We got ourselves a programmable keypad with multiple dials from Taobao for RMB 155 (USD 24). We found this one to have the highest cost-to-performance ratio among other alternatives.
Each dial has three actions : left turn, right turn, and click. The keys uses mechanical switches. The device can also mimic a Surface Dial. Eight layers of mappings. Supports macros.
The software tool for setting up the keys is in Chinese only and it seems they currently only focus on the domestic market. Hopefully they would sell to global markets soon so that you can get and use one.
The cheapest 4K EMR pen display right now is not cheap (USD 829+). Yet, they do not support multi-touch gesture, and are still a bit bulky. Those who have used 2-in-1 or tablets would understand how much I missed touch gestures when I switch back to using a traditional EMR Pen Display from Huion or XP Pen.
new Challenger: Portable Display with pen support
Portable displays - a new category of device that has emerged in recent years. They have progressed quite a lot - you can now connect with a single USB type-C cable and have it powered entirely via the USB cable, its resolution getting up to 4K, with touch and now pen support.
What we tested here is a portable display from ehomewei, which looks exactly like this 15.6" pen display branded as LUNE sold as a kickstarter-like item (at USD512 early bird) in Japan. We got a model that doesn't have a G-Sensor, which allows automatic screen orientation change , from TMall at RMB2118 = USD332.
We tested the display with a Surface Book 2, Surface Go, Intel i5 NUC 8 and a desktop with Nvidia GTX 1060. The first three support USB type-C display out for connecting the display using just a single cable.
They claim the screen itself is 4mm, but our measurement reads more like 5.5mm. Together with the stand, our measurement reads more like 14mm instead of the claimed 10mm. Nevertheless, it's still very thin.
The MPP 2.0 Pen
The pen it supports is an active pen complying to the Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP) 2.0. The included active pen requires AAAA battery to operate just like the Surface Pen, but you can get yourself one that uses rechargeable battery.
Tilt sensing even during hovering. Yes, this device supports pen tilt even during hover! This is something this display being better than a Surface device.
Buttons bug. looks like this display has some bug with button signals. We don't get an eraser signal when we press the lower side button of the included pen. In fact, all tip and the two side buttons give button = 1 if we look at the Diagnostic page of Expresii. That means the side buttons are useless, at least for painting in Expresii. Using another MPP 2.0 pen, we are able to button = 2 when we press the upper side button, so that means we get back the usage of at least one side button. The same pens give eraser signal and button = 2 when we press the lower and upper side buttons respectively on a Surface device, so that's definitely something the ehomewei is missing. Testing further, we found that some apps like Autodesk SketchBook pro gets eraser button signal, but others like Paint Tool SAI 1.2.5, Medibang Paint Pro 26.2 (v2.1.21), and Krita 4.4.5 (using Windows Ink) don't on the ehomewei. On Surface Book 2, SAI, Medibang and Krita all respond to at least one of the side buttons of the same pens as eraser or color picker. We believe this is due to the ehomewei hardware only supporting certain pen API. Hopefully, ehomewei can update their firmware to get this fixed in the future.
Multi-monitor. Wacom's settings tool allows us to map the pen input to either of the monitors if you have say two monitors connected to your PC. There's no such a tool for ehomewei, but we were able to change the mapping by checking 'make this my main display' for the monitor we would like to map the pen input to in Windows 10's setting.
The 4K Screen
The screen is very bright, comparable to a Surface device. We are unlucky to receive one that has a little dust behind the glass surface. That dust is several-pixel-wide so its quite visible. It's rather troublesome to send it back so we may just have to live with it. (╯_╰)
We were not able to get HDR nor 10-bit color working using Intel iGPU Iris 655 or nvidia GTX 1060 using type-C or HDMI cable respectively. Not sure why. They have a built-in 'UltraHDR' option, but as far as we can tell, it only makes the color too bright and saturated - which is rather useless.
We do not have any color calibration hardware to test the gamut but as far as we can tell, colors are rather different from that of a Surface Book 2 out-of-the-box.
Speaker is included but its sound is tiny. Playing YouTube videos, the volume is so low that sometimes it's hard to listen to people speaking. We asked the manufacturer if the other model's built-in G-Sensor can act like a Windows tablet's G-Sensor. The answer is no, so we can't really use it for surface tilting to direct paint flow in Expresii.
