Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tablet PCs for artists

Someone asked about tablet PCs for art yesterday and I tried to write a decent answer. With the surfeit of net slates, iPads and the like coming down the pipe, it's easy to forget that the tablet PC, Bill Gates' baby, still exists. These aren't mainstream items and there is next to nothing out there written about using them for art. Which is daft, because many models use the same Wacom technology as an Intuos or Cintiq tablet.

Because they're mostly used in business contexts and are purchased in bulk by organisations, they tend to filter back onto eBay after a couple of years and you can often find the most popular models in some number. So long as it's not a beater or ancient, put in some more RAM, a new hard drive, maybe get a nice Photodon screen protector and you will have a wholly serviceable computer for drawing and making comics on.

You need to make sure you get a model with an active, not a passive digitiser (passive digitisers just respond to physical pressure, ie your elbow, a stick etc) here's a master list of all the models that are decent for doing art on. Most tablet PCs have 12.1 or 12" screens and while there are still some models floating around with SXGA+ (1440 x 1050) screens, don't buy one if you value a. your eyes and b. the time you will spend fruitlessly recalibrating the screen to try and hit your mark. I never could. To get pressure sensitivity in Photoshop, you need a Wacom Digitiser (not N-Trig, which a few models employed).


I AM POOR (Most of these won't run Windows 7 satisfactorily due to missing drivers for video cards etc):


Toshiba Portege M200
Hundreds of these out there. They all look a bit worn out. Nice to draw on. Horrible screen viewing angles. Hi-res screen might hurt your eyes.

Lenovo X60t (make sure it's a "T", the standard X60 was a regular laptop)
Tremendously robust glass screen and IBM build quality. Screen bezel a bit annoying.

Fujitsu ST5022, ST5032
Crappy specs, annoying PATA (hard to replace now) hard drives, really really nice to draw on. A compromise candidate for £200. Abundant.


Toshiba Portege M400

Fujitsu T4210/4215/4220
Good all round drawing feel and nice screens, esp. in the 4220. All the Fujitsus come with two button pens (many tablet PCs just have one button pens that feel like they are made out of a drinking straw). Again, nice to draw on.

Lenovo X61t
A revision of the X60 above

Fujitsu ST5112
As above but SATA hard drives, maybe a Core Duo processor, you can put Win 7 on it

Fujitsu T5010/T900 (core i version of T5010)
This is the only 13.3 inch widescreen tablet left, I think. It's heavier to lug around but the extra screen real estate is very nice.

Lenovo X201
12 inch widescreen (like a Cintiq 12WX screen)

HP 2730/2740
Widescreen HP business machines with good build quality

There are newer models from the main manufacturers that I have not had a chance to have a go on. Of course manufacturers should feel free to send me complimentary devices.

Toshiba Tecra M4
Video card burns out eventually, hinge is fragile.

Toshiba Tecra M7
Oversensitive pen feel problematic in some applications (Manga Studio particularly), a lovely computer but this was a flaw I couldn't get past. In Photoshop it seemed fine though and I managed to make about 40 comics on mine while on the road - it took a bit of tweaking. The 14" screen was mega though.

Asus R1E/R1F
Great to draw on, big screen, but there was a recall of many of these because the cursor would stick in the corner of the screen.

Axiotron Modbook (kind of a cannibalised MacBook slate)
Text input via pen on a slate is important and it's excellent under Vista and Win7. The Modbook's text entry is not great. Not great at all.

I would advise that you avoid machines with pen and touch or "multitouch" options. If you want to touch something, TOUCH SOMETHING ELSE. The Wacom enhanced drivers barely work on most tablet PCs, the dual touch drivers are prone to explode. These aren't mass market consumer machines and issues in this area, when addressed, have seldom been addressed well. Hopefully my list will help.

Every make of tablet PC I've used has had a slightly different feel to draw on. The Fujitsus are closest to the Cintiq but a combination of anti-glare screen coatings etc fogs the water even there. I've no idea about Motion Computing's slate offerings but they are supposedly very well made. I've never seen an "Electrovaya Scribbler" or an "Armor X1" so who knows.

