My First Worldest Problem Ever

As I was sitting in the coffee shop in Westlake Center drawing Absinthe, my handheld keyboard started acting wonky. Probably because it ran out of power. It’s impossible to tell if it’s out of battery because Windows doesn’t show the power level of Bluetooth devices like my Mac does, but experience has taught me this is usually why it misbehaves.

I looked in my bag and had, as I feared, left the USB cable to recharge it at home.

This is the most first world problem I have ever had in my life. I have to stop drawing my goofy pornographic comic because the chord keyboard I use along with the tablet computer I draw on is out of power.

(I’m downtown, and could maybe find a cable – but I’d have to get a USB 3/2 adapter as well and just, ugh, too much stuff, easier to pop home and grab it.)

The Magic Sketchbook is a success.

Years ago, my animation school roomie Gabe went to a con and chatted with master cartoonist Sergio Aragones. Aragones often draws incredibly complicated, goofy comics, and has a pretty impressive rate of output.

Gabe asked his secret. And passed it on to me: instead of working at a larger size than the printed page and shrinking it down, as most comics artists do, he uses typing paper on an ordinary clipboard. The compactness of this setup means he can draw anywhere – even on an airplane. Any spare moment can become drawing time.

This stuck with me. I fell in love with Adobe Illustrator and got used to being tethered to a huge desktop machine. The highly portable sketchbook was just for roughs and practice, not finished work. Finished work happened at home. Eventually I shifted to a laptop and things got better; I could easily go out to a cafe and work. But I still needed a lot of room. I could barely do it on a plane or bus if I had two seats to spread out on, and it was a big hassle to set up and tear down – enough to make me miss my stop if I wasn’t careful.

But it still stuck with me. Reduce your process to something you can do in a single airplane seat. It started to feel like an tantalizing goal that was always just out of reach for me, even as more and more of my process lived in Illustrator.

Today, I got on an airplane.

This is what page 12 of Absinthe chapter 2 looked like when I got on in Seattle.

This is what it looked like when I stopped after an hour or so and read until I landed in San Jose.

At long last, I have achieved the holy grail. I can draw comics on the plane. The Mobile Studio is still a little too heavy to be as casual as a clipboard or sketchbook, it’s a little bigger and pricier than I’d like, and I really wish it had a kickstand. But sitting there with the Twiddler strapped to one hand and the stylus in the other, I finally felt that freedom. Any journey of twenty minutes or more can be converted into time doing what I love: drawing. And that’s well worth the ~$2k I sunk into this setup for me.

Hopefully in a year or three I’ll have something as light as a Surface that works this way. It will be bliss.

Wacom Mobile Studio vs Surface 4 Pro

I spent some time with both of these devices this year. They’re both pretty similar in a lot of respects: a nearly-300dpi screen, an i5 or i7 processor, and Windows 10. Which means they can run Adobe Illustrator – which is the entire reason I am interested in a Windows device.

The dream is to have a 13″ tablet that runs Illustrator so I can work in AI as easily as I used to work in my sketchbooks. Sitting on the bus, waiting for the bus, lounging on a park bench, sitting in an airplane, lounging around a cafe, slouching around home… wherever. Right now I carry around a 13″ Mac Air and an Intuos tablet, and that works okay, but I have to have room to spread out, and time to set up and tear down – I can sit in a cafe easily, but I can’t cram the computer and tablet onto my lap in a single seat on the bus, nor can I easily stuff it into my bag when I realize I’m at my bus stop and I’ve only got a few seconds to pick up my stuff and get off.

So let’s compare these two devices and assign points based on their relative merits to me. Both start with zero…

Price and computing power. This summer, I paid $1600 plus tax for a 2.2ghz i7 Surface 4 Pro with a 256g SSD and 8g of RAM. I am now using a $2000 Wacom Mobile Studio: i7 of unknown speed, 256g SSD, 8G RAM. The Surface is $400 less for much the same power; 1 point to the Surface.

