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07 April 2011

Say Hello to My Little Friend....

With the ill-gotten gains from a recent commission, I decided to try out a new tool that was recommended to me, the Toshiba Portege tablet PC.  Thanks to the magic of Ebay, I acquired a 1.8 GHz dual-core M400 with 1 GB of RAM for just under $300...not too shabby.

A very enthusiastic recommendation for this PC came from Mark Oakley, the artist of Thieves & Kings and StarDrop.  I've long been a fan of Mark's work, and was glad to have the opportunity to talk with him at a couple of events last year, at which points he showed me a little of his working method and introduced me to the Portege as one of his main drawing tools.
Up front, I was a little dubious as I've been using a Wacom Graphire and while it's a handy tool for painting, I haven't found it all that great as a sketching and drawing tool.  However, after seeing the Portege in action and feeling the responsiveness of the stylus (which, by the way, is also made by Wacom), I decided to give it a try.  Now, I'm glad I did.

A few notes about the build of the machine.  This thing feels solid, almost industrial.  While I'm not keen to test the theory, it almost feels like I could drop this thing from my height and it would survive the impact.  The hinge on which the screen pivots between laptop/tablet mode is nice and firm with no wiggle, and the transformation is nice and smooth, with the tablet locking into place when it's down.  The stylus slots neatly into the body of the machine when not in use, and there's some great customizable one-touch control buttons on the screen.  All in all, it's a beautifully compact and portable machine.  Mine has a few dings from wear, but it runs like a dream, much faster than any PC or laptop I've owned before.

The system I own runs a tablet version of Windows XP.  In time I may consider upgrading this to Windows 7, but for now, that's doing just fine for me.  Thanks to another suggestion from Mark, in addition to Photoshop, I'm also running Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro, which is turning out to be a handy tool for quick sketching and is built very well for the tablet PC.  Photoshop, of course, runs very well on here.  The alignment of pen tip and cursor is precise, and the motion of the pen across the surface is smooth, making drawing on the tablet a real pleasure.  Mark has recommended replacing the screen of the tablet with thin glass, but I don't think I'm ready to take that step yet...I'm going to enjoy using this thing a while before I hack it to that level.

Of course, it wasn't long before I discovered some of the limitations of Photoshop on a tablet.  While much of the interface is built to work very well with a stylus, there's a few keyboard driven functions that I just cannot seem to do without.  I don't mind using the stylus to switch tools; it actually seems to enhance the experience for me.  However, I was very much missing the "shift" function for drawing straight lines, the "Alt" function in brush mode for selecting color, and the "Tab" function for hiding toolboxes.
Mark came to the rescue again by recommending the Modlock script that adds a screen overlay that duplicates the functions of several of the main keys, and has greatly reduced the stress of working in tablet mode.  He also developed his own script in Autohotkey for an onscreen "Undo" function that is sadly lacking from PS outside the menus.  I keep both of those running when I'm working in Photoshop and they've quickly become indispensible.  To date, I've only been able to bring back the "Tab" key function through the use of the on-screen keyboard, which is still a bit laborious.  I may have to look at the Autohotkey scripting environment myself to see if I can create an alternative solution.

On a side note...the programmers behind Photoshop could really stand to take a look at the Gimp interface.  One function I find very useful there is that when you use the "Shift" function for a straight line, there's a dynamic straight line represented on-screen between your start point and your cursor that shows you exactly where your line's going.  It's a feature I'd love to see duplicated in Photoshop.

So, with everything in place, I've been working on commissions on the Portege for the last couple of weeks, and it's quickly becoming my main drawing tool.  Not only is it a fun little device to work with, but it also frees me from my studio computer/drawing table so that I can actually interact with other human beings while I'm working.  The processing power in this thing allows me to do image searches for reference while in Photoshop without bogging down the system to a crawl, and my graphics programs zip along faster than they did on my old studio machine (now repurposed as a Netflix device).
While there'll always be a tactile appeal to working with pen, brush and paper, I've got a feeling I'm going to be spending a lot more time working on my Portege.  I know it's an older machine and not top of the line; as with most things technological, I'm a couple of years behind the curve.  Still, it's got power in spades beyond my old Acer; certainly enough to change my working method for the foreseeable future.

If you're an artist who works on a table PC, I'd love to hear any recommendations for tools, software or working methods that work for you.  Leave me a comment or shoot me an email, and let's share some knowledge!