What's the right computer/tablet for a 16-year-old future animator?
July 1, 2019 3:03 PM   Subscribe

My daughter (who just finished sophomore year in high school) is interested in becoming an animator. Her MacBook Air just died, and she's a few days away from going to a summer program at an art school. She needs a new machine ASAP. We're trying to choose between various configurations of MacBook Air, iPad, and Windows Surface devices. What does the hive mind recommend?

A few considerations:
  • She's going to need this device for regular schoolwork as well as creating art
  • Hopefully she'll take this device to college—she wants to go to art school
  • She likes the Surface Book. My only concern is that in art school or beyond, she might find herself in an all-Mac environment. Would she have a problem sharing files, being part of a workflow, etc.?
  • We're looking to spend in the area of $1200
  • For iPads and Surface devices, the cost would have to include any pens, keyboards, etc.
posted by PlusDistance to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have specific recommendations, but I will say that my sister in law is currently in art school (Ringling) as an animation major, and they gave her a tablet laptop (Windows of some kind, IIRC the model she hasn't isn't out yet for the public so I couldn't recommend it specifically anyway). Not necessarily saying wait until art school, because those 2+ years of practice will really help, and she'll need a good digital portfolio, but you may not have to worry about having the wrong computer for the environment.
posted by brook horse at 3:16 PM on July 1, 2019

Most of my freelance career, I was using Mac but the animation studio I’m in now is exclusively PC. Most of the software she'll be using should run on both.

I have the iPad Pro with pencil, which is a great tool for marking up scripts but I can’t imagine it being a primary device in a school setting. The software is too limited. I'd stay away from tablet pcs in general. They're slick and cool to play with but seem like poor value. My experience may be out of date, but I found that curser alignment was hard to calibrate and couldn’t be adjusted across applications. I didn't find the ergonomics all that great either - you want a conveniently positioned keyboard available for shortcuts. The more I used them, the more things I found not to like.

I think you're good to buy any decently powered laptop that she can attach a Wacom tablet to. I didn’t find larger Wacom tablets to be much better than the small ones.

I’ve had a couple cintiqs (drawing input monitors) but that would double your budget and only the smallest one is portable. They seem to be a art/story department tool. I don’t see animators using them.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:52 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would contact the summer program and see if they have any recommendations. If they say "whatever is okay," I would go for the Surface Book. Here's why:

You're trying to solve two sets of problems. One is the art school versus regular schoolwork. In that case, I wouldn't go tablet just yet (the iPad Pro is close to being a good all-purpose machine, but it isn't quite there yet...this will come up in the next post). In which case, since she likes the Surface Book and it has a touchscreen plus pen is the superior option for both (although better for regular schoolwork). Nobody wants to write a college term paper on a tablet.

The second problem is the now versus three years from now. I can totally understand trying to think ahead and hoping to kill two birds with one stone, but 2-3 years is both a long and short period of time to plan for computing devices. Like I mentioned above, the iPad Pro may be a great all-purpose machine in 2-3 years. I would focus on current needs now and consider later needs then. It's 100% possible that her machine won't matter for college—animation is a resource-heavy application, and she may need to use the school's machines. Anything you buy now for $1200 ($1200 will buy you very little Mac at this point...this is a frustration I am currently enjoying), will not in any way be able to handle those kind of needs. BUT, a standard Windows laptop will be perfectly good for regular coursework and her standard Internet/emailing/Netflixing needs. And she'll still be able to draw on it.

The platforms being incompatible is not really an issue at this point. Most popular software runs on both, files are easily transferable, and most animation software is actually Windows anyway.

I would get the Surface Book now and think about maybe adding an iPad Pro to the mix in a few years if it becomes a necessity/nice-to-have.
posted by General Malaise at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I asked a similar question not too long ago.

I have a 16 year old currently at Ringling’s summer program. He’s also done summer programs at SCAD and UNC School of the Arts specifically in animation. His current program is in game design/game art, but is as computer intensive as an animation program. Our experience at all those schools was that students were not really expected to have their own machines for the program. The software and hardware required for a college or semi professional level experience is too expensive for a kid to get for a summer program. At UNCSA’s animation program, for example, they were working on Cintiqs.