When you buy a tablet PC, buy it as a drawing machine, not a laptop. This part of the market never really took off and the best machines are not always the newest. There are crazy people out there still using HP TC1100s from 2002 because they love the form factor so much, and it was never replaced. They are completely insane but I hope it illustrates my point.

I hope this helps a few people! If I've raised any questions, stick 'em in the comments.


Alex Hughes said...

Nice round-up. I can recommend Motion Computing slates - I use an old LE1600 I picked up on eBay a couple of years back for all my drawing now, and it works a treat. They're going even cheaper on there now (around £200-£300 for a used one). I've also got a second hand LS800 (a smaller, more portable version of the LE1600) on it's way to me (once it clears customs).

Can't speak for the newer models - the LE1700 is essentially the same with more memory & a higher res screen, and the current J3500 looks nice (around £1600).

Software-wise I try and avoid Photoshop completely these days, doing most of my drawing in either Manga Studio or Sketchbook Pro. Both highly recommended.

John A said...

I really like Sketchbook Pro but it has all sorts of "ploblems" on Vista and Win7, I have to run it in Windows 2000 mode, which is time travel for all the wrong reasons.

Sigivald said...

If you're really rich, or don't want to work in Windows, there's always the Modbook.

Which is where Other World Computing takes a MacBook and converts it into a tablet with a shiny Wacom digitzer.

Sure, it starts at $1850 (or $850 if you already have a 13" MacBook non-unibody lying around), but hey, I said, "if you're rich".

Sigivald said...

Ah, I see you actually mentioned it - the "Axiotron" bit confused me.

Maybe a UK marketing thing.

John A said...

Axiotron is definitely the company that makes the Modbook. I think perhaps it is a spin-off venture of OWC.

From what I heard from a couple of friends who had the early models, the Modbook isn't tremendously successful - it runs very hot, which is unsurprising since Macbooks dissipate a lot of their heat through the keyboard. That's not to say it isn't a nice idea.

Tom said...

If you can put Windows 7 on a tablet PC, should you? If you're only looking for something to run Photoshop CS3 (for example), would it be better to just stick with a no frills XP, since these machines seem a little light on resrouces? Or even getting a newer tablet, such as the later Fujitsu Stylistic (which seems really interesting to me), taking off Win7 and installing XP instead.

As litte lag as possible is essential to me if I'm sketching on a PC, so I'm wondering if these machines can deal with that?

John A said...

It depends on the age of the machine. A Pentium M is going to chug under Windows 7, but with Core Duo and Core 2 Duo onwards, I think any potential loss is minor and outweighed by Win 7's superior tablet features (handwriting recognition is much better - important for a slate). Plus, with screen real estate somewhat limited by the Tablet PC format, you really notice XP's gigantic title and taskbars! If you max out the RAM in your machine, Win 7 should be no problem.

WRT the Stylistic ST6012 (and the ST5112) these are never going to be Photoshop powerhouses if you're doing lots of layers at giant sizes, but for light stuff you won't notice a lot of difference difference.

Paul Fryer said...

Oh man, this is awesome. I've been looking for a good informed opinon on tablet pcs for artists for like EVER, nice!

I ended up getting an HP tx2500, I wouldn't recommend it. It runs way too hot and the ports are in stupid places.

Then the wacom bit of the screen broke so now it's just an expensive, hot laptop. It's a pretty good hot laptop with lots of nice touches, but as a tablet pc it kinda sucked. :(

But yeah, thanks for posting this, much appreciated! :D

Noel Curry said...

Oh, this is exactly the type of overview that I've been looking looking. It's been very difficult to try and find this kind of information. I'm going to sell my Cintiq and get one of these (have already found a M400 on eBay for £230), so that I can draw on the move.
Thanks John.

John A said...

Noel - those machines are very old now and the M400 had a design fault that caused the graphics card to burn out. I'd never swap my Cintiq for a Tablet PC. Caveat emptor.

Noel Curry said...

Ah, I've already bought it. It does have a limited guarantee though so hopefully this one will be okay. I understand that I'm downgrading by moving from a Cintiq to a tablet, but as I'm really just an enthusiastic amateur rather than a full-time webcomic artist, portability and being able to draw when I have a spare hour or so is more useful to me than the high spec accuracy that the Cintiq provides. I'll let you know how I get on with my new bit of kit.