The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 may be the fine general-purpose Windows 10 hybrid that launched a category, but the Wacom MobileStudio is a more flexible mobile computer that takes the category to the max with essential sophisticated capabilities for professionals. For one, it offers 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity with its new Pro Pen 2, far and away the industry leader. It has application-specific programmable hard controls for streamlining operation without a keyboard, because pro content creation is a two-handed job. But as it's a hybrid, you can connect any Bluetooth keyboard to turn it into a Windows 10 laptop. And like the Cintiq line from which it evolved, you can connect it to a system and use it as an interactive pen display and graphics tablet -- a not-so-cheap way of adding a touchscreen to your Mac!
It's not Wacom's first pen computer -- that launched during the Windows 7/Windows 8 era -- but those operating systems simply weren't pen- or touch-friendly. (And MacOS sadly still isn't.) Now, thanks to a rising-Windows 10-tide-lifts-all-boats environment, there's finally software support to make the MSP a truly useful product.
|Price as reviewed||$3,000, £2,750, AU$4,300|
|Display size/resolution||15.6-inch 3,840 x 2,160 touch display|
|PC CPU||3.3GHz Intel Core i7-6567U|
|PC memory||16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia Quadro M1000M|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Pro (64-bit)|
Prices for the MobileStudio 13 run from $1,500 (£1,400, AU$2,650) for the Core i5 model with a 64GB SSD up to $2,500 (£2,300, AU$3,500) for a Core i7 with a 512GB SSD; the MobileStudio 16 costs $2,400 (£2,200, AU$3,500) for the Core i5, 256GB SSD version and $3,000 (£2,750, AU$4,300) for the top-of-the-line Core i7, 512GB SSD model. All the 13-inchers use the integrated Intel Iris Graphics 550 GPU driving a WQHD (2,560x1,440-pixel resolution) screen, while the bigger tablets use discrete Nvidia Quadro workstation-class GPUs (M600M for the Core i5, M1000M for the Core i7) with 4K UHD (3,840x2,160) displays. The top configurations in both sizes incorporate Intel RealSense R200 3D cameras. While the MSP 13 is a reasonably light 2.9 pounds/1,320 g, the MSP 16 weighs a not-insubstantial 5 pounds/2,202 g.
These are not cheap systems. But given how much the MobileStudio does and how sturdy it feels, the prices don't seem too out of line. What does is Wacom's failure to include a stand with them; and frankly, the design should have incorporated a kickstand. As I write the $100 stand isn't yet available, so I didn't get a chance to test it. (I don't see it for the UK or Australia, but the price converts to about £79 and AU$132.) I do know it's only a three-position stand, which isn't as nice as one with continuous tilt options, and it doesn't look like it supports portrait orientation. If the camera/webcam weren't on the side (in landscape mode), that would be a little less irksome.
To take advantage of the tablet as a pen tablet/touch display, one of the capabilities that makes it worth the price premium, you also need to spring for the $70 Wacom Link adapter (£60, AU$99). It requires two ports on your system, USB-A and DisplayPort, which the adapter funnels into a single USB-C connection.
Though I have a few quibbles with it, overall the MSP is terrific. Though there currently aren't any applications that can take advantage of the increased range of pressure sensitivity (it usually takes a little time for them to catch up), you can feel how smooth the higher sample rate makes it feel, and there's the exactly right amount of friction between the nib and the screen. There's no perceptible parallax, the offset between the pen tip and the cursor display, and most of the time there's no noticeable lag. All that's needed to complete the experience would be haptic feedback to let you feel the interaction of the brush and the paper texture.
Once I overcame my typical bout of user stupidity (look at the big graphic showing that it only works with the center USB-C connector, Lori!), it worked quite well hooked up to my desktop via the Wacom Link adapter. And my system is the configuration from hell. The MSP plugged in as the third display on a Mac Pro still running Yosemite with Windows (8!) in a virtual machine and every connector plus two hubs filled to capacity. I had to disconnect a couple of things to make room for the two Link connections, though
The stylus feels physically similar to other current Intuos styluses; some users find them too bulky and prefer the feel of slimmer active styluses. I like the extra heft, though after all these years I still end up accidentally pressing the buttons on barrel.
