Gear Review: Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 – Drawing bliss or miss?

I’m a fairly recent pen display convert. Like most people, my first attempts at going digital with my art came in the form of a Wacom drawing tablet. In my case, it was a Wacom Graphire 2 that I purchased in 2002. While it made coloring my scanned artwork easier, I found it too difficult to draw with. It didn’t take long before it was relegated to the Drawer of Misfit Gadgets.

In 2009 I was doing animation in Adobe Flash for college. In class I used the school’s Wacom Cintiq monitors, but I wanted a way to work on projects at home. On the recommendation of my teacher, I picked up a Wacom Intuos 4 Medium. While it actually made creating hand-drawn animation in Flash possible, I personally couldn’t get the same level of control the Cintiq offered. After I finished college, into the drawer it went.

Fast-forward to 2014. I had just committed to doing illustration work as part of my job with the Target UX team. I had recently started using my Intuos 4 to draw again, thanks in large part to also discovering Manga Studio 5. However, this was my first professional illustration project, not just me toying around. I had a deadline, and it was coming up fast. I muddled through the project with my Intuos. Never had I struggled so hard to get what was ultimately a simple drawing. The disconnect between my hand and my eyes was too much. ‘Undo’ was my constant companion.

When more illustration work for Target started coming in, I knew I had to get serious. Digital drawing was the most efficient way to go, but I needed a screen. Plunking down the coin for a Wacom Cintiq wasn’t feasible: I needed something I could take to the office. The Cintiq Companion had just come out, but at $2500 it was well out of my price range. My MacBook Pro at the time was about 4 years old, so I was in the market for a new portable. Microsoft had just released the Surface Pro 3, and based on reviews, it seemed to offer a solid drawing experience. I sold my MacBook, rolled the money into a Surface Pro 3, and got to work. While it finally solved my disconnect problem, I personally didn’t find it as pleasurable to draw with as a Cintiq, even with a matte finish screen protector.

At CES 2015, Wacom announced they were updating their Cintiq Companion line. Two big things stood out for me. First, you could finally plug it into any computer and use it as a tablet display. This was something that was sorely missing from the original Companion (although its Android-powered cousin had this ability). Secondly, they now offered a wide range of machine specs, which brought the prices down into a much more affordable area. I recently had to exchange my Surface Pro 3 under warranty for a bad screen, and the brand new one was sitting unused in its packaging. I had just gotten fired from my UX job, and started on my path as a freelance illustrator. Without much hesitation, I sold my Surface Pro 3 and rolled the money into a Cintiq Companion 2.

The build

Make no mistake: this is a serious machine meant for serious work. While devices like the Surface Pro and other Windows tablets offer solid drawing experiences, the Cintiq Companion is purpose-built as a hardcore production machine. The large bezel has a soft rubber coating, which makes it easy to grip. It also has large rubber feet built-in to prevent sliding when laying down (something the Surface Pro 3 lacks). The build quality is fantastic. Like Apple good. Solid is the word that comes to mind. And while I’ve had toothbrushes with better build quality than the detachable stand, it is sturdy. Speaking of Apple, if you’re looking for a comparison, it’s about the same size and thickness as a 15″ retina MacBook Pro. I should also point out that thing is hefty, weighing in at 3.75 pounds. To that I say: Excalibur is a heavy sword. Hit the gym and quit complaining.

The ExpressKeys. Personally, I love them. If they’re new to you: yes, it takes time to get used to them. My first experience with them was on my Intuos 4. At first it felt awkward to remember to hit the button rather than reach for the keyboard. But after a few weeks, you realize what a productivity booster they are. Now it is second nature. There were plenty of times with my Surface Pro 3 that I wished I had them. Now that I have them back, you’d have a hard time convincing me to live without them again.

On that note, I need to talk about the left-handed experience with this thing. Yes, I’m a southpaw. Now don’t panic: since this is A) a Windows tablet, and B) a Wacom tablet, you can rotate the device with no issue. Well, from a software perspective at least. While it’s nice that my ExpressKeys are now on the right side (see what I did there?), it came with a couple of issues…

First up: my speakers are now on top of the screen rather than the bottom. That’s fine. I rarely use them anyway, and it doesn’t change the sound much (ps: they’re weak). But it also means that now my volume buttons are upside down. Not a deal breaker, but I did have to get used to hitting ‘down’ to make the volume go up. The other issue is if the speakers are up top, that means that my front-facing webcam is now at the bottom of the tablet. I just need to remember to move back when starting a Skype call, lest the participants get a nice view up my nose. None of these have a real impact on my ability to get things done, I just wanted to mention them.

The performance

Striking the perfect price vs performance ratio is always the challenge when I’m buying hardware. While the i3 is the cheapest of the bunch, you’re stuck with a pretty clunky processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and a paltry 64 gigs of storage. While it’s fine for light use, that simply won’t do for my needs. Sitting at the highest end, you have the beast model packing a Core i7 5557U, 16 gigs of RAM, 512 gigs of storage, and a heart-stopping $2500 price tag. I’m a poor freelance artist that’s just starting out. No dice.

