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Wacom Cintiq 12WX Pen Display Review
by David Rasnake -  3/24/2008

Picture this: you’re working on an image in Photoshop, and you need to do a little precise brush work to clean things up. So you pick up your display, sketchbook style, grab a pen and go to work just like you would with pencils or pastels – “drawing” directly on the displayed image with your pen to lay down the edits.


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For photographers and graphic artists, this scenario captures the allure of the Wacom Cintiq 12WX, a combined tablet interface and LCD from the company that’s name has become synonymous with “graphics tablet.” Sure, tablet PCs can offer a lot of the 12WX’s flexibility; hence their popularity with artists and other creatives. But for hard-core graphics work, portable machines rarely match the processing power (or obviously, the file storage capabilities) of a well-speced desktop. To this end, as a tablet that offers the same functionality afforded by the Wacom’s professional-grade Intuos models merged with a thin and light 1280x800 LCD display, the Cintiq brings the feel of direct-on-the-image editing to any computer with a VGA output.

Design and Build

The Wacom Cintiq 12WX is the smallest of the company’s three Cintiq pen displays. At 3.6 pounds and significantly less than an inch thick, the 12.1 inch display and integrated pen tablet is also the only one of the three that’s small and light enough to pick up off the desk and work with right on your lap. With a thickness of just .67 inches thick, it’s thinner than all but the most svelte notebook computers.


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Unlike the larger 20 and 21 inch versions, which come by default with conventional LCD monitor stands, the 12WX uses an integrated swing-out stand to support the display at any angle from 25 to 60 degrees.


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For those looking to more permanently affix the 12WX, a standard-sized VESA four-bolt mount is also standard fare.


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Connections are made via the Cintiq’s external video control unit.


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The display side of things is driven via either VGA or DVI output, with a single USB connection controlling the input side. Power is routed through the 12WX’s video controller as well. The 6.5 foot cord tethering the display panel to the video controller gives you the ability to work with the Cintiq at a pretty decent distance from your desk – great for sketching with the display on your lap.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.

Setting Up the Cintiq

With the system-based caveats outlined in the paragraphs that follow, setting up the Cintiq really is as easy as connecting the display (and the system’s intermediary video control unit), installing the drivers, and powering everything up. Wacom also includes complimentary versions of Photoshop Elements 5.0 and the very fun Corel Painter Essentials 3.0, in addition to a set of CS-compatible custom brushes for Photoshop.

How seamlessly the Cintiq integrates with your computer and with other displays in your setup seems to vary pretty widely, however. We had no luck connecting the Wacom to a tablet PC – not surprisingly, two similar input systems on the same machine threw up device driver conflicts right and left and brought out some generally squirrelly behavior. Probably not a big deal for most users: if you have a tablet PC, what do you need with a separate pen display anyway?

Using the Cintiq with a laptop’s built in multi-monitor graphics card can also be fraught with issues. Some primitive notebook graphics cards only allow the second display to clone the notebook’s screen (which means your laptop display’s resolution is reset to conform to the Cintiq’s 1280x800 spec – hilarious looking but not particularly fun to actually use on 17 inch desktop replacement notebooks…).


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Even if your notebook does support true multiple displays, establishing independent color profiles can still be something of a chore, and may not even be possible with some setups. Additionally, those using recent MacBooks (including the aforementioned Air) may encounter issues in not being able to come up with compatible screen resolutions for both the laptop and the Cintiq that each device is happy with – especially ironic with the MacBook Air given that its native screen resolution is 1280x800, but it refuses to drive the Cintiq at the same settings. The moral of the story for laptop users is that your mileage may vary, so do some research (and if at all possible, some testing) to see whether the system will integrate like you want it to with your particular machine before dropping a grand on the 12WX.

Again, not surprisingly, a desktop with multiple graphics cards proved to be the most Cintiq’s most stable and flexible setup – probably appropriate, given that this is where these devices will likely see the most regular use. Though you can clone the desktop using this setup as well, my preferred method involved an extended desktop arrangement, where the Cintiq functioned like a conventional second display when using the mouse but switched over to a single-screen tablet setup when using the pen. A “Display Switch” function can also be programmed onto one of the function keys, allowing the pen to control the cursor on both displays. Overall, setup was flawlessly simple on my home graphics machine, and I was able to independently profile and calibrate the Wacom without issues or compromises.

Pen and Tablet Performance

With resolution and data rates (5,080 lpi, 200 pps) on par with Wacom’s other higher-end tablets, performance was predictably smooth and precise. The 12WX tracks quickly, with imperceptible lag, even when moving the pen back and forth rapidly. As with the Intuos3 conventional tablets, the Cintiq also has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Pressure sensitive functions in both Photoshop and Corel Painter performed exactly as expected, with lots of intuitive control.

The included grip pen is Wacom’s standard two-button unit.


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While the all-plastic pen would actually be slightly more comfortable, in my opinion, it was a bit on the heavy side. The contoured grip area is thick enough to promote good pen holding habits (and reduce long-term fatigue). The rubberized finish on the grip area has about the right amount of give and a nice, easy to hold texture.

As with function keys on the display itself, the two-button rocker can be configured to control a near-limitless number of functions or key commands. Pen tips are removable/replaceable, and Wacom supplies several of the default, medium-hardness tips.


