1x versus 4x PCI-E
We're satisfied by the performance increase from Ryzen APU 2400G's Vega 11 GPU running at 95+ FPS on Full-HD to GTX 1060 running at 180+ FPS on 4k monitor.
See this youtube video for adapter & cable options.
Following our last blog entry, we continue to test Expresii on the Deskmini A300, this time with external graphics cards. We only bought two new items: 1. M.2 to PCI-E x4 Adapter Card (US$2; US$6 at Amazon), 2. PCI-E x1 to x16 ribbon cable (US$4; similar item $17 at Amazon) from taobao. This setup needs an external power supply and we simply use one from our other PC's.
We tried an nvidia GTX 1060 and two lower-end cards GT 640 and GTX 750 Ti. The M.2 adapter slot is not open-ended so in order to insert the graphics cards directly onto it, we need to first cut it open (reference).
1x versus 4x PCI-E
We get 180+ FPS on 4k with the 1060 connected at 4x PCI-E speed. When at 1x (via ribbon cable), we get only 80+ FPS. At Full-HD, we get 180+ FP with 4x; 150+ FPS, 1x. With lower-end cards, we basically only get around 30 FPS, which is even much lower then what we get with the integrated Radeon Vega 11 in the Ryzen 2400G (95+ FPS).
We ordered a 1x, instead of 4x, ribbon cable because we wanted to see how such low-cost setup performs. The 1x cable is actually thin enough to pass through the vents of the Deskmini case, meaning that we might be able to attach or detach the external graphics card from the Deskmini easily. However, after we ran the cable through the vent, we were unable to get the connection to work, probably due to the tiny space of the Deskmini enclosure forced the cable to bend causing e.g. the interface on the M.2 adapter to loosen a bit. FYI, even not physically restricted, the more interfaces you have, the more chance you get connection issues: we experienced e.g. a pink screen, or the card not being detected. We needed to resit the cards a few times before we get it to work.
With adapter and cable totaling a mere US$6, we are able to test out the external GPU setup with either 1x and 4x PCI-E speed. You probably want to use a US$89 riser (similar item US$43 at taobao) instead for easier setup with 4x speed for for proper performance. Or, at least this adapter+cable (US$17 at taobao) to minimize physical interfaces.
We're satisfied by the performance increase from Ryzen APU 2400G's Vega 11 GPU running at 95+ FPS on Full-HD to GTX 1060 running at 180+ FPS on 4k monitor.
See this youtube video for adapter & cable options.
We're often asked what PC would be good to run Expresii. In this blog entry we show you a few mini PC options. Note that if you don't need a PC such small, there're cheaper solutions if you build regular ITX PC's, which are a bit bigger.
Smooth painting at Full-HD ($350-$620)
For your reference, we tested a mini PC using the Asrock Deskmini A300. Specifically, we built a system with a AMD Ryzen 5 2400G CPU, 16 GB of DDR4 2666MHz RAM, and a 2.5" 256GB SSD hard drive. The Ryzen 2400G has an integrated GPU Radeon RX Vega 11, which performs much better than those integrated GPU's from Intel, is fast enough for running Expresii smoothly. Note that you can still go by with 8GB of RAM and just 128GB of storage space if you have a tighter budget.
The DeskMini PC box is only 15 x 15 x 8 cm, with the power brick 1/6 of the box size. Total hardware cost the main unit (i.e. excluding monitor, mouse and keyboard) is USD380. Depending on how you get a license for Windows OS, the final cost could be sub-$400. There are also ready-to-use pre-built units available at e.g. Amazon at around $620 (OS included) for those of you who don't want to build a PC yourselves.
I once had a Mac Mini but it died in just a few years - since the CPU is soldered onto the main board, I can not simply replace the faulty component like I can with a regular PC. What is great about this Deskmini is that you can still upgrade the various components like CPU, RAM, storage like you do with a regular PC. So I think the a mini PC with Ryzen 2400G & Asrock Deskmini A300 is a sweet spot on price, compactness & ability to change components.