Size. The Surface has about the same footprint as my Air, and fits in my favorite bag – a soft-sided one that has room for it, my wallet, keys, a few other small essentials, and really not much more. The Mobile Studio is a good inch and a half wider than the Air, and doesn’t fit in that bag. It’s not going to fit into any bag sized for a 13″ device. -1 point to the Mobile Studio.

Stylus. The Surface comes with a hard plastic NTrig stylus, with two hard-to-press buttons on the side, and an eraser that doubles as a button. The Mobile Studio comes with a typical Wacom stylus: soft plastic grip, two easy-to-click buttons on the side, an eraser, and a gentle flare just above the tip for an overall shape reminiscent of a brush. -1 point to the Surface. 30 points to Wacom, for scores of -1 vs 29.

Stylus attachment. The Surface’s stylus has magnets inside it that match magnets on the side of the Surface. They snap together pretty positively. You wouldn’t want to carry the whole thing in your bare hand, but I didn’t have any problems with it ever coming off in my bag. The Mobile Studio, meanwhile, comes with a little plastic dingus that you’re supposed to cram into the security slot, which will hold the stylus against the side of it, obscuring the charge port. 5 points to the Surface, -1 to Wacom, for scores of 4 vs 28.

Drawing surface. The Surface is hard, hard glass and its pen skids around like, well, plastic on glass. And it’s ultra-reflective, to boot. You will want a matte screen protector – once I got one of those off of Amazon for a few bucks, both of those were fixed. The Mobile Studio has a tiny bit of tooth to it, and is not terribly reflective; it doesn’t feel as nice to draw on as pencil on paper, but it’s a lot better out of the box than the Surface. -1 to the Surface, 3 to Wacom. 3 to 31.

Weight. The Surface is .78kg. A black hardcover sketchbook .87 kg. The Mobile Studio is 1.38 kg. And the Air is 1.35 kg, though if I add in the Intuos it’s about 2.16 kg total. The Surface weighs less than a sketchbook. And while the Mobile Studio is less to haul around than the Air plus a drawing tablet, in practice I’m discovering that 1.38kg is way too heavy for a thing I tend to want to support in one hand. It has to be supported by whatever it’s sitting on; trying to lift it up for a better angle makes my hand start to complain very quickly. 1 point to the Surface; -30 points to the Mobile Studio. And that makes the Surface start looking better: 4 points vs 1.

Support. Half of the Surface’s back folds out on a hinge, to make a very stable kickstand. It’s easy to adjust, stays where you put it, and lets you have it at a wide range of angles. It is a wonderful thing, and nearly every Windows 10 tablet computer on the market has stolen it with Microsoft’s blessing. Except for the Mobile Studio. Which has… nothing. You can buy a big awkward plastic stand for it, or you can carry around a little one. Or you can do what I’ve done, which is to take one of the lightweight wire stands I use for books at conventions and tape it to the back of the Mobile Studio, because with a thing this heavy there is really no point where you’re ever going to want to use it without a stand. If I keep it I will probably try to find something slightly more elegant, as it’s constantly catching on my bag when I try to stick the Mobile Studio back into it while getting off the bus. 20 points to the Surface. -7 to Wacom. 24 vs -6.

Cool Widgets. The Surface has a camera that does “Windows Hello”. It seems silly at first but it is really pretty damn cool to turn it on and give it a good angle on my face to log in. And then it smiles and winks at me, which is just really charming. It also happens in like two seconds with no interaction on my part. I think the 16″ Mobile Studios might have this but my 13″ does not; I have to use a password or PIN to log in every damn time I take it out. And the keyboard doesn’t automatically pop up when the password/pin fields appear; I have to hit the ‘summon keyboard’ button at the top of the screen no matter how I play with Windows’ screen keyboard settings. Very annnoying. On the other hand, the Mobile Studio has a row of six buttons and a little wheel running down one side of the front. They’re configurable to a lot of things; I’ve traditionally ignored these on my drawing tablets, preferring to keep one hand on a keyboard, but I can see them working pretty well to hit a few very basic keys and summon a customizable radial menu when you’re using it without a keyboard. They are also why it is too wide to fit in a bag. And honestly once I get the hand-held keyboard I bought along with the Mobile Studio configured, I’ll probably never use them*. 7 points to the Surface for making logging in not just painless, but fun; 5 to the Wacom for having some extra buttons at the price of being too huge for my bag. 31 vs -1.

