? Chips? Processors, RAM? Being a former Certified Mac Tech, I’m savvy enough to know why these things are important, but I actually don’t tend to pay attention to that kind of stuff anymore when making purchases- since I really only needed to look at my good ol’ 2010 Macbook Pro, and how not-so good it was, and how old it was, to get an estimate of how much more likely better the NEW computer is going to function. There’s no guarantees of course, but I tend to feel more at ease with Apple purchases, and right when I needed one, they came out with one. And no, I didn’t care for the optional touchbar, it looks useless.
Now I had a few paths in front of me- I knew in any case that I would get the MSP, and possibly that would suffice solely for drawing purposes. The side decision was, do I additionally get the Microsoft Surface Studio (MSS), or the new Macbook Pro (MBP)? I already knew I would be good with the MBP- but was the MSS better? There were some great testimonials online, and many artists discussing whether this could simply replace their Cintiqs. That’s a bold statement! The machine looked sexy as hell, had a cool dial that seemed promising, shockingly inexpensive for what it was, and was super thin and light. Theoretically, a machine that light could be considered a contender for onsite jobs. But how did it ‘draw’? It wasn’t using Wacom tech, so was it using an upgraded surface stylus? I knew those were accurate at the tip, but had NO pen tilt function, and lower sensitivity. AND the screen had no buttons on the side, just a multifunction dial, which likely would not substitute for my Cintiq Expresskeys. I did some snooping around and found that one MSS was ON DISPLAY in Glendale (fairly near my house) so I could actually go in person to evaluate it!
Finally I had a day off and I bolted out to the Microsoft Store (more of a Kiosk in this location) to investigate, SAW the darn thing from all the way across the mall, and met a friendly but tad inelegant sales team who was happy to take me through a demo, point out features, and deflect any pointed questions I had. I tried it out myself too. Some things I will point out.
- The machine is beautiful, and I am really impressed. Formidable and eye-catching, but not overly so. The Display is simultaneously bright, crisp, clean, and with deep dark blacks, the best I’ve seen anywhere. It’s ‘optically bonded’ which means there are no air gaps between the composite layers of the screen leading to the eye, and thus, it appears at least, that the pixels and the glass covering them are imperceptibly overlapped. Amazingly thin and light- I did lift the unit and it’s about 20 lbs. It looks like it could fit into a large suitcase, which pleased me. It does look a little fragile but I could only speculate on that. It appears that it cannot collapse to a completely flat, portable mode, but neither could my old Cintiq.
- The ‘Touch’ of the touchscreen excedes the responsiveness of my experiences with any device previous. Likely due to the ‘optical bonding’ of the screen, the touch sensitivity feels immediate in a very eerie way. More intuitive as well- previously on touch-enabled windows devices, I’ve found it to be unwieldy and unpredictable, but now it is incredible.
- The raising/lowering action of the display feels natural and fast. I tried leaning on it too, and it appeared plenty sturdy for drafting purposes, though it seems too good to be true.
- The Stylus/Pen feels good enough in my hand (I prefer a Wacom Classic Pen myself) but a tad heavy (it’s battery powered, which is awkward). It has a neat feature where you can remotely ‘click’ the ‘eraser/clicker’ on the back of the stylus and it can execute commands like, switching to a new slide in a presentation. Useful for that at least. Presumably it could also be an eraser in Photoshop. It had buttons on the side, or seemed to, like a Wacom stylus. I don’t remember using them at the time, but these are also presumably programmable per application. It is also magnetic- it stuck to the side of the screen in many possible places, and that seemed very handy.
- When testing in Photoshop, and I only made a few strokes and circles with a generic ‘brush,’ and the lines looked great. I think there is either great digitization or some sort of assiste/corrective digitization, since my circles looked a little more perfect than usual. The pressure sensitivity seems fine but the initial nib-to-screen-stroke-activation seems just a little bit behind. Maybe that is a settings issue. I must compliment the accuracy- it seems to be perfectly pixel-accurate at the tip at all positions on the screen and absolutely no parallax- the best accuracy I’ve seen on any device. But I was disheartened to confirm that it was not sensitive to pen tilt. D’oh!
- The Dial is interesting and makes for a great demoing (the demo guy showed it
being good for scrolling, scrubbing through timelines, moving through undo states, etc, but aside from being a decent volume knob, I would probably see very little use for it. It did feel cool. I thought it was VERY cool that it could adhere anywhere to the screen; again, magnetic. WTF. I thought magnets were bad for computer screens! Of course, that was back in the CRT days, kiddies.