So that leaves us with the two middle models. The i5 and i7. Both have 8 gigs of RAM, with the i5 having only 128 gigs of storage. Well that’s no big deal: My applications don’t gobble up that much space, and all my long-term projects are kept on the 12 TB of RAID 5 storage on my NAS. Both chips have the same Intel Iris 5100 graphics, so that’s a tie. And when you look at actual benchmarks between the i5 4258U and the i7 4558U, they pretty much come out neck and neck. Well, at least close enough where you’d have hard time justifying the additional $400 to step up to it, unless you *really* needed the extra storage.

So with all that said, I went with the i5 model. For my illustration work, I tend to keep things at 11×17 with 600dpi, and I’ve had no troubles. The ‘pinch to zoom’ gesture can make things stutter a bit, but using the keyboard or ExpressKeys to zoom is as snappy as can be. One thing to remember is that the Cintiq Companion 2 is a 2560×1440 panel. So that little Intel GPU is doing its best to keep up with not only driving that resolution, but also with keeping Windows running at 200% scaling due to the high DPI. If the little stutters get to you, you can easily turn the resolution down to 1080p and watch it melt away. Honestly though, it’s hardly a show stopper, and I’d rather keep the native panel resolution for the clarity.

You may have also heard about the fan noise. Yeah, it’s there. It can get pretty annoying at times if you’re used to silence. I am not. I generally keep a fan running in my studio. Between that and the street noise, I can’t hear it. One thing I found interesting is that there are two blower fans in the tablet. Depending on the orientation, it switches which fan is running so that the hot air is always being blasted out of the top. Nice touch, Wacom.

Performance wise, this thing does so well that I use it as my primary studio machine now. My desktop/gaming PC now lives on the living room television set, where it’s R9 280 GPU can be put to good use. *cough*gaming*cough*

I should also mention that you can easily take the apart the Cintiq Companion 2 for upgrades. The RAM is standard SO-DIMM sockets, the SSD is m.2 based, and the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module is in a mini PCIE slot. The downside is that getting to them is a bit of an ordeal. You carefully remove the feet to expose the screws, then pry the friction clips away from the screen using a guitar pick or something similar. If you’re not careful, you will break something. Hell: even if you are careful, you are likely to break something. You know what: forget I said anything…

Oh, and Cintiq mode works great. Plug in the HDMI and USB into your external PC, plug in the 30 pin Wacom connector into the Cintiq Companion 2, and you’re off. Something to point out for our Mac friends: your machine has to have native HDMI out if you want the full panel resolution. If you’re converting from Mini DisplayPort to HDMI, you’re going to be limited to 1080p. Sorry. It’s not Wacom’s fault, it’s just how the DisplayPort spec works. I should also point out that you cannot enable ‘retina’ scaling on Mac OS by default (but you can using this command line trick). That one you can thank Apple for.

Final words

Should you buy one? Are you an artist? Does having a pen display enhance your workflow? Then by all means, go and pick one up. You’re likely leaning that way anyway. It’s a fantastic device, and for me, proved a worthy upgrade from my Surface Pro 3.

But you need to remember what you’re buying. This is not a tablet that has drawing abilities because it came with a stylus. This is a hardcore art machine. While I used to read comics on my Surface Pro 3 in bed, I’d never even consider doing the same with my Cintiq Companion 2. It’s far too large and unwieldy for that. Additionally, the battery life on this will get you 3 hours at most while working, and that’s being generous. But again, it’s not meant to be an all day tablet. It’s meant to be the end-all-be-all of portable digital art devices. It makes no compromises to give you this experience.

If you want the ultimate portable studio, then go for it. But if you’re looking for a tablet that also allows you to get some sketching done, you may be better served with something else. Personally: I’m glad I made the switch. I finally feel like I have the drawing device I dreamed of when I bought that Graphire 2.

Edit: fixed my horrible grammar and added the bit about being able to enable ‘retina’ resolutions on Mac OS. Seriously Apple: what’s up with that?

20 thoughts on “Gear Review: Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 – Drawing bliss or miss?”

    1. Nope. The machine just has to be on. In fact, if you are logged into Windows when you plug it in, it immediately locks the screen. The computer does stay active, but if you don’t have any applications running, the fans shouldn’t kick on.

  1. Hello! Thanks for the review ! The first thing i noticed in your picture is that you are using it on some kind of stand ? Now about the fan noise, does it get lower when using in battery saving mode? And does the performance of this mode changes with each CC2 cpu version? I am thinking maybe the i7 version would downgrade to an i3-i5 and the Broadwell version could be feel like an i5 or something.

    1. You’re welcome! Thanks for reading it. 🙂

      The stand I’m using is a Twelve South HiRise for MacBooks. It’s a holdover from my laptop, but I find it works beautifully to keep the Cintiq at a good height for drawing without having to crouch over.

      The fans definitely get quieter if you’re not pushing the processor, but like any modern CPU, the processor speed scales depending on what you’re doing. If you have the CPU scaling turned on and set to a pretty low percentage in your power options, you might be able to get them to stay quiet. I don’t think the Haswell i5 and i7 will provide much in the way of performance difference when scaled down. The chips are incredibly similar. You could always try undervolting to get the temps down.

      I think one part that a lot of people miss with a device like this is that the fans are also helping to remove the heat being generated by the screen. I don’t have any hard data, but keeping it on a really low brightness may help matters.

      The bottom line though is that if fan noise is a deal breaker, you’re likely not going to be happy with the Companion 2.

  2. Hi, you mentioned manga studio but your photo shows Clip Studio paint, while they’re nearly the same Software Smith Micro runs MS5 while Celsys runs CSP, just wanted to point out the typo there so they get their credit as they get way more updates and support vs MS5.

    1. Sorry about that. I use the two interchangeably since from a usage standpoint, they’re identical. Although I should point out that I mentioned I discovered Manga Studio 5, but have since upgraded my license to Clip Studio Paint 5 EX, so it’s not really wrong. 🙂

  3. Hello,

    Nice and funny review. Thanks !

    It’s strange but I have the impression that the reviews I saw about the CC2 were displaying a screen more blurry than on the Surface Pro 3 reviews.
    Do you have an opinion on the screen clarity vs other tablets ? ( or it’s just the video compression … )

    I would like to use on the CC2 the same screen resolution than on my desktop PC ( 1920 x 1080 ), does it give an image less crisp than at full resolution ? Would it make it easier on the fans ? ( of course, the question is only important if lowering the resolution doesnt impact the image quality )
    I consider that a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 for such a screen, that is wayyyy too small for my eyes.

    So, if lowering the resolution is still giving a crisp clear image and reduce the fan noise by limiting the CPU load, then we have a winner.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

      Regarding the blurry screen: that may be because of the excessive matte finish of the Cintiq. If you’ve never seen the finish up close, the best description I can think of it that it gives the image a ‘milky’ look. It certainly doesn’t detract from the image quality, but if you’re used to high-contrast glass screens, it will look odd to you.

      The resolution question: as with any LCD panel, running below native resolution will result in a slightly blurrier image. The Cintiq Companion 2 does fairly well with its scaling, but there is a degradation in image quality. Now the question of acceptable is purely subjective. I think it’s not too bad, and I’m fairly picky about these things.

      Finally: running the panel in a lower resolution is probably not going to create any noticeable difference in whether the fans kick on or not.

    2. “I consider that a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 for such a screen, that is wayyyy too small for my eyes.”

      Yeah, to be honest, I was a bit surprised, that Wacom put that kind of panel (221 ppi) inside these models, as even the 1080p, what Wacom 13HD uses, is pretty damn small (and crisp with 166 ppi, normal modern displays being around 92 ppi). And believe me, the advantage by using 221 ppi over 166 ppi in drawing really don’t bring pretty much anything on the table, other than a higher price tag.

      But native is always native and it’s usually what you should be using in most of the cases, especially with Intel HD GPUs, which scale to some resolutions really badly.

  4. Hey Tim

    I was wondering how Adobe Flash CC ran on this device? Also what’s the most demanding game you have ran on the companion?

    1. Flash CC runs perfectly fine, BUT, Adobe has yet to implement high PPI support into it. So everything looks pretty pixelated being blown up (even your work area). You can disable scaling in the app properties, but then your controls all get pretty tiny. It’s a fair trade though. I’d rather have that than a pixelated work area.

      I haven’t run too much in the way of games on it. Minecraft (which despite its simple looks, is quite intensive) runs decently. It can struggle at times running full screen at native res. If you knock it down to a 1080p window, it helps a lot. I also ran Torchlight 2 on it at 1080p, which ran great.

    1. The i5 will be plenty for Photoshop. Regarding Premiere, it depends on how intensive your projects are. Simple stuff should be fine.

  5. Hello, I am on the fence on whether or not to buy the i5 or the i7 version of the tablet (not the $2500). I have the money for both but I’m not sure if the performance increase is worth $400. I normally do linework in Manga Studio at about 11in by 16 in canvases with 600dpi and then take it over to Corel Painter for coloring. I want to know if the i5 can handle doing what I do while keeping it at the qhd resolution since corel painter has quite complex brush effects. Do you ever get noticeable lag between your actions? For example making a stroke and the ink following behind at a slow pace? I really don’t care about fan noise.

    1. It depends on the complexity of the brush. I have some Manga Studio brushes that are system crushers on my i7 desktop. Personally: I feel the i5 would be adequate. But that’s just my opinion.

  6. Is there a quick lock feature that sleeps the machine? Similar to the lock buttons on iPads or closing a laptop? I’m wondering if it’s something I can quickly take in and out of bag for showing my portfolio at conventions.

    1. Sorry for the super delayed reply. Yes, there is a slider on the side of the unit to put it to sleep (it also acts as a power switch from an off state). I haven’t had any issues of it waking up in my bag.

  7. So Tim, are your feelings about the Cintiq Companion 2 (i5,256?) still the same as at the time of your initial review here?
    Thanks.

    1. i5/128 actually. 🙂

      Still loving it. I’ve used it every day since I bought it, and aside from some shoddy driver updates Wacom pushed out, it has kept up with no issues. Taking it to Windows 10 actually made it even nicer, quite honestly.

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