Lenovo Miix 520: Artist’s review

Lenovo Miix 520 hybrid tablet
The Lenovo Miix 520. The pen has a little clip that slots into the USB port.

I recently bought a Lenovo Miix 520. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now so I thought it was time for in-depth review for all the artists out there who might be considering buying one. This is intended to be an artist/illustrator specific review as there’s plenty of more general reviews out there.

In my opinion the Surface Pro was too expensive for what you get. Another £150 for the keyboard and pen? No thanks, Microsoft. Apple’s much lauded ipad pro and pencil was out of the question for me too, as I wanted to be able to use my current (windows) software.

The Pen

Lenovo active pen 2
Lenovo’s Active Pen 2

The pen (Lenovo Active Pen 2.0) feels OK- though it’s a bit like drawing on glass with a fine marker. It provides very little grip so it’s hard to do fine detail work. The sensitivity is fairly good but you have to press quite hard for the initial register. I’ve noticed other people do this so it’s not just me. Parallax is not an issue, and you can calibrate the pen in the Wacom settings program if you feel like it’s a bit off.

It’s quite uncomfortable for my big hands. I find pressing the bottom button difficult without cramping my hand up a bit. For some people this may not be issue at all. The top button only works if Bluetooth is active, and has it’s own separate battery. Bit daft. I haven’t found myself using it very much.

Part of the reason I chose this tablet over other options is because the pen uses Wacom technology. I hoped this would give it an edge over other pens for actual artwork- not just note-taking. Who are these students in reviews spending nearly £1000 on a device for note-taking!? Anyway I digress…

Lenovo Active pen 2 Wacom settings app

The Wacom pen software is quite limited. There’s no way to set application-specific settings to to the buttons, which I would have found very useful.

This may all seem overwhelmingly negative- but buttons aside the pen itself feels nice and solidly made, and after the initial phase of getting used to it I found it quite pleasant to sketch with. Just don’t expect it to be as natural as a dedicated graphics tablet.

The Screen

Tablet using built in stand.

The quality of the screen is fine. Nothing special. I have noticed it gets quite hot with sustained drawing or any intensive work. The combination of processor waste heat, your own body heat and the screen itself occasionally make for a pretty toasty experience.

The brightness is good but not great. You can’t really see it outside unless you’re in heavy shade, even then the glare from the reflective finish makes it hard to see. I’ve found that polarising sunglasses help – but only when in portrait mode! Otherwise the filters simply block out the screen. This a fairly common situation of course- most tablets have glossy screens- but it does mean you can’t really use it for a spot of digital plein air painting.

Other hardware

Keyboard, Active pen 2 and case. The case is a pretty simple fabric pouch,
but it does the trick and it comes free with the tablet.

The keyboard is very nice. I love how it feels. This is subjective of course. I’ve never cared for those hipstery mechanical keyboards that are really tall and clack like a Victorian typewriter. It can also light up so you can see the keys at night, and because it’s magnetic it snaps easily into position when you need it. I’ve also bought a separate USB wireless keyboard and mouse though, because a mouse is always useful and the vanilla keyboard gets in the way of your drawing hand when it’s on the screen. It also prevents you from using the tablet in portrait mode because it snaps onto the bottom edge.

Battery life is poor. When drawing or painting it can only be described as terrible. Id say about 2-3 hours max. Ive been doing nothing more intensive than writing this review for the past hour and I’ve already drained it by 50%.

It also has a noisy fan. The noise is not intolerable, but it does imply that the CPU would fry itself without the fan. It’s a moving part that uses extra power, and a potential point of failure. Fortunately it doesn’t always need to be on.

It has one USB3 port, one micro USB3 port, and a micro SD card reader. Since I’m focusing on the art sides of things here I’ll let you read more about the other hardware elsewhere.

Remote Desktop

This is something that I’ve wondered about for a while: “Can I use my powerful but location-bound desktop to do all the heavy lifting while I simply stream the output to something more mobile?” In short- “Can I work in the garden instead?”

The answer is “Sort of, yeah, a bit.”

One of the perks of using remote desktop on windows 10 is the ability to stream pen pressure input to the host PC. This works well in theory- but in practice the resulting line quality in Photoshop is so severely compromised and you can’t realistically use it for finished artwork. It doesn’t seem to have the same smoothing compared to when you use it on a local machine. It ends up a wiggly lined mess. There’s a also the additional element of network lag on top of the time the line takes to process- which makes for a rather sluggish experience.

Red arrows point to wiggly lines caused by drawing over remote desktop.

Another issue I’ve had is that certain applications throw errors when you try to start them up through remote desktop. They seem to be confused about the hardware they’re running on and won’t start. Annoyingly, this seems to apply mainly to graphics programs that are dependant on the graphics card. You can in some cases get round this by starting the program and then connecting to the computer with the application already open. However- they may still crash.

Generally speaking, if you have a decent LAN speed you can use remote desktop pretty well for most basic things. It’s sadly not yet quite there for finished artwork.

Performance

Lenovo Miix 520- The back of the tablet and the stand

I opted for the “Miix 520-12IKB ” so that’s an Intel i5 8250u and 8 gigs of RAM- which is a pretty good amount for most 2d graphics work.

