PRICE: Starting at $1,799.00
- Hands on collaboration
- Paint 3D built-in app
- Compatible with any Windows 10 device
When it comes to control surfaces and interface devices, post pros generally stick to a few tried-and-true, long-in-the-tooth methods. There’s the keyboard and mouse that’s most common. There are specialized jog-wheel devices akin to old Steinbeck machines. Some editors like Wacom tablets and pen input for precision control. And I can’t possibly end this list without including the religiously fanatical track ball devotees. Any and all of these methods work for different users for different reasons. Sometimes it’s how we first learned, and we don’t want to take the time to re-learn a new method. But like trying a new dish that we “know” we’re not going to like, sometimes it can be surprisingly beneficial to attempt a new way to interact with our software.
This is the scenario I found myself in just recently when asked to review a Dell Canvas 27. The Canvas is a 27-inch pen and touch display intended to augment digital creative work. In my case, it was primarily used for video editing, motion graphics work and some general drawing applications. To be clear, the Canvas is not a standalone device. It’s a monitor that relies on a separate Windows 10 PC for functionality. Some people will see the Canvas in use and get the idea that it can be used by itself, but this isn’t the case. My review kit was shipped with a Dell Precision 5520 laptop to run the Canvas. Dell also sent one of its fancy 38-inch curved ultra wide 4K monitors.
The setup process for the Canvas was a bit trying. I was sent a reviewer’s guide, complete with detailed written instructions on how best to connect all three devices together. Even so, using all of these devices requires a lot of cabling. Besides all of the cabling, I also had to contend with the massive footprint required for a 27-inch monitor that lays almost flat, a laptop with multiple cables on both sides and a gigantic curved monitor. I have a decent-sized 72x20-inch desk, and it took some careful planning and trial and error to fit all of these onto the desk. At first, I attempted to keep my other 27-inch monitor on the desk for even more screen real estate, but this proved impossible. Not only did I run out of desk surface, I also realized I didn’t have any way to connect a fourth display.
Once setup was complete, getting started with the software was the next challenge. The Canvas screen will function right away for any general use with stylus or finger, but some additional configuring will maximize the capabilities of your work. First, the Windows 10 Creator’s Update provides system settings for customizing and programming the pen and totem that come with the Canvas. The pen is a stylus with interchangeable tips or nibs, while the totem is a clickable wheel providing yet another way to quickly access certain functions. I found the pen to be very intuitive, but even after watching videos and reading instructions, the totem’s usefulness eluded me.
It’s not that the totem isn’t useful at all. It can be programmed to perform nearly any shortcut in many applications. In certain art applications like Photoshop or Illustrator, it can be used to adjust parameters like hue, saturation or brightness on the fly without repeatedly entering different menus. However, since I was primarily doing fairly standard post production work, I couldn’t seem to find much better use for it other than programming a twist left to “undo” and a twist right to “redo.” While this was still a useful modification, using it never became a regular part of my routine. Among keyboard, trackpad, pen and finger input, it would have required even more hand hopping when I could simply use the trusty “CTRL-Z/CTRL-Y” instead.
In contrast, combining the pen with finger input was an easy transition for me. Premiere Pro already has some optimization for tablets, making it quite usable with touch input without feeling like you’re forcing it to work in ways it wasn’t designed for. I setup my source and program monitors on the 38-inch screen to my left. The laptop’s screen in the center was used for my clip bins. I used the Canvas display on my right for timeline editing and effects.
One of the nice attention-to-detail elements of the Canvas is the inclusion of a touch toggle button at the top left of the display. Pressing this enables or disables the ability to operate the Canvas with fingers. When touch is disabled, the Canvas only responds to the pen and totem input, allowing you to work freely without accidental input from resting hands or arms.
When I first started editing a real-world project with the Canvas, I worried that getting used to this new workflow would slow me down significantly. Going from my usual keyboard/trackpad setup to a keyboard/trackpad/pen/finger setup seemed like quite a leap in thought process, but it turned out to not be so. Using the pen on the timeline worked like a charm. The precision of the pen tip combined with the speed of moving my hand to different areas of the screen, rather than sliding a pointer, made for an incredibly efficient experience.
I started with my rough edit, which is mostly dropping clips onto the timeline with little attention paid to the precision of the “in” and “out” points. The biggest slowdown I found with this setup was bringing items from one screen to another. If I had to drag something from the 38-inch screen to the Canvas, I had to cross the laptop screen to get there. Dell has a software trick built into its system to alleviate some long drags. When a window is selected and dragged, an on-screen display pops up showing each of your displays at the top center. You can drag your cursor to any of those three boxes and release the button to make the window jump immediately to that display. This is very helpful when moving windows or apps around, but it doesn’t help when working in software and trying to drag clips or effects from one place to another. In this case, a mouse or trackball would likely be better since you can cover more real estate in a smaller space.
At times, I would turn the touch input back on so I could seamlessly switch between precision work with the pen and quicker work with my fingers. The pen was great for tweaking in and out positions of clips in my timeline, but I liked being able to use my finger for moving objects around in the title window or adjusting colors in circular adjustments.
After being satisfied that the Canvas provided an admirable interface for video editing, I moved on to other creative endeavors. Windows 10 has a pretty amazing built-in app called Paint 3D. It’s a basic painting app with different brush heads, colors and textures at your disposal, but it also provides a very approachable 3D design interface. There are pre-built 3D objects that can be added, scaled, rotated and then painted over. Of course, the pen was tailor made for applications like this, and my whole family found it a joy to play around in. In fact, I wondered if I would get enough time with the Canvas to give it an honest review since it seemed that every time I entered the office, some other Schmutzler was working on their latest creation. Side note: Mirroring the Canvas to an external monitor is a super-fun way to play Pictionary.
Working in Illustrator was also a unique experience. The first time I launched Illustrator, I was asked if I wanted to allow the app to switch the workspace to be touch optimized. After agreeing, I saw Illustrator completely different than I’d ever seen it before. The tool buttons were larger and laid out in a way designed to be easily accessible. While this helped, I found that my brain struggled to switch from my tried-and-true mouse/keyboard methods over to the new pen/finger methods. I thought that adding and manipulating anchor points for shapes would be easier, but I actually found it to be quite frustrating. I’m sure it would just take time and patience to get used to this new way of working, but it wasn’t as simple as working in Premiere.
Finally, I tried some work out in After Effects. I found the experience there to be closer to Illustrator than Premiere Pro. There are a few activities in After Effects that are made much simpler with a pen: Masking and rotoscoping being chief among them. Given After Effects’ complexity and many, many menus and options to navigate, I found the pen to be no more useful than the mouse.
Dell has made a solid interactive device with the Canvas. Nearly all of the company’s marketing shows creatives using the screen for professional, believable work. This is a rare case where I don’t think a company is overselling its product in the slightest.
The Canvas met all of my expectations for which it should be capable. I didn’t experience the infamous “gorilla arm” after using the display for extended periods of time since it’s set at a comfortable angle on the desk and features a wide bezel to rest your arm on. It equaled or improved my workflow in most of my typical post production activities, and it did it without my having to spend hours forcing myself to relearn how I work. If you’re a PC user looking for a new way to edit photos, graphics, video or audio, then the Dell Canvas 27 could have just the right touch you need.
Paul Schmutzler is based in Knoxville, TN, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @theschmutzler.