This review is written by guest artist Joel Watson.
Chinese tablet manufacturer Yiynova has been providing affordable and serviceable alternatives to the Wacom Cintiq line of tablet monitors for roughly 4 years. Since they released their popular 19 tablet monitor, the MSP19U, in 2012 artists looking to expand their digital tool set without breaking the bank have flocked to the brand. Most of their product line lacks the spit and polish of Wacoms offerings, but at 1/2 to 1/3 the price, its hard to argue with Yiynova's affordability and functionality.
Yiynova were the first to market with a portable 10.1 tablet monitor that received power, pen input and video from a single USB cable when they released the DP10 in 2012. The first version of this hardware suffered from a lackluster screen with a sub HD resolution, but subsequent versions have gradually improved on the screen and overall build quality. I recently reviewed the most recent Yiynova branded 10.1 tablet monitor, the MVP10UHD + IPS. It seems this may be the final version of this tablet to bare solely the Yiynova brand name, as the newest version released in March of 2015, the SP1001 Penates, is now branded as a joint venture between Yiynova and UC-Logic, the Chinese manufacturer that has long been providing the internal components for Yiynova’s tablets.
- Digitizer: Tablet Resolution (5080 LPI), Tracking Speed (200 PPS), Pen Pressure Sensitivity (2048 levels)
- 6 User Assignable hot-keys; USB & HDMI 2-in-1 Cable; Battery-less Pen
- Support OS: Windows 8.1 / 8 / 7 (32/64bit); Mac: OS X 10.6.8 or later (Intel processor)
- 10 Interchangeable Soft and Hard Nibs
- Active display/drawing area (H x V): 216.96 (W)X135.6 (H) mm (10.1" diagonal).
Initial Impressions and Build Quality
Before you even plug the SP1001 in and switch it on, there are several, immediately apparent upgrades from the previous models. I say previous models because the SP1001 appears to have nearly identical internal components to the MVP10UHD +IPS. More on that later.
Right off bat, it's obvious the case and overall aesthetics of the SP1001 have been completely redesigned. The case is about half as thick as the previous version. It features smooth, tapered edges as opposed to the 10UHDs sharp corners, and the back is coated with a nonslip rubber, common in many Wacom products, that provides excellent grip and adds to the overall feel of the build quality. Speaking of build quality, the SP1001 is the first in this line of products that FEELS like a finished product. All of the previous Yiyova portable tablet monitors flexed and creaked in your hands. They felt like they were built from off the shelf products that didn’t quite fit together properly. The SP1001 is SOLID. Its well balanced and has a decent heft, but isn’t heavy or uncomfortable to hold.
They have also completely redesigned the 6 hotkeys built into the face of the tablet. On the previous versions the buttons were hard plastic, had a very click feel and were placed right on the outer edge of the monitor bezel. This placement made it difficult to hold the tablet in your hand while drawing and also easily access the hotkey buttons without setting the tablet down. I tend to use it in my lap with my left hand holding the tablet (the buttons would be directly beneath my left hand palm) and drawing with my right hand. In order to access anything but the top two hotkey buttons with my left thumb, I had to contort it not a weird position which often left me with hand cramps after repeated undo or drag tool presses. The SP1001 has moved to the button placement about a half inch in towards the screen leaving a nice border between the buttons and the edge and allowing for much easier thumb access. They buttons are also spaced further apart and now made of raised rubberized plastic, instead of flat, hard plastic keys that are placed one immediately after the other. This makes finding the button you’re looking for without looking MUCH easier.