Personally I want maximum performance mode for most work. Pen lag irritates me. This obviously drains the batteries faster but so be it! To get the best performance you need to ensure Windows and all drivers are up to date. You’ll also need to tweak the Intel graphics settings and make sure your windows power options are set to performance mode.

The Miix 520 works well with Photoshop out of the box- no need to disable the hated windows ink like I have to with the old intuos pro on my desktop. I’ve used it on files up to about 5000*7000px with a handful of layers. If you keep to the smaller brush sizes it works perfectly. Gestures are a pleasure to use and very responsive.

Overall I’ve been enjoying using it- mainly as a laptop. It’s performance is very good in that respect. I’ve also been doing a bit of sketching in tablet mode- the wireless keyboard works well for that- assuming you’ve got the space to set it up.

Conclusion

Knowing what I know now, I’d probably still buy it simply because I don’t know of any comparable alternatives that do what it does better and at the same price point.

It’s got it’s weaknesses but I’ve produced a few satisfactory sketches on it and used it for client work so I can safely say that it does it’s job. I can sketch in the garden, but I still have to go back to the desktop for the bulk of the work. Ultimately, to me the technology feels like it’s still got such a long way to go. But then I always feel like that.

TL: DR It’s alright. It’s not perfect. If you’ve been stuck at a single desk for years because you need a desktop PC to work then this may give you some other options.

Other reviews:

Robert Fawcett: On the art of drawing

I just finished reading Robert Fawcett’s “On the art of drawing”.
It was alright.

Fawcett himself was an en exceptional draughtsman and a respected illustrator in his time, overcoming the obstacle of his colour-blindness with his incredible eye for pattern, tone and composition.

Illustration by Robert Fawcett from Sherlock Holmes. Look how busy this picture is! And yet it reads beautifully, with all sorts of little treats for your eye.

That said, his writing did not provide the insight  into his creative genius that I was hoping for.

Robert Fawcett is a great illustrator, but this is not a great book. His passion for the subject is clear, but I was hoping for more insight than I got, especially considering the length of the book.

One particular quote stood out to me:

“All this is perhaps a more complicated way of saying that drawing comes about by drawing, not by theory, not by shortcuts, and certainly not by eccentric experiment- but simply by drawing. Why students of the subject ever find comfort in reading about what is really a higher form of communication I will never know. That there is little comfort in writing about it, I do know”

Odd then, that he found the need to fill so many pages.

Wacom Classic Pen review

My graphics tablet pen died. Overworked maybe? I like to think so, since I hadn’t dropped it or ill treated it during it’s two year lifetime. It started by ceasing to register high pressure- then it ceased to register low pressure. Then it finally died. I couldn’t afford to lose it for weeks while I sent it off for repair, so, perhaps foolishly- I opened it up- voiding the warranty- and tried to fix it myself. I got it fully working again for 12 hours or so before it finally conked completely. Fortunately for me I still had my Art Pen -but it isn’t exactly up to scratch either.

So I was faced with the annoying fact that I was going to have to fork out for a new pen.This meant I had a choice between the default Wacom “Grip pen” and the more niche “Classic Pen”. I’ve always found the grip pen to a bit chunky- like a kid’s wax crayon- so I opted for the Classic Pen. Hence this Wacom Classic Pen review.

Wacom Classic Pen 01
Classic pen, stand, and nibs. It comes with 4 plain nibs (one in the pen) and 3 stroke nibs.

First impressions: it’s lighter. it feels a little cheaper and flimsier than the grip pen. It rattles a fair bit. If you’re used to the Grip Pen it definitely takes some getting used to. I’d have to say that it’s not as comfortable as the old Grip Pen, which is probably why they made them so damn chunky- the slimmer profile of the Classic Pen means your fingers cramp together a bit more. This makes it a little harder for me with my big hands to press the function buttons.

The Wacom Classic Pen
For comparison: The Classic Pen (bottom) alongside my now Deceased Grip pen. I tell you, my old Intuos 3 pen I had for 7 years and it never once played up! Bah.

That said, it does have a rather pleasant tactile feel to it. Compared to the grip pen it feels that little bit less artificial. It’s lightness and slimness make it feel more like traditional media than the Grip Pen. Stick a sheet of paper of your tablet, insert one of the stroke nibs and it feels rather lovely- like pencil on paper- not plastic on plastic. It does seem (to me at least) more like using a pencil than a paint brush. The chunkier pens have a sort of ambiguity that lend themselves to whatever use you wish, but holding the Classic pen makes me want to draw rather than to paint (In so far as either of these terms apply to digital media).

It comes with a stand. Meh. And some spares of the overpriced nibs. Hoorah! As aforementioned I really like the Stroke nibs on paper. Go on, try it.

I’ve also found that I enjoy using the tilt sensitivity a lot more than I did with the Grip Pen. Again- its pencilesque lightness in your hand is very pleasant. Suddenly I enjoy using the 3d brushes in Photoshop.