Thanks to AMD for making great performing APU at affordable price, and Asrock for making such a compact box!
On such a system with Ryzen 2400G, we get 95 FPS when using a FHD (1920 x 1080) monitor. The mainboard allows a little overclocking of the RAM, and we get 100+ FPS if we overclock the RAM from 2666 to 3000 MHz.
The Deskmini also has an Intel version, but the supported Intel GPU's (e.g. HD 630) are much slower so we don't recommend the Intel variant.
Smooth painting at 4K+, as an upgrade (+$116 + Graphics card of your choice)
Fullscreen painting using a 4k monitor with the above A300 system with Vega 11 is a bit slow. One thing I like about these mini PC's is that they are equipped with NVMe M.2 slots, which can be used to connect to an external GPU to improve the graphics performance. That means you can upgrade your system if you need to (the setup is a bit geeky though). If you're a tinkerer, you can check out this video with an actual A300 (left) and another (right) showing using an eGPU kit with a similar mini PC:
The m2 eGPU kit with power supply mentioned in the 2nd video costs $116 from Ali Express (get the same thing + power supply for $50 from taobao if you can read Chinese and get them ship to your region). A used GTX 1060 with 6GB RAM could be as low as $135 on eBay. So, with a few hundreds of dollars you can add a powerful graphics card with when you need it. For even cheaper solution, look at this guide and buy the NGFF version (i.e. for M.2) dock. More reference here.
Smooth Painting At 4K+, Compact, ready-to-use ($1150-$1300)
If you have some more money to spare, and don't want to mess around with PC building, we recommend the Intel Hades Canyon NUC:
The Intel Hades Canyon NUC (Vega M GH, 16Gb RAM, 256 GB SSD at $1300) is even smaller than the Asrock DeskMini A300 yet much more powerful. Its Radeon RX Vega M GH GPU, which is much faster than the Vega 11 in the Deskmini, allows you to run Expresii on a 4k monitor smoothly. If the 1k+ price tag is a litte too high, thre's also a version with a slower GPU Vega M GL. Also, look at eBay and sometimes there're offers in the $500-600 range as a barebone (i.e. you add your own RAM and storage).
Other ready-to-use mini PC's with Radeon RX Vega M GH GPU (but not as tiny as the Intel NUC) include this Beelink Kaby G7 (with 16GB RAM + 256 GB SSD at $1150) and the HiGame from Chuwi at $1300.
Conclusion? You don't need a huge PC to run Expresii fast! ╭( ･ㅂ･)و ̑̑
We were excited ever since the first Surface Book came out in 2015, since it gave the option for a discrete GPU. Now we have a chance to test with a Surface Book 2, thanks to Microsoft for providing the hardware for testing.
We are provided with the 13.5" model. Coming from the 12" Surface Pro, I like the bigger screen size. The hardware feels really solid and clean. And of course, with an nvidia GTX 1050, we get very good performance, although it gets a bit hot and the fan would kick on.
You need the base
When you detach the base, the GPU performance drops significantly, so you would like to attach the base when you use Expresii. In fact, when I detached the base and held the tablet part only, I realized how convenient the kickstand of the Surface Pro is! Note that the tablet part doesn't have any USB port (or video port), so you can't really use it in place of, say, a Surface Pro. I believe they designed it for only brief detachment like for the case of quick presentations.
See the calligraphy process video in Youtube:
We recently acquired a Teclast X16 Power, which uses the same Intel Atom CPU z8700 as the MS Surface 3 does. It can be paired with an 'active' stylus (it's not clear exactly what Teclast meant, but it looks like its AES - Active EletroStatic), which supports pressure but not tilt. The biggest difference from an traditional EMR stylus is that this Active pen doesn't support hovering meaning that you do not know exactly where you're hitting the surface until you actually hit it.
