posted on Apr 17, 2018
The Dell Canvas - An in-depth review
I don’t exactly remember how I found out about the Dell Canvas. That seems to be its main issue right now: no one who might really benefit from this device seems to know about its existence. Not even Dell support (but I’ll get back to that later). That being said; when I did find out about it, I was immediately interested. It looked very similar to the Wacom Cintiq 27QHD that I’d always coveted, but promised to be at a lower price point. Having already dismissed tablets by brands like Huion and Yiyinova, I eagerly awaited what the Dell Canvas would bring. After its release in the EU and positive responses from a few, I decided I’d order the Dell for myself and see if it could live up to my standards for this kind of drawing tablet.
The issues and prices I will mention are for my experiences with EU stores only as there are quite a number of reviews for US customers already online.
Last summer, I decided I would finally upgrade to a full-scale tablet screen and desktop PC after getting fed up with my smaller drawing screens and all-in-one solutions. It’s been a long and winding road from when I was given my first drawing tablet at 14. I have owned various Wacom models (Graphire 3, Intuos 3, Companion 2 and Wacom MobileStudio Pro), a Surface Pro 2 and an iPad Pro 2, as well as the Wacom Creative Stylus 2. I also use a Wacom 21UX at work. In short, I’ve tried a lot of devices in search of the perfect drawing experience.
The Dell Canvas in short:
- Robust, professional feeling screen
- Lovely matte drawing surface
- 100% Adobe RGB
- Cheaper than the very similar Wacom Cintiq 27QHD
- Enough customization options and accessory compatibility
- Windows only
- New product, so it has some issues
- Helpdesk hasn’t been briefed on the Dell Canvas properly so they might have a harder time helping you solve said issues
- No mounting options as of yet for European users
First off, some tech specs:
Since a lot of people are already familiar with the Wacom Cintiqs, I’ll compare the Canvas with its most similar counterpart in this section: The Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch. I’m guessing that if people are looking at tablet screens, they’ll have difficulty choosing between these (I know I did).
The Canvas and Cintiq are very similar devices. They weigh about the same, have the same high-end build quality, are about the same size (apart from a few millimeter difference in the bezels) and have the same amount of pen pressure levels. Most differences are small. Nevertheless, there are some specs that might make or break the one or the other for some people:
Identical specifications, Dell Canvas and Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch:
- Display size: 27 inch
- Screen resolution: 2560x1440px
- Pen pressure levels: 2048
- Battery free pen due to EMR technology
- Screen type: IPS
Dell Canvas specifications:
- Price: € 2.043,69 from the Dell (NL) website
- Color gamut: 100% Adobe RGB
- No eraser on the pen
- OS compatibility: Windows only
- Weight: 8.4 kg
- Warranty: 3 years, with the option to expand to 5 and accidental damage coverage
- 1 x Audio jack / 1 x USB Type-C / 2 x USB 3.0
- More specs: see page 11 in the Dell Canvas Manual
Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch specifications:
- Price: €2.549,90 from the Wacom (EU) website
- Color gamut: 97% Adobe RGB
- With eraser on the pen
- OS compatibility: Windows and Mac
- Weight: 9 kg
- Warranty: 2 years
- 5 x USB 3.0
- More specs: see the Wacom website
On to the experience:
How does it feel?
The question people mostly have when looking for a new tablet is, how does it feel to draw on it? The answer is always subjective of course, but my answer would be: fantastic. The screen is matte, and has a bit of tooth to it which people are often looking for in tablet screens for drawing (tooth meaning that paper-like roughness and friction instead of slippery glass). I find the feeling very similar to the Wacom Companion, MobileStudio Pro and Cintiq 21UX I’ve worked on a lot, both in resistance from the screen and pen pressure curve. The added bonus of the Canvas is that it has some great real-estate which makes you feel like you’re immersed in the drawing that you’re doing at that moment. As I stated before, I haven’t worked on the Cintiq 27QHD that much but from what I remember, this feels about the same, with a little tooth and the matte screen.
