A new macbook pro — first impressions

Two days ago, my macbook pro M1 arrived. I mainly got this device to test Krita on and make ARM builds of Krita, but it’s also the first macbook anyone in the Krita community that allows playing with sidecar and has a touch strip.

So, SideCar works, as expected. There is one problem, though, and that’s that the pressure curve of the Apple Pencil seems to be seriously weird, so I first thought I was painting with a sketch engine brush. But apart from that, it’s nice and smooth.

KDAB has published a library to integrate support for the touchbar: kdmactouchbar — so on that front we might see some support coming.

Krita itself, the x86 build, runs fine: the performance is much better than on my 2015 15″ macbook pro, and rosetta seems to even translate the AVX2 vectorization instructions we use a lot. Weirdly enough, X86 Firefox doesn’t seem to be able to load any website, and Safari is very annoying. Looks like the macOS build of Kate isn’t notarized yet, or maybe I need to use the binary factory build for that. XCode took about two hours to install and managed to crash the system settings applet in the process.

We haven’t succeeded in actually making an ARM build yet. We first need to build the libraries that Krita uses, and some of those seem to build as X86, and some as ARM, and we haven’t figured out how to fix that yet.

The laptop itself is, well, a laptop. It’s not bad, but it would never be my favorite. Yes, it’s very fast, that’s what everyone says, and it’s true: Qt builds in a mere 20 minutes.

The keyboard is nice, much better than the one on the 2015 macbook pro, so Apple was able to make some progress. But the edges of the palm rest — well, all of the edges are really sharp, which is quite painful when typing.

Really cute was the way the language choice on installation tells you to press Enter in all the language, including four dialects of English.

MacOS 11 is also really annoying, with an endless stream of notifications and please-use-your-finger-to-unlock for the most innocuous things. The visuals are appallingly ugly, too, with really ugly titlebars, a cramped system settings applet and weird little pauses now and then. And if the performance monitor can still be put in the menubar, I haven’t found the way to do that.

Anyway, that’s it. We’ll be making ARM builds of Krita one of these days. If you value your freedom, if you like the idea of actually owning the hardware and being able to do whatever you want with it, don’t buy one.

Two New “Tablets”: Wacom Cintiq Pro 24″ Touch and Remarkable 2

In 2018, I discussed the digital painting devices I had used up til then. These were a Lenovo Thinkpad X61t, a Lenovo Thinkpad Helix, a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, a Wacom Cintiq Hybrid Companion, an iPad Pro 12.9″, a Wacom Mobile Studio Pro 16″ and a Lenovo Yoga 920.

I didn’t discuss the Wacom Graphire, the Wacom Intuos 3, the Huion H610 or the Yiyniva MVP22U that I also had around, probably because apart from the Intuos 3, all of that hardware was stored in the Hardware Attic.

But recently, the Hybrid Companion became even more unusable (it was already bad because of the enormous parallax): the screen’s brightness just couldn’t reach visible levels anymore.

And the Wacom Mobile Studio Pro has been dying for over a year now — not good for expensive hardware bought only in 2017. When running as a computer, it would shut itself down randomly, probably because it was getting too hot. So I got myself a Wacom Link device so I could use it as a regular cintiq, but after two days of usage… The display would reset itself randomly and finally it wouldn’t power up anymore, at all.

Of the hardware in the original survey, I still have the Lenovo Yoga 920 — it just has had its screen replaced for the second time, but apart from that, it’s fine.

The screen was broken… The motherboard too. The replacement was too dim, and had to be replaced.

And the iPad is also still fine, probably because I don’t use it for anything but reading comics. The pencil these days never gets even charged because I don’t want to port Krita to iOS and I dislike all the drawing applications that are available for iOS. And the Pencil is really nasty to hold, because it’s top-heavy.

So, what came next…

In 2019, we acquired a Pixel Chromebook (a loaner from Google) and a Samsung Tab S4, for the ChromeOS and Android port. The Tab S4 is nice for reading comics, too, but screen is small and the pen is a bit too small to hold comfortably, for me at least. And Krita on Android is still a bit rough, so no way that would be my main drawing device. (Though Sharaf is working full-time now on improving Krita on ChromeOS and Android.)

Then we had the 2019 Krita Sprint, and I wanted to setup a working HDR test system, so I got an Intuos Pro Large. I hadn’t realized Large meant Huge though… It’s not a display tablet. I actually still like the old Intuos 3 we got crowdfunded in 2007 better.

The demise of the Mobile Studio Pro left me without a display tablet, so I decided to invest in a real Cintiq.

The 16″ model has been out of stock for quite some time now in the Netherlands. I thought, whatever, and got the 24″ one. There’s this saying about donkeys, and I guess I’ve proven I’m not a donkey, because once again, this was waaaaaaaay bigger than I had expected.

It has completely conquered my analog art table:

I’ve had it for three weeks now. Let me sum up my experience with it in the first part of this blog post. The second part is about the Remarkable 2 I received around the same time (I backed their fundraiser way back then).

First: this is the right size for a display tablet. Everything I’ve used before felt cramped, and that’s coming from someone who likes to paint on 3″ by 3″ panels with oils and brushes. At first, it feels downright heavenly to work on.

But…

There are a bunch of severe issues with it, Windows 10 and the latest Wacom drivers. There are also issues using it with Linux + KDE’s Tablet KCM, but those aren’t really Wacom’s fault. I haven’t used it with my mac yet.

  • I won’t whine about size and weight. But the bezels are ginormous, and though they are a nice magnetic area for the expresskeys remote to latch on to, they are just too much.
  • If you turn up the display brightness, the fans start impersonating fighter jets taking off. If you don’t it’s really quite dim. And after a while, you get the fans anyway. I wish my drawing was good enough to get fans that easily.
  • The thingy you click in to put your pen is is tacky, ugly and flimsy. Not a 2500 euro including VAT experience, not at all.
  • The legs only have one elevation, though it’s quite a good elevation, for me.
  • The driver and settings software and Windows 10 is GHASTLY.