You can even pair the pen display with a programmable keypad with dials for a clean setup:
The host PC is an Intel " Bean Canyon " NUC 8 i5 (2018 released; 14nm) with Iris Plus 655 GPU, 8GB RAM. We used this PC because it's compact and support single-cable connection to the display. That 655 GPU is fast for Expresii at FUD display resolution but a little slow at 4K. Anyway, as you can see from the demos, it's still quite usable. If you use a newer NUC like the latest 11th-gen with Iris Xe GPU (10nm), you should get quite a performance boost.
The drawing experience is very much like that of using a Surface device. Same pens stroking on glass surface, except you now have tilt sensing during hover. The display moves back a bit when you stroke on it, just like using a Surface Book in laptop mode. Using it in the 'wedge mode' is stable, but the angle is kind of fixed. You may want to use a adjustable stand if you really want to use it extensively to paint.
Accuracy. The cursor my be a bit off near the screen edges. In comparison, the cursor on my Surface Book 2 follows more closely to the pen tip.
Today, there're basically two major pen sensing tech's: EMR and Active pens. Traditional pen tablet and display use EMR (the ones offered by Wacom, Huion, or XP Pen) and they usually come with thick bezels. Active pens include all the MPP pens (like the newer pens from HP, Dell, or Lenovo ) and also those from the USI camp. They require battery and the sensing modules are usually found as computer built-in's instead of peripherals. Wacom's EMR offers the best in terms of capabilities, as it can sense tilt even during hover, and is the only solution that can sense barrel rotation. Now, this ehomewei display offers tilt sensing during hover too and in this regard, it means you get something even better than what a Surface device gives you. The pen is interchangeable with other Surface Pen compatibles so you have many choices from different brands.
The ehomewei display is essentially a very thin and bright 4K screen that comes with pen and touch input support. When we first saw the Microsoft Surface Studio, we wished that Microsoft would sell the pen-and-touch display separately so that we can upgrade the computer unit instead of having to replace the whole all-in-one computer. Now, this portable display is basically what we asked for.
We're not sure when this would become available globally. ehomewei currently sells their older non-pen models on Amazon. If it does come to your country, you should give it a serious consideration.
2021.07.08 Update: Shuen Leung reported that the ehomewei gives wobbly lines when one tries to draw straight lines slowly. Now, we put our hope for the perfect portable pen display at the XtendTouch Pro, which is supposed to give much better diagonal straight line performance. We can't find an actual purchase link after their kickstarter campaign ended. Hope they're still shipping.
The Sonar Pen
The SonarPen was launched through Kickstarter in 2018. It was primarily designed for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets as a cheap alternative to the expensive styli like the Apple Pencil.
We actually have been in contact with SonarPen's creator Elton Leung since 2018. We were hoping they can add Windows support ever since. To date, there's still no Windows driver but thanks to the support from SpaceDesk, we can now use it for Windows apps too.
We also wished it supports tilt sensing but we're not sure if that would ever happen.
The SpaceDesk app
SpaceDesk is a software tool that allows a host machine to use other machines like tablets as its monitors. Their ability to build a monitor wall is amazing. Recently they added support for relaying pen input too, so it's possible to use SpaceDesk as a wireless Pen Display. With SpaceDesk, we're now able to use SonarPen on Windows apps, including our Expresii that features beautiful organic digital watercolor.
Previously, we tried Easy Canvas Pro (US$5 / year) and SuperDisplay (US$10 one time) for Pen-Display application. Currently, we think SuperDisplay gives the best performance among the three. SuperDisplay does support pen tilt, which is quite important for our app Expresii. SpaceDesk doesn't support pen tilt nor multi-touch gestures yet. SpaceDesk is currently free to use, while they also offer a Business license. Our current recommendation is still SuperDisplay, which is the fastest, the most feature-complete and is inexpensive. We look forward to SuperDisplay supporting the SonarPen.
2021.05.06 Update: you can use USB tethering for faster connection on SpaceDesk.
What can still be added: It'd be great if any of these programs can relay accelerometer/orientation sensor readings and act as a G-Sensor of Windows tablets so that we can directly control paper tilt in Expresii to direct the paint flow. Using other apps like Sensor stream IMU+GPS alongside is no good, as only one app can be in the foreground and nowadays smartphones would have background apps dormant after a few moments. We've tried putting the app in Battery Saving Exception or disable Battery Optimization (on Android 9) but to no vain.
In the above video, we also show the new features of Brush Tilt Control Pad and Auto Settle Timer:
Brush Tilt Control Pad
This is specifically added for the case of using SonarPen via SpaceDesk, since the pen is not tilt-sensitive and that SpaceDesk doesn't support pen tilt yet. For other pens, usually their barrel (side) button can be re-assigned by the user, and we can use it as Mouse Right Button to adjust the brush tilt. However, in SpaceDesk, SonarPen's side button is fixed to toggle between touch and pen input. Our answer to this is the Brush Tilt Control Pad . It acts like a virtual trackpad on screen - you can use your finger, mouse or pen to drag on it to adjust the brush tilt.