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For a softer, more “brush-like” feel, swap out the stock tip for the included spring-loaded version.

At the opposite end of the pen, a spring loaded eraser tip automatically calls up the eraser tool in many common graphic design programs, and even works to highlight and delete text in Microsoft Word. The stock grip pen can also be subbed out for several different accessory versions, including Wacom’s classic and airbrush models.

Display Performance

As noted, the LCD portion of the Cintiq is a 1280x800 unit – a step or two back from the resolutions we’ve become increasingly accustomed to, especially for graphics work.


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The display is acceptably fluid, but colors and contrast can be just a touch dull. Still, it’s at least as good as an average notebook display. I did notice a bit of backlight bleed at the corners of the image. Otherwise, the display panel’s good rigidity (it is a tablet, after all) exhibits minimal flex, and thus minimal rippling, when holding the display or applying pen pressure.


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Viewing angles are quite good, with both horizontal and vertical viewability approaching 90 degrees – again, ideal for a display that’s meant to be held while used.

Controls for the display (brightness, contrast, backlighting, as well as individual RGB sliders) are all accessed using the control buttons on the system’s video control box.


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Having to navigate on the box isn’t a perfect solution, but given that integrating the chunky video controller into the tablet itself would’ve added bulk, I can learn to live with it as is.

In terms of color calibration, while I was able to get a near-match to my primary design monitor, even display-matching calibration software couldn’t quite get the Cintiq perfect, though at this level of color calibration you’re really splitting hairs.

In Use

As any graphic designer who’s worked with a pen tablet for awhile will tell you, it’s hard for many of us to conceive of going back to a mouse after having been shown something much more natural and precise in pen-based control. To a lesser degree, the move from conventional graphics tablets to the Cintiq is equally eye-opening: suddenly, the learned disconnect between hand and eye that traditional graphics tablets promote evaporates.

To see the Cintiq 12WX at work, check out my brief video overview of the device:

 

In terms of the general concept, it really is hard to envision a better system for tasks that make sense for pen work (illustration, image and video editing, light web browsing, etc.). In addition to being acceptably light for “sketchbook” use, the 12WX’s display doesn’t throw off a lot of heat, making holding the display my preferred use arrangement.


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Simply pick up the display or set it in your lap and you’re ready to draw. If you’re used to working on an angled drawing or drafting table, the Cintiq easily goes there too, and it's this kind of choose-your-own-adventure flexibility in setting up and using the 12WX that makes it so appealing.

Graphics work on the smallest Cintiq may require more zooming than you’re used to on a 20+ inch monitor to make out and manipulate the fine detail rendered by larger, higher-res displays. With on-tablet programmable buttons and touch pads that are easy enough to set up for dedicated zooming and two-axis scrolling (with about 8 buttons to spare for other functions), this isn’t as much of an inconvenience as it first seems, and the process quickly becomes second nature. Likewise for jumping back and forth between the Wacom and another display: once you figure out how the 12WX behaves in “mouse” versus “pen” mode, reaching across to the primary display to grab work items or select files makes perfect sense.

Overall, while I’m not sure that the 12WX allows control that’s any more precise than a conventional pen tablet, the ability to work with an illustration or edit an on-screen image by putting a pen to the screen changes the game. Need to do a quick illustration from a photo? Drop it into the background, open up a top work layer, select your brush, and away you go – quick, tracing-based sketches are almost too easy. Want to dodge a very specific area of an image? For the first time with the Cintiq, you’re looking at both your hand controlling the dodging tool and the area of the image being edited simultaneously. As I said, the disconnect between hand and eye that even the best conventional interfaces promote is gone with 12WX.


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Moreover, while the Cintiq is excellent for many kinds of graphics manipulation, graphic artists working in a digital space but more proficient or comfortable with “analog” techniques are the real winners here.

Conclusions

So what’s keeping me from going out and buying a 12WX? Cost, primarily. While it’s unquestionably a well-made, innovative, perhaps even revolutionary product, with a retail price that just squeaks by under $1,000, I’m having trouble with the math: for the cost of one Cintiq, I could buy a nice (if not ultra high-end) 20.1 inch display, a mid-sized conventional pen tablet, and still keep several hundred dollars in my pocket. Of course, the counterargument to this line of thinking is obvious: you may get a lot for less money, but you don’t get a pen display.

If you’ve justified the cost equation in your mind, and can overlook the Cintiq’s average performance as a display and occasional setup quirks, the 12WX is otherwise free of fatal flaws, offering an interface for graphics work or general computing that, in many ways, you simply can’t get any other way.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Wacom Cintiq 12WX Specifications:

Dimensions16" x 10.5" x .67" (WxHxD)
Weight3.6 pounds display only, 4.4 pounds with video controller
Display12.1" WXGA (1280x800)
Tablet Area
10.3" x 6.4" (WxH)
Display Input
VGA, DVI-D
Number of Colors
16.7 million
Color Management
ICC profile, 6500K white point
Pressure Sensitivity
1024 levels
Data Rate
200 pps
Resolution
5080 lpi
Function Keys
10, user assignable
Touch Pads
2, user assignable