Dell Canvas review: the cheap Wacom Cintiq alternative

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  • Price When Reviewed: £1,750.80 including VAT

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The Dell Canvas feels like a repurposed, updated and cheaper version of Wacom’s Cintiq 27QHD, the desk-sized tablet display I reviewed back in 2015. It’s more than a mere copy – even though this is branded as a Dell product, the two companies have worked together to create it – but it fails to live up to what we expect even at the cheaper price.

I had the chance to draw and paint in my desktop app of choice – Photoshop – on the Dell Canvas at Digital Arts’ offices in London (shortly before going to try Wacom’s new 24-inch and forthcoming 32-inch Cintiq Pro devices at the UK launch). So, while it’s updated in some ways from the older Cintiq Wacom device, this is now outdated technology. For instance, the new larger Wacom Pros have a 4K resolution, the Dell Canvas is just QHD (2,560 x 1,440).

See also: Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 and 32 review. Wacom Cintiq 27QHD review.

Before I go into greater detail, my own current setup is as follows. I’m a professional freelance illustrator and I’m currently using an Intuos Pro Medium tablet with an iMac Retina 5k. I also work with an iPad Pro. I’ve reviewed numerous drawing devices for Digital Arts and others over the years, including Wacom’s previous flagship professional product, the 27QHD.

Also important to note at this point is that, while Wacom’s Cintiqs are compatible with both Mac and PC, the Dell Canvas is PC only. This may be an instant dealbreaker for some. I tested it attached to Dell’s iMac Pro-competitor, the Precision AIO 5750 – which has the kind of graphics hardware you need to power the Canvas’ QHD drawing screen alongside it’s own 4K display.

Low-cost, large screen 

For most artists and designers, the key reason to consider the Dell Canvas is that it’s noticeably less expensive than Wacom’s larger Cintiqs (Wacom also sells 13- and 16-inch Cintiq Pros).

Both the Dell Canvas and the older Cintiq model are going to appeal to creatives with lower budgets, perhaps those considering buying a large screen tablet for the first time.

At the time of writing, the Dell Canvas is £1,459.00 from Dell in the UK, nearly £300 less than the Wacom Cintiq 27QHD is £1,749.99 in the UK.

The Canvas is $1,799 in the US, where the Cintiq 27QHD isn't available through Wacom. The 27QHD costs $1,899 in the US through Amazon, though prices there have a tendency to fluctuate.

By contrast, the new Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 is £1,899/$1,999, or £2,399/$2,499 with touch (the Dell Canvas has touch support as standard). 

Prices for the 32” will of course no doubt be significantly higher again, but it’s not clear exactly how much, and the release date is still TBC also. Perhaps the cost of the Wacom 27QHD will drop further once the 32-inch is finally released – or Wacom will stop selling it – but that’s mere speculation at this point. 

Dell Canvas vs Wacom Cintiq

However you look at it, if you’re planning to invest in a new device of this kind today, and funds are your primary concern, the Dell Canvas represents the cheapest way to step into this world by a significant margin. Does this lower entry point have any downsides? Well first of all, there’s another upside. The Wacom Cintiq 27QHD was released in 2015, and the Dell Canvas screen is using more recent technology. It’s noticeably brighter than the older Cintiq, and there’s also better colour range. Parallax (the gap between the pen placement on the screen and where the marks are actually appearing on said screen) has also been reduced thanks to thinner screen technology.

Seeing all this first, I was initially impressed, and I was keen to start drawing on the device. It has a more angular feel than the radius corners of the Wacom 27QHD, but other than that, it’s clearly a high end device that is going to be noticed on your desk, and not just because of the space it’s taking up. Apparently the pen has also been produced in collaboration with Wacom, and whilst it’s certainly passable in terms of feel, and better than the Microsoft Surface pen by some distance, it also falls short of the Wacom Pro Pen 2 and the Apple Pencil.

Unlike the Wacom pens, it also doesn’t have an eraser at the other end. I tend to choose my erasers as I would other brushes, i.e. from the interface of the software I’m using. As such, it’s not really something that would bother me personally, but just in terms of ‘keeping score’ of the small differences, it’s another small mark down for the Dell Canvas.

Poor brush control

I downloaded a piece of work I’d started on my iPad. When working on a portrait, after the initial pencils, my next step is to build my tones up with soft airbrushes. This is where I had the biggest stumbling block. Drawing individual lines felt comfortable and responsive, but when I tried some soft shading, I really struggled. In theory the Dell pencil has the same pen sensitivity as that of the equivalent Wacom (2,048 levels), though the Wacom Pro Pen 2 is around four times more sensitive (8,192 levels). Where I’m used to controlling opacity from imperceptibly faint to very heavy, sometimes in a single stroke, I could only achieve a blotchy, stepped effect. In fact it really took me aback.