Let me elaborate on that, because it really is a big deal.

On Windows, there are two ways for applications to talk to tablets, and vice-versa. The ancient and usually reliable “wintab” and the not-really-new-but-we-pretend-it-is and OS-supported “Windows 8 Pointer API, most often called “Windows Ink”.

By default Windows Ink is enabled. This totally makes it impossible to map either side of the rocker switch to right-click. If you do that, and try to use it, Windows will draw a round circle around the cursor and do nothing. You cannot even use it to right-click in Windows Explorer. Whether this is a Windows bug or a Wacom driver bug, I don’t know. I do know that the regular workaround for this issues, switching off flicks, is no longer possible in the latest builds of Windows 10.

This means, with Windows Ink enabled, you cannot right-click with the stylus. At all.

But if I disable Windows Ink in the calibration screen of the Wacom display settings utility (that means, we switch to Wintab), suddenly the right click button starts working! Yay! Both pan and the popup palette work in Krita!

Only… If you have a multi-monitor setup, and given that this is a display tablet, that’s a given, you will get offsets. The offsets get worse the more screens there are to the left of the cintiq. But even if you place the cintiq lef-most in Windows’ display configuration setting, tablet events arrive a bit to the left of the stylus point. And if your displays have a heterogenous scaling factor, the offset gets wild.

This is not a bug in Krita; it happens everywhere, but it doesn’t happen for the mouse events that are generated after the tablet events are discarded. Those are pretty much in the right place.

In short… You can have a right-click button on the stylus or accurate stylus mapping, but not both.

I guess we’ll learn to work around this in Krita by also looking at the mouse events, and taking the coordinates from that. But please, Wacom and Microsoft, work together to fix this?

So this weekend I wanted to test our last release by painting for a couple of hours. Instead it’s the third weekend I’ve spent investigating mouse/stylus/button issues and settings.

And now about the other device that arrived! It’ll never run Krita, but it promised to be very cool indeed. I got a Remarkable 2 tablet. That’s an e-ink display which promises the best ever writing experience.

I wanted to use it for notes, jottings, character sheets, and making diagrams while thinking. Also reading PDF’s of standards documents, programming manuals and articles about graphics and painting.

The hardware looks gorgeous, too. Very stylish, with a nice black pen, a nice leatherette cover and a flush screen design.

There are two problems, one I don’t care much about, and the other one damning.

The meh problem is that in order to put PDF’s on the tablet, you need an account and a Windows, Android or ipadOS application. Or you can futz around with ssh. Well, given that I ssh into our music sever laptop to start a screen session in which I run ogg123, that’s not a biggie. Might be for others, isn’t for me.

But… I’m a leftie. I’m not just to the left of AOC when it comes to politics, but I draw, paint and write with my left hand. Most of us lefties have learned to turn the paper counter-clockwise until the top is parallel with our hand.

Then we start to write.

On the remarkable this wil every friggin’ TIME that I start writing at the top of a page close that page because a gesture from the top downwards closes the open document.

It’s as if I’m crumpling up every piece of paper I’m writing on, always, all the time.

But apart from that, the acccuracy, speed, handwriting detection, screen quality, build quality — it’s all close to perfect. The pen is a bit too rough for my fingers, but okay, that would erode with enough use. Only, using the Remarkable is next to impossible for me!

ETA: I figured it out! I can hide the ui for selecting tools, and that also hides the thingy that closes the document on touch. I can finally use the Remarkable¬† — though I still tend to create new pages all the time with the palm of my hand.

The Power of Blogging

In my last post, I related the tale of how I had spent three months trying to return to laptops to Lenovo that I had mistakenly ordered... I thought it would only be friendly to mail Lenovo’s customer support (by Digital River, as they never tire of telling you) a link.

What the final demand letter hadn’t managed, the blog post managed.

The next working day, I had mail from Lenovo! Asking me whether I still wanted to return the laptops. I answered that I had only one left, which I really wanted to return, yes, especially since it had a faulty battery, and that the other was living a useful life in Mexico. I also explained that the problem seemed to be that TNT couldn’t send me the mail with the link to the return form.

The next day, I had a mail with all the details for shipping back the laptop, and within another two days, the laptop was gone! The box no longer clutters our dining room, and it was gone!

Then the wait for the refund started, and within a week, we had our money back!

Truly, the powers of blogging are infinite.

A Tale of Four Laptops, or, How Lenovo’s Digital River Customer Support Sucks

In September, I made a mistake… We needed new laptops for Dmitry and Agata, and after much deliberation, we decided upon Lenovo Yoga C940’s. These are very cool devices, with HDR screens, nice keyboard, built-in pen, two-in-one convertible — everything in short for the discerning Krita hacker.

I accidentally ordered the S940 instead — two of them. These are very awful devices, without a pen, no touch-screen, don’t fold, don’t have HDR, don’t even have normal USB ports. Overpriced, under-powered — why the heck does Lenovo call these Ideapads yoga’s? I have no idea.

Well, no problem, I thought. I’ll just return them and ordered the C940 instead. The C940’s arrived in time for our BlenderCon sprintlet, and were all what one expected them to be. And I filled in Lenovo’s web form to return the S940’s.

