David Cardinal: Cintiq Companion – An all-in-one, pro-quality, mobile digital darkroom
Apr 2014 02

Wacom tablets, and especially the Cintiq portable touch-enabled display versions, have been wildly popular with serious photographers and graphic artists for years. Until now, using one on the road has meant bringing along both a laptop and a tablet. With Wacom’s new Cintiq Companion, Windows users can have it all in one device. The Companion runs Windows 8.1, including all of Adobe Creative Cloud’s applications, on a high-end pressure-sensitive display that supports both multi-touch and a Wacom stylus.

Unlike most Android and iOS tablets, the Companion is essentially a full laptop — minus the keyboard. It features a powerful i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and either a 256 GB or 512 GB solid-state disk for storage. It has mini-DisplayPort for driving an external monitor, as well as two USB 3.0 ports — handy for high-performance card readers and an external mouse or keyboard. Wacom also sells a small — but not backlit — Bluetooth keyboard.

The Companion provides a great starting point for a full, mobile, digital darkroom, but putting a workable system together still requires some planning and effort.

Step 1: Profile the display using your Spyder

Out of the box, the Companion is not even close to being calibrated, and does not come with an ICC profile. Fortunately, because it runs Windows and has two USB ports, you can calibrate it and create a profile for the screen exactly the same way you would your laptop. Simply use your existing Datacolor Spyder software and hardware, choosing Laptop as the display type. You can lay the Companion flat, or since I normally use it supported on its stand, I simply adjusted the weight on my Spyder’s cord to help keep it on the tablet – shown in the accompanying image.

You can of course tweak the final results, but I found that even the defaults provided a large improvement over the factory values as you can see by the accompany before and after curves.

Step 2: Setup a system for loading your images

One nice feature of the Companion is a built-in micro SD slot. For folks shooting any type of SD card, you could switch to using a micro SD card plus adapter and simply transfer the card to the tablet. But, since micro SD cards are sort of painful to handle, a more likely scenario is adding a portable USB 3.0 SD card reader to your kit. If you’re shooting with CompactFlash or XQD, then of course you’ll need a reader that supports those formats, or to use a cable connection to your camera.

Step 3: Road test your image processing workflow

The Companion is a unique mix of almost-laptop and tablet. As a result, depending on how you use your creative applications, you may find you need to add some more pieces to your mobile darkroom. First, Adobe’s desktop applications are not yet optimized for touch, although they will be eventually (Adobe sneak-peeked some of the changes at last year’s Microsoft Build conference). In the meantime, you’ll need to decide if you’re okay hunting and pecking the small menu items and icons with your finger and the Wacom stylus, or whether you want to add a mouse to your kit. Personally, I was moderately satisfied with finger and stylus for short editing sessions, but I think for all-day use I’d want to have a mouse handy.

For me, and I suspect for many Photoshop users who live and die by keyboard shortcuts, the lack of a keyboard will be an issue. The Companion has a variety of clever tricks up its sleeve that allow you to use its keys — often in combination with the stylus — to create a fairly large number of quick access shortcuts and customizable menus. If you’re going to try to go on the road with the Companion without a keyboard I’d recommend budgeting several hours to set all the shortcuts up the way you want — and then testing them on a sample photo shoot before you go.

In my case I found that having the Wacom Bluetooth keyboard off to one side of the Companion was very helpful, as I was too impatient to figure out how to set up all my favorite keystrokes as shortcuts on the tablet. The Companion’s neoprene sleeve holds the keyboard nicely in a separate pocket. Between using the keyboard for shortcuts and for writing, I think it is a no-brainer to have one along.

Using the Companion as your mobile darkroom

Once you have your Companion set up, it is a lot of fun to use. For hotels and other venues that already have an HDMI-ready monitor or TV, make sure and bring along a mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapter so you can use them as a second monitor (for typical projectors, the VGA version of the adapter is also helpful). Alternatively, the Companion supports wireless screen mirroring to compatible WiDi/Miracast-enabled devices.

The stylus experience on the Companion is, as you would expect, second to none. It is smooth, quick, and has plenty of pressure levels (2048). The device lets you set it to Left-handed mode in the Wacom control panel – a welcome addition for we lefties! — but even with that option chosen I found that re-calibrating the stylus to the screen greatly reduced parallax.

Some final thoughts

For anyone wanting to take their Windows, stylus-based workflow on the road, but not give up the power of having a Cintiq unit, Wacom’s Cintiq Companion is a very cool, high-quality, solution. For those who want similar capability, but don’t have the $2K+ to spend on the Companion, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is a smaller, lighter (2 pounds), and less expensive (under $1K) option, although with a noticeably-smaller display (with the same 1080p resolution), slightly smaller color gamut, less RAM, and no special shortcut buttons on the bezel. It has a Wacom-enhanced stylus, but with half the pressure levels.

For most people either a nice Intous tablet, or a smaller Cintiq with an existing laptop will be much more popular combinations – especially for Mac users, of course — but it is pretty cool to have everything in one device you can prop in your lap and use for sketching, photo editing, and is powerful enough to do all your computing on the road. When Adobe finally releases tablet & touch-friendly versions of Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom, products like the Cintiq Companion will really come into their own.

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience