Sunday, February 22, 2015

I Sing the Body Electric: ASUS EP 121

I've always done noodly drawings as far back as I can remember. I should put up some of the comics I drew in elementary school here sometime. :) Once computers could handle it, I used to scan sketches and then work with them in Photoshop. That was in the mid-90s, getting on for 20 years ago now. But for years, I really wanted to do the whole thing on computer, stem to stern. Something about the idea of having everything you need, right there with you while you sit under a tree with your feet in the river and the birds chirping really appealed to me. Well, I haven't done that yet, but the means really have existed for some time.

Years ago, Wacom tablets became affordable. There were two issues with them. One was that portable computers really couldn't keep up with them till the last ten years or so, and then other was that it still divorced you from the process of looking where you're drawing. You're drawing on this pad, but what you're drawing appears on a screen separated by a couple of feet from your hand. So while that got us to the point of taking paper out of the equation, it still wasn't as portable as a sketchbook, and still wasn't as intuitive.

Finally laptops and tablets came out that had pen input right on the screen. The first one that caught my eye and was affordable (second hand) was the Toshiba M400, which is a nice little workhorse that has pretty much everything... stereo speakers, DVD-ROM drive, USB ports, SD card port, various ports... but, it's about 2.5" thick, weighs about 3-4 lbs, and isn't as portable as I would have liked. I still love the thing; it has a lot of uses... but for digital scribbling, I kept looking.

A couple of years ago, around Christmas, I found a really good candidate, the ASUS EP 121. The model is about four years old now and was discontinued around the time I got mine (second hand), but I still haven't found anything better. There are better, faster, lighter tablets now, ones that (like the EP 121) have both Wacom facilities and capacitive touch screens... but they always seem to be lacking something. None seems to have quite the combination that makes the EP 121 work for me.

The EP 121 has an i5 dual processor, 4 GB of memory, shipped with a 32 or 64 GB SDD (mine's previous owner replaced it with a 128 GB), a couple of USB ports and an SD slot. It has a nice pen that feels natural and slots brilliantly into the upper right of the tablet, and comes with a terrific leather case that lets it stand up fairly sturdily on a table top, but coming in at about 2 lbs or so, it's pretty manageable with or without a table. It's a real computer that runs Windows (not Android), with all that that implies for full-formed, robust applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, and others. It absolutely sings with Clip Studio Paint, a program designed to draw and colour manga comics, including vector-based pen strokes that can be individually selected and moved, reshaped, and even split. Clip Studio Paint makes brilliant use of its touch screen capacity to enable you to rotate the view of the artwork (but not actually the artwork itself), which means you can draw curves at angles much more natural to the sweep of the hand, wrist, and elbow. The Bluetooth keyboard (and mouse I added myself) facilitate the use of keys and keyboard modifiers without the keyboard having to be actually connected to the tablet. It's pretty much everything I wished I'd had 20, 25 years ago.

To compare, I recently bought (again, second hand) a Lenovo ThinkPad Helix...

It's world-beater. Small, light, doubles as both a laptop and a grip-and-rip tablet; Wacom facilities and touch-screen; 8 GB of RAM and a much better i7 processor. But... its screen, while as wide as the EP 121's, is slightly shorter. Its higher pixel count doesn't amount to much in a practical sense when the actual drawing area is marginally smaller. It has a couple of awkwardly-placed USB ports, but no SD card slot, meaning anything you want to add to it so you don't fill up its hard drive has to stick out, somewhere. And to my great disappointment, the keyboard it comes with becomes as useless as a severed limb once it's not attached to the screen... it has no WiFi or Bluetooth facility for communicating with the tablet at all! To have such facilities, you need to go out and buy a separate keyboard. Insane. What was Lenovo thinking... or failing to think? The fact is that I bought the thing for business, since it can run just about anything, but I did so with an eye to it being the successor to the EP 121. But, nope, for all that, it's not. To quote the man, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." One day, there will be an acceptable replacement for the EP 121. But not yet. Not just yet. :)

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