That turned out to be a big problem. Here’s what happened:

  • I ordered them September 24th
  • They were delivered September 26th (nice and fast)
  • I filled in the return form on September 26th
  • Not having heard anything from Lenovo or TNT, I called customer support (by “Digital River”) and was promised I’d get a mail the same day with the forms needs to send the devices back; you cannot just send them back, you have to have the forms. There’s no other way to get to know the return address.
  • Not having heard anything back, I called them on October 21st. Same promises
  • Not having heard anything back, I called them on October 21st. I had to call twice, because as soon as she’d heard my name, the first customer support person closed the connection. I got promises of escalation to higher-ups
  • Not having heard anything back, I called them November 4th. I got the same person on the phone, who gave the same promise of escalation.
  • Not having heard anything back, I called them November 19th, and was promised that my money would be refunded immediately and they would figure out a way to get the laptops back.
  • Not having received my money, or heard anything back, I called them December 13th. They promised me they’d do something about it, but that I was very mistaken in supposing I should have had my money back, they hadn’t got the laptops, right? When I asked them for an address to send them to myself, I was told that was impossible, so sorry. I told them I would get legal advice if I didn’t hear from them.
  • Not having heard anything from Lenovo, I called my legal adviser, who called Lenovo to get an address out of them we could send a paper letter to. This is apparently impossible. My legal adviser told me he was shocked at how rude the Lenovo representative was.
  • I sent the required final demand letter by email in January…
  • And not having heard anything from Lenovo whatsoever, my legal adviser told me the only solution would be to sue…

Well, I’m not prepared to bother with that. I’ll take my loss, think black thoughts of Lenovo and find a use for the devices. In fact, I’ve handed one to Ivan who didn’t have a windows machine, and tried to setup the other as a test machine.

But Lenovo is really, really awful. These laptops come with something called Lenovo Vantage, which has only one reason for its existence: it can switch the media keys into proper function keys. That used to be in the bios, but no longer… For the rest it’s a marketing and spyware tool — like Windows 10 itself, of course. And then Lenovo Vantage was updated, this function is gone! People started complaining about that on the Lenovo forums, and as of writing, Google still found those posts, but Lenovo has deleted all of them.

I’ve bought Yoga’s, Thinkpads and even Ideapads in great numbers in the past twenty years… But I think it’s time to make a change.

Why we shouldn’t blame ourselves for the Linux desktop’s microscopic marketshare

Well, that was three interesting articles on the same topic on the same day, namely, billionaires. And read in turn they explain exactly why the Linux Desktop is still at such a marginal market share, and why that’s not because we, who work hard on it, are failures who have been doing the wrong thing all the time. It is in the first place policies, bought with money, that allowed people to build monopolies, taxing individuals and so becoming even more rich and powerful.

(Similarly, it’s not individuals through their choices who are destroying the planet, it is policies bought by the very rich who somehow believe that their Florida resorts won’t sink, that they won’t be affected by burning up the planet so they can get richer. But that’s a digression.)

So, the the first article, by Arwa Mahdawi, discussed the first part of this problem: with enough money, all policies are yours. It’s just a squib, not the strongest article.

Then, Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor enumerates the ways people can become so exceedingly rich, and none of that is because they are so hard-working and so successful:

  • Exploit a monopoly: this is illegal under the laws of the United States.
  • Exploit insider information. This is also illegal.
  • Buy a tax cut. This seemed uniquely USA’ian until the Dutch prime minister Rutte promised abolition of the dividend tax to Unilever. This would seem to be illegal as well, but IANAL.
  • Extort people who already have a lot of money. Extortion is illegal.
  • Inherit the money. This is the only legal way to become a billionaire.

Now the article entitled What Is a Billionaire, by Matt Stoller was posted to the Linux reddit today. Not surprisingly, many people completely didn’t get the point, and thought it was irrelevant for a Linux discussion forum, or was about capitalism vs socialism, or outdated Microsoft bashing.

However, what it is about, is the question: why is Bill Gates not in jail for life with all his wealth stripped off? He’s a criminal, and his crime has directly harmed us, the people working on free software, on the Linux Desktop.

So, to make things painfully clear: Bill Gates made it so that his company would tax every computer sold no matter whether it ran Windows or not. If a manufacturer wanted to sell computers running Windows, all the computers it sold were taxed by Microsoft. He would get paid for the work a Linux distribution was doing, and the Linux distribution would not get that money.

That means there’s a gap twice the amount of this illegal tax between Microsoft and the Linux distribution. If a Linux distribution would want to earn what Microsoft earned on a PC sale, it would have to pay the Microsoft tax, and ask for its own fee.

This cannot be done.

And I know, this has been said often before, and discussed often before, and yeah, I guess, poor Bill Gates, if he hadn’t been bothered so badly with the hugely unfair antitrust investigation, he would also have been able to monopolize mobile phones, and the world would have been so much sweeter. For him, for certain.

I guess we didn’t do all that badly with the Linux Desktop market share being what it is. This is a fight that cannot be won.

Monopolies must be broken up. It’s the law, after all.

A Progression of Drawing Devices

Some time ago, I compared 2:1 devices, which was a new form factor back then. This time, triggered by an experiment with a Wacom Mobile Studio Pro during the last Krita sprint, I want to look into the various drawing devices I’ve used over the years, and which ones worked well, or not.

Four 2:1 devices: three of which came with a pen. From the top, clock-wise: Lenovo Helix, Intel SDP, Microsoft Surface Pro 3, Dell XPS-12

IBM Thinkpad x61t

This was the first device where I could draw with a pen on the screen. I got it in 2007. The pen technology was Wacom, and it worked with Linux out of the box. The pen was a bit tiny, but could be stored in the laptop itself. The screen only had a 1024×768 resolution, which is incredible these days, but it was fine: nobody was creating 4k images back then. The pen was quite accurate, except at the borders of the screen, a familiar Wacom issue. Palm rejection was fine, and it was a very usable little thing. The hinge mechanism was its weak point though: it turned only one way, and one day someone forced it the other way…

X61T in tablet mode

Lenovo Thinkpad Helix

When we were developing Krita Sketch and Krita Gemini, Intel sent us two devices: a Lenovo Helix and a Dell XPS 12. The Dell had a touch screen, but was not pen compatible, the Helix came with a pen, but didn’t have the 2:1 drivers that would switch the device from laptop into tablet mode when ripping it out of the keyboard.

