A Prelude to CES 2014: A Digital Doodler's Perspective

I'll be catching the hind legs and tail end of CES 2014 this year. However, the impact of the show has already settled into the landscape of usable drawing hardware.

Tablet Computers and On-Screen Digitizers

The only context you need to understand the artist tablet market is the Surface Pro 2. Every device is trying to be it, but it stands at a lofty $900, looking down at the us peasants with its solid processor, good formfactor and most importantly, its prized Wacom stylus support. I've been quietly waiting for a price revolution, but every product has come up short.

Like a brightly-colored RPG hero bursting into the limelight, the biggest announcement for me was the confirmation of Asus's $300 VivoTab Note 8. This is the first time a tablet in this price range to have a Wacom digitizer. It's the tablet I wish I had when I was starting out. When I first saw the 8" Bay Trail tablets crawl out of the product market, I always envisioned a device like the Vivo Tab Note 8 being a reality, but up until now, the closest thing was the Dell Venue 8 Pro, which does not have good digitizer support at the moment.
 
Why is a Wacom digitizer a big deal? In the realm of on-screen digitizers, there are three players: the venerated Wacom, the upstart N-trig and the absolute newbie, Synaptics. As it stands, N-trig just got proper pressure sensitivity support on 32-bit OSes and Synaptics has been reported unsatisfactory on the Dell Venue 8 Pro according to users at TabletPCReview forums, leaving Wacom as the only provider of reliable pen technology at the moment.  In the game of digitizers, the usual line of demarkation are between tablets that have pressure sensitivity and those that do not. There's no middle ground between each device to compete on. What's at stake isn't difference in tastes. We're talking about something that works with your art programs and something that doesn't.

Now, if you work exclusively on Manga Studio 5, then N-trig will work for you. However, my view of the Asus VivoTab Note 8 is to be an entry level device for aspiring digital artists, so the Wacom digitizer will be helpful as you try out Sketchbook Pro, Photoshop and other programs on your journey to understanding digital painting in general. But even then, there hasn't been a reliable N-Trig Windows device at $300s brand new. The price is just magnificent and is worthy of my admiration.

The only downside is that Bay Trail processors aren't exactly Photoshop worthy, but I've been using Manga Studio 5 on an ancient Lenovo laptop from 2006, armed with a measly Core 2 Duo processor, and I find the program functional. Bay Trail is a definite upgrade from that experience, so while it might not be suited for professional use, it is still good enough for you to handle a load of commissions.

Alternatively, the $400 Lenovo ThinkPad 8 is a scene shaker, but it currently does not have an active digitizer confirmed. If it does get digitizer support, then it is a direct competitor to the Surface Pro 2. If not, it's still a decent tablet, but it probably won't have as much as an impact as a professional device.

You might be wondering why I'm not talking about Samsung's offerings. Right now, Android's app environment is good enough for sketching, but it doesn't accomadate the Photoshop-like workflow that most digital artists are comfortable working in. The hardware specs are nice and the programs are niche, but they're not quite up to par with a tool like Manga Studio 5.
 
Wacom's Cintiq Companion series is always a contender, but it's been out for a while now so there's not really much to report on that front. Basically, it's expensive, but it works. Is it worth the price premium now? Yes, given that it doubles as both a tablet solution and a digitizer for your main computer, but at that price, the going upwards for a non-mobile Cintiq might be better because the form factor on the 22HD and the 24HD are simply more robust. 
 
Non-Screen Digitizers (Drawing Tablets)
 
This year is the rise of the OEM for drawing tablets, specifically UC-Logic based tablets. With the help of Monoprice as a distributor, UC-Logic has been finding its way into more households simply by virtue of being relatively inexpensive. However, unlike the previous generation of Genius/Waltop tablets, UC-Logic hardware and software has proven to be less difficult to manage. The old mantra with OEM tablets was "Too good to be true." Now, it's not so much. There's enough Tumblr artists on a wide variety of platforms to confirm that UC-Logic digitizers are not complete bunk. I currently use a UCLogic Lapazz 9x12. A gigantic hulk of value in terms of tablet real estate.
 
While Wacom is the king of on-screen digitizers, their place as the king of off-screen digitizer tech is shaky due to the high price premium on their entry level products. They do have good features, but on desktop solutions, your keyboard is generally more useful than the side buttons on an Intuos Pro. Face to face, Wacom tablets draw largely the same as UC-Logic tablets on most programs. The only practical difference comes in price, and the gap between a Monoprice and a Wacom is often $150 or more.

However, this is not to say Wacom's are bad. Rather, you purchase a Wacom for the ability to draw with every program out there, because everything is tested on that hardware. On the other hand, you don't buy a Wacom for a better drawing experience. As long as the UC-Logic tablet has proper pressure sensitivity on a program, it's just as good.
 
That being said, OEM tablets have a very bleak history to deal with. Waltop digitizers are notoriously poor. I remember going to Genius's booth last year and trying out their tablet on the show floor, only to find it jittery and unusable. As far as embarrassing demonstrations are concerned, Genius was king. This basically goes in line with the general experience most people have had with Waltops for the last couple of years, essentially guaranteeing Wacom's position of being synonymous with digitizer tech.
 
I've heard people say that Wacom built their empire off of clever lifestyle marketing. Absolutely not true. Wacom is much like Photoshop. It gained its popularity by being well-supported. Even if there are flaws in both, they're not big enough to uproot the massive foundation they built for themselves. Subsequently, there is a lot of natural doubt surrounding the less popular options. There's always a horror story about an off-brand tablet that lurks around every corner of the internet, whether its from word of mouth or simple lack of good Amazon reviews. The reality is that they had competition that was abysmal and throughout the years, Wacom was the only company around that had the product and the presence to stay on retailer shelves. Only now do they actually have competition to actually worry about, but even then, their product is still the most well-supported digitizer on the market.
 
I'll be on the look out for Huion, Monoprice and UC-Logic at the show. Perhaps even Waltop will have a few products worth testing. None of these guys get any mention on the major tech blogs, but they are major players in the tablet game and they need exposure.
 
So what will I be looking for outside of tablets?

Bluetooth stuff.

The unfortunate reality of tablets is that they lack ports. Given how small and portable tablets are, bluetooth accessories are transitioning from being an interesting alternative to a cable to a necessary life-line between your tablet and you. I don't really approve of keyboard docks on tablets for digital art because your wrists will inevitably cross and blot out vision of the device.
 
Gaming Peripherals.

I remember going to a Siggraph show and I saw a Korean art student on display doing impressive portraits of people. His weapons of choice? A Wacom Intuos3 and a Belkin N52. Now, we might scoff at products like these for being gimmicks for gamers, but most tablet users are strained for desk space. Gaming keyboard alternatives like the N52 are relevant to digital artists, especially with tablets.
 
Eye controllers?

It may seem silly, but for simple tool switching, I wouldn't mind seeing whether or not these would bring something meaningful to controlling Manga Studio 5.

True to the gamer spirit, I'll be checking out all sorts of cool gadgets relating to my favorite hobby as well.