Compared to an iPad, this screen draws a lot rougher. I personally find that more comfortable. Though the iPad is a great device to draw on and has an amazing feel to it due to its lack of lag and parallax, I still have to get used to the slickness of the screen (I have yet to try it with a matte screen protector to give it more tooth).
The pen’s ergonomics are similar to a Wacom pen, though it feels a tiny bit lighter. The grip is less rubbery than the one by Wacom, but does still provide enough grip and elasticity for comfort. I’ve personally rarely used the eraser tip on a Wacom pen, so I don’t miss it at all; I always found it much faster to use a hotkey than to flip the pen.
One weird last detail about the pen: the Canvas only has magnets in the top right and left of the screen, instead of being magnetic all around like the Cintiqs. However, the magnets seem to be much stronger as well. Together with the slightly flattened side of the pen, this makes it verysatisfying for me to snap the pen to the corner when I don’t need it. No need to be precise, just put it in the general direction and the pen positions itself the same every time, and is right there when you need it. It’s a small thing but really adds to the ease of use for me.
The bezels give your arms a great place to rest while you work or a place to put your accessories. The screen feels sturdy and the touch function is really nice and responsive (I’ll get back to the specifics of that later).
Hotkeys and the Totem
Now, the hotkeys thing is an interesting topic. Dell, like Wacom from the 27QHD onwards, has decided to forego hotkeys on the screen itself, instead opting for a removable device that can be used. The thing that always gets included with a Dell Canvas is their so-called Totem, a wheel that works only when put on the screen. It can be programmed for a variety of uses. One I tried myself, and one that I know at least one artist has completely adopted into their workflow, is the use of the totem to change brush size. Below is an example of that use in Photoshop:
The first line I draw, I try to change the size of the brush mid-stroke. This doesn’t work in Photoshop or Clip Studio Paint for me (which makes sense since pressing [ or ] doesn’t work in Photoshop either).
To change the function of the Totem, you press and hold for about half a second until a menu pops up. Note that the positions of the tools will differ depending on whether you set your pen-handedness to left or right. I still had my pen set to right-handed even though I’m a lefty, so the tools appear to the right of the Totem; but when I set the pen to being left-handed, the tools popped up on the left side.
You’re then able to set the totem to zoom, rotate, undo/redo, or any other shortcut you want as long as it’s keyboard programmable. The setup for this works similar to the setup for the rings on Companions/MobileStudio Pros and the Expresskey Remotes with Wacom drivers, except its interface is integrated into Windows Settings. This includes the ability to program a different set of hotkeys per software package — so you can get a different set of functions popping up if you long-press in Photoshop than when you’d do so while working in Adobe Premiere. One difference is that the Totem also has a programmable “click” function, which can change per category that you’ve selected.
So for example, you could program the Totem in such a way that if you’ve selected the “brush” function on the Totem and you press down on the totem quickly and release again, the color panel pops up (if you assign a hotkey to that in Photoshop). Or, if you’ve set it to “zoom” or “rotate”, a click selects the “transform” function. I’m sure there’s more creative and useful ways to combine the scroll and click functions as well. I’ve tried adding as many tool functions to Photoshop on the Totem as I can, and only at 16 did the “add button” become grayed out for me. This is less than the 18 buttons you have on an ExpressKey remote, but if you’re able to use the scoll left/scroll right/click function for every tool you add, that’s 48 hotkeys in one little Totem right there. The disadvantage of this is that having physical buttons gives you tactile feedback on what tool you’re going to use, whereas the dial lets you scroll though a list you’d have to look at, which might disrupt your workflow. Nevertheless, I think it might be an interesting option for people who think the ExpressKeys don’t have enough buttons for all their hotkeys.
