Review: the Wacom Cintiq 13HD tablet

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Cintiq 13HD below my 27″ Thunderbolt Display. You can see straight away the problems of having a glossy screen…

Aside from my computer and Photoshop, a graphic tablet is probably the sole piece of equipment that gets used for every single image I shoot. It plays an indispensable role in processing – specifically, for precision dodging and burning, and masking and retouching on more involved images. I’ve been a big fan of the Intuos line since 2004; every couple of years or so, I have to buy a new one because I wear through the surface – that should give you an idea of just how important they are in my photography. I also use them for design work and illustration, too. My Intuos4 has been with me since 2010, and those of you who’ve attended my workshops can attest to how well-used it is: you can see your reflection in the place where my on-screen palettes go.

Thanks to Wacom Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to test the new Cintiq 13HD for a couple of weeks now. Thoughts follow…

Wacom announced the Cintiq 13HD earlier this year: a much more affordable (I’m not going to say cheap, because it’s still $1000 in most parts of the world, and nearly a whopping $1300 in Malaysia) display-tablet combo. They previously had a 12″ version with limited resolution, quite considerable bulk, and higher cost. As the name suggests, the Cintiq 13HD offers 1920x1080px resolution on a 13″ diagonal, plus the same level of pressure sensitivity found in the Intuos5. Here’s the best bit, though: the tablet offers the same work area as the large size, but the physical size of the device is almost the same as my Intuos4 medium (6×9″ work area); a hair longer, wider and thicker, and a little heavier. But it’s worth remembering that it also packs a display.

The display itself is of decent quality, obviously matte-finish, and was quite easy to calibrate; viewing angles aren’t too bad, but best results are still obtained on-axis. It doesn’t seem to have quite as wide a gamut or dynamic range as my 27″ Thunderbolt display, but it’s more than adequate for critical color work. I didn’t observe any clipping during my test period. Importantly, greys are neutral, too. The only real complaint I have with the panel is the surface – it appears a bit ‘gritty’ when showing lighter colors. Interestingly, combined with the relatively high pixel density of the display, you get the impression of looking at a printed surface. I suspect this is because of the touch-sensitive layer required for pen function, that sits above the LCD. Brightness is very good, too – a claimed 700 nits, and very nearly as bright as my 27″. Annoyingly though, brightness and contrast controls must be accessed through a separate software utility (you’ll find it in a ‘Wacom’ folder in the Applications folder after running the install disc). Regardless, one could use this as their primary display and be quite happy with it – so long as you don’t mind the limited size.

There are two things you’ll have to get over if you plan to buy one of these: the photographers’ perpetual fear of sticking a finger into something optical, and the fact that not only can you poke at it with some force, but it also won’t do the display any harm, either. In fact, you’ll probably have to in order to make the most of the pressure sensitive function. Needless to say, the tablet portion of the device is excellent as always; responsive, precise, and completely natural. It’s well-built, and should feel familiar to anybody who’s used a Wacom product in the past. The pen now comes with a stand and very nice travel case that also holds spare nibs and accessories – a great touch. The tablet itself has a removable easel stand that can prop it up at a variety of angles; it folds flat for easy transport and storage. The quality of this part is rather disappointing though – it feels flimsy, and rather than the folding parts having proper hinges, they’re just thin folded bits of plastic. It’s also worth noting that the bottom inch or so of the display area gets quite warm after prolonged use; a nice feature for colder climates, but not so pleasant in the tropics.

Oddly though, I found drawing on the screen itself very odd – not just for the above reasons – but because my hand would often block the area I was working on. There’s still some distance between pen tip and cursor – the pressure sensitive layer has to go somewhere – and this does hamper precision slightly. I admit it felt a bit more natural to use the tablet in the normal way, with the 27″ as my primary display (whose color I also prefer). The good news is that the 13HD can be used both directly as a display/tablet combo – i.e. as primary display, where your pen position corresponds directly to the screen – or in the same way as the non-display tablets, where the area maps to your primary display, but the screen itself remains active and can continue to be used as a secondary display for things that don’t require pressure sensitivity – your email window, for instance.

I’ve been trying to figure out how this tablet fits into my workflow – I can definitely see a use for it on the road as a display and tablet for my 11″ Macbook Air, but less so at home, where I already have an excellent display and (albeit ageing) Intuos4. I think the key is to use it as a second monitor, and have it map to the primary display. Still, it’s a lot of money for this purpose alone. While we’re on the topic of negatives – there’s a lot of paraphanelia required to make this work. You need an external power supply, otherwise no dice; this will limit its usefulness to photographers on the move (the Intuos tablets can run off USB power). There’s also a proprietary 3-1 cable which taps your computer for USB and HDMI connections, plus an additional port for power. This cable worries me a little, as it appears quite stiff, not very pliant and possibly easy to break or snap off at the connector end. It’s also of course proprietary, which means good luck finding another one in a hurry (again, the Intuos tablets use a standard mini-USB connector). Finally, you need to have a full-size HDMI plug to run it: if your a Mac laptop user, you’re going to have to buy another adaptor.