The pen was as tiny as the one in the X61T, and also used Wacom technology. It sort of worked fine, but the device itself always felt cramped when using it for art. Part of that was because the screen was only 11″, part of it because when connect to the keyboard, it didn’t bend back enough, part maybe because it always felt a little slow. It was fairly heavy, too. It ran Linux perfectly well, but not in tablet mode: I never figured out how to make Linux switch automatically between landscape and portrait mode.

The idea was fun, but it was far from an ideal art device, or even a good device for someone developing an art application.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

It was going at a reduced price, and I wanted something with an n-trig pen, to test Krita with. Plus, I was thinking of, you know, picking up drawing again, and maybe learn how to use Krita. I got the lowest-end model.

When I got it, it was running Windows 8, which was a good fit for the device. Better than Windows 10, to be honest. I liked the PDF reader that came with Windows 8, which got replaced by a web browser by now. I liked to use the device to read comics, too, using the Comix reader. But…

For using it as an art device, there were some big problems: there’s a tiny, but noticeable bit of latency between pen and device. It’s even noticeable when clicking on a menu or a button, and very noticeable when trying to draw. I though that was the n-trig pen, or the bluetooth connection, but later on I learned that this might well be Windows. I never even tried to put Linux on it: this device was for testing Krita on Windows with n-trig/windows Ink, and the 64GB ssd was too small to partition.

The pen is thinnish and not too comfortable to hold, more a Bic feeling than a Waterman feeling. Palm rejection while drawing is pretty bad as well, and there seem to be a ton of things that need to be disabled in Windows before things get to a tolerable state, like all the flicks and things.

In sum, it was slow, laggy and burdened by Windows 10 and all its fancy features that only get in the way.

Wacom Cintiq Hybrid Companion

Wacom contacted us in 2013 and offered to donate some devices to the Krita project so we could improve support for them. One of those devices was the Wacom Cintiq Hybrid Companion.

The Wacom Cintiq Hybrid Companion in all its Android 4 glory.

 

The Cintiq Hybrid Companion was one of the first attempts by Wacom at creating an untethered art device. It felt (and feels) very luxurious: a very nice sleeve, a nice pen case with lots of replacement nibs and a flimsy but pretty stand came with the device. The pen feels great, too.

The device can run independently, and then it runs Android. The Android version never got updated, though, so it’s still stuck at 4. There were a number of interesting art applications included on the Android side, like Manga Canvas. The application I liked best on Android was ArtFlow. I even considered porting Krita to the device, but never got started. Not a big problem… Wacom never made another Android tablet, and Android tablets with pen support are pretty rare these days.

There were, and are, a couple of issues, though. There is a strong parallax effect near the screen edges. It’s smallish and the resolution isn’t very high. It works best when coupled with a big monitor, two windows and two views on the same image. It’s also rather too heavy to keep on your lap, but as a desk-bound thing it’s fine.

When using it with Windows, touch is unreliable, and when using it with Linux, it is pretty hard to calibrate — and somehow, but that probably is a driver issue, after a couple of strokes it messes up the pointer state, and suddenly every mouse move selects or moves windows, even when nothing is clicked and no modifier key is held.

I keep the companion around, and I often play with it and use it as a test tablet, but until the Linux wacom driver bugs get ironed out, I won’t be using it for real stuff.

The cintiq hybrid companion connected to my Thinkpad.

iPad Pro 12.9″

Last year, I was thinking of porting Krita to iOS and Android, both because there’s demand for it and because we might be able to generate some extra income to fund development by having Krita in more app stores. I decided to start with iOS because there just are very few Android tablets with a real pen. I got an iPad Pro, created a dev account with Apple and put the dev environment on the krita-for-macOS-build-macbook-pro. I played with some demo scribble application, but by that time I had begun to really, really, really dislike iOS.

I dislike its flat ugliness, its lack of consistency, its invasiveness, the ubiquity of advertisements in the “free” apps.¬† I dislike how indiscoverable features can be. I actually bought Procreate for iOS to check out the competition, and this was the first time in years when I had to read the manual to figure things out.

Hardware-wise, it’s a beautiful, if a bit big, tablet. The screen is great. It’s quite fast. The pen is fine as well, if a bit top-heavy, and doesn’t have an eraser end. Charging the pen is ridiculous:

Charging the Apple Pencil. What is the safest place for the cap? (And yes, we’ve got a new table for our living room.)

The available software is weird. I tried OpenCanvas, Medibang, Procreate and Autodesk Sketch. OpenCanvas actually has menus, popup dialogs and everything a desktop application has! Medibang looks quite normal by comparison, but looks and feel more like an Android application than an iOS application. Procreate looks and feels native. It’s all quite usable, and all not quite what I want to use, though.

I’m currently using it to read books on C++ in PDF format (I haven’t found a good CBR or ePub reader for iOS yet…) I still intend to try again to port Krita to iOS, but maybe I’d better sell the thing.

Wacom Mobile Studio Pro

A webshop had a barely-used but seriously reduced price offer for this device. It’s the 16″ model. Pretty much Wacom’s flagship pen tablet, running Windows 10. It comes with a dildo^Wcigar tube^W^Wnew style pen holder, and that’s it. No sleeves, no stands, no usb-c-to-something-useful converter. Even if you want to use it Cintiq-like, you have to buy the Wacom Link converter. For a device at this price level — new it’s more than 3000 euros, that’s a bit mean.

The device itself has its good and its less good points.

