Latest Hardware Love Letter – Canon Pixma Pro 100 Printer

My love affair with tech is frequently at odds with my impulse to keep rooted in the materials of my childhood (and, history up to now). There are uses for both. There’s efficiency to be gained in digital, and there’s joyful play that goes with using real-world materials. I still prefer and approach to my work that balances the two, and gives me the best aspects of each: the speed and power digital layouts/pencils, and the natural textures and fun of traditional inks (and sometimes paints). In order to bridge the gap between my Cintiq Companion and my bristol board, I needed another tool; a quality large format printer. I did a good bit of research, and I’ve found one that not only fits the bill for comics bluelines, but a whole host of other applications (art prints, photos, last-minute valentines)- and in my use, it does it all while beating the competition senseless from a quality/value standpoint. Here it is:

Swoon.
Swoon.

This is the Canon Pixma Pro 100. It’s Canon’s entry-level professional color printer, it’s beastly big/heavy, and built like a tank compared to the consumer printers I’ve used. I’ll get into what it does well in a minute, but first I’ll tell you something about my prior experiences using large-format printers. Then you shall fully understand my joy.

I’ve used a number of large format printers from HP, Brother, and the like (and by large format, I don’t mean gigantic, roll-out-a-banner size, just something with at least 11″x17″ capabilities). They’ve all been consumer-grade, and serviceable with some coaxing. One that comics people recommended frequently for its multi-functionality is the Brother MFC J6710dw. For about $150, you get an 11″x17″ scanner, printer, fax (right?), creature-feature. We have one in my studio, and I’ve used it a number of times to print my digital bluelines onto bristol.

We are not friends, you and I.
We are not friends, you and I.

Here’s the thing: in the mid-to-late nineties, my parents got one of these MFC things from another manufacturer, and it just did nothing well. It had constant problems, and at that time, I swore I’d never buy an MFC device. After using the newer Brother in my studio, my opinion is largely unchanged. It does produce decent blueline prints, but with enormous caveats: after only a few friendly encounters, I found it had trouble taking a single page of bristol (you have to hand-guide the paper onto the sensor, do a holy cross, close your eyes, and count to ten- and even then, it may spit the board out, or give you lip about how there’s nothing there). Even when it does finally print something, it may print the image slightly crooked on the page- not a big deal for print art production, but it sure doesn’t make originals look their best. In short, I found all the efficiency gained in digital layouts and pencils squandered by constant printer battles. I sometimes spent an hour, hour and a half trying to get ten pages printed. I’m not kidding. I could have had another hand-penciled page mostly done in that time. RE-DONK-U-LOUS! My experiences with our older HP deskjet were largely the same- lots of time wasted trying to get a good print.

So where do you go from there? Large-format-capable pro grade printers, even entry-level ones, typically start at about $500. Ouch. Would I eventually make that up if I didn’t have to waste time battling the device? Sure, but I am my father’s son, and can’t help but find a deal. This is freelance art, after all. Some days I get offers from joe average that let me pay two weeks of bills in a day, and other days I get offers from major publications to do art for less than I pay my babysitter. Finding a good deal on your tools is important.

Enter the Pro 100. One of the delightful things about this printer is that it’s almost always available with a huge rebate from Canon. If you go to Adorama, for example, you can typically find it for under 90 bucks after the $300 mail-in-rebate, including a nice stack of 13″x19″ photo-paper. It’s crazy.

Here’s what’s even crazier. We all know that manufacturers price their printers to make their real money from ink and toner sales. This model is no exception, with a full set of 8 cartridges running about $100. Double-ouch, especially considering how much ink you use on just 5-10 13″x19″ high-quality prints (the answer is most of it). Granted, blue-line prints are nowhere near that thirsty, so you’ll get far more pages out of the ink set before you need a refill. BUT. The secret to getting huge value out of this printer is using refillable inks from a third party manufacturer. Note, I’m always very leery of non-name-brand inks, and you should be too. They’ll often yield less, clog more, and give you worse color. I did a lot of research on this, and found a supplier called Precision Colors that a bunch of pro photographers love (I think I found a few discussions on DPReview, among others). Their system is certainly more work intensive than just buying a new set of cartridges, but having done it myself now, it’s really very easy if you follow their instructions and have a few tools around the house. I also love that I don’t have to throw away so much plastic.

