Artist Shopping for a Tablet PC

This blog entry is a long drawn out explanation of my recent experiences trying to purchase a Tablet PC. If you are an artist thinking about buying a Tablet PC and aren’t sure which model to get this blog entry may offer some information on the subject.

Why I’m buying one
I’ve been using Wacom tablets for about 8 or 9 years now. Though I love painting digitally, the beginning drawing process has always been a bit of a disconnect for me. For some reason, proportions and my line quality from drawing completely digitally have not been as satisfactory as the results I get with good ol’ pencil and paper.

But recently I’ve been working more on a Tablet PC issued to me at my job. The first one I had at work was a IBM X41 Tablet and it was way too slow and to me was unusable for drawing. The processor was fast but the major flaw was that the hard drive was too slow. PhotoShop and other graphics programs typically use part of the hard drive as a ‘page file’ meaning its substituting part of the hard drive as RAM.

But a couple months ago I got upgraded with an IBM Lenovo X61 Tablet. It’s an updated version of the X41 and man it works really well! I’ve found myself trying to do more drawing. And I can now see myself possibly doing almost every illustration and drawing digitally from start to finish. I am so satisfied with the experience that I’ve decided that I want to go ahead and purchase a Tablet PC for myself.

My Requirements
I want something much more portable than my current personal laptop (a Toshiba Satellite that weighs 9lbs). Something around 4 or 5 pounds would be ideal. I also want it obviously to be a Tablet PC and have the processing power+RAM to handle the resource hogging graphics programs like PhotoShop and Painter without any noticable lag while drawing.

Researching – The Right Tablet for Drawing
I started at first online. I knew that there were multiple types of tablet pc technologies out there. One of which is the Wacom Penabled digitizer which is available on my Lenovo X61. This digitizer allows you to get pressure sensitivity on a tablet pc. The pen that the laptop comes with is very similar to the pen used for the regular wacom tablets. I believe you can also buy special wacom pens for the tablet pcs just as you can for the regular wacom tablets (I think the tablet pens and tablet pc pens are not interchangeable though).

Now, out of the box, a Wacom Penabled Tablet PC will NOT have the pressure sensitivity. You have to download a driver from Wacom’s website in order to get that functionality. However, the Tablet PC you decide to purchase has to already have the Wacom Penabled technology otherwise the driver wont work. You can only get the pressure sensitivity if you have a Wacom Penabled Tablet PC and download and install the driver.

While browsing online at the different laptop models, the first thing I looked for was that the laptop was a Tablet PC with the Wacom Penabled. Many of the tablet pc manufacturers websites did NOT indicate whether the model had Wacom Penabled or not. It was very frustrating. I had heard somewhere or read in a forum post someone saying that most Tablet PCs made these days have the Wacom Penabled. I didn’t want to buy anything without being certain it had the Wacom digitizer. It’s a good thing too because I later found out that most do NOT have Wacom! So it was very confusing trying to figure out which Tablet PCs had the Wacom technology and which ones did not.

I went to Wacom’s website to see if they could offer any answers. But all that their website says is a list of manufacturers that use their technology (ie: IBM, HP, Fujitsu, Toshiba, etc). It does not say which models have the Wacom technology, which is what I really needed to know.

My InStore Shopping experience
So I decided that maybe if I saw the computers in a store and was able to talk to a sales person I might have better luck getting my questions answered. I started with Best Buy. I was expecting that they wouldn’t know much there but I was hoping they’d know something about Penabled . So I asked the sales person if they had any Tablet PCs and the sales person showed me an HP Tablet PC. I asked him what kind of tablet technology it had. I think he looked at the specs and didn’t find any information there. So I asked him if the HP had Wacom Penabled Technology. He didn’t know that either so he asked another sales person. I overheard him talking to the other guy and the second guy said "Uh I think she means the Wacom Tablets. Those are a separate device you buy to use with your computer." I walked over there and explained that Wacom also makes tablet technology for tablet pcs. He tried to convince me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that the Wacom Tablet is a separate device. I went into further detail to explain it. I ended up educating the sales people and not getting any answers for myself. I didn’t like the HP anyway, the screen was too small. I left the store not knowing whether it had wacom or not. This sketchbook entry I made recently illustrates my frustrations: [thumb17790]

Then I went to Fry’s electronics. The sales person showed me three tablet pcs that they had. Two of them were HP’s (one was the same one I saw at Best Buy) and a Fujitsu T4220. I asked him if any of them had Wacom Penabled and he didn’t know the answer but another sales person walked by and overheard our conversation. He said the Fujitsu was the only one they had with Wacom Penabled and showed me the sticker that was placed on the display unit. Yes, finally I see proof that a laptop is out there with Wacom Penabled ! So I asked a lot of questions about it. Namely, why the Fujitsu was over 800 dollars more than the HP. I liked that the Fujitsu was light weight and powerful. It also had WindowsXP Tablet edition. The sales person seemed annoying though. He didn’t really know the answers to my questions and just was not giving me any concrete answers so I left figuring I’d look at what other stores had to offer.

I called another computer store in the area asking if they had any Tablet PCs and the only one they had with Penabled was the X61 which was my work laptop. I didn’t want to get the same one because I was hoping to get something faster and nicer looking. the X61 is too corporate-ish for my personal one.

And that was the last of the computer stores I knew of. I decided to do some more online research.