Operating system. Both of them run Windows 10. Both of them come with terrible defaults: “pen flicks”** are on, the Surface wants to wake halfway up in your bag and check for new email on a regular basis and tends to end up waking all the way up and wasting half its battery warming up your bag, the Wacom isn’t very thrifty with its power out of the box either, hitting the command key on the Apple keyboard I’m connecting to them brings up the desktop instead of acting as a meta key, why the hell is Apple not making a device in this space damnit. All of these things can be fixed but it’s annoying to someone who’s spent the past sixteen years on Macs, and I’m not pretending to be rating the appeal of these things to anyone but myself here. -5 to both; the score’s now 26 to -6.

Adobe Illustrator compatibility. Here’s the big one. This is the art tool I’ve been using for the past sixteen years, the one I know how to use without any conscious thought, the one I have drawn an entire graphic novel in. The one program I am buying these things to run. The Mobile Studio works just fine with it, as I expected. The Surface? Drops the first half-second of my stylus motions every time I draw a shape with Illustrator’s pencil or brush tools. And… my workflow is based almost entirely around drawing shapes with Illustrator’s pencil tool. The Surface is therefore basically useless to me. The Internet has told me to both install a driver and to delete one; installing the driver made things even worse, and the one I’m supposed to delete doesn’t exist. There is one last suggestion I haven’t tried, and will probably visit a Microsoft store to check out soon, but I have no hopes of it working. -600 points to the Surface.

Final score: -574 to -6. Nobody wins.

From what I have heard, nearly every art program out there works fine with the Surface, except for Illustrator. Clip Studio Paint had issues, but got updated; Flash supposedly doesn’t see the stylus at all. I didn’t try either of those programs, or indeed anything else but Adobe Illustrator – the whole point of getting these tablets for me is “a Magic Sketchbook that lets me use Illustrator on the bus”. If I was willing to change applications I’d just switch to something that runs on an iPad Pro and spend about $900 for that and the Apple stylus, which is a damn nice stylus aside from the terrible recharging setup.

If the Surface worked with Illustrator, I wouldn’t have bothered with the Mobile Studio. And if you use a program that works with the NTrig stylus – which apparently is just about every other art program in the world – I really can’t recommend that you bother with it either, unless the Wacom hotkeys and popup menu are worth paying about $500 more for a device that’s really too heavy to comfortably use on your lap. And maybe for stylus rotation/tilt, I never use those. The Surface’s stylus is less comfortable than the Wacom, but if I’d kept it I would have gotten one of those little soft plastic pencil cushions that cost like maybe 35¢ and lived with the shitty side buttons. Take the $500 you’d spend on a MS, use $200 of it to buy a Twiddler and spend a few days configuring that.

When I initially wrote this, I had about a week and a half left to return it. I’m down to about a half a week left and I think I’m getting used to the workarounds I’ve done; using my second-favorite bag until I find a new bag that fits the Mobile Studio and not much else feels like less work than packaging it up, returning it, and visiting the Microsoft Store to try that one last little tweak to make it work with AI, and possibly do without a Magic Sketchbook until I find a Surface clone with Wacom drivers, or the “universal stylus initiative” I’m hearing about starts showing up in new tablets, and I can get pretty much any tablet and buy a Wacom stylus for it. Or until Apple pulls their thumb out, gets OSX running on mobile chips, and makes an Ipad Ultra-Pro. I am not holding my breath waiting for that last one.