Squeezy caps make for cleaner refills.
Squeezy caps make for cleaner refills.

The set I bought from them is the squeezy-cap system (should be on the bottom-right of this page). Do your own investigating to see if this is worth it to you, but for me, it’s beautiful. The inks are formulated to match the quality and consistency of Canon’s, and with the bottles I bought, I should be able to fill my cartridges about 3 dozen times for the same price of 1 new set from Canon. Precision Colors also has adjusted color-profiles you can download if you’re crazy about getting everything perfectly consistent. For my uses, their inks work perfectly well with the default Canon settings.

The Pro 100’s print quality and ease of operation are also big plusses. Coming from the Brother, I expected some amount of fiddling would be necessary for my bristol sheets, but much to my surprise, I’ve not had a single battle in a month of regular use. I can load up a fat stack of bristol sheets, hit print on a batch of pages in Manga Studio, and the printer just does its thing, no lip given, no jams, no misaligned images (knock on wood). The bristol feeds through automatically. I also used the printer for some art prints at a recent convention, using the provided 13″x19″ photo paper, and the results were stellar. As good or better than anything I’ve received from a print shop, even on the standard quality mode. Its borderless  printing feature is also useful for art prints, or just getting the biggest working area possible onto my bristol board. The printer’s wifi capable too, so I can sit at my desk/couch with the Cintiq Companion and print stuff off any time, without having to hook anything up. A pretty standard perk for a modern printer, but still very nice.

So far, I’ve printed about 30 pages of Batman ’66 pencils, a couple watercolor underdrawings (I’ve gone right over the ink lines without much bleeding), maybe 10 convention art prints, some smaller photos, and a handful of other things (last minute valentine). I’m very pleased with the Pro 100 in all aspects. If you have limited space, that’s a consideration, as it really is large and heavy. Otherwise, go snag one from Adorama, or wherever has the best price, and print yourself silly.

My crappy cell phone camera can't do these justice- but look at the size of that Caspar David Friedrich! Borderless goodness.
My crappy cell phone camera can’t do these justice- but look at the size of that Caspar David Friedrich! Borderless goodness.

Cintiq Companion Review -Surface and Note 10.1- FIGHT

wacom-cintiq-companion
The new hotness.

Techno-nerd-wise, this was an interesting month. Our neighbors to the north, Wacom, (in Vancouver, WA), got in touch with me to test their Cintiq Companion for a few weeks and give them feedback/bug reports. At first I thought they’d given me a prototype, but it turns out mine is one of the production models. The fact that it’s now my own, my precious, and that it’s the same hardware that you, gentle reader, would be purchasing, means the flood gates are open, and I can tell you all about it. How it compares to my faithful Surface Pro, and even a little reference to the new Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition (jeepers, that’s a mouthful), which Samsung sent me (thank you). There are a surprising number of people asking for comparisons between the Note and these full-powered PCs, so I’m happy to tell you what I think.

Let’s talk Cintiq Companion. When Wacom finally announced it, the first thing people said (as they do) was, “Wah, $2,000+???” Let’s look at it this way, and move on: any manufacturer, be they Sony, Microsoft, Fujitsu, etc., charges a premium for a premium spec machine that will not offer drastic real-world performance gains (for most people), over something like the baseline Surface Pro (2), which starts at about a grand. If you load up a comparable Sony machine like the Duo 13 with an i7 CPU and 8GB of RAM, guess where your price point lands? North of 2 grand. And for those who feel they need 8GB of RAM to make their work lives easier (me), just having the option is huge. With the Companion, you’re paying dollaz for a pro-spec machine, and one with some serious user-interface advantages for art creation. That’s the gist of it.