Now, you might find the totem too awkward for now, or just plain don’t want to get used to another workflow. There were some reports about Wacom and Canvas drivers clashing, but that might depend on the kinds of devices the Wacom drivers wants to recognize (the pen and screen drivers might clash with each other, for example). I have installed the drivers for an ExpressKey Remote with the Canvas drivers and so far they’re holding up nicely together. I have the Remote programmed exactly the way I want through the Wacom drivers and work with it on the Canvas in Photoshop.
Other options for quick and easy access to hotkeys could be gaming pads like the Razer Tatarus Chroma, though I haven’t tested compatibility with the Canvas.
Canvas and Photoshop Touch features
So, getting back to the feel of touch: Dell is advertising that they’ve got 20-point touch, which could be interesting if you’re working together with someone, but I think the real advantage to the touch on the Canvas is that it feels very responsive compared to the Wacom models I’ve worked on. Some people hate touch devices, but I’ve always tried to take full advantage of it because it saves me two or three buttons on my hotkey device of choice. Photoshop also has built-in touch gestures to use. For example, I love using the five-finger-tap to switch from a windowed to a maximized or full screen canvas. On my Companion and MobileStudio Pro, this would not work about 40% of the time because a finger landed a bit later or I wasn’t pressing down hard enough. The Canvas makes it so easy, I love using all the touch features. It really is a touch device, just like an iPad.
I work in Photoshop most of the time, so I’ve been talking a lot about it so far, but the Canvas is compatible with most software, both 2D and 3D. I’ve also tested zBrush, Autodesk Maya and Clip Studio Paint, and they work as they should (though I had to fiddle with some settings in Clip Studio Paint to get the cursor to show up right). zBrush and Maya don’t have any touch features like Photoshop does, as far as I could discover, apart from being able to navigate with your fingers, but configuring your hotkey device or just using a keyboard next to the pen should enable you to work in this software normally.
One thing Dell advertises the Canvas with is the Fences feature (image included below). It neatly organizes your desktop shortcuts on the right and lets you browse your folders on the left, directly from your desktop. The settings are pretty customizable in terms of looks (I have them set to fully transparent most of the time but made them slightly opaque for this review), but in terms of function, I’ve found them very rigid. I thought I’d be able to use the right panel for reference, but there’s no way to make the thumbnails bigger than what you see on the screen right now. I also haven’t discovered how to make the left side display anything other than “Desktop Shortcuts” and “Desktop Files”, making the use of reference in Fences for right-handed people more of a pain. I personally don’t really have a use for the Fences and could uninstall the software. If it were more customizable in terms of what and how Fences displays content, it might be a useful thing together with Canvas Layout. For now I’ve gone back to my ref software of choice, PureRef.
Canvas Layout enables you to easily drag your windows from one screen to another by popping up an interactive icon that, when dragging a window into one of its parts, it snaps that window to the selected section.
As you can see in the video, the icon that pops up is for two screens. I have another Dell monitor set up right above the Canvas right now. If I drag my Photoshop window into the upper icon, the whole window would snap to my other monitor. The same goes the other way around. If I drag my windows, an icon with two screens pops up on the monitor and I can snap it back to the Canvas.
Now, I do have this feature turned off right now. Why? The only option that’s missing while dragging is the option to keep the windows the same size you had before. When I had the feature turned on, I’d often have humongous windows of the calculator app or simple notepad files popping up when I started dragging the windows around. I like my primary apps full-windowed, but I want secondary apps to stay small. For now, I use another neat feature that comes with the Windows Creators Update: the on-screen trackpad.
While definitely not a Canvas-only feature, it is only available if you’ve got a touch-enabled screen connected to your PC or laptop. An icon for the trackpad will appear in the icon tray (as seen in the lower right corner of the screenshot). This allows me to keep my hands on the Canvas at all times instead of having to reach around for a mouse, and has one to four finger functions to take full advantage of touch, and not feel cumbersome (I find the two-finger scrolling, for example, way easier on my fingers than scrolling with a mouse wheel). Note that the touchpad options only show up in settings when you’ve got the touchpad showing on screen. Otherwise the options disappear.