This fully brings the total number of things you have to carry with you on the road to a grand total of six – tablet, pen in case, cable, AC adaptor, HDMI adaptor, stand. Not exactly portable, is it? And at the price – Wacom should really have included some sort of padded case to hold the necessaries.

And here we arrive at the big question: is it worth the money? I think those of you who’ve read many of my reviews probably think I’m a perpetual misanthrope since I’ve never given any product an unqualified recommendation; sorry to disappoint you, but this is going to be the same. If you are an illustrator or graphic artist of any sort, I think you’re going to love it unconditionally – unless you need a much larger monitor. If you’re a photographer and need a decent monitor and a tablet, and don’t mind the relatively small area, then you’ll love it, too. If you’re a photographer on the go, you’ll appreciate the added screen real estate and tablet-in-one; just make sure you don’t forget any of the cables or doodads, or the thing will be useless. If you’re used to a big screen…this is where I have trouble: you have to think very carefully about whether you can either live with working off a small screen for the draw-direct effect, or find a use for an extra display when you use the tablet area mapped to your primary. Personally, given that I do travel a lot with the tablet and could use a good display on location – the weak point of the 11″ Air in my mind has always been the terrible gamut of the panel – I will be adding one of these as soon as the major retailers have them back in stock…

The Wacom Cintiq 13HD is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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  1. Hi , Thanks for your review. I’ve used a Wacom Cintiq 13HD for some years now, and have often fancied a bigger screen Cintiq but just didn’t have $2K to spend on one. But, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro 15.6″ seems to be the answer to my fancy. can you offer any comment as to how much of an upgrade the Artist 15.6 Pro is over the Cintiq 13HD .

  2. How did you attach it to your thunderbolt?
    I have a macbook pro 2012 + thunderbolt display. I have used 3 different adapters, but I won’t get picture to wacom screen. It drives me crazy!

    • You need a thunderbolt to HDMI adaptor.

      • Thanks for your email.
        I have tried 3 different adapters. The latest one is from monoprice, none of these have worked 😦

        I have this configuration

        Macbook Pro -> Thunderbolt Display -> Monoprice adapter -> Cintiq

        With no luck. I also downloaded latest drivers. I’m using Yosemite.

  3. Don Moraes says:

    Not sure if you knew this but the touchpad on the Macbook Air and Pro can detect inputs from a Griffin iPad stylus (it probably detects other brands as well but I have only used Griffin). The touchpad is large enough for me to position the cursor and hold down the bottom left corner of the touchpad while dodging and burning using the stylus with relatively good accuracy. You don’t even need to hold down the bottom corner and can just exert a bit more force with the stylus but I feel it becomes a bit uncomfortable.
    Granted this method of using an iPad stylus on a touchpad could never compare to using a pressure sensitive Wacom Intuos. But it is far more convenient for me to carry a small stylus in my laptop case than attempt to fit a tablet next to my Macbook on one of those tiny airline tray tables.

    • That’s interesting – and it would be very nice if the touchpad would be pressure sensitive too (I’m sure it isn’t). I went the other way and I’m using the newer Wacom Intuoses as my touchpad since they’re pen+touch sensitive. The pressure sensitivity makes a huge difference to how ‘natural’ your dodging and burning looks.

  4. The pen-sensing layer is actually underneath the LCD. Only finger-sensing layers are on top of the LCD, and the 13HD does not have one. The grittiness you see is probably just from the matte finish, which is why I prefer glossy- I can change the lighting in a room, but I can’t change the screen finish. If you’re just demoing the unit, I’ve heard that Lenovo will be coming out with the Thinkvision LT1423p in September, you may want to give that a try, too.

    • Thanks, I’ll check it out…is that also pressure sensitive?

      • Tobia Hawklyn says:

        It is, it has a Wacom digitizer inside, although the one they use in a tablet PC, not a Cintiq or an Intuos. In practice, other than not having tilt sensitivity (which I rarely use anyway) it doesn’t seem to perform any differently unless I’m using a huge brush. There will be two versions, one with all the power and data coming through a USB 3.0 connection, or a Wi-Fi version with a rechargable 10 hour battery (no word on if you can use USB for data on the wireless version.) They are supposed to be $350 (USD) for the wired version and $450 (USD) for the wireless- so you can see why I’m keenly interested.