Good is the screen: it’s big, bright, high-res and has very good color coverage. Good is the pen: it has a nice weight and with the felt tips feels great when painting. Lots of disk space, choice between Intel and NVidia GPU, also good. Lots of express keys, great.

The Intel Realsense 3D camera never worked,¬† though: it crashes when starting the calibration app. The screen has a yellow splotch in the bottom-left corner (or top-right, depending on how you’re holding it).

It’s heavy, of course, but, well, that’s normal for a 16″ device, and I’ve found various strategies to work with it held on my lap nonetheless. It does get warm, though, especially when we’ve made any little mistake that makes Krita more CPU than needed.

I’ve used it with Windows 10 for about a year: this works, but I noticed it changed my drawing style. More blobby, rendery, less line work. And I’m now guessing that that’s because this device with Windows 10 has sort of the same problem as the Surface Pro 3: a little bit of latency between pen and device.

Which is weird, because it’s Wacom, so the pen and the screen are directly connected, not the pen to the os through bluetooh. So when we had the house full of artists for the sprint, and David, Raghu and Timothee were playing with the device, and they all declared they couldn’t work with it like this, we first tried to find out whether we could improve it under Windows. Disabling the Windows window compositor made a bit of difference, but David was still disgusted with the feel of the device.

Then we tried to run Linux on it. A year ago, that was still a big problem, and when Aryeom of Zemarmot got an MSP, Jehan had quite a bit of work to make things run. However, we just plugged an Ubuntu 18.04 USB stick in the USB hub, rebooted, added a second USB stick with Krita and everything worked.

And the latency was gone! The next weekend, I put Kubuntu on it (still waiting for the 18.04 based release of KDE Neon), and that works much nicer. Pity there isn’t a good HiDPI virtual keyboard for Linux/X11 — but I can just keep my normal keyboard connected to it when I’m drawing and sketching at my desk. There are some problems still: the touch screen doesn’t work in Krita (where the touch screen of the hybrid companion works perfectly), and synchronizing the rotation of the screen and the tablet doesn’t work yet.

Lenovo Yoga 920

I’ve also gotten a Lenovo Yoga 920 at a discount, but I haven’t done much with that yet. Now that the battery life of the Surface Pro 3 is gone, the Dell XPS-12’s keyboard broken and with the Helix out of commission, I wanted something I could take with me (when I go to Akademy, for instance) that I could draw on. But I’ve had very good reports: good Linux compatibility, no latency between pen and computer and it’s very portable. I’ll be spending some more time today getting Krita up and running on it.

The New Laptop

So, some time ago, I was wondering a) what new laptop to get and b) what to do with Krita on OSX. As for the laptop, I felt I wanted something fast, something with at least 16GB of memory and a largish screen. Preferably with a good keyboard. As for OSX, I felt it might not be worth either mine or the Krita Foundation’s money to plunk down the serious moolah that Apple is asking for their hardware… After all, how many people fall for Apple’s glamourie, in the real world, after all? Especially now that the reality distortion field’s progenitor is no longer among us.

Then I did an interview with CGWorld’s Jim Thacker, about Krita. He’s very much someone from the graphics software world, not the free software world. And he expressed his amazement at my dismassal of Apple. And then my bank account was getting seriously empty, and I had to take a temporary consulting gig to make sure I could continue paying my mortgage. And at the place I’m working now, and in the commuter train I’m travelling on, more than half of the people have Apple laptops.

I don’t know why… And I guess they don’t know why, either. Well, Windows has always been kind of ugly, especially Windows 7 and 10. Windows 8 I really liked, by the way — if you have a touch screen, the interaction design is simple, effective and efficient. Everything is consistent, easy and pleasant. The few metro apps I used, I loved. But, well, Apple. Apparently more people than I was able to imagine think getting an Apple laptop is a good idea.

So, all together, I decided to go and get an Apple laptop, too. Let’s try to make Krita 3.0’s OS X port a first-class citizen! It can only expand our community and make our next fundraiser stronger!

So we got a 15″ Macbook Pro Retina. Not the most expensive model, but it was still plenty expensive. More than a thousand cups of coffee. Here’s what I think of it, after a month or so.


What follows now is part hardware, part software review. I guess I need to state up-front that while I’m a long-time free software person, I’ve never been an Apple hater any more than a Microsoft hater. Or lover. I’ve used or owned three Apple computers before this one.

The first was a Powerbook Pismo I got when Tryllian went broke and the artist department was disbanded. That thing had a great screen, a great keyboard (apart from the missing keys), a great shape and style, ran OS 9 and OS X equally well. I had wanted one of the tiBooks, but they were all broken. The Pismo served me for a long time as a writing machine, as a holiday games, music and photo machine, as a Krita development machine (it dual-booted to Debian). I loved it, and then a clumsy daughter tripped over the power cable, causing it to drop nearly half a meter, onto the floor. It sparked and smoked whenever I applied current to it afterwards, so I discarded it.

Sadness! But when I started working for Hyves, I got a first generation 17″ macbook pro. Still a thoroughly respectable keyboard (apart from the missing keys), great screen, really fast. And using an Apple laptop was sort of inevitable, since at Hyves we were developing a cross-platform chat client for the Hyves social network. Hyves was the Dutch Facebook, by the way. It’s dead now. So was the Macbook Pro, after a year. After a year in my backpack the screen started developing vertical green, red and blue lines. Actually… It was the second device Hyves got me, the first one was dead on arrival. Still, it had a decent keyboard.

At KO GmbH, one of our less well-considered ventures was to develop a WebODF-based app for the iPad. To that end, we got an iPad and a 2011 Mac Mini. The iPad is still with Jos, but after a while, building Krita for OSX also seemed a good idea, so I got the Mac Mini. It’s got a nice amount of memory, 8GB, and the disk is exceedingly roomy, at 1TB. But… The disk is also really slow, and the Krita hack, build, deploy, test, hack again cycle could easily take an hour! Which is the reason I never really did much Krita on OSX hacking since the 2014 kickstarter, when I first ported Krita to OSX.