The next post in the Magic Sketchbook series will probably be a love letter to the Twiddler, with some notes on technical woes I encountered while setting it up. It’s the last piece in the Magic Sketchbook puzzle for me.

* Later: I still use them a tiny bit, mostly either when I don’t want to take the Twiddler out, or for one keystroke I can’t generate with it for technical reasons – and I just thought of a way to get around those if I’m willing to change how the stylus buttons are mapped.

** “why is my screen scrolling sometimes when I draw fast?” Pen flicks. Type ‘flicks’ in the system search to find the relevant control panel and turn that shit off.

Wacom Mobile Studio: initial impressions

First off, the most important question: Does it work properly with Adobe Illustrator? Yes. Stylus response with the pencil tool is just as smooth and instantaneous as it is with an external Intuos on my Air.

So I get to decide how I feel about the other things:

* it’s big. Too wide for my favorite, very minimal bag – it’s as tall as a 13” laptop, but as wide as a 15” one. Mostly this is due to the row of keys and adjustment dial going down one side. Maybe I’ll actually end up finally using these, I dunno. I’m a keyboard shortcut kinda girl.
* it’s heavy. Man is it ever heavy. Holding it up at an angle gets very fatiguing, very quickly, and it doesn’t have a kickstand like the Surface does. I’m really hoping someone makes a lightweight case for it that adds one; until then I’m gonna be carrying around one of the wire stands I use for displaying books at cons. Add in a keyboard and it still weighs less than the Air + Intuos, but only by about 20%.
* it’s gonna need a screen protector to make it a really pleasant surface to draw on, it’s glass, glass has no tooth.

Right now the weight and lack of a kickstand feels like the biggest potential issue. And battery life is a big question mark; it’s down to 50% right now after a full charge, and a while doing initial configuration off the charger. It claims this is gonna be good for about two hours. We shall see if this holds up under normal use; I’m going to have a shower, then take it out on a shakedown cruise.

(Also it ain’t cheap, it cost me like $500 more than a similarly-specced Surface 4 Pro did.)

Other little things:

* yes the stupid “pen flicks” are on by default, I think this is just a Windows 10 Stupidity.
* the default power management settings are nowhere near enough aggressive for me; I set it to sleep after 1 minute idle on battery, hibernate after 2, and hibernate whenever I press the power button on battery.
* Illustrator still refuses to rotate to portrait mode, but that’s really on Adobe, not on Wacom or anyone else. I’m just noting it. I’m not sure using this wide-ass thing in portrait would really be very pleasant anyway.
* The pen that comes with it is not compatible with the spring-loaded nibs. Which are the best Wacom nibs IMHO, I bought like five of them a while back, seriously if you have a Wacom tablet and haven’t tried it with the spring-loaded nib, try it. But it is happy to talk to the stylus from my Intuos 4, which has a spring-loaded nib in it.

Edit. Okay so I left around 2:00, had lunch, walked to Big Time Brewery, and worked on stuff in Illustrator until 4:30, when it started whimpering about being almost out of power. Its estimate was accurate, which means its battery is about on par with the 4h I’d get from the Surface 4 Pro. Like the Surface, I will probably keep this charging overnight so it’s at 100% when I leave the house.

A wire display holder sort of worked to substitute for the Surface’s kickstand. I’ll probably end up duct-taping one to the back if I decide to keep it and don’t find a case that provides one. I really felt the lack of that kickstand.

Honestly, I prefer the Surface 4 Pro in almost every respect, except for the all-important “actually works with the program I got the thing to run” factor. Half the weight, lower price, integrated kickstand, fits in the same bag my 13″ Air normally lives in. If I used one of the 90% of all art programs that works fine with the NTrig drivers, I would have stuck with the Surface and put a plastic squishy grip on its stylus; this is what I recommend if your favorite art tool is not Illustrator (or Flash or maybe some other apps, ask google how your favorite program works with it).