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Grow Your Business Technology

Surface Studio vs. Cintiq: Which Is Better for Business?

Surface Studio vs. Cintiq: Which Is Better for Business?

With its superslim profile and effortlessly adjustable hinge, Microsoft's new Surface Studio looks like a Cintiq killer. The pen-equipped Studio (which starts at $2,999) is clearly targeted at creative professionals who want to use the system for work. And it's certainly flashier than the Cintiq 27QHD ($2,299 without touch, $2,799 with touch), which is currently the industry-leading pen display for professional artists and designers.

But as impressive as the Surface Studio is, Wacom's Cintiq still has several key advantages. Here's a point-by-point breakdown of how these two devices match up.

Here's the biggest difference between the Studio and Cintiq: The Studio is its own computer (its processor and other hardware are tucked away in its base), while the Cintiq is just a monitor that must be hooked up to a separate computer to use.

There are pros and cons to either arrangement. With the Surface Studio, you get a compact system that's really easy to set up. There's no need to purchase a separate desktop computer to hook it to; everything is included in a single package.

The Cintiq isn't so simple. Not only do you need to have a separate computer to hook it up to, but the display also lacks a stand.

That the Cintiq is just a display might sound like a weakness, but it gives the device two distinct advantages. First, it leaves you free to upgrade your connected hardware at any time, without needing to buy a new display in the process. Second, since the Cintiq display is separate from your PC, you can keep using the device even if your computer fails; just connect the Cintiq to a different system and get back to work.

The Studio won't allow for that. Since it's an all-in-one computer, what you see is what you get. If you want more RAM, a faster processor or a more powerful graphics card — well, too bad. And if any part of the system fails, you'll have to do without your drawing tablet until the whole thing can be repaired. If you're out of warranty, that could be really costly.

Both machines offer big displays, but there are some key differences in design. The Surface Studio is a stunning piece of hardware, boasting the thinnest LCD monitor ever made, at just 12.5mm thick. The device has two shiny, chrome legs that attach to the base, which is a compact metal box.

That's not to say the Cintiq 27QHD isn't an impressive-looking device. The front of the monitor consists of a smooth sheet of glass, bordered by a jet-black bezel. Compared to the Surface Studio, though, the Cintiq 27QHD is a hulk. The monitor is a little more than 2 inches thick, making it more than four times as thick as the Surface Studio's display. Plus, it tips the scales at a whopping 20 lbs., so adjusting your drawing angle can be a bit of a pain depending on what kind of stand you're using.

Technically, the Surface Studio is the heavier device, at 21 lbs. But most of that weight is in the base; the display itself weighs so little that you can adjust the viewing angle with a single fingertip.

Here's something else to consider: Even though the Studio has a slightly larger display, the Cintiq has a much larger footprint, with about 4 extra inches of bezel on each side of the actual display. That means the Cintiq is going to take up much more space on your desk.

As previously mentioned, the Cintiq doesn't come with a stand. It's worth mentioning that the unit does have two small flip-out pegs on its back, which prop the monitor up at about a 15-degree angle, but most professionals won't find that suitable for serious work. 

To that end, Wacom sells its own adjustable Ergo Stand, which will run you $399. That price might be reasonable for big studios, but independent artists and designers may find it hard to stomach. The other option is to mount the Cintiq on an adjustable desktop monitor arm, which is cheaper but harder to install and not as elegant. Monitor arms generally cost less than $100, though.

In comparison, the Surface display comes mounted on two simple, hinged legs that are incredibly easy to adjust. Tilting the display up and down is effortless, and once in place, it's stable enough that you could lean on it a bit without causing any wobble or movement.

Both devices have big, pressure-sensitive displays that are meant to be drawn on with digital pens. But there are some key differences here, too. The Studio boasts a 28-inch, 4500 x 3000-pixel display. That super-high resolution is going to make a big difference when you're multitasking with multiple programs on screen at once. Also notable is the display's unusual 3:2 aspect ratio, which means it's slightly taller and narrower than your typical wide-screen monitor. 

The Cintiq 27QHD's display, in comparison, is slightly smaller, at 27 inches, and has a much lower resolution of 2560x 1440 pixels. It looks great, though the resolution is a bit underwhelming for a display this size; it doesn't feel as expansive as the Studio's display, despite being nearly as large physically. It has the standard wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratio. 

The Cintiq's display also has a slight matte finish, which does a good job of warding off distracting reflections. But there's a trade-off: If you look close, you can see a little bit of a grain on the screen, though it's subtle. The Surface Studio's display looks decidedly more vibrant, with a glossy finish, though it's also more reflective.

Wacom tablets have long held the reputation for providing the best drawing experience, period. That's true for a number of different reasons. First, some tech specs: The Cintiq's digitizer — the part of the display that makes it pressure-sensitive — can detect 2,048 levels of pressure, which makes for a drawing experience that feels extremely precise. Drawing on the Cintiq feels clean and smooth, letting you produce lines that taper effortlessly.

You also get tilt sensitivity on the Cintiq, which lets you angle the pen for broader brushstrokes in programs that support the feature. The Surface Studio lacks tilt sensitivity altogether. 