That leads me into the heart of things; the machine and its interface. Some of what I like:

The build quality is very good. It’s heavier than the others I mentioned, but it feels solid in your lap, and the surface area/bevel really works well for its primary purpose as a drawing device. The funny thing about the Note 10.1, by contrast, is that it’s lighter and slippery(er), and I really need to set it on something solid for drawing. The Companion stays in place, thanks to rubbery grips, and yes, its almost-four-pound weight.

The surface of the screen also has enough tooth to make drawing a more controlled experience. It’s hugely helpful to getting a stroke right the first time. The pen itself is comfortable, and obviously better suited to extended use than the stock Surface or Note 10.1’s pen (or the Bamboo Feel I bought for the Surface Pro). Plus, you get additional control with the Companion Pen (buttons, tilt, pressure sensitivity). Tilt, I don’t really use (it’s often too processor-intensive for my canvas sizes… lag city), but the extra button and the pressure sensitivity are definitely helpful.

Other things that add up:  Battery life is surprisingly good (6-7 hours for twiddling your internet thumbs, about 4 for drawing/working). Two USB 3.0 ports instead of the usual one. The optional bluetooth keyboard has great key action (much more accurate/comfortable typing experience vs Surface Pro), is quite low-profile, and it’s USB rechargeable (nice). I’ve actually spent more time writing script for my next book on the Companion than doing anything else (SUE ME), and I’ve really enjoyed the little keyboard. The Companion’s included tote bag is also very nice (look for it hidden in the packaging, I missed it the first time).

Yeah, but can he do THIS?
Yeah, but can he do THIS?

The physical buttons on the bevel and pen go a long way to getting work done efficiently minus a keyboard. For pro applications like Manga Studio and Photoshop, that’s a big consideration for those who want real mobility with a device like this. I previously never strayed much from keyboard shortcuts, even with my old Cintiq 21″, but because I lacked a keyboard for a while with the Companion, I took time to configure everything and learn what I could do with Wacom’s buttons, Radial Menu, and software touch-strips. I came away impressed, and happily efficient in my workflow. That’s something you can’t do as well with the Surface Pro, the Sony Duo, or the Note. Yes, I made that lovely lap-board to support the Surface’s keyboard (wistful sigh), but then its overall weight and footprint is as much or better than the Companion’s. I still like my homegrown solution, but the fact is that Wacom designed their Companion with art creation in mind, and the others really did not. There’s an appreciable difference in both the feel of getting work done, and in the speed of getting work done when you’re on the go, without your keyboard.

The screen is very good. 13 inches is a good compromise for portability/usability, and its resolution is just as sharp as you’d want it to be for graphical interface use (something of a struggle on the Surface Pro). A quick side note: Manga Studio’s latest iteration (5.03- free update for people who own 5.0+) has a scalable tablet-friendly interface option that’s worth checking out). Colors on the Companion are more accurate than my Surface Pro (not sure about the Pro 2, I know they’ve made big improvements in their color fidelity).

Those are a lot of the good things, and they make the Companion a great solution for my needs. That said, I’ve been testing this thing for a month, and I have a clear sense of its faults, some of which may be fixed with software updates. Bear that in mind as you journey with me, into the realm of Nit Picks.

Things I don’t like:

The stand functions well for what it is, but what it is is hardly mobile, or very well designed. It seems to me that in V2, Wacom could easily incorporate a multi-stage stand into the device itself without adding much weight, and still retaining the rigidity and strength needed to rest your arm weight on the thing and have it stay put. It’s a design challenge, but not an insurmountable one, especially as the computer components themselves shrink with future generations.

I dunno, man.
The biggest and scariest stand since Stephen King’s The Stand.