Paint Settle Timer
You can now stack paint in the same layer by settling paint. We've also added a timer for auto-settling. You can try these new features in a beta version of Expresii, which you can get by using Update Server 2 to update your app. Please let us know how you like them.
Expresii user Steve Kim just sent us a screenshot of Expresii running on his Apple M1 machine on via Parallels 16.5:
We're amazed that it actually runs fine!
Steve shared: "At 4K screen resolution, I was getting 60 FPS during strokes and around 80 while not stroking. Full screen w/ the default landscape canvas and the largest brush. 1440p was 80 FPS while painting, 120 FPS when not stroking. The VM was set to 6 virtual cores and 8GB of ram on my 16GB M1 Mac Mini running the latest ARM build of Windows 10 via Parallels trial."
The installation process was like documented in the following video:
How does a 2020-released HP laptop convertible perform with Expresii? We had a chance to test an 13" HP Envy x360 with AMD 4700U APU. The machine is compact and sleek. It's so thin that they have the USB-A ports use an expanding door design, which you may find it a bit troublesome to use as you can't simply push a USB head straight into the port but needing to make the door fully open first. Some call a hybrid / convertible a 2-in-1 but note that this HP uses a folding design and the keyboard is not detachable like the Microsoft Surface Pro for it to be truly a thin tablet.
Very good performance
We test the use of G-sensor for paint surface tilt, the HP tilt Pen for virtual brush manipulation, Radeon RX Vega 7 GPU for paint simulation:
The HP machine does run hot when if we continuously make strokes for a while. However, the hot part resides in the bottom side near the hinge, which we won't touch normally. We are pleased by the APU performance, which gives 100+ FPS on the laptop's FHD screen resolution. Our unit has 8GB of RAM.
The new HP Tilt pen could be better
Having tried the RENAISSER Raphael 520, the HP tilt Pen feels less sensitive on the initial activation force. You have to press a bit harder in order for the lines to get registered. The HP tilt Pen feels solid with its metal body. The USB type-C charging port is hidden in a sliding door.
The HP tilt pen doesn't have a soft tip like found in the Raphael 520 or the MS Surface pen. When used on the glossy screen of the HP machine, it feels slippery. This could be the reason why you see the lines in our tests are wobbly.
Overall, we think the HP Envy x360 is a solid machine, but for better art making, we recommend replacing the included (included at least in our local market) HP tilt pen with cheap but more sensitive Surface pen alternatives (they are all compatible under the MPP 2.0 protocol), and you will have a great drawing experience.
There's also 15" sibling models if you need a bit larger display. Currently, we don't recommend the Intel integrated GPU models, since there's an issue with Intel GPU artwork exporting, so make sure you pick up the model with an AMD or Nvidia GPU. There's also newer 2021 models with AMD 5000 series APU announced last month that you can already buy now .
目前字體設計都是以拉曲線（curve）形式來進行，這裡curve 是指字體的輪廓線（outline），這讓調整效率偏低，如一捺要變窄，則要左右邊的curve 都調整。這是字體設計師許瀚文 Julius Hui 的示範 ：