The Studio also technically offers half as many levels of pressure sensitivity (1,024), which does make a bit of a difference in the drawing experience. In general, the Studio's sensitivity feels about on par with the Cintiq, but the Surface device isn't quite as responsive to light touches. I've had only a few minutes to go hands-on with the Surface Studio, though, so I won't be able to say much more until my upcoming full review. 

I will note that the Cintiq screen has a bit of a gritty texture, which helps make drawing on it feel somewhat like drawing on paper. The Studio has a much smoother glass finish, so it feels slightly less natural. It doesn't bother me, but I've heard other artists say they prefer the Cintiq's finish.

And one last thing. The Cintiq display has a bit of parallax, which means your cursor appears on screen a few millimeters underneath your actual pen tip. The effect results from the thickness of the Cintiq's glass display. The separation between pen tip and cursor is slight, but it is noticeable. In comparison, the Surface has virtually zero parallax; the cursor seems to be directly underneath the pen tip.

Wacom's pen hasn't changed much over the years. The plastic stylus has a distinctively tapered shape, so the pen fits nicely in my palm. It included two buttons that can be easily remapped to any function you want using Wacom's included software. The back end of the pen functions as an eraser. There's no place on the Cintiq itself to stow the pen, but the tablet does include a small plastic holder that stands the pen up on your desk, so the stylus is always within reach.

The Surface Pen looks more like a traditional ink pen. It has a silver, metal barrel, with a smaller diameter than Wacom's pen. You get just a single button the side, which is set to right-click and can't be reprogrammed — a real bummer for many artists who are particular about their work flows. As on the Wacom pen, the back end of the Surface Pen functions as an eraser. It also adheres magnetically to the edge of the Studio, which is handy.

Both devices come with special accessories that magnetically attach to the screen and provide extra controls while drawing. The Cintiq keeps things simple, with a handheld device called the Express Keys Remote. The small remote has 17 fully programmable buttons that can be mapped to hot keys, as well as a touch ring that can be mapped to a variety of functions. Cintiq's remote sticks magnetically to the device's bezel while you draw.

The Surface Studio mixed things up with an accessory called the Surface Dial. It's a hockey-puck-shaped device that can be rotated and clicked down for a variety of functions, depending on what software you're using. Though this is innovative, I'm not sure that the Surface Dial will prove as functional as the simpler Express Key Remote. It's worth noting that Wacom's remote can be purchased separately and paired wirelessly to any computer, including the Surface Studio. It costs $100 when sold separately, though.

While the entry-level Cintiq doesn't offer touch functionality — the display responds only to the pen — Wacom does sell a touch-capable model for $500 extra. The Cintiq 27QHD Touch is identical to the entry-level model, but provides 10-finger multitouch capabilities.

Unfortunately, Wacom's touch functionality just isn't up to snuff. I've found that the touch screen can behave erratically, with poor palm rejection. I often found my Photoshop documents rotating when I was trying to zoom, and gestures don't feel as responsive as I'd like. And here's the real killer: You can't use touch and the pen at the same time. That means your pen becomes disabled any time you zoom, pan or tap any part of the screen, and it's really annoying. Fortunately, you can turn the touch functionality off, but my advice is to not bother with the Cintiq 27QHD Touch in the first place; instead, stick to the nontouch model.

In comparison, Microsoft's Surface Studio offers extremely responsive touch functionality. Zooming, panning and other gestures work fluidly, and you can use the pen and touch at the same time with no issues.

The Surface Studio is technically more expensive than the Cintiq 27 QHD, starting at $2,999. Of course, that's because the system includes a computer along with the pen display. The entry-level model starts at $2,999,with relatively modest hardware, including a quad-core 6th-Generation Intel Core-i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB "rapid hybrid drive" for storage and an Nvidia GTX 965M GPU with 2GB of VRAM.

For $3,499, you can upgrade to a speedier Core i7 processor and double the RAM for a total of 16GB.

Finally, the top-end model adds a beefier Nvidia GTX 980M GPU, and provides a total of 32GB of RAM and 2TB of storage.

The Cintiq comes in just two configurations. The basic, entry-level model costs $2,300, while the touch-enabled model will run you $2,800. Other than touch functionality, the two models are identical. And, of course, you'll need to own or purchase a computer to use with your Cintiq.

Microsoft's Surface Studio is a truly impressive piece of technology, but it's not clear if art and design studios will be grabbing these devices up when they become widely available in early 2017. The computer is incredibly pricey, and because it's an all-in-one system, it leaves you vulnerable to device failure.

In comparison, the Cintiq 27QHD is more flexible, since you can keep using the same pen display long after you upgrade your PC, or swap out one computer for another. Plus, it offers a slightly superior drawing experience, with extra functionality, like the ability to detect when you're tilting the pen. It has some obvious downsides, though, particularly its huge and clunky size. The Surface Studio also beats the Cintiq in resolution and picture quality.

For now, it's hard to say whether I'd recommend the Surface Studio to independent professional artists. Check back for a full review of the system in early 2017.

Brett Nuckles

Brett Nuckles has been a working journalist since 2009. He got his start in local newspapers covering community news, local government, education and more before he joined the Business News Daily staff in 2013. He graduated from Ohio University, where he studied Journalism and English. Follow him on Twitter @BrettNuckles.