(The keyboard I use with the Mac Mini, by the way, is more than excellent. It’s a WASD custom-built keyboard, and I bought it for using with the Thinkstation desktop machine. It’s got a penguin key.)


So, time for the fourth Apple computer. My needs were:

  • Fast
  • Large screen
  • Good keyboard

Two out of three isn’t bad… Except for a laptop that costs more than 2000 euros. I got a 15″ Macbook Pro with a 256Gb SSD. For only about 500 euros more, I would have had a bigger disk, and the disk on this laptop is already fullish, what with two Linux and one Windows virtual machines and an OSX build tree or two.

So, what’s good? The screen is really good, sharp, clear, excellent color, unless you turn the brightness down. It’s not as clear and sharp as the Dell XPS 12 screen, but it doesn’t have the Dell’s ghosting problem. And if you turn the brightness down? The contrast goes down and the colors go down and it looks washed out.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a touch screen, which frustrates me, because I have gotten used to direct interaction in the past couple of years. I also don’t get the way Apple uses display scaling, but that’ll come, no doubt. It seems to me that if you just blow up ever pixel to four pixels the result isn’t really sharper, but somehow it is, for text at least.

It’s also fast. It builds Krita faster than my desktop workstation, which is really impressive. And useful, because apart from writing mail, handling bugs and irc, building Krita is pretty much what I do. Oh, and a little coding…

For the coding, I need a good keyboard, and that’s where this laptop falls down.

The keyboard is ghastly. Honestly. The only reason anyone can think it’s adequate is because they are too young to have used really good keyboards on laptops.

Not only does it still miss Home, End, PgUp, PgDn and Delete (the key Apple labels as Delete is Backspace), the keys have next to no travel. Yes, I get it, thin is the new black. But not when it impairs my productivity. The keys are little black squares of sharp-edged plastic with no shape. And they are also sort of wobbly.

As on Thinkpads, Fn and Control are reversed. Which makes the remarks you read now and then from people who’ve chosen to buy Apple instead of Lenovo because of the Fn key position rather silly.

Because of the lack of Home and End, and because of Apple’s confusion about what those keys should do, it gets really tricky to navigate to the start or end of a line, something which anyone who codes does all the time. You need a different key combination in the shell, in vi, in Qt Creator, in TextMate, everywhere! I am a fast touch typist, but I am having to look under my left hand at the block of Fn, Control, Option and Command all the time to hit the right combination. I still cannot switch between the browser and the terminal and remember the shortcut to move to the next or previous tab, they are different! Honestly, I am not making this up.

The other thing that’s below par, though probably related to the “really fast” bit, is the battery life. Two hours of coding and building will drain the battery down to about 40%. When building in a Windows VM and in OSX at the same time, the charger seems to have a hard time keeping up. I saw the battery drain while it was plugged in. No, I’m not asking you to believe me, I don’t believe myself either.

There are other niggles about the hardware: the laptop gets really hot (again probably related to the “really fast”…), the edges are sharp, the power button is where my little finger expects the delete button. The aluminum case is really prone to scratches, even the plastic zipper of my laptop bag manages it.

But actually, Apple’s design is one reason I didn’t want to wait another six months for the updated model. Just imagine a Macbook Pro that is remodeled after the Macbook redesign, with keys with all of two-tenths of a milimeter of travel! Better live for a bit with an older processor.

Now for the other part of the deal…

Software

The software. OSX. It’s an operating system. Not a particularly brilliant one, but it does run applications. And it’s got a gui with a a window manager. A particularly aenemic window manager that needs extensions to tile windows left and right, but that’s getting “modernized” by making it more like a tablet. In the El Capitan version, it really, really, really wants you to run your applications full-screen. Okay. It’s a bit stupid that from version to version the meaning of the title bar button changes, apparently randomly, too.

What is also quite irritating is the bunch of crap extra applications that take up space and are completely useless to me: safari, garageband, imovie, pages, keynote, itunes and so on. I wonder if I can just trash them…

As a development platform, OSX sucks, too, with limited OpenGL support, huge crippling changes between versions and horrible developer documentation. Oh, and a bunch of proprietary languages and API’s that nobody in their right mind would even consider learning, because they are bound to be deprecated just when they get established.

Conclusion

The short version: I still take the Dell XPS 12 with me on the train most days. It’s slow, small, the keyboard is lacking, and it’s still a more usable computer. If that isn’t a damning indictment, I don’t know what is.

The slightly longer version: the only valid reason to buy an Apple computer is because you need to write software for OSX or iOS, in other words, to provide the people who didn’t have a valid reason to get an Apple with software.

Coda

I bought this laptop from a website with a .nl extension. The website was in Dutch. It’s no doubt being maintained by people who live in the Netherlands and pay income tax in the Netherlands. After ordering it, it was manufactured in China, and shipped from Shanghai to Korea, from Korea to Kazachstan, from Kazachstan to Germany, from Germany to the Netherlands. And then to me. I paid VAT in the Netherlands. At no point in the buying of this piece of crap was Ireland involved.

Except that Ireland’s where the bill was ostensibly coming from.

Tim, me boy, you sell a crap OS on a crap piece of hardware and you’re cheating my country of the tax income it needs, which I and the other Dutch people then need to make up, just so you can sit on a pile of cash big enough to make all of Africa into an affluent continent. If you were an honest dealer, my tax burden would be lower and my laptop would, presumably, be better. And so would the world. Time to think different?

Which laptop?

