Tablet Buttons?

Wacom Express keysI like sculpting with Zbrush on a tablet, but Zbrush really needs a few buttons to modify what the stylus does, notably Shift, Ctrl, and Alt.   There are a handful of other functions that is handy to have working on buttons rather than menus.   Unfortunately, most tablets really don’t have enough convenient buttons in place that can be easily customized.   This goes for my HP Spectre x360 and the Micrsoft Surface.   I’ve tried a few software solutions such as Radial Menu and TabletPCMouse, which give you pallets of onscreen “buttons.”  These work well enough for “tap-and-go” functions like “save” or “undo”, but they are less effective for function modifies such as “hold down shift for smooth” or “hold down alt to reverse the stroke depth.”   Because of palm rejection software/firmware, simultaneous touch and stylus is often rejected.  This means it’s hard to touch the screen with a finger at the same time as the stylus.   This leads to lifting the pen far enough from the screen before you can activate a screen function with your finger tip.   After a while, it was clear this was “clumsy” to coordinate getting the stylus an inch from the screen before I could press a button.   Tools like radial menu can make buttons “sticky” (press once for “on”, again for “off”), but this too has its workflow weaknesses by adding an extra press of a button.

It was becoming clear: I needed the feel and simplicity of buttons.

One solution was just to pair a Bluetooth keyboard, but when working with my computer in my lap or on the go, this was inconvenient and often more than I needed.   I could, of course, work with the Spectre X360 in laptop mode, but this also felt a little off, because the open screen is pretty far from my face and I like the intimacy of a sketchbook feel.  The tablet form factor was more comfortable than laptop form factor.  I thought of building a button box out of game controller (as some have done on the TabletPCReview forums.)

Then I saw that Wacom had just released a small button box originally designed for Wacom Cintiq 27HD.  It’s called the Wacom ExpressKey Remote.  At $99 it isn’t cheap, but using Wacom Cintiqs and tablets, I knew they were well experienced in making artist tools.   I ordered it the first day it was available, week before TechEd 2015, without hesitating.   It was waiting for me when I returned.

It connects to your computer by a small USB 2 wireless transceiver that sticks out about 10mm from the side of your laptop (it would be nice if this was bluetooth instead.)   The Expresskey Remote is in a thin little package about 50mm x 135mm and 10mm thick.  It has a soft rubber back, so you can set it on the screen and move it around as needed.   I let it sit next to the tablet on a customized lap desk that Vaughn constructed from unfinished bed desk.  Despite some comments on the web, I found that you did not need any other Wacom product installed.   I installed Wacom’s 6.3.15-1 driver without a Cintiq connected (although the transceiver for Expresskey Remote must be plugged in.)   Wacom intends the ExpressKey Remote for use with their profession products, so your mileage may vary, but I did not need to plug in any of my other Wacom products to install or later configure the Expresskey Remote.  (Hoperfully Wacom will clarify this aspect themselves in their FAQ, but as a customer of theirs for more than a decade, I wouldn’t count on it.

One install note:  If you’re using Microsoft/Ntrig’s wintab driver, you may need to reinstall or “repair” it after installing Wacom’s drivers.   I found that pressure sensitivity was in my stylus was lost until I repaired wintab-

Wacom obviously knew Zbrush users would want this.   As soon as I started Zbrush, a custom template was installed for the ExpressKey Remote.   It’s a great starting point to my eyes.   I have so far only made one change, which was to add the “M” key in place of the one of the less use buttons.   All-in-all, the 17 buttons work quite well, though my old friends, ctrl, shift, and alt are the principle ones I need.  I may re-assign another button to be “ctrl-shift” simultaneously just to simplify selecting meshes.   So far I haven’t felt the need to do this, but on many of my Cintiqs, I set one key aside for this just to avoid “fat finger syndrome” where I miss getting the two keys just right.

The Expresskey Remote definitely has made working with a tablet much easier and more comfortable.   To me it feels similar to working on my large Cintiq 21UX, but in a nice portable package.   The bottom line question I expect to be asked, is it worth $99?   I’d say yes if the comfort and time for art counts.  Compared to other approaches, I feel I can work faster and easier.  Could it be made better?   Probably.  For example it would be nice to use Bluetooth rather than a proprietary receiver.  Some might want fewer buttons and others more.  Some might want a bigger device and others smaller.   It’s hard to please all the competing ergonomics, and I have only focused on one application, Zbrush.   Overall, I think Wacom has hit on the right accessory device for tablets and two-in-ones.



