NOTE: A couple weeks after I wrote this, it seems like just maybe the answer to this specific post might be here in the form of the Surface Pro. Read Gabe of Penny-Arcade fame talk about his experience on the Surface Pro.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always dreamed of a future where I could pick up a small device, pull out a pen and sketch straight onto a screen. To people who don’t sketch a lot or even at all we are in that future, but things are still not quite perfect.
All digital “sketch books” have some kind of issue, caveat or poorly considered design flaw that keeps me going back to pen and paper time and time again. This isn’t to say what available options are impossible to work with—there are many, many artist who do amazing work on iPads, Android Tablets and even their phones. I find many of these options lacking. Let’s take a look at some of the major ones.
The iPad (or any large tablet) is a main option for many people. The Cadillac of the digital sketch book world right now, the iPad, provides some key aspects: portability, simplicity and the ability to easily use a stylus to draw (drawing with fingers is a very non-intuitive way to create art). However there’s a major issue here—because the screen of these tablets are capacitive in nature, using a pointed stylus is not feasible. Drawing with Wacom, Pogo or any other brand of stylus is difficult as the point replicates the signature of a finger it gets in the way of smaller details. You can zoom in, but needing to pinch and stretch can easily break up the flow of concentration your brain needs to keep ideas flowing freely. It’s very much akin to drawing in a Moleskine with a dry erase board marker.
Drawing tablets from such brands as Monoprice, Yiynova and Wacom are widely used as power-house tools. These accessories do a great job of replicating pressure sensitive strokes accurately and quickly. Because they are a plug-and-play option for a larger device makes them less portable and adds a further step of setting up ie. cords, drivers, etc. I do love my Intuos, but it would be amazing to draw on the screen. Cintiques and Yiynovas are exactly that: a direct-to-screen input. But there is a parallax between the tip of the pen and the display (up to a .125″ distance) which makes knowing where to put your stylus difficult at first. So, for actually sitting down and hammering out work these options are excellent but for sitting at a café, meeting or anywhere not at a workstation Mac or PC it’s not the best option.
The Wacom Inkling is an interesting concept, and seems to bridge the gap of tablets and drawing tablets by not being a stand alone screen-in-device or app, but actually recording your art while you draw it in a notebook and giving you the option to retrieve it later. This isn’t a device I’ve had the ability to test, though, since the price tag of $200 seems massive compared to what you’re getting. Reviews have been “meh” at best as well. However with the tweaks worked out this seems to be a close current option, especially appealing as it outputs your sketches in vector and you have the hard-copies of your sketches in your choice of notebook. If Wacom dropped the price to $100, I’d bite.
So, with these popular but not nearly comprehensive options laid out, what is a poor artist who dreams of sketching into his digital book to do? I’ve set out the “Why” of the issues but not brought any solutions. To be entirely honest, I’m not sure. I do, however, have a set of guidelines that might help people who (I hope) are working on this issue.
- The solution must have pressure sensitivity. The sensitivity doesn’t have to be ground breaking—about 512 levels of sensitivity would do the trick, about the third of a Wacom Intuos 4 drawing tablet. Enough for a little shading and opacity blending.
- A stylus solution must have a fine tip point approximately the size of a fine-point sharpie at the thickest. It can’t get in the way of the line you’re actually drawing.
- Simplistic design. Tip to draw, eraser to erase. No more buttons than that. No nibs or parts to screw off and on.
- It must be portable. Ideally a pen to go along with another device, and one built for existing hardware. No extra wires, dongles or cases to have to strap on.
- It cannot be proprietary. It must be an open device so that people who make apps can work it into their software. Companies such as Autodesk and Manga Studio’s SmithMicro Software, amoung many others, make amazing software that pairs nicely with Monoprice, Yiynova and Wacom hardware.
With these guidelines set up, are there any bright-spots on the horizon? I believe their might be one, and it’s from someone you would not expect: Microsoft.
The Surface Pro is a device that takes the accessibility and portability of a tablet and pairs it with the relative openness of a traditional OS. I could easily see a hardware maker creating some kind of solution that integrates all my key aspects and deploys them seamlessly, having to only install drivers for the solution. While Apple, Kindle and Android would need any solution coded into the mobile OS, Windows could let that work be done by the software makeres instead, streamlining the process. Which is exactly what they do now.
Regardless of who provides the answer, we can’t be more than 2-5 years away for this. I can’t imagine something that fulfills an artists’ need like this not sell amazingly well.