雖然 GlyphsApp 有所謂‘Smart Component’ 功能可以先把同一個部件的幾個不同形態設好再interpolate得到中間形態，但始終還是用 outline 來定義，有時interpolate 出來還是有點怪怪的。
筆者覺得這尤其不配合中文書法體的製作：書法字本來就是一筆一筆寫出來，但掃描進電腦也是一大堆curve點，要簡化和一條條曲線調整，筆劃也不能自動分離來方便修改。以下是 Justfont 的示範：
近年有歐洲人提出用 skeleton-based 的辦法，革新傳統的造字系統，這與筆者的想法非常接近：
他們正在開發skeleton-based 工具 Letterink。上篇notes《電腦改變漢字未來》也提到，書寫工具（西方是硬筆，東方是毛筆）決定了藝術形式，Letterink 目前非常適合歐文字，而他們的pipeline 最終還是輸出為outline font，即配合目前的所有的font 系統。他們漸漸成熟，如字劃的頭尾部分也想好怎麼弄。
而我們 Expresii 的engine 目前是 stroke-based 的，即一筆一畫寫出來，筆劃有先後次序：
這樣產生的中文字型，我們當然可以更改筆的粗度、水分、紙材等參數以求不同的效果，但問題是不好嵌入到現在的outline font 系統，因為飛白、墨色變化等東西在傳統的outline font 系統難以表現。筆者跟字體設計師 柯熾堅老師 Sammy Or 前輩談過，他就很喜歡我們的墨色變化呢！
故筆者覺得，如果要真正表現中文書法體的特性，則要重新建立新的基於筆劃的字型系統才行。這工程艱鉅，因為當所有人都依賴傳統的outline font system時，沒有人會轉用你的新系統。這有如一個用110v電的國家要全國轉220v那麼困難。但也不是沒可能，如某強國下定決心要開發自己的電腦操作系統，則有機會也一拼開發自己的字型系統，配合自己的操作系統。
理想地想，將來大家都用電子筆寫字，而寫出來的字也透過軟件有書法字的效果，則中國書法可在數碼領域再發楊光大，到時也不用像 李伯伯街頭書法復修計劃 那樣，掃描再慢慢變curve做字了。
Outline-based font 有個好處，就是簡單，方便用於像Postscript 那樣的頁面描述語言裏。最初鐳射打印機也配備晶片運行自己的rasterizer，可以直接執行Postscript 指令。現在電腦運算力強，rasterization 都在電腦裡用軟件實現， 打印機則不必自備rasterizer。
而筆者現在的proposal，用虛擬毛筆畫出stroke-based 字型，是基於利用現代電腦的GPU 運算力。現代電腦的GPU在這20年內進步很快，現在即便是 integrated GPU的運算力也追上來了，故筆者認爲是可能的。當然具體軟件工程，仍有待進一步優化實現：因爲目前Expresii 要把字寫每筆出來，有寫的‘過程’，畫出一個字會較慢。日後，可能要開發些parallel 筆劃等的演算法，加快rendering速度，才能配上電腦屏幕顯示和打印的應用。目前Expresii 畫了一個字，只要保留intermediate 結果，其rendering engine 是可以很快得render出不同大小的。所以cache 系統也要考慮，做出優化的新字型系統。如最終不夠快做内文顯示，其實也用於標題字款，反正書法風的字，比較適合標題而非内文。
以下是在微軟的Surface Book 2 上書寫示範：
少數前輩如蔡瀾先生，比較開放。他有嘗試iPad 寫書法，故也拜訪請益。我給蔡先生試用筆者軟件Expresii，他覺得好過ipad 上那些app：
但蔡生覺得筆還不完善，我說硬件方面我無能為力，我只做軟件。他則叮囑我要跟電子筆製造商一起完善電子書法體驗。其實我多年也有接觸硬件商Wacom 給意見，但公司太大，意見是否真的傳達到決策者則不得而知。我也嘗試跟大陸品牌Huion 、友基等聯繫，可惜更難接觸。大概他們都忙於佔領能賺錢的數位板市場，沒空照顧電腦書法。
For those who want to use our paint app Expresii on Mac, here're some updated tests for you.
First, we verified that Expresii x64 (version 2021.02.22) artwork saving and snapshot export work correctly on Parallels Desktop 16. However, we found two issues with pen tilt reading on Parallels Desktop 16 for Mac: 1. Y-tilt is up-side-down. 2. Tilt reading is reported during hovering but not when pen is touching the surface. Pen display is XP-Pen Artist 12 Pro with driver version 2.18 (2021-02-26) on Mac.
For comparison, we also ran Expresii in native Windows 10 on the same machine. We get 55-70 FPS on Parallels and 80-95 FPS native Windows 10. That is, we get about 25-30% performance hit. Note that the FPS here is our simulation FPS rather than display FPS. The display resolution does affect the performance. The screen resolution is 1920x939 under Parallels, a little less than native FHD 1920x1080 of the pen display on which we ran native Windows 10, so we already gave a little advantage to running under Parallels when we measure the FPS.
Correct Tilt reading on Native Windows 10
The tilt reading is also correct out of the box on native Windows 10. We don't even need to install driver for the pen display before we can the correct tile values via Windows Ink. As you can see in the video below, we get tilt reading for both pen hovering and touching the surface. Previously, we have the tilt reading correct on Windows 10 (via Windows Ink or vendor's own wintab32.dll) for various tablet vendors including Wacom, Huion, XP Pen & Microsoft Surface Pen, so we believe we're reading the tilt values correctly from the app.