As I mentioned earlier, the internals of the SP1001 appear to be nearly identical to its predecessor. I don’t know specifics on the exact model of digitizer used, but the screen resolution and pixel density are identical (1280x800px, 5080 LPI), and the hotkey buttons are in the same configuration (and have some the same software problems which I will go into shortly). The only main difference in the hardware besides the look and feel of the case and buttons is the method of connecting the tablet to a computer. Previous Yiynova 10.1 tablets passed power, signal and video through a single (albeit double ended) usb cable. The SP1001 uses USB for power and signal, but is now equipped with a mini HDMI port for video. HDMI has much higher bandwidth for video throughput than USB 2.0, and this the video is much smoother. This is most prevalent when just using the SP1001 as a second monitor to play a video. With USB video, the host computer would typically fire up all the fans when playing video over a USB monitor due to the low bandwidth and increased processor power required. That said, just drawing in Photoshop there is little difference in the video experience over USB or HDMI. The screen is so small (think just a bit shorter, and a bit wider than a standard iPad), that you really don’t notice any sort of lag or refresh rate issues. Either way, my brain knows that the HDMI connection is much better for video, but my eyes don’t perceive it much at all. Still, my laptop’s fan and battery appreciate the new connection option.
Connectivity and Driver Setup
Here's where the SP1001 stops shining and need further refinement. I must point out that all tests were conducted on a Macbook Air, and I have no idea what the setup, driver configuration or overall performance are like on a Windows PC.
USB cable, display cable and the stylus
Previous Yiynova 10.1 tablet monitors needed a tablet driver as well as a DisplayLink video driver to handle the usb video connection. The SP1001 just needs a tablet driver, as video is handled by the internal video card of your computer just like any external monitor would be. If you install the driver without the tablet connected, then attempt the open the tablet monitor configuration app, you will be present with a blank screen that simple says “No Tablet Detected.” Upon connecting the SP1001 there are at least a dozen different things that might happen depending on what order you plug the cables in and what kind of mood the tablet and your computer are in on that particular day. Installing the drivers was painless (at this time there is a standard driver for this tablet monitor on both UC-Logics and Yiynova’s websites, but the UC-Logic website also have a beta driver for OS X). Getting the SP1001 hooked up and usable, however, was a frustrating mess.
If I plugged the USB cable in first (the pressed the power button just beneath the USB connection on the tablet), the tablet configuration appreciated would detect the tablet after a few seconds and allow me to see the various options for video calibration and hotkey and stylus settings. Sometimes, at this point, the tablet would function as a standard no-monitor drawing tablet. This was how the other Yiynova 10.1 tablet monitors worked as well, and the feature often came in handy, especially when connected to a computer with a much larger screen. Other times, when connection the USB cable, the tablet wouldn’t register the stylus at all, and still other times it would register the stylus but no matter where you placed the point, the cursor would jump to the bottom or the corner edges of the screen.
Plugging in the HDMI cable (the tablet has a dual cable with mini HDMI and micro USB on one end and standard HDMI and USB on the other end) which I was connection with an adapter to the mini DVI/Thunderbolt port on my Macbook Air, provided a similar bevy of undesirable and unpredictable results. Sometimes the screen on the SP1001 would come on and show digital snow. Other times it would come on and display a mirror of my laptop screen (per the display settings on my Macbook Air), but the stylus issues listed above would persist. I spent about 30 minutes installing and uninstalling the drivers, plugging and unplugging the tablet cables in different orders while pressing the power button at different times, and rebooting my laptop either with the tablet already plugged in or not yet plugged in. Eventually I ditched the beta OS X driver, reinstalled the current one, rebooted the laptop twice, then plugged in the usb cable followed by the HDMI cable. 13th to 14th time must have been the charm, because eventually I got it to work as it is intended.
Once I was at this point, I opened the configuration utility and tried to set up the hotkeys, and stylus. I first performed the monitor calibration, which takes you through the stand array of click the stylus tip on these various points tests. I should note that the first few times I tried to run the monitor calibration, the button in the application simply didn’t respond. I do not remember if this was with the beta driver or not.