Calibration and pen offset/parallax
Pen offset is minimal, especially if you’ve gone through the calibration software that comes with the Canvas. It has a sequence especially designed to calibrate the edges as well as the center, using a 25-point calibration system. Palm rejection is a bit more iffy around the edges, but the cursor does stick to the pen pretty well in the extreme edges.
As for parallax, it’s as minimal as you can get with a sheet of glass between your pen nib and the screen I think. I’ve made a video at an extreme angle to show you how much distance there is, but I don’t notice it while drawing.
There isn’t much lag with the Photoshop standard brushes. Below I’m drawing a few lines with a standard round brush, and a heavier brush by Kyle webster: Inkbox — Classic Cartoonist. The heavier brushes do give a bit more of a lag, but this also depends on your PC/laptop setup obviously.
Out of the box, color accuracy is pretty good. I’ve compared one of my paintings with a printed version below (best picture I could manage — the print actually looks lighter in daylight). The printer I used was a Canon Pixma MG5550.
The darks seem to be a bit too dark on the screen. It’s a lot easier for me to make out the details of the rocks in the print than on screen. That might be easily corrected with a color calibration tool.
I’ve been pretty positive on the Canvas in this review so far. However, there’s also some disadvantages:
The Dell Canvas is Windows only. I personally don’t see myself buying a Mac for home use anytime soon, but for dedicated Mac users this is obviously a dealbreaker. It makes sense for a Windows manufacturer to not offer drivers that work with the competition’s OS, but then again, Mac users are probably a big part of the digital artist community, so they might be missing a big target group there.
Another disadvantage is there’s currently no VESA mount or Canvas Accessory Stand available in the EU, and they don’t have an ETA on when it will be available. I currently have my Canvas propped up on some books, because the angle with just the kickstand is too low for me. It works, but I’d definitely prefer to mount the Canvas on an Ergotron arm to be able to put it more upright or just move the thing out of the way for a second.
Dell’s customer service doesn’t know what a Dell Canvas is. You’d think that when you introduce a new product, you brief your customer service… I’ve spoken to two different people from customer service and neither of them had any idea what a Dell Canvas was. Others also report blank stares and silences over the phone. That being said, my experience with customer service was pleasant and they were eventually able to help me with my issues after figuring out what the heck I had bought from them.
It’s a new product, so it still has some issues. When I first installed the Canvas, some firmware wouldn’t install, so I had to get the drivers manually from the website. I’m getting a non-critical error message about my device not being USB-C compatible, and I know of at least one other person that’s getting the exact same message. Apart from that, I haven’t had any dealbreaker issues in the 3–4 weeks that I’ve had it.
One thing I do really miss is Wacom’s display toggle. You can program a button to remap the mouse area from your table to your other screen with the Wacom drivers. This, to me, is still the fastest way to control your whole computer without having to let go of your pen. The option is programmable with the Remote that I have but it doesn’t know what screen to remap the pen to.
With the Canvas, size options are limited to one. Wacom has the advantage of having a slew of devices already, so people can choose if they want to work big or bigger. The Canvas is, for now, limited to the 27 inch version. If you really want a different size screen to work on, you’ll have to stick with Wacom.
All in all, I think the Dell Canvas is a very worthy Wacom competitor. What always turned me off about other brands than Wacom is the lack of a professional target group — I was this close to ignoring the budget giveaways of other brands and ordering a Huion until I saw it had 72% NTSC color gamut. The build quality of the Canvas is solid and feels very professional. The pen is comfortable, the screen has no light leaking and the glass is not overly shiny or grainy. All in all, I’m very happy that I’m able to work on it and very comfortable with it.
Lastly, I’ve made a little recording of me sketching, just to show how the Canvas looks and feels when in use. I hope this write-up helps you make a more informed decision! If you have any more questions, feel free to send me a message or leave a comment.