In summary– it doesn’t technically do anything different to the Grip Pen- so you’d only really want one if you found the Grip pen to be too chunky. On the other hand, you might find the Classic Pen less comfortable for long sessions. It is slightly cheaper (~£10) than the Grip Pen but frankly, if you’re making decisions about hardware for daily professional use then that tiny difference shouldn’t sway you.

Here’s something I drew with it:

Prince Norman was a horrid child.

Wacom Art Pen Review

I’d been toying with the idea for some time of getting an art pen for my intuos 5. If you don’t know what an art pen is then you’re probably in the majority, but my intention with this post is to provide a little info for those like me- who a couple of weeks ago who was considering buying one and couldn’t seem to find enough information. For the benefit of those who don’t know what one is: it’s like a normal graphics tablet pen- but as well as sensing the usual pressure and tilt it also senses rotation.

The art pen for intuos 4 & 5
Wacom art pen for intuos 4 & 5 – Like the old grip pen but fatter, and with rotation.

You may notice after a quick google search that this seemingly small feature comes with a pretty weighty price tag (£85 on amazon at the time of writing) and that you’d have to really want that fancy rotation sensing to buy one. Well I really wanted that rotation sensing, and I’ll explain why:

It’s always been my goal with my digital artwork to make it as natural as possible both in how it looks and also how it feels to create. One of the present drawbacks of digital art that we have to overcome is the limited input we have as artists and the limited processing power we can apply to making a computer rendered brush stroke look as nuanced and elegant as real brush stroke. The technology is getting there, but we’re not there yet. It’s true that once you’ve been around a piece of software for a while you start to notice it’s handiwork everywhere you look. Not just layer styles, filters and tacky effects, but even the brush marks you see in other artist’s work. When everyone uses the same tool with the same settings you get some depressingly similar results.

Art pen and the nib holder and nibs it comes with
The nib holder and nibs it comes with

At it’s simplest a digital brush is a series of shapes stamped in a successive line and trying with varying degrees of success to look like something more natural. Thus the desire for rotation sensing- it’s one step further away from the binary on/off state of computer code and one step closer to the intuitive natural feel of a real brush on canvas. Having the rotation sensitivity means you can start to emulate flat brushes and calligraphy pens in a way that isn’t possible without.

So obviously I eventually decided to get one. I’m always filled with trepidation at the idea of forking out lots of money on new kit when I have no idea how useful or reliable it will be, but in the end my curiosity got the better of me. So enough rambling, what’s it like eh? Well, If you’re anything  like me you’ll always want to hear the bad bits first- that’s what anyone who’s considering buying one really wants to know about right?

My main issue with the art pen is that it can quickly become quite laggy- not great for realism and natural feeling brush strokes. According to wacom the art pen sends a lot more data to the tablet than the default “grip” pen- which therefore means the delay before the data gets to your computer is greater. We’re talking fractions of a second here, but the effect remains noticeable when you make fast brush strokes. Annoying really. You can see the effect of a fast brush stroke in the image below:

Demonstration of art pen brush strokes
A fast stroke in photoshop vs a slow one. Both are made from right to left. Notice the taper on the top stroke where the rotation angle has changed.

Moving the art pen too quickly means the tablet simply doesn’t seem to have time to process the rotation data before photoshop wants to render its position data and so the brush rotation appears to veer wildly off towards its opposing axis. I made a post in the wacom support forum to see if there was any solution- apparently not- I was advised to paint slower. Hm.

One other lesser thing to be aware of is that the photoshop brush ghosting seems to lag a little. Basically, as you rotate the brush around the brush cursor doesn’t keep up with it very well, but when you’re painting you don’t really notice, since you quickly develop an intuitive feel for where it should be anyway. The only problem the software has with actually rendering the strokes correctly is the aforementioned speed issue.

So what about the good points? Well besides from the above I’ve found it to be quite good. It does what I wanted and it’s a pleasure to use. All but the fastest brush strokes work well. If you’re used to the grip pen it’ll take some getting used to as it’s a bit fatter and heavier, but it soon feels natural.  My art pen now functions as my brush, and my old grip pen with a high friction nib in it works as a pencil or a pen for linework.

So overall, I’d say it’s a worthwhile investment for digital artists looking for that little bit extra control and variation in their brushwork. Be aware that the extra data the tablet sends requires extra processing- so if your computer struggles much with normal strokes you may wish to give this a miss for now. Like I wrote earlier- digital art has a long way to go before it rivals the intuitive and chaotic pleasure of traditional media, but for me this is one step in the right direction.

Update (November 2014): After using the Art Pen for a year or so, I’ve found it to be very useful, but only for drawing with rotation brushes.

The stroke it makes is not as elegant as the grip pen at all- possibly I received a dodgy one, but it never seems to register the lowest levels of pressure. Even pressing at it’s lightest it makes a sudden splodge on the screen, rather than an elegant transition from thin to thick- so it’s really no use at all for delicate strokes. All in all my advice is to stick to the grip pen unless you really really want rotation.

For anyone who does own/decide to get one- I’ve uploaded some rotation brushes for photoshop which you can download for free here: http://spikedmcgrath.com/download/Toms%20Rotation%20Brushes.zip