More Research
I did a lot of reading on the forums at looking to see what laptops artists were buying. I wanted to see which models people were thinking of buying and which ones they ultimately bought and liked. There was a lot of useful information there. I saw that the tablets mentioned by artists were the Fujitsu T4220, the Scribbler, Toshiba M400, and the Motion Computing LE1600, in addition to a few others.

I had heard about the Scribbler several years ago. i saw an ad for it that was marketing it directly as a tool for artists. But the only way to get it is to purchase it online and I wasn’t too comfortable buying a laptop from a company that only sells one laptop product and have no way of easily getting it serviced if there’s a problem. I also kind of didn’t want to buy it without seeing it first. I seriously considered it though because its got insanely long battery life and its a Slate tablet meaning the keyboard detaches from it so that you can just take around the screen and draw. But the technology for these is typically behind other laptops because they have to compress the motherboards, memory, cpu, harddrive, etc into a smaller unit. That and its a lot more expensive. So it was on my list but I ultimately decided against it.

I went to Fujitsu’s website to find out more about the T4220. I learned that there were a lot of customization options including getting an SXGA+ screen  which has a higher density of pixels meaning the resolution is 1400×1050 instead of 1024×768 for a 12 inch screen. It was only $50 extra on Fujitsu’s online store.

I concluded after lots of online research that most likely all of the Wacom Penabled laptops are going to perform pretty much the same no matter which one it is as long as the RAM and CPU are good. So the best thing to do is go with something I liked with the specs I wanted. It’s really a matter of personal choice.

My first purchase, the Fujitsu T4220
I decided to go back to Fry’s and give the Fujitsu T4220 another look. I asked if I could get the SXGA monitor but they said they couldn’t really do any customization save for adding more RAM. They just get one premade model from Fujitsu and that’s it. This was a big disappointment for me but because I knew Fry’s had a good return policy, I thought I’d give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I could just return it and get a full refund. Plus I could try it out right away.

Playing with my first Fujitsu T4220
I liked it a lot at first. The keyboard has a nice feel to it and it looks nice. The screen was a little bit brighter than my X61. I did some informal tests with PhotoShop and Painter on the T4220 against the IBM X61. I tried an 8×10 inch canvas at 600 dpi and brought out a super big brush like I would do to fill the background with a wash. It lagged pretty bad on the Fujitsu but it was still better than the X61. My graphics cohorts tell me that its because I’m working at too high a resolution. But I personally always work at 600-1000dpi with an image anywhere from 6 to 10 inches wide.

Overall I liked it. It wasn’t too different from my work one. But the performance fell a little under my expectations. And I was not satisfied with the resolution of the screen. I was missing having the SXGA+ display that I originally wanted. 

An artist friend of mine has a Toshiba Portege with the SXGA+ screen and loves it and that convinced me to return the laptop to Fry’s and purchase the same model direct from Fujitsu customized the way I wanted it. I’ll end up with a better machine and it will end up being cheaper. I’ll be ordering it tomorrow.

I had no problems returning the laptop to Fry’s. They took it without asking any questions and didn’t charge me any restocking fee.

It will likely be a couple weeks before I get the new laptop because they’ll need to build it and ship it to me. I can’t wait to get it though.

Update and Conclusions – August 22, 2009

I’ve gotten a few emails recently about my laptop buying experience and a few items have changed since I originally posted this.

First, I did receive my Fujitsu T4220 and love it! It works very well and still works great to this day. However, since getting a Wacom Cintiq, I rarely use my tablet PC for drawing. Mostly I use the Fujitsu when traveling. The Cintiq is pricy but if you can afford it and are not looking for a portable tablet solution, I highly recommend buying one. It will change the way you draw!



Sketch Blog for real

Wow ok so I’m actually making a "sketchblog" post. Woo!

I’ve got a tablet pc laptop for work and I’ve been thinking about buying my own. My work one is cool but it’s really slow. It’s not because it has bad parts. It’s brand new with a fair amount of ram and a fast processor. But unfortunately the drive is encrypted so every write action to the drive is slowed down by the encryption. I’ve especially been frustrated with Painter. It’s so slow that its unusable when working in really high resolutions.

What resolution and dimensions do you guys work in when doing digital works? I usually do 600 dpi in 8 x 10 inches. A couple of people tell me I work at too high a res but I don’t think this is too high. At this resolution, I can print it on 11×17 posters at 300 dpi. Actually sometimes I work at 800 dpi if i have something i think i’m going to print large.

So I’m trying to decide what kind of laptop I want. I may decide not to get one and just use my work one. But I’m not sure yet. But anyway, while I was researching laptops I came across this forum post where this guy mentioned a program called ArtRage, stating it was a must have freeware for all artists using tablet pcs. I checked it out and downloaded it. Within 20 minutes of loading it I fell in love with it. It’s really light weight so it runs well on slow machines. It’s not all bloated like Photoshop and Painter. I decided to invest $25 and get the paid version of ArtRage because I loved it so much.

So now I’m doing some sketching with it. I’m trying to sketch something every other day. Even if the drawing isn’t particularly creative. Just need to keep my hand moving. My first entry was this one: [thumb17723]. Today I have my second entry…


Today I had some time to draw and wasn’t sure what to draw. I looked around me and saw a Viking hat that a coworker had put near my desk earlier that day. So I thought, hey I’ll draw myself with the hat on. Like a sort of silly self portrait. Why the heck not?

Next time I’ll try out one of those idea generators.