Next I attempted to set up the monitor and stylus hotkeys. The options for the two buttons on the stylus are limited to a few presets like right-click, left-click, and none. It would be preferable to be able to set one of the stylus buttons to a macro like undo or the drag tool. The monitor hotkeys have more options, but this is difficult to realize if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You can select from a long drop-down list of preset key presses and macros for each button. All of the most common tool functions for Photoshop are included in this list. However, whereas they do offer an undo option, they do not have a step back or multi-undo (cmd+option+Z on a Mac or cntrl+alt+Z on a PC) option in the default list. There is a user defined item in the dropdown list, but selecting this does not lead to a logical next step. In Wacom tablet drivers, if you select user defined you are given a new dialog box to name the macro, press the key or keys for the hotkey to emulate and save. I assumed this feature was just broken in the drivers because it was not apparent what I was supposed to do in order to set up my own macro. After emailing back and forth with my contact at UC-Logic a few times (it took awhile to explain my issue due to a language barrier), I realized that I was just supposed to click inside an empty box that was not labeled and press the keys I wanted. I explained that this confusion could be easily solved by labeling the empty box and adding a single instruction like, click inside the box and press the key or keys you desire, etc. They indicated that they would consider this for future software revisions.
There is also a tab for setting up the stylus pressure curve. This tablet monitor is listed as 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity. The pressure curve calibration is designed to allow the artist to choose how stiff they want their stylus to feel. With a soft setting, the stylus (using a brush size of 30 pixels, and the width set to pressure in the drawing application settings) should move very easily from 1 pixel wide to 30 pixels wide when drawing with little to no pressure. With a firm setting (still at a 30 pixel brush size), the artist should be able to comfortably sketch with a very small line of 1-10 pixels, then apply more pressure to achieve a larger line width of up to 30 pixels. I found the pressure curve settings in the setup application for the SP1001 to make almost no difference regardless of what I set them to. I was able to test the pressure curve in a small preview box in the setup application which simulates a drawing app like Photoshop. At the lowest or softest setting the brush blew through the pressure curve with little to no pressure from my hand at all (which is to be expected). At the highest or firmest setting, the performance was only slightly different. There should be a decent range of settings available in this tool, but it seems to only go from extremely soft to pretty soft. This doesn’t make it unusable, but it does differ so greatly from almost every other tablet I've tried that I suspect most artists will have a steep learning curve when applying pressure to achieve a desired line width.
Video quality on the SP1001 is impressive for such a small screen. It’s no Retina iPad, but it’s bright and viewable from any angle. My opinion may be swayed by how terrible the viewing angles were on previous versions of this tablet, but it’s quite usable. If anything, I wish I had the option of making it a bit brighter, but I would assume this was a limitation of the unit being USB powered.
The resolution is lacking (again, comparing to a retina iPad for reference), and I found it difficult to fit Photoshop’s menus within the 1280X800 pixels and still have room to draw on my canvas. Eventually, I settled on leaving all of my tools and menus on the laptop’s screen and using the Penates just as a canvas. Switching from pen input back to my trackpad and keyboard to change layers or tools was a but frustrating at first, but I got used to the new workflow with time. I did not attempt to watch any videos on the monitor, but I would assume if you have a stand for it, or a way to prop it up, it would make a decent second screen for your laptop while on the go. There was nothing about its performance to indicate otherwise.
The included stylus is another area in which the SP1001 differs from previous Yiynova 10.1 tablets. The bundled stylus is, I believe, their first battery-less model. Previous models have required internal AAA batteries or USB rechargeable batteries. This one takes a cue from Wacom and requires no battery or recharging to function.
There are two rocker-style buttons for performing right click or pan/zoom features (these functions can be configured in the drivers, but options were limited to a few manufacturer’s presets) and decent overall ergonomics. It’s quite light. Adding a bit of heft wouldn’t hut it, but it seems to be about the same weight as my Wacom Cintiq stylus. It is coated in a similar soft touch rubber to that which coats the body of the tablet, so keeping a grip on it is not difficult. There is no eraser on the opposite tip. Wacom seems to still have a firm lock on this technology.
The stylus comes with a weighted, rubberized holder for keeping it vertical and out of the way on your desk, and a very nice rubber lined storage case for when you need to toss it in a bag or backpack. The storage case also stores 9 additional hard plastic stylus tips.
With all of my hotkeys set up to zoom, pan, undo, switch between pen and eraser and save my file, I was ready to go. I opened a new Photoshop document, picked my standard inking brush and got started sketching.