We tried doing calligraphy on it. The pen tip is so firm - we actually need to update Expresii's Pressure Adjustment range so that we can stroke without pressing too hard on the screen (the tip would scratch the protective film that came with the machine). We also encountered the broken paper texture bug that some of our users reported earlier on this new machine on Win 10. With this machine on our hands, we are able to do something to avoid this bug, at least on our X16 Power. In case you still get such a bug even with the latest update of Expresii, please let us know.
This X16 Power is priced similarly as the Cube i7 Stylus we tried earlier. It has a bigger screen but a slower processor (4o-sth FPS vs 60-sth FPS in Expresii Full mode). It consumes less power and thus has much better thermal (stays cool, fanless) than the Cube i7 . The speed is not ideal for Expresii Full, but it's a rather low-cost machine that you can also use with Android 5, in addition to Windows 10. You can also get a keyboard cover free (depending on the seller). It has 8GB of RAM - as if it's a top model of the MS Surface Pro line ^_^. Overall, it's a not-bad tablet if you don't feel like spending a whole bunch (for comparison the cheapest 2GB-RAM Surface 3 is ~$400 right now).
We think stylus tilt is really important in using paint programs like Expresii. Unfortunately, today most Windows tablet, including Microsoft's latest Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, do not support stylus tilt (Apple's iPad Pro does!). To remedy this, we explore using a smart device as a stylus tilt controller .
In doing so, we acquired the world's smallest android smart phone Melrose S9 (US$58 here), and an android 4.4 smartwatch HOPU EC720 (US$105) and here is the result:
The recently announced Apple Pencil supports tilt sensing on the iPad Pro. On the Windows side, there have been more and more new tablet models supporting on-screen stylus too but none of these new comers does stylus tilt. It'd be great if they start to follow Apple's example in getting the tilt.
We want tilt Sensing
So far among all Windows tablet PC's, only the Wacom Cintiq Companion offers pen tilt sensing. In the following video that features a Cintiq companion hybrid, you'll see why tilt sensing is so important in controlling your brush:
As Linda Dong pointed out, the Cintiq has a number of drawbacks. The following video was done with a good old Intuos 3. The drawing is not 'on-screen', but your hand and the stylus won't block your view:
Again, you see how important it is to have both pressure and tilt support in getting expressive marks - at least with our Expresii, that is! And, yes, we think that Expresii's brush is currently the best in creation organic strokes without the use of pre-scanned images of some real brush marks. It's much closer to what you would do with real brush and paper. It's not only the look that matters, but also the interaction. Spontaneity is the soul of Eastern inkwork.
it's the Software
Like other artists have mentioned, it's now the software that either makes and breaks the deal. Many of the painting apps on the iPad (and Android, for that matter) has limitations (like memory/resolution/quality) that keeps them from being used for serious work (except Procreate I'd say, which does a great job with GPU-powered painting). Frankly, the MS Windows camp probably would want to use us to fight back against Apple (since now Expresii is Windows-only) - what you can do with Expresii's advanced brush and ink engine can't be done on an iPad - even the Pro! For comparison, let's take a look at Adobe's attempt to do watercolor on the ipad. It sounded good on the spec - you can zoom in a lot as it's vector-based, but what you get are some polygons which doesn't look nice when enlarged. (Update: Adobe's new Adobe Sketch has a better watercolor simulator now)
Maybe Adobe also realized that it's not that great afterall so they withdrew the app (Adobe Eazel) from the app store ending the app's short life. Another ipad app that does watercolor is Auryn Ink. However, as reviewer Tara Donocan said, the biggest problem is the low resolution - you can never print it out.
All these apps' watercolor effects are local in that the ink only moves in your strokes' vicinity. You will miss the global effects (and fun!) you get when using real watercolor which can flow pretty much all over the whole paper.
Now, take a look at the two videos of Expresii below. The first one was done on an 8" Atom-Z3735-based windows tablet (a 2014 model), which is too slow for a nice painting experience. The second one was on a 10.6" CORE-M based windows tablet released in the first half of 2015, which I'd already consider faster enough. (Update 2016: now with the latest version of CORE-M processor Expresii runs really fast enough on a mobile device)
In conclusion, brush/ink/watercolor sim is not easy. With good hardware, we still need good software to run on them to unleash the full potential.