All that to say that you may not need a machine for the program per se - I would check that.

After that question I got my kid a touchscreen 15” Lenovo Yoga as his main computer. We went 15” with the upgraded graphics card as he does a fair amount of gaming. He has the Lenovo pen, but doesn’t use it much; he has an XP Pen tablet/monitor for digital drawing work. I love my little 2016 MacBook, but getting the specs he would need in a Mac anything was cost prohibitive.

He also asked for an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil recently because he felt the yoga wasn’t portable enough. Which felt silly (and expensive), but he has gotten a lot of use out of it. The challenge is that neither device does everything he needs/wants. That said, I think focusing on an actual computer over a tablet makes sense.
posted by jeoc at 4:15 PM on July 1, 2019

Hm. I've changed my mind, I do have a recommendation. I have a Fujitsu Lifebook, which I bought in 2014, and wasn't going to recommend because I had the impression that other tablet PCs have since caught up with Fujitsu, and having a computer from an obscure company can be annoying at times. If the consensus is there's no good tablet PCs, I am going to suggest you explore this as an option. I have a T732, which was approximately $2000 when I bought it, but it looks like there are cheaper more recent models.

The Lifebook feels like a traditional laptop that you just happen to be able to draw on. It swivels down, but 98% of the time I leave it in the traditional laptop position and draw with easy access to shortcut buttons. In my experience, Fujitsu's touch sensitivity is fantastic; I have a friend with a Wacom who tried my Fujitsu and told me, "I can't do this with my Wacom. I can't do this with a real pen!" It's a little heavier, but that's the tradeoff for a fully functioning laptop that can even play some video games (e.g. Warframe). I'm a homebody, so the lack of portability didn't bother me much, and it's not like it's impossible to carry, you just probably won't be whipping it out on the bus.

I can't attest to the newer models, but mine served me well through the entirety of college, surviving multiple drops, including dropping it on concrete from a tabletop (hard drive had to be replaced, but was within warranty, and there were no other issues from that drop). The only major problems I have had with it are 1) at some point the shock sensor sensitivity got jacked way up and it was constantly retracting the HDD to protect itself which caused some freezing, but that was easily fixed once I identified the problem, and 2) I've been experiencing significant slowdown for the past year or so, until yesterday, when I found out that my graphics drivers were 7 years out of date*; after updating, it now runs smooth as butter again.

That said, I don't know if you can get one in 3 days. But like others have said, I'm not sure she'll need it for her art summer program anyway.

I will caveat that I am recommending this from the perspective of someone who does digital illustration rather than 3D animation, but my SIL's portfolio was 95% digital illustration (and she was specifically coached on what to include in her portfolio by someone in Ringling admissions), and her first year has been probably 85% illustration, so if this is the route she wants to go, she'll need to be doing a lot of that. So I think it makes sense to equip her to do a lot of digital illustration, because she's going to need a portfolio to get into art college, and a tablet PC is super useful for making that happen. When she's actually at the point where she's doing 3D animation, she'll probably either have a laptop from the school, or be working in a dedicated rendering lab anyway.

*Apparently the Lifebook is set up to only download drivers from the Fujitsu site, which has not updated drivers since 2012, despite Intel having many updates since then. Downloading drivers directly from Intel fixed this. So just be aware of that, if you go this route.
posted by brook horse at 4:48 PM on July 1, 2019

My husband is a commercial animator and has always worked in PC-only studios. I'd go with the OS she's most interested in.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:36 PM on July 1, 2019

My friend’s daughter is a budding animator and recently graduated from Chapman. She’s loving her new iPad Pro.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:41 PM on July 1, 2019

I'm partial to the Surface Book based on my experience with the Surface Pro 3. As General Malaise mentions, it solves two sets of problems - for me, it's a good drawing tablet and is also a full-feature computer I can use for almost everything else (except high-end games).
posted by BetaRayBiff at 8:07 PM on July 1, 2019

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