Another weird bit is the power button. It’s placed right where I touch the device to shift it in my lap, and because of the button’s design, it’s easily depressed, putting the Companion to sleep (by default- you can change it in the Power Button options in Windows 8, but your shouldn’t have to). There’s a handy spring-button on the other side of the Companion for locking screen orientation. Making the power button something more like this would solve the problem. It’s a weird oversight.

Also annoying is the inability to use this machine as a drawing display for a different computer (ie, a much more powerful workstation). Wacom EU’s FAQ on the device says it’s a limitation of Windows hardware, lack of interest from consumers, yadda and yadda. I really think this could, and should be done. It’s not even about being able to use the device when its hardware is out of date, it’s about using the device right now for applications that need more power than it can muster with its own internals. This uses a ULV processor, of the same ilk as the Surface Pro. The i7 vs i5 means you’ll see maybe 10% additional horsepower. That’s not as much as some people may be expecting. These machines are plenty fast for most illustration purposes, but just as I run into limitations on the Surface Pro, I run into similar limits with the Companion. They both comfortably process 11×17 600 dpi color files with a good number of layers. Double the canvas size, though, as I need to for Batman ’66’s digital edition, and things bog down. Again, that’s a fairly small fraction of my work, but it’s an important one. I’d like to either have a full-voltage chip inside this thing, and/or the option to hook it up to a much more powerful PC when I need to cut through a jungle of giant art files. Quick note: If you find brush strokes lagging on the Companion, make sure you have its power mode set to ‘High Performance’, not ‘Balanced’. Click the battery icon and select ‘More Power Options’ to find it. 

Finally, there are a few quirks with drivers and software that could be improved. Touch and gesture support is the least configurable of the Companion’s typically robust control-set. It’s also the most finicky. Bringing up the software keyboard, for example, often de-registers the cursor in a text field, forcing me to bring up the keyboard, then tap the text field again to start entering text. A small annoyance, but it’s there until they fix it in future drivers.

Driver and software issues may not happen to everyone in the same measure they happened to me, but they’re part and parcel of a first-gen device like this (and, let’s face it, most Windows devices), so you should approach a purchase knowing you may need to sort through a few more software woes than you would with something like the Surface Pro, which comes straight from Microsoft (still, that machine isn’t perfect either).

———————————

So there you have it: the good, and the not-so-good. In the end, I feel the good of this machine far outweighs its faults, and I’m very happy with it. My wife now has the Surface Pro, and I’m forging ahead with my digital art creation using the Companion. It feels good, it functions well, and it’s by and large a thoughtfully designed art tool. It has plenty of room to improve, but so do the other options. If you’re a professional, the Surface Pro 2 with 8GB of RAM is a compelling option, but one lacking the interface and form factor considerations of this machine. With the Surface, you really have to get the keyboard and find a way to use it on a flat surface, whereas the Companion can function pretty well without one (for art). Comparing them that way, you’re looking at saving about 500 bucks if you go the Surface route, barring warranty and some extras (these mostly in Wacom’s favor). To me, the Companion is worth it. If you’re like me, and your file sizes are too large to make the cloud a viable means of working in the studio and at home on multiple devices, the Companion may be a very good solution for keeping everything with you, anytime and anywhere you need to work.

Note_10_Samsung
Can I play too? … Hey, guys?

Then there’s this little guy. Isn’t he darling? That lovely screen, that lightness. It’s a nice tablet.

The Note 10.1 is less money yet than the Surface and Companion, and also less useful in its capacity for getting work done, or drawing something easily/accurately. It’s a totally different piece of hardware, nice for media consumption and a doodle/rough, but in no way capable of being your only computer/digital art device. Drawing on it is a bit laggy and inaccurate; I was surprised given its specs, but my Galaxy Note 2 phone actually draws and navigates with less lag. Weird.

If you have questions about the hardware I’m reviewing (and I know you do, based on my Surface Pro review), I’m glad to help. Google probably knows better than I do (and is faster at responding), but I’ll do what I can.

Til next time!