I hope you like what we are doing here in Expresii. Share your opinion and let us know what you think.
Last winter, we got the PiPO W5, an 8" Atom-based windows tablet. It is fast enough to run Expresii Lite, but Expresii Full is too heavy for it. In first half of 2015, new Intel Core-m based tablets are coming out and we were eagerly anticipating models that come with stylus support. We recently acquired the CUBE i7 Stylus and we're impressed! Finally, we have mobile device that can run Expresii Full smoothly! And it's not expensive at all - US$360 ($325 if bought from within China). Stylus sold separately. (update 2015-10: Taobao shops now often include the stylus as a ' gift')
Just watch this quick demo of playing around with our virtual ink - it's a dream come true, really:
The compression in the video makes the screenshots fussy. Check out the following shots instead or head over to Flickr to see the shots at full HD.
The Core-m processor in the CUBE i7 is rated at 4.5W and is passively cooled i.e. the tablet is fanless so there's no noise coming out whatsoever. The only complain we have for the i7 is that when running heavy application the left side of the tablet is too hot to touch. You have to put it on a holder, and even want to use an external fan to cool it. We hope Intel's next generation processor would improve on that. Looking at the graph on the right we have faith on that.
OMG! Wet Dream come true! 水墨淋漓如何？
Ladies and Gentlemen, what you're about to see would amaze you. Since the introduction of the Apple iPad in 2010, people have been dreaming about using tablet devices with realistic paint simulation to paint, and in fact, even the recent Adobe video ad "the future of Adobe creative applications on Microsoft devices" suggests exactly that.
用平板配像真度超高的虛擬顏料畫畫，自從iPad 2010 年面世就有人夢想過。最近Adobe發了視頻，內容是，將來他們的軟件配合微軟的平板可能會怎樣怎樣。其實片裡只是廣告效果，現在Adobe的軟件沒那麼神呢！
How about having the future *now*? Would you like to paint with realistic watercolor that flows as you tilt the surface? The flow should not be predefined with some kind of bitmaps that you load into the app, but react to your interaction. Okay, I'd let the video do the talking:
This is done on a US$150 Windows tablet PiPO W5, with pen and touch support (palm rejection built in). Can you believe it!! Although it doesn't provide the silky smooth user experience you get from a desktop PC or a gaming laptop, its cost-to-performance ratio is extremely high. For comparison, if you're in the Apple camp, a pressure-sensitive pen like the Wacom Creative Stylus 2 would cost you $80, not to mention the ipad itself costs you at least $250 (for an old model). And, remember on the ipad (in fact any platform), you won't find painting app that does such a realistic watercolor like ours. By the way, the GPU inside the W5 is no match for the Tegra K1 found inside the Nvidia S hield Tablet ($299 lowest), and just imagine what we can do with such a powerful GPU.
雖然 Atom CPU 運行速度慢，但影片裡用的PiPO W5 的確性價比超高。8寸的大小，方便攜帶。你很喜歡 Wacom Cintiq Companion 但買不起？嫌它太重？那可以考慮PiPO W5 喲，才人民幣 888 (= 美金 142)，萬一丟了也不太心疼吧。比較下如果你是用ipad方案，價錢也不便宜，還有就算用了Wacom專業畫筆，也不是每個app 也支持palm rejection 呢。
In the above video you'll see that every time you put down the paint the outcome is so natural, thanks to our full-fledged fluid simulation. The following is another demo showing the use of the brush in "sprayer" mode.
You may say it's just a cool demo - it's not practical for creating art. Well, if you're a watercolorist, you know the use of flow patterns. You can use those abstract forms for backgrounds, fills for your subjects, etc (see e.g. this video). The organic quality is really irreplaceable. Let me show you a piece we did:
This Gandalf in Chinese ink painting style was done on a desktop PC previously, with a "wash" layer that utilizes the paint dispersion and another layer used for line work. And, before you ask, yes, our simulation focuses on Chinese watercolor now. Our Software Architect Nelson Chu would come back to Western media again later (At Microsoft, Nelson worked on oil and pastel simulation, which you now find inside Fresh Paint).
