The Backstory

When I first walked onto the expo floor at Photoshop World Las Vegas on September 5th, one of the stops I knew I’d be making was at the Wacom booth. Part of the reason was to catch up with some old friends, like Joe Sliger and Wes Maggio, but who are we kidding? I was there to see the newly announced 13” Cintiq Companion Hybrid (CCH) that not only serves as a pressure sensitive input display device for your computer, but also doubles as a fully functional Android tablet! Now, while I’ve been a user of Wacom products for many years now, my experience has revolved around the Intuos tablet lineup. My Intuos is an indispensable part of my editing workflow and I have one with me wherever I go. But, when Wacom offered to let me put their new CCH through its paces, I jumped at the chance. Because I work at Google and love the Android ecosystem, this was a match made in heaven for me. Ultimately, the folks at Wacom wanted to know how this device would fit into my workflow, so let’s begin.

The Basics

Given that there will surely be a plethora of technical reviews, along with the product details that you can find here, my aim is to keep this review more subjective, focusing on my usability. I did receive a 32gb unit that was fully charged upon unboxing it. While the device does have a MicroSD slot, I did not use any expanded storage nor did I connect any peripherals to it’s USB port beyond using it as a my primary display with my Macbook Pro Retina (latest generation).

This review is based on my experiences using the device for a week (I’ve since sent the test unit back to Wacom and am eagerly awaiting my production model). The goal of my review was two-fold:

1. Experience using the CCH as a standalone Android (4.2) tablet and
2. Experience using a Cintiq device as part of my image editing workflow

Beyond that, I’m more hoping to field your specific questions via comments.

The CCH Android Tablet

As an avid Android user, having a Cintiq device that runs Android 4.2 as a standalone device was the most intriguing thing to me. Tablets are a dime-a-dozen these days but none have the refined functionality that would benefit a photographer, graphics designer, or illustrator of the CCH. Namely, having 2048 levels of pen-pressure sensitivity (including tilt recognition) with the added bonus of ExpressKeys and a Touch Ring really piqued my curiosity.

Setting up the Android experience from the first boot up was exactly as you’d expect. There is a convenient wizard that you’ll use to calibrate the pen to your display, which takes no time at all. In fact, I commend Wacom wholeheartedly for delivering as close to a vanilla Nexus experience as you could ask for. Other than some basic apps that Wacom loaded to help you get the most out of the tablet, all of the system controls, apps, and UI are stock. The overall performance of Android was superb and there was absolutely no noticeable lag anywhere. Most of my usability tests with the tablet were limited to me on my couch with the TV on – the way I usually use any other tablet. While the CCH is certainly heavier than an iPad or a Nexus 7/10, it isn’t that heavy that it’s uncomfortable to use. At no time did I experience any fatigue using it. If anything, browsing the web, Google+, FB, etc was a joy because of the massive 13” display. Battery life was also admirable. I was able to get four days of usage at several hours per day before having to charge it up.

Once I got my basic Google account information set, I began the hunt to find apps that would take advantage of using a pen in lieu of my finger. Wacom does help by including its Creative Canvas software and offers up some recommendations of other 3rd party applications (like Adobe Photoshop Touch, for example).

Because my goal was to see how I could adapt the workflow of editing a photo on a tablet with a pen, I opted to go the route of using Photoshop Touch first. Unfortunately, the experience was more frustrating than I had hope but it’s really important to note that this has nothing to do with Wacom or the CCH but rather because of the clunky and unintuitive layout of the PS app itself. After about a half hour of trying to make progress with a two-layer image project, I abandoned the app altogether. I did have more success using other editing apps but because their inputs were more focused on function taps rather than actual editing strokes, I felt like I never really got a good opportunity to delve into the real power that this device could offer on the Android platform. Again, this is not a knock at Wacom at all but rather a call to action for Android developers to start thinking of ways to build meaningful apps that would take advantage of pressure sensitivity and a pen input device.

The CCH as a Cintiq Display Tablet

The next part of my user review involved eschewing my 27” Dell display & Intuos tablet and use the CCH as my primary display and input device. The CCH comes with a proprietary data/power cable that charges the unit and allows you to pass the display from your computer via the USB and HDMI ports. The other side of the cable connects to the tablet using a proprietary connector. Once connected, my CCH came to life, showing me my Mac OS desktop in all its glory. And like any faithful photographer, the first thing I did was color calibrate it using my X-Rite i1 Display Pro. The calibration process worked exactly as you’d expect and when I was done, I had a properly calibrated Cintiq display that reproduced my photos beautifully, brightly and clearly.

photo 2

This was the first time I’ve had a chance to use a Cintiq device for an extended period of time and I was really eager to see what would change by actually making all of my draw gestures on the display itself rather than on my Intuos tablet, as I’d always done. Right out of the gate, it was a complete joy using the pen to navigate Mac OS on the display itself. The cursor tracking and tapping were responsive and never lagged behind. Pen taps were also accurate so when I tapped on the close gem on a window title bar, it would execute properly. The same could be said about navigating menus and scroll bars – it was totally effortless.

The real problems began to show up when I started editing photos in Adobe Lightroom. However, just like with the Android experience before, this wasn’t due to Wacom but rather with Adobe. You see, I’m left-handed and up until now, that had never been a hinderance. In fact, Wacom’s control panel allows you to customize the orientation of your device based on whether you’re left- or right-handed, so you’re great there… especially if you’re using an Intuos tablet. As you’d expect, using Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush to draw selections directly on the display was great and I felt that I had total accuracy by ‘tracing’ on what I wanted to edit.

photo 1

However, also in Lightroom. all of the sliders in the Develop module are located on the right side of the display. This meant that adjusting a slider required me to lay my entire left arm over the top of the unit and pivot my wrist down to make changes. This was the only way I could edit my photos without actually covering the Cintiq display with my arm and I can honestly say that it was neither comfortable nor sustainable. Using Photoshop was more forgiving, though, because I was able to create a saved layout that had all of my essential panels docked on the left of the display, allowing me to edit with ease. Additionally, having built-in touch gesture support was a blessing because I could pinch in and out to zoom accordingly for finer edits. It was that intuitive. And I do admit, I am hooked on having such refined selection controls afforded to me by drawing directly on the image. It’s not better or worse than my process with the Intuos – it’s just different.

photo 3 copy

The Conclusion

All in all, I really do like the CCH. It brings some much needed, refined control for anyone who works on photos, sketches, drawing, etc with its pressure sensitive display. If you’re planning on using it primarily as an Android tablet, you may find yourself missing out on being able to really take advantage of what this device has to offer mostly because of the lack of apps in the Google Play Store that support pressure sensitivity. Beyond that, it is a superb Android tablet that offers a virtually unadulterated Nexus experience and that’s a really good thing for the Android purists out there.

As far as using the CCH as a primary or secondary display, you can’t go wrong. The device is small enough that it can easily travel with you (thanks in part to the beautiful case that is bundled with the device). Connecting to your laptop is a breeze and using the Cintiq to navigate Mac OS is easy. Editing photos also is a pleasure but left-handed users should take heed of the potential issues that non-customizable UIs could introduce.