When you have used one particular digital tablet or tablet monitor for years and years, it’s impossible to not immediately compare any new hardware to whatever you are used to. The difficult part is distinguishing if the new hardware is LESS than your current set up or just DIFFERENT. The SP1001 does not feel like a Cintiq. Then again, I don’t think it’s supposed to. It does, however, feel exactly like a Huion tablet I reviewed a few years back (The GT-190), which also used UC Logic internals. The pressure curve was very soft and unlike what I was used to, but it only took a few minutes of doodling to adjust my stroke and my expectations. In almost no time I was able to sketch and ink with my standard brushes and get nearly identical results to those I would expect on my Cintiq. Cursor tracking was similar to every UC Logic based tablet I have ever used. The cursor APPEARS to lag behind the stylus tip about 1/4” as you move the stylus around the screen, but as soon as you make a mark it catches up immediately and the mark is where you intended it to be. If you can learn to ignore the position of the arrow/cursor and just draw where you want to draw, your results will be excellent. It took a bit of training to ignore the cursor position, but eventually it was hardly noticeable.
Wacom tablet users should be aware that the distance above the tablet at which it notices the stylus (how high above the tablet surface you can “hover” the pen and still register cursor movement or input) is much shorter than you are used to. I’d say it’s roughly an inch, maybe a little more. You have to keep your stylus very close to the tablet to register movement. I learned to just pick my hand up, move it where I wanted to place the cursor, then put it back down. The cursor always jumped immediately to where I wanted it. I just didn’t get to drag it along with my hand the way I was accustomed to.
My biggest disappointment with the SP1001 was in using the hotkeys. Having to move all of my tools to my other monitor to save drawing space meant being able to use frequent commands like undo, pan, zoom, etc. with the hotkeys was integral to my workflow. There is a flaw in either the hardware, the drivers or both where after repeated presses (think of pressing “undo” 5 or 6 times in a row) the buttons stop responding, and the stylus no longer registers on the tablet. The only way I found to “reset” normal function was to lift the stylus away from the screen, wait a few seconds, then put it back down. I encountered this exact same issue with both the MVP10UHD and the MVP10UHD+IPS, and I am surprised the manufacturers haven’t been able to fix it by now. With the previous tablets I emailed Yiynova back and forth several times about this issue and they admitted that it was a known bug, and they would attempt to fix it in the future. I wonder if this bug only occurs on Macs, and perhaps that is why they don’t receive enough complaints to take care of it.
Overall this tablet is a great alternative for the traveling digital artist.
Honestly, everything that is wrong with this tablet could and should be fixed with driver updates. The initial setup/connectivity issues and the hotkey problems make it difficult for me to recommend it as an artist’s primary tool, but as a backup, or travel-only device it gets the job done. It’s almost always sold out at Amazon, but when you can purchase it, it’s less than 1/4 the price of the cheapest Cintiq companion. It’s almost unfair to compare it to a device like the Companion that contains an entire Windows computer, have much larger, higher quality screen, and doesn’t suffer from buggy drivers, but there just aren’t really any other products on the market that the Penates SP1001 would compete with. If your goal is to draw on a digital tablet monitor on the couch, on a plane, in a hotel room or at a coffee shop and you don’t have $1600+ dollars to spend, this is pretty much it. Is that a resounding endorsement? Not really.
The SP1001 has a lot of room for improvement, but once you fight with the drivers, get it set up, ignore the hotkey problems and get to work, you can actually create finished production quality digital art with it. For $350 (assuming you have your own laptop to hook it up to) and a minimum of cables, you can take your art game on the road with relative ease.
A 13.3” version of this tablet is slated to be released later this year, but it will require a dedicated power supply. I’d be interested to see if Yiynova/UC Logic are able to iron out some of the wrinkles in their software by the time it is released.
You can check out more reviews of the Yiynova SP1001 at www.amazon.com/Yiynova-UC-logic-SP-1001-Digitizer-Tablet-Display/dp/B00P7J6NL4