Interactive Displays

Review: Wacom Cintiq 12WX

The high-end interactive display goes mobile for around $1,000

Whether you're participating in digital media instruction personally or merely supporting visual arts programs on your campuses, you no doubt have Wacom tablets up near the top of the equipment list. They're integral in the production of digital art, and they're ubiquitous in all realms of professional creative work--from animation studios to graphic arts shops to post-production houses. Economic realities may have limited your choices in the past, but that changed this month when Wacom launched its new entry-level Cintiq, the Cintiq 12WX, bringing a mid-range price tag to high-end graphics input.

If you're involved in digital art at all, you're at least aware of Wacom's more popular lines of interactive, pressure-sensitive tablets. On the high end, there's the Intuos line; at the entry level, there's the Bamboo line (formerly known as Graphire). Both lines make excellent additions to the artist's tool chest. Intuos tablets are more sensitive and have more functionality than the Bamboo tablets, and they're geared more toward professionals. But any kind of Wacom pen tablet is better than none at all. I personally have several models from each line, used for various purposes--some for the kids, a couple large ones for the workstations, a couple medium-sized ones for working in smaller spaces. I even bought a first-generation Cintiq way back when, although I don't use it anymore because it doesn't have the functionality of the newer, more advanced tablets out there, even though it is great in other ways.


With the new Cintiq lineup, Wacom has brought together the best of all of these without any compromises. The latest Cintiq generation has all of the advantages of Intuos tablets--including support for pen tilt and other functions--along with the killer feature that makes the Cintiq so sought after (and, until now, expensive): The tablet is, itself, an LCD display.

In the past, this feature has come with limitations. In the distant past (a few years ago), it meant you didn't get all the functionality of the regular graphics tablets (less sensitivity, no tilt support). In the more recent past, it meant simply a whopping price tag, along with a form factor that limited the device to a fixed location (unless you were a fan of hauling around a 23-pound monitor).

Now, with the introduction this month of the Cintiq 12WX, that's changed. Not only is this the first Cintiq to come in below $1,000 (just barely, at a retail price of $999), but it also comes in a form factor that's truly portable. It fits snuggly in a laptop case (measuring 16" W x 10.5" H x .67" D). And, at a total weight of 4.4 lbs., it isn't a burden to carry around or use on your lap.

Hardware Features
The Cintiq 12WX sports a 12.1-inch TFT LCD display--a bit smaller than a MacBook display, and about the same size as some PC notebook displays or the active area on an Intuos3 6x11 tablet. The screen (covered in a layer of durable acrylic) has a resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels (WXGA).

As a display designed specifically for visual artists, its quality is far superior to that of any notebook display I've seen. It has true 24-bit color depth (as opposed to the fudged "millions of colors" on standard notebook displays). Colors, brightness, and contrast are even across the face of the screen. And the device calibrates up nicely using a colorimeter. (The factory settings on my review unit were a bit dark, but that was fixed easily enough.)

It has a wide viewing angle (±85 degrees horizontal and vertical, which is slightly less than the higher-end models in the Cintiq lineup). At factory settings, it does have a discernable sweet spot of (very roughly) 45 degrees on the vertical and maybe 70 degrees on the horizontal. Proper calibration with contrast boosted all the way up took care of this problem.

In terms of tablet functionality, the Cintiq 12WX has a resolution of 5,080 lines per inch, 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, and support for pen tilt (up to 60 degrees). The tablet also supports Wacom's 6D Art Pen and Airbrush. So essentially it's an Intuos with a screen. And that's pretty much all I need to know.

The Cintiq uses a cord-free, battery-free grip pen that has a pressure-sensitive tip and eraser and two side switches with user-assignable functions (right click, click lock, display toggle, application-specific commands, etc.) The pen also includes a variety of interchangeable nibs: standard, spring-loaded, and pressed-felt nibs, the last two providing for greater tactile interaction. (I'm partial to the spring-loaded nib, but I've been known to swap it out for the pressed-felt nib at times.)

The bezel on the unit also sports 10 customizable keys, along with two touch strips (for scrolling, zooming, scrubbing, etc.). These are in two banks on either side of the display--five buttons and one touch strip per side.

The tablet also has an integrated pop-out stand so that it can either lie flat on your lap or be propped up for use on a desktop.

In terms of connectivity, the Cintiq 12WX includes everything you need for pretty much any situation. A single cable comes out of the unit, connecting up to an external hub (included). This hub has both a USB port and a DVI-I port. Included in the packages are all of the necessary cables, including the USB cable, a DVI cable, and a VGA cable. Cable length is generous at more than 6 feet, allowing for easy placement. (Note for MacBook users: a mini-DVI adapter is needed, as it would be to connect to any external display. The mini-DVI adapter is included with MacBook Pro notebooks, but it's an optional accessory for standard MacBooks. These adapters run about $20 to $25 for the "mini-DVI to VGA" adapter or the "mini-DVI to DVI-D" adapter. I tested both, and they both worked fine.)

One final note on the hardware. I've been using graphics tablets in my work (and for the heck of it) since the late 1980s. In all that time, with more than a dozen tablets, not a single one has ever gone bad or stopped functioning properly in any way. Obviously I haven't had this particular unit long enough to make any claims to its durability. But, in my extensive experience with all sorts of electronic devices, this is a rarity. These days, Wacom might even be unique in this regard. The company simply doesn't build disposable technologies. Even the nibs, which are consumables, are meant to last. I still haven't gone through a complete set, and I use these pens every single day. So the indication is, at least from a historical perspective, that the 12WX has been built to last as well.

Software Features
Like all Wacom tablets, the Cintiq 12WX includes driver software that provides a variety of controls over the behavior of the tablet and individual pens. This includes sensitivity adjustments for tip feel, eraser feel, and tilt sensitivity; button assignments for individual pens; and functions for the buttons and touch strip on the tablet itself. These range from display toggle (critical when using multiple displays), modifier keys, and keystroke sequences to first through fifth mouse clicks, application switching, and activating the pop-up menu.


These settings can be made globally or assigned as custom settings for individual applications. This is useful, for example, when you want to set the touch strip to scrub in Apple Final Cut Pro but zoom in Adobe Photoshop.

Like other Cintiqs, the 12WX include a utility (built into the driver software) for calibrating the cursor with the position of the pen.


On the software side, it's also worth noting that the Cintiq 12WX comes bundled with Corel Painter Essentials 3 for Mac and Windows (far superior to the previous version of Painter Essentials), Adobe Photoshop Elements 5 (Windows) and 4 (Mac), and Nik Color Efex Pro 2.

The Bottom Line
For instructors and students involved in the visual arts, a pressure-sensitive tablet is crucial. A mouse simply won't cut it--not in the professional world, not in an educational setting. It used to be that I'd pretty much universally recommend Intuos tablets to my readers. Now, however, with its comparatively low price point, wealth of high-end functionality, high-quality display, and surprising portability, I can't help but move the Cintiq 12WX up to the top of my recommendation list. Couple this with a laptop or, say, a Mac mini, and you have yourself an excellent, compact, portable setup for visual arts. Or combine it with a higher-end workstation and additional displays, and it makes a great companion tool that can also be taken on the road when needed. This is the most innovative, ground-breaking high-end input device to come along in years.

The Cintiq 12WX is available now for a retail price of $999. It's compatible with all applications, and all major graphics applications have built-in support for the tablet's advanced functionality. (For those of you who think like me, yes, it also works with first-person shooters.) It supports Mac OS X, including Leopard, and Windows. Drivers for Wacom tablets for Linux are available through the Linux Wacom Project (a third-party initiative supported by Wacom).

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