With the iPad Pro and its tight integration with the Pencil stylus, Apple’s tablet finally became a legitimate content creation tool for artists—and legitimate competition for Wacom, whose tablets have been a staple among designers and pixel pushers for decades. Wacom’s hardware, particularly its touchscreen Cintiq tablets, don’t come cheap, but its new $650 Cintiq 16 is priced to compete with Apple, and despite a few compromises, remains a better option for aspiring artists.
While significantly cheaper than Wacom’s other LCD tablets (like the similarly-sized $1,500, 16-inch Cintiq Pro) the new Cintiq 16 is still by no means cheap. It’s a tool specifically designed for artists who’ve been frustrated by the challenges and limitations of working with a mouse, trackball, or touchpad after coming from a more traditional artistic background. Buying one for anything other than serious art or design work is really just overkill.
Its $650 price tag is even harder to justify when you consider what the Cintiq 16 can’t do. By comparison, the $650 10.5-inch iPad Pro is a full-fledged computer. In addition to art and design apps, it lets users also do messaging, video chats, email, spreadsheets, and even gaming.
The Cintiq 16 serves as a second screen for your computer allowing you to interact with the desktop versions of your favorite design software using Wacom’s well-refined stylus technology. And that’s exactly why I think it’s a better choice than an iPad for aspiring artists who hope to one day make a career out of their creative pursuits. You can find iOS apps that mimic part of the functionality of software like Adobe’s Photoshop or Illustrator, but familiarizing yourself with the standardized tools of the design trade—including the hardware—is just as important as refining your artistic capabilities.
The Cintiq 16's screen (which I measured being closer to 15.6-inches in size, diagonally) isn’t the largest Wacom makes, but it still feels spacious and generous. It’s a few inches larger than the $1,000, 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and when connected to my 13-inch MacBook Pro, it provided far more screen real estate for Adobe Photoshop to stretch out, making the software feel less crowded and cramped than it normally does. (I don’t use an external monitor, which certainly contributes to that.)
But as I mentioned before, the Cintiq 16's affordable $650 price tag comes with some compromises: the first of which being the resolution of that LCD display. Wacom’s pro version of this tablet has a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, but that’s reduced to just 1,920 by 1,080 pixels Cintiq 16. Even the Retina display on my 13.3-inch MacBook Pro manages to push 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, which is enough density to make aliasing (jaggedy edges along curved UI elements) nearly imperceptible to my eyes. But aliasing rears its ugly head on the Cintiq 16 with its resolution maxed out, which makes the tablet’s LCD display feel a little dated.
Another minor complaint I have with Wacom’s Cintiq hardware is the screen’s viewing angle. Colors remain strong and vibrant when you’re not viewing it directly overhead so it’s great for collaboration, but the special coating that keeps oily fingerprints at bay (which can take a lot of grease before you start to notice prints and marks) also tends to wash out the display when viewed from the side. If you’re working in a dark room or studio it’s rarely an issue, but with lights on it means you’ll occasionally have to reposition the Cintiq 16 to escape glares.
The Cintiq 16 includes a pair of retractable feet to help improve its viewing angle when perched on a desk, and screw holes on the back for attaching the tablet to an articulated VESA display mount; but more often than not you’ll probably just find yourself using it on your lap.
I’ll also point out that the Cintiq 16 can’t display as many colors as the high-end displays on Wacom’s Cintiq Pro products, Apple’s pricier iPad Pros, or even higher-end external monitors. It does just 100-percent of the sRGB color space. Which means it won’t be able to support the same range of reds and greens as those other products. So if you’re doing color critical photo or design work, the Cintiq 16's cheaper price tag might end up costing you in the long run.
But the quality of the Cintiq 16's display isn’t the tablet’s main selling point. It’s Wacom’s battery-free stylus technology that artists and designers are after here. The company has developed and refined its “electromagnetic resonance technology” — the stuff that lets its pens function so well, and it shows. Having also used the Apple Pencil, I still prefer Wacom’s chunkier stylus when working in design apps. It’s fast, responsive, and the extra buttons make it easier to access customized shortcuts so I’m not always having to reach for my keyboard. The Cintiq 16 is also stylus-only, it doesn’t recognize finger touches, but I actually much prefer that since it guarantees accidental screen touches won’t have your cursor jumping all over the place.
Unlike Wacom’s screen-free Intuos Pro tablets, or its wallet-busting Wacom MobileStudio Pro all-in-ones, aside from a power button, the Cintiq 16 doesn’t have any physical shortcut buttons around its display. When working with a tablet like this on your lap, performing a software shortcut requires you to reach for your computer’s keyboard perched on your desk, and that’s not always convenient. Programmable shortcut buttons are a nice alternative, but with the Cintiq 16 you’ll have to settle for a software-only Express Menu that can be accessed using one of the stylus’ buttons.
There are other areas where the iPad Pro hardware definitely outshines the Cintiq 16. Apple’s tablet is completely self-contained and wireless, whereas Wacom’s requires this octopus-like breakout cable that includes power, HDMI, and a USB connection to your computer. It limits where and how you can use the Cintiq 16. Doing a few sketches on a plane? Not going to happen unless you’ve got an entire row of seats to yourself.
And while the Wacom technology allows your computer’s cursor to quickly and accurately follow the tip of the Cintiq 16's stylus, the way the screen elements are layered inside the tablet leaves a noticeable gap between the two. In the image above I’m actively pressing on the screen to paint, but the brush cursor appears disconnected from the stylus, which can take some time to get used to. On the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil does feel more like it’s directly interacting with the screen and what you’re working on.
When it comes to digital design, however, it’s still the software that reigns supreme, and tools like Adobe’s industry-standard Creative Cloud suite simply aren’t available for the iPad and iOS. Adobe has created lighter versions of its flagship tools for mobile devices, and they certainly provide adequate functionality for some users, but professionals will eventually find them lacking many important features and tools. Even Apple’s walled garden approach to iOS, and challenges with file management is a roadblock to setting up a productive workflow on the iPad.
Adobe has promised a full version of Photoshop is coming to the iPad sometime this year, which could improve those iOS workflow challenges thanks to the backend support of Adobe’s cloud services, but it remains to be seen how a mobile version of Photoshop will compare to the full desktop experience. All of the tools and features might be there, but being able to customize the interface for specific workflows could still be a challenge.
Apple’s iPads continue their march towards one day replacing computers altogether, but that’s a long ways off. For now desktop workstations and pricey laptops still rule the graphic design and photography industries, powering countless applications that simply won’t be available on mobile devices for a long time. The new Cintiq 16 definitely isn’t for professionals who have the budget for the best hardware, but if you’re an amateur hoping to break into that industry, I genuinely think it’s a better way to spend $650 than an iPad Pro as it allows you to familiarize yourself with the hardware, software, and workflows you’ll eventually be dependent on.