這幅水墨 ‘甘道夫’就是之前用Expresii 在桌面機畫成的。用桌面機比較快，比較爽啊！片裡是用W5打開並展示給你看。圖分兩個圖層，一為‘線條’，另一為‘染色’，傳統上說‘有筆有墨為之畫’，在電子世界裡可以分圖層多好啊！
Conclusion: We are very excited by the recent development of Win 8 tablets. Finally software and hardware working together to make a dream come true! We're going to release the Lite version of Expresii first (preview available now), and the Full version later (no set date yet). 2015 looks like a good year for digital painters!
結論：沒想到 Intel 的CPU 進步那麼快！把我們 GPU-intensive 的水墨模擬放到小平板只是想試試而已，但出來效果絕不是Atom CPU一貫給我們的印象中那麼差喲！夢想，逐漸因軟件和硬件的配合而成真了。 ୧༼ ヘ ᗜ ヘ ༽୨
我們會先推出 Lite 版本（Preview 現已可下載），之後再推出 Full 版。大家，看來2015 是數位繪畫的一年好年！
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Let's try some Chinese Brush sketching! 走，試毛筆速寫去！
[Continuing from last entry] So we took the W5 out and tried sketching on it with Expresii Lite. Frankly, the W5 is not a powerful machine and the frame rate is only 35-50 FPS. While you can easily get 10 hours of usage for an iPad, the W5 only gives you less than half of that, like 4-5 hours. The W5 doesn't come with a built-in stylus pressure curve adjustment tool (Wacom's driver does) and the larger Hanvon stylus feels too hard on the W5. We will add an adjustment tool in Expresii to help with the situation later.
[續上回] 今回要試試拿 Pipo W5 用 Expresii Lite 出外寫生了！因w5 比較慢，其實不能‘速寫‘啊，筆劃如果太快會出角，畫者要自我調整。還有W5 續行一般，只有4-5 小時，比較下 ipad 則可以有10小時。那支漢王筆用起來比較‘硬’，要適應一下，我們之後增加軟體筆壓調控到Expresii 去改善情況好啦。
We found that unplugging the machine from power doesn't affect the drawing frame rate. This suggests that the CPU throttling works really well in lowering the CPU frequency while you're not painting, and increasing it while you are. 沒接電源，感覺沒影響繪畫速度，都是 35 到 50 FPS。
I ended up doing only rough sketches and then finished them when I got home, with the luxury of a Wacom Intuos 3, which gives me stylus-tilt sensing.
最後還是把sketch 帶回家來完成，而且忍受不了 W5 沒有筆的斜度感應，用回wacom的 intuos 3了！W5 是一部完整的Windows PC，是可以連接intous的。以下是完成了的作品，隔天帶回原地對比拍照，呵呵。
Tip: hold the stylus vertical to the surface, so that the pressure gets registered.
I was so tempted to slant the brush when I need to do texturing, just like in traditional painting - only to be frustrated by the W5 not supporting tilt sensing and that a too-tilted stylus won't get its pressure registered.
If for sketching with the W5, the pros and cons are:
Granted, the W5 is not a perfect sketching tool, but given its price which is only 1/12 that of a Wacom Cintiq Companion and 1 / 5.3 that of a Surface Pro 3, you should consider it if you are on a budget.
用W5來畫畫並不完美，但它的價格是最便宜那款Wacom Cintiq Companion (US$1800) 的1/12，最便宜的Surface Pro 3 (US$800) 的 1 / 5.3，初心者可以考慮 (btw, Cintiq Companion 其實挺重的)。期待下一批 Core-M 跟Cherry Trail 平板於2015年的出現，並希望廠商可以加入筆的斜度感應，配合我們Expresii 軟件，打造完美的毛筆水墨寫生利器!