HP Spectre x360 & Zbrush

c04728044I’ve probably mentioned that I toy with Zbrush from time to time in other posts.   A fantastic sculpting program, I’ve always been looking at ways to liberate it from a workstation to a nice portable form factor.   Most of my solutions over the years is to take a laptop running Zbrush and Wacom tablet or more recently, a Wacom Cintiq 13HD.   This has been a bulky, but serviceable solution (The Cintiq 13HD is quite light and slips into the back of my suitcase perfectly for long trips.   Well, my trusty ASUS UX32VD developed iSSD rot (a disease that has been cured, but not without wailing, gnashing, and general misuse of a soldering iron…), so this was an excuse to pick up a shiny new HP Spectre x360 (13-4102dx) with it’s clever 2-in-1 design, QHD display, ultrabook form factor, i7 processor, etc., etc.   I figured I’d just be using my beloved little cintiq with this little speedster.

31lgRGSTy9L._SX425_Little did I know HP had an early Christmas present hidden in the Spectre’s design.   It turns out that the Spectre’s screen is not just multi-touch–it’s a pressure sensitive active pen display!   OK, so it’s active pen (Synaptic’s technology), what does that mean?   Well it means that with the right stylus, you have a nice, multi-level pressure sensitive device.  After reading the reviews, I picked up a Dell 750-AAGN stylus.   It had the advantages over the HP “Active Pen” in that 1) it was slightly cheaper,  2) had a 1mm tip that fells very comfortable and 3) was better rated by other reviewers who had tried it.   It runs on a AAAA (that’s 4 A’s) similar to the Wacom’s stylus for ipads (the Wacom creative stylus)–buy ’em by the bag full.

I fired up Photoshop CC 2015 and I was really pleased with the results.  Nice line variation with gentle modulation of pressure.   Perfect!  I didn’t even have to install a driver!

I then fired up Zbrush 4r7.  🙁   No luck.   It worked, but wasn’t pressure sensitive.  Apparently Zbrush can’t see the Active Pen technology in Windows 10.  I installed my Wacom drivers and figured it was just one of those tech things that I’ll have to wait for Pixologic to work out.   But this got me to wondering what is so different about Photoshop?   The signal is there–why does Photoshop see and and Zbrush doesn’t?   It turns out it is my old nemesis, wintab.   Active pen uses the new Microsoft interface to the stylus (introduced with the Microsoft Surface technology in Windows 8) and Zbrush depends on the “traditional” stylus interface, wintab.  Score one for Adobe being up to date on windows tech.

So I thought about it a little more.  How do Microsoft Surface Pro users get wintab programs like Zbrush to recognize the nifty pressure sensitivity with their n-trig (now owned by Microsoft) styli?  We’ll it comes down to a wintab driver.   After reading a bit more, I found someone else who had tried this magic driver, and sure enough it not only works for n-trig styli, but also Synaptics Active Pen!   All I had to do was find it.

The Synaptics website was no help.  They’re not well set up for end users and if there is a wintab driver out there, it isn’t to be found.   Then began the merry search of Microsoft’s labyrinthine web site.   It was a bit of search, but burried in the surface section is here.   (A shoutout to surfaceproartist’s blog for finding this little jewel is in order.)  In the myriad of SurfacePro drivers is one little file “”.   Trembling with excitement, I installed this unassuming bit of technical magic, fired up Zbrush 4R7 and voila!  Zbrush now recognizes pressure sensitivity on my HP Spectre 360’s display with the Dell active pen stylus.   While I will not suggest its a perfect replacement for Cintiq, it is ideal for on-the-go use.  It works well with almost no lag on my setup.  Hopefully Zbrush will support active pen in the future or Microsoft will package this little driver standard with Windows.


Various stroke strengths with the Dell 750-AAGN Stylus on an HP Spectre x360 running Win10

Hopefully this helps someone else with active pen setup!