Previously, a user sent us a video of Expresii running on Parallels 15. She was using iPad + Apple Pencil for stylus input via Sidecar , and she also got that up-side-down tilt. At that time, we thought it could be specific to this sidecar setup so we just reversed it back via Expresii's setting (as shown in the above video) for correct control. But now we get inverted Y-tilt even on XP-Pen , so we believe Parallels should change its way interpreting the value for Windows Ink.
Test system specs:
GPU: Iris Graphics 655 (Parallels Intel 14.7.8 driver with OpenGL 3.3)
Pen display: XP-Pen Artist 12 Pro with driver version 2.18 (2021-02-26) on Mac
Virtualization software: Parallels Desktop for Mac version 16.2.4 (49160)
OS: MacOS Catalina 10.15.7
We're officially into the second year of the pandemic. Time went by so quickly. In case you didn't notice, over 15% of 2021 already passed. February 12th marked the start of the Lunar New Year of the Ox. I used to make some art to celebrate it but this year I did very little. Not because I'm lazy, but because I'm occupied with adding exciting new features to Expresii.
The following is a technology preview that I can show you now. Watch it in 4k to appreciate the vector-like zooming capability. Yes, Expresii would have pastel. When most would think there isn't much we can still improve the state of the art, we came up with an efficient method that renders the artwork in extremely high resolution. R&D (Research & Development) takes time, but it's worth the wait. I mean, some real R&D, not just recreating what others already did.
With more and more people get vaccinated, hopefully we'll be able to live a normal life again soon. Stay safe and creative!
Wireless Cintiq for less than US$340!
Been trying out some apps that turn your tablet/phone into a pen display for your PC. Thanks to a user, I now come across SuperDisplay. To use Expresii with SuperDsiplay, please use Expresii 2020.12.29 or later. Otherwise, you need to first disable Wintab driver in the current SuperDisplay before you launch Expresii. I've been in contact with the author of SuperDisplay and and he confirms that future version of SuperDisplay would have this fixed.
Among the similar apps that I've tried, SuperDisplay is the first one that feels a charm to use! It is very fast even on 2.4GHz wifi. There're many options like having our Android device in extended display mode, customizable on-screen icons (can have different assignment for long press) for undo, redo and more. Connect wired or wireless.
The following is a comparison between using my phone as extended display vs mirrored display at 4k. My computer (AMD 2400G APU with 16GB of RAM) is stressed when it needs to handle two 4k displays causing lag in the strokes, but if you use mirrored mode, it's quite fast:
If you only use FHD, it should run even smoother.
Here's a video showing how to setup custom on-screen icons in SuerDisplay and a demo of using them:
The on-screen icons may be taking too much of your real estate. However, the above videos are done on the Samsung Note 8 phone. Want to see how it looks if you use a tablet? Someone actually has already posted a demo video of using Expresii with SuperDisplay before me:
He is using a Samsung Tab S4 , a 10.5" Android tablet (2018, Super AMOLED, 1600 x 2560 pixels, 16:10 ratio). As suggested by Google Play reviews, another good tablet you can use is the newer Samsung Tab S6 Lite (2020, 10.4" TFT, 1200 x 2000 pixels, 5:3 ratio), which is sold for US$325 at Amazon. If you're in Hong Kong, dcfever has several listings at HK$2000 only (=USD258) right now. So, yeah, you can pretty much have something like a wireless Cintiq for 200 or 300 something.
SuperDisplay is current sold at USD10. Well worth the money if you ask me. ^_^
Q: Do we need a powerful Android device?
I tried my Xiaomi Mi A1 (Snapdragon 625, 4+64GB), a budget phone released in 2017. The performance is a bit slower than my Samsung Note 8 (Snapdragon 835, 6+128GB), a flagship phone also from 2017. With more testing, I found that when doing multi-touch gesture (that requires when fullscreen refresh) would be more laggy if I have more tabs opened in Chrome on my PC. Apparently, the most demanding task SuperDisplay does is the compression of your screen on our PC end and thus the bottomneck.
From Google Play reviews, it looks like the 2019 Samsung Tab A with S Pen works well, and it's quite a budget device at US$245.
2021.01.09 update: The author of SuperDisplay told me that for most cases the bottleneck is in the decoder on the Android device. And on your PC, GPU is used for the encoding, so having a fast GPU helps in getting faster response.
Q: Does it work with external graphics tablet?
I've also tried using a Huion Q620M graphics tablet on my Android phone to see if the pressure and tilt work. The answer is yes, I get both pressure and tilt readings in Expresii via SuperDisplay, but the catch is that only a portion of the Q620M maps to the phone, and then when used with SuperDisplay, the Q620M can only reach the left side of my Windows 10 (landscape) desktop.