I wondered if I had something set wrong, either in Photoshop, or in the overall settings for the pen, but try as I might, I could not fix it. I was only able to manually control the brush opacity from the menu, which led to a frustrating stop-start experience where I wasn’t able to simply paint without thinking about it. With my time on the device being relatively short, it’s difficult to say whether this is a fundamental problem which painters needing to make subtle marks are going to experience at all times, therefore rendering the device essentially redundant. Or, is it something which can be improved by either spending more time investigating the settings, or perhaps even by downloading a new driver?

It’s also possible that this is a problem which Dell are aware of, and perhaps will improve/fix in a future driver update. All I can say is, having used many Wacom devices over the years, both in my day to day work and when reviewing new products for Digital Arts and others, I’ve never experienced anything like this. I was hoping to be able to say that the Dell worked well as a slightly updated Cintiq 27QHD, and being cheaper, was therefore a sensible way to step into the world of professional drawing devices, but until knowing if this can be fixed, I honestly can’t recommend it to artists.

If you don’t need to be able to vary pressure across a single stroke, this might not be an issue for you. This device isn’t only for illustrators and artists after all, and there’s no reason why – even if this problem really can’t be fixed – it wouldn’t still make a fantastic interactive screen for other creative endeavours such as say, editing a film or creating animation.

Turning up the Dial

Moving on from this admittedly problematic issue, there is more to discuss. With a device this large, how you interact with it, above and beyond using the pen, is hugely important. In previous reviews of both the Cintiq 27QHD Wacom and the new Pro models, I’ve noted how once your keyboard is no longer easily within reach, there’s a noticeable learning curve in terms of making your workflow seamless again.

The 27” Wacom introduced the portable remote, which features numerous physical buttons that can be programmed with shortcuts. It can also be magnetically placed on the Cintiq, or held in the hand.

Dell has gone with a ‘Totem’, a rotating wheel device akin to the Microsoft Surface Dial. The latter only works when placed on the screen, and features no physical buttons (though tapping the top of it does act as a single button). Instead you click and hold, and a radial menu appears. Once you select an option from here, you can then rotate the totem left or right to decrease or increase the selection. For instance, this could be used for changing brush size mid-stroke, to zoom in or out, or even to dial back through numerous undo states. Personally I prefer the idea of the physical buttons from the Wacom Remote, because then you can eventually use muscle memory to improve your workflow.

With a Dial (or Totem in this case), you always have to look over to it first, in order to select the modifier from the menu. Also, where the Surface Dial felt as if it remained mostly in place, when rotating the Totem I found it wasn’t pivoting well at all, and was sliding across the screen considerably. As such, only adjustments requiring small rotations were practical/comfortable, because I was both trying to rotate the wheel, and also pushing against it to keep it in place at the same time.

Once again, perhaps spending more time with this might reveal how best to make the most of it, but there’s another feature, unique to this device, which potentially offers a better solution to workflow issues. Called Dell Canvas Palettes, you’re able to customise an on-screen visual interface of buttons for shortcuts and even files. This should negate some of the problems with the dial, letting you quickly perform the actions you’re using to doing with your keyboard. Then there are also ‘Fences’, which lets you partition the display into several application windows, similar to Apple’s split screen on iOS, but not limited to two. This is another feature which puts it ahead of the Wacom 27QHD in terms of customisable workflow.

Dell Canvas review: Verdict

To conclude, while the Dell Canvas has some interesting features, the problems I had with the pen pressure sensitivity, and the lower resolution compared to the new large Cintiq Pro models, means that I find it difficult to recommend this, certainly to anyone who wants to use it as an artist.

Yes it’s at the lowest end of the price bracket for a large drawing screen, but it’s still nearly £1,500. Also, because it’s so large, an additional Ergo arm (and adaptor) is still going to be needed to make the most of it in terms of posture and comfort, and then you’re still looking at the 2k mark anyway.

It may be that you have a creative use for it which isn’t going to be held back by the lack of pressure-sensitivity we experienced (which may be fixable) or the lower resolution. If that’s the case, you can still think of it as a Wacom 27QHD with a better screen and some useful bespoke software for improving workflow, where Dell have thought carefully about how you can use such a large device without reducing productivity.

Overall though, the Dell Canvas feels as if it’s in an unusual grey area, neither cheap enough to really work as an entry level device, but also now very obviously lagging behind in terms of resolution. It will absolutely look impressive on a desk to a casual observer, and its multi-touch can recognise up to 20 digits on screen at the same time, making it great for collaborative work, but this feels like a niche use case.

If you’re able to afford a Cintiq Pro 24, it may be better to stretch for that and therefore have yourself set up for the next years. If you really can’t, it might be worth considering a reconditioned Wacom 27QHD instead.

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