Update 12/31: The maximum output size of these sketches generated by the W5, which has only 2GB of RAM, was 5,120 x 7,680 pixels. If you load the artwork on a desktop with a discrete GPU, you can easily get 8k x 12k.
測試發現，用W5輸出，最大為5,120 x 7,680，但你可用家裡有獨立顯卡的電腦讀進作品檔，就可輸出高達 8k x 12k 的圖檔了！
Check out the 5k x 7k output at here.
Update 1/6: The following are screenshots showing you the details of one of the sketches we did (in case you can't watch the youtube video above). It's amazing what such a small device can handle.
中國書法，歷史悠久。電腦時代，何從適配？最近一批廉價 Windows平板電腦湧現，再配以 Expresii Lite 軟件系統，一個真正便攜又廉價的數位書法方案便誕生了！
Authentic Digital Chinese Calligraphy! 真。數位書法不是夢！
[Continuing from last blog entry] We first try the original stylus included in the PiPO W5 package. We found that it's not as easy to control as the other styli from Hanvon that we have. Check out the test video below. We keep getting bad strokes due to the less-than-ideal pressure control and the friction of the stylus tip against the screen. Fortunately, using the other styli that we have, we get better control and are able to get some nice results.
[續上回] 感覺 PiPO W5 原來的筆，筆壓操控沒那麼好：輕壓力容易劃不到線，壓重一點又很容易變得太粗。換了一支大一點的漢王筆，這筆比起wacom intuos 的筆要硬，但在這塊 W5上用卻發揮剛好。W5 本身驅動沒有如 Wacom 自帶的壓感輕重調控，日後如加入這樣的軟體調控，望可有幫助。
Below is another session with the larger stylus. Notice how organic the strokes are! These styli do not support tilt angle sensing, but the resultant strokes are not bad. We of course still want tilt sensing (available in high-end graphics tablets) for best results. :) Tablet makers, are you listening? 這些筆都沒有斜度感應，筆劃還好，但當然我們還是想要斜度感應的，書法嘛，就是要以筆的操控來畫出美的線條啊～
Below shows yet another session with the large stylus. The Atom Bay Trail used here is a very low-power CPU. Because of that, we cannot make very fast strokes without jaggedness. However, we are still very impressed by Intel's advances in their GPU-integrated CPU's. As you can see from the videos, zooming in to see stroke details is no problem, although it's not the smoothest experience like we have on desktops. To appreciate the advances, be informed that the 4 year-old TabletPC HP Touchsmart TM2 gives a mixed performance gain/loss compared to the Pipo W5 (table below) but is actually more than 5 times heavier!
Performance Comparison running Expresii Lite:
Start-up 18 13 sec.
Stroking 65 49 FPS
Idle 200* 110 FPS
Zoom Pan 20 75 FPS
* The max FPS is capped to 200.
Potentially the W5 can give better performance, as the CPU boost rarely pushes it to the maximum of 1.8GHz (ref.: the last video below).
In the last video below, we show again a comparison of the original W5 stylus and another Hanvon stylus. You can literally hear the sound of friction as we get a broken line in this video. Maybe a matte screen protector can solve the problem? 除了壓感，原w5的筆還有摩擦問題啊，換一張屏幕保護膜可解決嗎？
In conclusion, we now have a very good candidate for an education tablet for school students. These Windows tablet are easy to carry, certainly much cheaper then an iPad, and are capable of running millions of .EXE applications already exist in the Windows ecosystem - be it content-creation or office applications, for examples. Android tablets can compete in terms of prices, but are quite limited in terms of applications. Professionals would probably opt for more capable (and more expensive) Windows tablets which are also available now. And, you know, if you still need to use some Android applications, you can always try an Android emulator like DuOS-M (paid) or Droid4X (free).
Next blog entry, we will try sketching with the W5.
Finally, we wish you a Merry Christmas and happy painting in 2015!