All the old hardware I kept from my KO GmbH days is, well, old, and dying. The Thinkpad’s hinges are breaking, the Dell XPS 12’s has a really small screen and is too slow for development work, the Thinkstation desktop machine has been throwing compiler segfaults for a year now. I’ve got a bunch of Intel Software Development Platforms, which are interesting laptops, but without battery life. And the Surface Pro 3 is a test device, not suited to develop on either. Even the Dell monitor is slowly losing what little contrast it had.

But what to buy?

I need a good keyboard, a good, largish hi-dpi screen (to check whether Krita handles that okay), at least 16 gb of memory and a big, fast disk. I have multiple checkouts of Krita, I build million+ lines of C++ code projects all day long, run virtual machines and, well, Krita likes lots of memory as well.

I could buy a Mac… It would help porting Krita to OSX. But it would also mean using a Mac. I’ve done that before, but I didn’t like it. The keyboard shortcuts are all wrong, the window manager is aenemic and the whole platform goes out of the way to patronize its users. Plus, Macbooks don’t have separate home, end, page up and page down keys, and there still isn’t even a backspace key. And, expensive as Macbook Pro Retina’s are, they don’t even come with a touch screen, which is a convencience I’ve come to really appreciate. And the processors available now are a generation out of date.

I could buy a Dell. An XPS 15, or a Precision. I would have a really good screen, an up-to date-processor and 16 gb of memory. So far, so good. But all these workhorses have the same keyboard as the XPS 12, which means, no Home, no End, no PageUp, no PageDown. Look, dear laptop manufacturers, I’m editing all day long. I need to zoom through my text. That needs those four keys!

I could by a Lenovo. No, scratch that. Lenovo has squandered whatever good will they had by dropping build quality year over year. Every new Thinkpad is worse than the previous generation. The keyboards have all the keys, though. The screens are often really dim, have really low contrast. And those breaking hinges… And, except for a gaming laptop, no configuration with more than 8GB of memory, no Hi-DPI screens. Even the X1 Carbon doesn’t seem to go to 16GB! If it did, I might still be tempted, despite the hinges, because it’s at least got the home, end, PgUp and PgDn keys.

I could wait and buy a Surface Book. It might be a bit small, but it has most keys (weirdly enough no Ins key, which I actually use a lot), but the screen’s aspect ratio is pretty good. I’m just worried that it, being so thin, won’t be able to stand all the compiling I’d be doing. On the other hand, it’s got a pen, which is pretty useful for me. No word on when it will become available, though…

So, what I need is Lenovo’s keyboard, Dell’s processor, screen and memory, Microsoft’s pen and the ability to run OSX for porting Krita…

Fun with a Surface Pro 3

Micosoft’s Surface Pro 3 is, or should be, pretty much a perfect sketchbook device. Nice aspect ratio, high resolution, pen included. Of course, the screen is glossy and the pen isn’t a Wacom. But when it was cheap with the keyboard cover thrown in for free I got one anyway — as a test device for Krita on Windows.

In the end, hardware-wise, it’s nice and light, it just looks good, the keyboard doesn’t feel too bad, actually, and it’s got home, end, page-up and page-down keys, a trick that Dell hasn’t managed. The kickstand is rather meh — it’s sharp, hard to open and doesn’t feel secure on my lap. Still, not a big problem.

Windows

I can handle Windows these days, even Windows 8. It’s OSX that I truly despise to work with. However, when I got home and switched it on, I got my first shock… After the usual Windows setup sequence, not only did the device refuse to install the 70 or so critical updates, any and all https traffic was broken!

Turns out that the setup sequence picked the wrong timezone, and that in turn broke everything! Now, I might be a bit of an idiot, but I knew for sure that I had chosen Netherlands as location, US English as language, US English as keyboard. And besides, if your average Linux distribution can automatically set the right timezone, Windows should be able to, too! Since then, I’ve used the restore option a couple of times, and it seems to be really hit and miss whether the setup sequence understands this set of choices!

N-Trig

So, I restored to blank and started over. This time it did install everything. So, I installed the N-Trig wintab driver, Krita X64 2.9.0 and gave it a whirl. Everything worked perfectly. Cool!

Then I tried some other software, and when we released 2.9.1, I restored to blank, installed 86 updates and Krita 2.9.1. Now the 64 bits version of Krita didn’t work properly with the pen anymore: no pressure sensitivity. That’s something others have reported as well: the 32 bits version worked fine… Now N-Trig releases two versions of their drivers: 32 bits and 64 bits, and they claim that you need to use the x86 driver with x86 apps and the x64 driver with x64 apps, but… No matter which driver is installed, x86 Krita and x86 photoshop CS2 work fine. I don’t have any other x64 based Wacom-based drawing application to test with, but all of this sounds very suspicious.

Especially when I noticed that on their other wintab driver download page, they will send you to a driver that fits your OS: 32 bit driver for a 32 bit Windows, 64 bit driver for a 64 bit Windows. I’m not totally sure that the N-Trig people actually know what they’re doing.

And then I tested Krita 2.9.1 on another Windows 8.1 device with a more modern (1024 levels of pressure) N-Trig pen. With the 64 bit driver both x64 and x86 versions of Krita had pressure sensitivity. But… The driver reports the wrong number of sensitivity levels, in one place it claims 256, like the old pens, in one 1024, so Krita gets confused about that, unless we hack around it.

Still, this must be an issue with the drivers installed on the Surface Pro 3, and I haven’t yet managed to make it work again, despite a couple of other wipes and reinstalls. Copying the drivers from the Intel N-Trig laptop to the Surface Pro also doesn’t make a difference. Installing the Surface Pro 3 app doesn’t make a difference. I guess I’d best mail the N-Trig developers.

For now, it’s irritating as heck that I can’t run the 64 bits version of Krita on the Surface Pro 3.