Ultimately I was hung up on two fatal flaws- The lack of pen tilt sensitivity and the Windows OS. Windows has made great strides and I’m sure is outpacing the Mac OS in many ways, but I’m 16 years into Mac and I’m comfortable and familiar, and that’s more important to me right now. Plus, the MobileSP comes with Windows as a tablet computing option, so I could theoretically have both. And as far as the pen tilt- that is a nonstarter- I need that for my workflow. Other artists don’t, but for me it’s essential. Darn! So, I decided it was better to stick with the MobileSP and MacBP option. Sticking with the Mac for now.
Still- I plunked down the $100 to reserve a machine when they come out next year (and I get a free dial too!), as insurance against a possible unforseen incompatibility, or dissappointment with my chosen new setup. I may still change my mind about the MSStudio. I want to talk about this for a second. It was an incredible demonstration of intent Microsoft’s part to come out of nowhere with an incredible machine that but for a few small flaws (and inconsequential flaws, to some) I would have paid for in full on the spot. Nobody was predicting this kind of upset into territory that seemed so firmly in the hands of Apple and Wacom, who at times appear as combative entities between themselves. It feels like Microsoft is now beating BOTH companies at their OWN game. This is what I’ve been hoping for, for years now- a major player to start courting the artistic professionals BESIDES Wacom. These past years, we’ve seen what can best be described as Cintiq knockoffs appearing everywhere, but I’ve never seen them in my professional circles, and nobody talks much about them in my experience. People are TALKING about the MSStudio because it is a NEW DEVICE that combines the elegance and charm of a iMac with the drafting capabilities of a Cintiq- times like a bajillion. What an exciting time. I predict that Microsoft will soon surmount the remaining technical hurdles and achieve a drawing experience that surpasses the Cintiq, and that artists will flock to it, and potentially swing the pendulum for Microsoft to take the lead position as the go-to choice for creative professionals in the graphic arts.
Wacom sort of occupies a neutral territory here- being essential compatible with both operating systems and possessing at least for now, superior drawing tech and an incumbent hold on the majority of the market- but for Apple, the ball is in their court. The MSStudio is not yet a Cintiq killer but it IS an iMac killer in my estimation. And I must reiterate, it feels like an actual new kind of device, like the tablet or iPhone before it. This is is different enough to be considered a new evolution, a new kind of computing experience, and now it is to Apple to upgrade the iMac or concede the race. And that’s what I’m hoping for in the next gen iMac- I would definitely prefer to stay with Apple, but in the end, I will go with the best, most versatile drawing tools I can find, whoever the supplier is.
Part 3 – The Present
So, back to Wacom. There were some lucky early artists who got their hands on the MobileSP for online video reviews, and it looked great especially for my purposes, so when they finally became available for order this Thanksgiving, I bought the high end, 16″ model and had it shipped over to one of my clients that I was working at. I got to unbox it at work and that was a delight- always fun to be the first one on the block. I’ll describe it and the overall experience now.
- The device is sturdy, solid, impressive, aggressive, but sleek, stylish, and refined. It appears exactly right as an evolution from the cintiq companion. It looks premium. It’s bigger than I expected, which is good, but works against easy of portability. You kind of need two hands to hand it off to someone- it’s nothing like an iPad.
- The screen is bright, luminous, rich, dense, colorful. Pixels are imperceptible. The touch sensitivity is far better than on my smaller Cintiq Companion (CC). It has a very very mild screen texture that is familiar and pleasing to me, and similar to my older 20WSX (and different from my CC!) The MobileSP does NOT appear to have a removable screen coat whereas my CC did (which I removed it to reduce the screen texture).
- Runs on windows 10, and it’s fast in my estimation- snappy, responsive. I like this version of windows, and I’ve had no trouble using it.
- Comes with a Pro Pen 2, which is more sensitive, but not really- near as I can tell, it is more sensitive mostly when you are pushing really hard on the screen, meaning it doesn’t max out as early as the other pens did. But when you push too hard on this screen, it goes wavy on the screen around the cursor, which seems like it isn’t a good thing. So that’s a waste.
- But the ACCURACY and TILT SENSITIVITY and NEARLY ZERO PARALLAX of the pen tip are absolutely excellent. This was potentially going to be a sticking point for me – if these were not an improvement on the earlier Cintiqs, I would have sent the device back. But now we have arrived at the era of pixel-perfect accuracy AND tilt. Rejoice!
- The screen rotates to whatever position you flip it to- even “Portrait Mode” which I would never use. The Expresskeys on the side work great for lefties and righties- I would prefer if the touch sensitive ‘rocker ring’ was just buttons, like on my Cintiq Companion, but I can live without it. I’m sure some people like dials, but I like buttons more. Works as advertised.