  5. I enjoyed your Photo 101 article. Congratulations on being chosen. Your blog look wonderful. 🙂

  6. Matt in Missouri says:

    Ah, just the review I needed, from just the person I needed it from. Initially I wanted a larger surface area, or at least thought I did, but I’m not sure I want it to be any less portable that it already appears to be.

    At any rate, I’ve placed this item on my to-buy list. It’s only a question of when. (And when I do, I’ll be sure to use your referral link!)

    Thanks again!

  7. Ming,
    Any thoughts on getting one of the new 13″ macbook air (haswell) instead? For photography, it seems like the 11″ would be rather cramped, although more portable? The new battery life is supposed to be great.

    • Not a bad choice at all, but again, not having used one, can’t say. I went for the 11 over the 13 simply because of size last time, but the longer battery life is very appealing indeed. Unclear if the new one is going to be much faster – if at all – though.

  8. I have almost 19 years using a wide variety of WACOM tablets. I’ve tried a few of the display versions, but the same issue of my left hand covering part of what I was editing made the experience not very useful. So I have stuck with the medium sized regular WACOM tablets.

    While it is possible to wear out surfaces, most of the tablets have a surface that can be replaced. I don’t know if there is a restriction on sending parts to various places in the world, but in the United States it is easy to get parts. A new surface sheet can refresh a worn tablet surface.

    • I believe the older tablets had replaceable surfaces, but my 4 seems to be fixed; I actually prefer it to the 5 because of the OLED display.

      • The newer ones can also be replaced, but you have to send them in for replacement. Don’t know how much time that takes or what the price is though.

  9. Tom Liles says:

    In the middle of saving for a new machine and a starter tablet [bamboo] etc, I stumbled into a used camera store… noted some pristine used D3s [“d-threes,” not D3S, though there was one of those too!] and that was that. I didn’t buy on the spot. I held out as long as I could…

    I lost to the GAS last Friday 😮 🙂

    So back to square one for the tablet. I’ll think about whenever I can stop running around taking photos with this D3 —->> MAN SIZE CAMERA!

    Please tell me you took this shot at ten to two, and the hands on the clock are pure coincidence! Hahaha 🙂

  10. Sigurd Kristiansen says:

    Just retouched a few hundred images over two days on mine, hooked up to my 27″ iMac, and loved it. Keep switching back and forth between retouching on it and using it as a normal tablet depending on the precision needed. I find it much faster and easier to trace curves or fine details, or quickly remove a lot of grunge (taptaptap with the healing brush 🙂 on the cintiq – even though I have been using tablets for over 20 years (mostly Wacom). For general work I move things back to the big screen and use the cintiq for mail, reference or similar.

    Using a little app that lets me move the active window to the other screen or back and maximise it by pressing a hotkey once makes this painless (it also gives me all the menus in both screens).

    • You can actually use it as a normal tablet mapped to your primary screen, with the display as a secondary (for whatever reason) if you wish. It obviously has the precision and area of the Intuos5 Large.

      • Sigurd Kristiansen says:

        Yes, that is what I am doing, I was probably not describing it well enough. The reason this is useful for me is that I use it as a secondary screen for reference, adobe bridge and other things while I am using it as a normal tablet for my main screen.

        I map one of the buttons on the cintiq to switch between what screen to control, so if i need to access what’s on the cintiq i tap the button and can use the pen to interact with what is on the cintiq screen, another tap and I am back in photoshop on the big screen.

        If i want to move what I am working on over to the cintiq for more precision, i use my hotkey for moving the window to the other screen and maximising it there – and it goes on top of bridge or whatever i had there. Very quick and easy and practical for my use.

  11. Paul Stokes says:

    Last year due to some sort of electrical problem my my Apple cinema display looked to be dead so I bought a Eizo ColorEdge Cg223W as a replacement. Lo and behold a week later everything began working properly so I now run a two screen layout which I am very happy with. I also have an Intuos4 which I use as you do. This strikes me as pretty much an ideal office set up. On the road a laptop and some SSD drives is more than enough to carry around. Even if I am staying in one place this is enough. I don’t want to have left the DSLR and lenses at home to make up the weight with other equipment or find I really should have brought those other cables. Keep it simple for travel.

  12. Ming, thanks for the review. I’ve used Wacom products for years, but never this one, so I appreciate your first hand impressions.

    • This one was released earlier this year and still not widely available; I think they hit the sweet spot with size and price, especially for illustration pros.

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