Linux

OpenSUSE 13.2 boots on it, and the pen even moves the cursor around. No idea about pressure sensitivity because while the trackpad is fine, the keyboard doesn’t work yet, so I couldn’t actually install stuff. Google
suggests that kernel patches might help there, but it’s the pen that I care about, and nobody mentions that.

As a drawing tablet

A good artist can do great stuff with pretty much everything. People can do wonders with an ipad and a capacitive stylus with no pressure sensitivity. I’m not much of an artist. I used to believe I could draw, but that was twenty-five years ago, and is another story besides. But I spent an evening with Krita 2.9.1 and the Surface, to get a feel for how it differs from, e.g. the Wacom Hybrid Companion.

The screen is glossy and very smooth. That’s not as nice as the Companion’s matte screen, but the high resolution makes up for it. It’s really hard to see pixels. But… Every time you touch the screen with the pen, it deforms a little bit and becomes a little bit lighter. That’s pretty distracting!

The pen also lags. Not just in Krita, not just when painting, but when hovering over buttons or menus, the cursor is always a bit behind.

There’s no parallax, which is really irriting on the Cintiq. There’s also no calibration needed, the pen is accurate into the deepest corners. That is pretty awesome, especially since it lets me use the zoom slider with the pen. The pen really feels very accurate. In Krita at least: in Photoshop CS2, it’s very hit and miss whether a quick stroke will register.

The tablet itself is nice and light, the form factor pretty much perfect. I can hold it in one hand, draw with the other one, in portrait mode, for quite some time. Try that with a Companion!

The hybrid companion doesn’t get hot, though I heard that the Windows companion does. The Surface certainly does get hot! But the heat is located in one place, not the place where I held the tablet, it was only noticeable because I rest my hand on the screen while drawing. Note for other Surface users: disabling flicks in the control center makes life much easier!

For Krita

I have had reports that the virtual keyboard didn’t work from a Cintiq Companion user, but it works just fine for me on the Surface. I can enter values in all the dockers, sliders and dialogs in desktop mode.

As for the N-Trig pen, we support pressure sensitivity, but the two buttons are weird things and I don’t know yet how to work with them. Which means, no quick-access palette, no quick panning yet.

In any case, we need to do a lot of work on the Sketch gui to make it as usable as, e.g., Art Flow on Android. Heck, we need to do a lot of work on Sketch to bring it up to 2.9! But a good tablet-mode gui is something I really want to work on.

The 2:1 Form Factor

At KO GmbH, we did several projects to show off the 2:1 convertible laptop form factor. Krita Gemini and Calligra Gemini are applications that automatically switch from laptop to tablet gui mode when you switch your device. Of course, one doesn’t get that to work without some extensive testing, so here’s a little collection of devices showing off all existing (I believe) ways of making a laptop convertible:

There’s rip’n’flip, as exemplified by the Lenovo Helix, and arguably by the Surface Pro 3 (which its own twist, the kickstand). There’s the bend-over-and-over-and-over model pioneered by the Thinkpad Yoga (but this is an Intel SDP, not a Yoga, all the Yoga’s are with other ex-KO colleagues) and finally the screen tumbler of the Dell XPS 12.

Every model on the table has its own foibles.

The Helix actually doesn’t do the 2:1 automatic switch trick, but that’s because it’s also the oldest model we’ve got around. The Helix basically has only one angle between the screen and keyboard, and that’s it, and it’s fairly upright. The keyboard is pretty good, the trackpoint is great, of course. In contrast to all the other devices, it also runs Linux quite well. The power button is sort recessed and really hard to press: it’s hard to switch the device on. The built-in wacom pen is impossible to calibrate correctly, and it just won’t track correctly at the screen edges. As tablet, it’s nice and light, but the rip’n’flip thing is flawed: doesn’t alway re-attach correctly.

The Dell XPS 12 is one of the nicest devices of the four. The screen rotation mechanism looks scary at first, but it works very, very well. It’s a nice screen, too. The keyboard is ghastly, though, missing a bunch of essential keys like separate home, end, page-up, page-down. The powerbutton is placed at the left side, and it’s just the right thing to play with, mindlessly, while thinking. This leads to the laptop suspending, of course! The device is heavy, too, too heavy to comfortably use as a tablet. As a laptop, except for the keyboard, it’s pretty good. Linux compatibility is weird: you can either have the trackpad properly supported, or the wifi adapter, but not both. Not even with the latest Kubuntu! There’s no pen, which is a pity…

I cannot talk about the what’s in the Intel SDP system, because that’s under NDA. It’s got a pen, just like the Surface Pro 3, and it’s nice, light and a good harbinger of things to come. The form factor works fine for me. Some people are bothered by feeling the keys at the back of the device when it’s in tablet mode, but I don’t care. Tent mode nice for watching movies, and presentation mode sort of makes it a nice drawing tablet.

The Surface Pro 3 is rather new. I got it as test system for Krita on Windows. It’s the lowest spec model, because that makes the best test, right? I can use the thing on my lap, with the kickstand, but only if I put my feet up on the table and make long legs… The n-trig pen is sort of fine… It’s accurate, there’s no parallax as with the Cintiq or Helix, the pressure levels are fine, too, for my usage that is. But because it’s a bluetooth device, there’s a noticable delay. It’s a bit as if you’re painting with too thick oil paint. I never remove the keyboard cover, which, btw, is perfectly fine to type on. It feels a bit tacky, folded back, but not a big problem.

So that’s it… Four convertible laptops, three have trouble running Linux at the moment, but then, I should do more testing of Krita on Windows anyway. It’s where 90% of Krita’s user base is, it seems. I’d like the Dell way of converting best, if the device weren’t so heavy as a consequence. The Helix convertible never gets turned into a pure tablet in practice; that seems to go with the rip’n’flip design, because the same holds for the Surface Pro 3. The back-bendy type of convertible is just fine as well…