- Sports 3 USB-C ports and my verdict is in- USB-C is awesome (no more flipping the damn connectors upside down 3 times to make it fit!), fast, versatile, compact, and it’s the way of the future.
- Looks like it’s got a card reader, and cameras and a fingerprint scan thing too. Cool! I mostly have ignored those options.
- Power Supply Cable is … fine. Nicely styled, and smaller than my previous Cintiq20WSX, but BIGGER than the one for my Cintiq Companion. Durn! But really, how come the power supplies that Apple makes are so much smaller? I would love to see some progress on miniaturizing power supplies a bit.
- The Pen holder it comes with is cool, and very sturdy, but impractical, sorry Wacom.
- DOESN’T COME WITH a protective sleeve
- DOESN’T COME WITH a stand
- DOESN’T COME WITH the Wacom Link, a display adapter for compatibility with other external display inputs
- But don’t feel bad, because none of these were even available for purchase at the time of this writing, so don’t miss what you can’t have.
But you know what? It’s OK because the drawing on it feels great, accurate, fast, and the OS is working, and things are updating, and things are not crashing, and it’s wonderful. The Painter and Photoshop programs I use are not exactly blazing fast- but I attribute that to the greater processing demand for driving all those high-res pixels to the new display- and I’m sure this will improve as the software matures to the new hardware. Overall a very solid machine and I’m very happy. A solid REPLACEMENT for my old system. Both my old 20WSX and CC are replaced with this new great tablet. Whew!
And, turns out I can use the Stylus from my older CC on my new MobileSP! Bonus!
The final piece of the pie, the Macbook Pro, was ordered shortly after my MSP arrived and we have been a great threesome since. Amazingly, incredibly, it works as advertised, and I’m loving this thing. Yes you need dongles to plug stuff in, but they really are so small, and for my purposes, it makes no difference. Its more important to me what DOESN’T need a dongle, or adapter, or connector- the single, basic USB-C cable that plugs my New MacBook into my New Mobile Studio Pro! THIS SHIT WORKS!
I was very, very, very pleased that I needed only to install wacom drivers on the MBP and plug in the wacom- and that was all that I needed to do to make them work! A single-cable-cintiq!! YES!!! That’s what I had been waiting for! Now I have it! Yay!!!
What’s also really cool is you can even run both of the devices of their independent batteries- so in the event of a power outage, you will have no stoppage of work! And I’d say that counts to portability, though I doubt either of these things are great on battery life. Still, nice to know a blown fuse won’t stop my workflow! It happens!
Because of the lack of basic accessories from wacom, I had to get creative, and after some trial and error, I have a setup I really like now. I used some older items I had from earlier setups, and ordered a bunch of accessories off Amazon to fill the gaps.
Here’s everything in my Mobile Studio connected, put together and working, big and small.
- Mouse is from Amazon Basics
- The keyboard (also ordered off Amazon) is an older GearHead micro thing- it’s proved versatile as it has a built in trackpad (hey, mice die too) and works cross-platform.
- Mobile Studio Pro 16″ i7 – Top of the Line
- Interesting new Z-Stand (what I call it) I found on Amazon by Uncaged Ergonomics. Lightweight, work as advertised. I’m worried about durability- its mostly plastic. Works for now- easy to adjust angles and heights, so that’s great. I like to draw high up and just a little bit tilted. I would love to find a sturdier design but this works great. I used kneaded eraser to adhere it to the table surface- makes it every stable, but also easy to remove.
- This Folding Angle Stand goes on the Z-Stand-it’s what actually props up the MobileSP to the angle I like- has good options for angles for me. I do fret about the possibility of the MSP from slipping off it. For now, it’s also adhered with kneaded eraser. The whole assembly feels very sturdy.
- On top of that goes ANOTHER smaller folding stand that works great to keep the Macbook pro at the perfect angle for a second monitor and also to maximize desk space! Remember, often work onsite in very cramped spaces, and it’s common for me to share desks with other artists too!
- MacBook Pro 2016 13″
- Older USB hub- easy to replace with something better but works. Connecting with a USB-C to USB3 dongle.
- Under the whole assembly is a new Lacie Porsche 8TB. Storage is such a deal these days! One drive to rule them all. This device is USB-C!
- Simple, elegant, and compact. It even all fits into a basic backpack from Amazon basics! I think that’s pretty darn good, except I look more like an art student when I wear a backpack like this. But that’s only because I have such a youthful appearance, I’m sure. Maybe I can find a something that looks more slick.
There you have it, the long tale of having the best gear, losing it, and getting it back again. I thank you for sticking with it and hope you found it informative. If you are considering upgrading your gear as well and have any questions regarding my setup, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to respond.
Thanks for a great 2016, looking forward to 2017!