The display only covers 94 percent of the Adobe RGB gamut, which is a bit disappointing, but I can imagine it's hard enough to cram Wacom's electromagnetic resonance (EMR) stylus technology and 4K resolution (a pixel density of about 280 ppi) into a panel that doesn't suck all the power out of the universe, much less deliver a broader gamut. Though antiglare, it delivers nice, saturated colors.
You'll notice some unsightly light leakage in the corners of the display, but according to Wacom that's the trade-off for the bonding process used to reduce the parallax. If you don't need perfect display uniformity it's only occasionally jarring.
Even the 13-inch fits space on the sides for an SD card slot and three USB-C connectors along with a volume rocker and a Kensington security lock slot to prevent envious officemates from toddling off with it. And when connected to a system via the Link you can use the SD reader. Optimally, I wish it would mount the tablet's SSD for desktop access as well.
And it's pretty sturdy; it survived the accidentally-dragged-off-the-desk drop test when I tripped over the cable as it was charging, though thankfully onto an industrial-carpeted floor (meaning, not very plush or padded, but not cement) and after I'd completed testing it.
With respect to performance, it does well given what's inside and the power-management trade-offs for the display. But for the expense I would really want something more future-proof: Despite its 3D orientation, the last-generation GPU isn't on Nvidia's VR-ready list, and it could really benefit from the improved power management in the seventh-generation Core processors over the sixth-generation it incorporates. Though our battery testing emphasizes content consumption over creation, for which it lasted only about 4 hours, in practice, it's not a lot better, especially if you like to work with the brightness cranked up.
There's also some serious lag in the CPU/GPU-intensive brushes for Painter 2017, such as the dynamic ones. I suspect that's because the vast increase in sensitivity is just overwhelming the application, and I hope it's something that Corel can fix. But I also experienced occasional brush lag in Photoshop, that would go away after restarting the application. It usually takes a little time for these types of kinks to smooth out.
Ironically, I'm disappointed by Wacom's somewhat chintzy design oversights. In addition to my previous complaints about the stand, the stylus comes with a cheap plastic rest -- it really rolls without it -- and storage tube wthat also holds the spare nibs. Over the course of a single day, I left the stylus in at least three random locations because there's no way to attach it to the tablet. The radial menu is tiny on the small-but-high-resolution screen; the driver needs a way to change the size. In fact, the driver vastly needs an interface update not just to match the operating system interface, but to handle the vastly increased settings complexity. And for years I've been hoping that the company would implement some sort of LED text to dynamically indicate the current mapping of the ExpressKeys, something that seems like a no-brainer for the MSP.
It also really needs to be able to store color calibration profiles in hardware; the colors when using it as a tablet are much different than when it's attached to a system because they're system-dependent. For that last one, though, I've been assured that Wacom's working on it.
Wacom bundles a 12-month subscription to Artec Studio 11 Ultimate to go with the 3D-scanning capabilities of the RealSense camera. But I don't think subscription software bundles add any value to a product aside from the convenience of not having to download a free trial. Basically, it's like saying, "Try this, have everything you've done locked into a proprietary system, and then start paying us a billion dollars and 99 cents for the privilege of continuing to use it." In the case of the Artec software, that's $1,200 a year. A typical MSP buyer will probably already have licenses for the software he or she needs, though, so the lack of included perpetually licensable software isn't a big drawback.
The MobileStudio Pro is a unique solution for the creative nomad who needs power a little more than portability and isn't hamstrung by affordability; while you can get far less expensive but decent tablets for general work, there's nothing from Apple that runs a full operating system and the Windows models really target prosumers rather than professionals. And there's nothing to match the Wacom's multiuse flexibility.
The MobileStudio Pro 13 is obviously the more portable of the two. Since much of what it's for will likely be GPU-bound, which in the 13 is integrated, I don't think it's worth going for the top configuration of that size. The Core i5 128GB and Core i7 256GB versions seem to be the sweet spot, though really the cheapest model is the best buy in that size as long as you don't care about how limited the storage is (64GB). For the larger model, I think it's probably worth the extra bucks for the increased power of the i7 and M1000M to help push all those pixels, especially once the software starts supporting the full range of pressure. One thing to keep in mind when choosing between the sizes is the MSP 16's screen is rated for a maximum brightness of 324.78 cd/m2 but the MSP 13 only glows to 253.4 cd/m2 while eking out 96 percent of Adobe RGB at 221ppi.
|Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 3.3GHz Intel Core i7-6567U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4GB Nvidia Quadro M1000M; 512GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 4||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Book||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965; 1TB SSD|