Firstly a clarification: there is no way short of looting you will get your hands on a Cintiq pen display for less than three figures. They are extremely expensive bits of kit and for good reason. However, the pace of global technology development and the subsequent rampant obsolescence of all things technological means that you can get a Wacom pen-enabled screen for next to nothing.
One option is to go DIY. There are a few very clever folk out there hacking apart old A4 and A3 Wacom digitisers and fitting them under LCD monitors, wiring the whole lot up and even fitting it inside a home-made case. This is not for the faint-hearted, but can yield some impressive results, and would certainly be a great project. But it won't be cheap - even if you're lucky enough to have some of the bits lying around. And you'll need to be more than a little handy with the soldering iron.
Alternatively, you could try one of the non-Wacom pen screens that have sprung up to cater for those of us reluctant to shell out for the Cintiq. There are several options including one or two that have some very neat ideas of their own: using a USB port for the monitor connection, or multi-touch capability. But the jury is still out in terms of their reliability and quality. I certainly wouldn't expect them to match the precision of the Wacom digitisers, given their history.
So where are these cheap pen-enabled screens? They're called Microsoft Tablet PCs and they were "the next big thing" only a few years ago. Microsoft spent a lot of money and effort trying to persuade us all we wanted to carry around a laptop to write our notes on, only to realise that the idea was another cul-de-sac of doom. But whilst the mass market never materialised, these machines have got one magic ingredient: Wacom digitisers built-in.
So for an experiment, I decided to find out how near I could get to a Cintiq-like pen-enabled screen for less than £100.
A quick search led me to several models including ones from Lenovo, HP Compaq and Panasonic. The price limit meant ignoring anything less than five years old, but that still left a large range to choose from. In the end I plumped for an Acer TravelMate C300, which cost me the princely sum of £50 plus postage. This model has some issues, but the primary advantage is the screen size - 14-inch rather than the more common 12-inch. Since my intention was never to use this as a laptop but simply as an input device, the added weight of a larger screen was no problem. I was careful to check that my Tablet PC came with the stylus, as obtaining replacements is not cheap, if you can find one at all.
Wacom still offers specific drivers for their tablet pc digitiser (last updated June 2012) and if you are happy to tinker, you can also move to Linux and keep most of the hardware working. I opted to keep the existing OS for testing, and a quick update of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition later, I was doodling away to my hearts content. Once I configured the tablet hardware buttons to map to eyedropper and increase/decrease brush size, using Photoshop was remarkably straightforward, and sketching or retouching was a genuine pleasure.
I ended up using a shared network folder for files, so that I could create and edit on the tablet, before final tweaks and output via the desktop machine - not a perfect workflow but good enough.
One possible approach for the future is the one outlined by KingGeek - send the tablet digitiser's output to the desktop machine and send the desktop's display back to the tablet via VNC, giving you a much more Cintiq-like experience. Just have to work out if it will work on a Mac...
- Great Wacom pressure sensitivity
- Portable - draw anywhere
- Drivers still maintained
- Did I mention it cost £50?
- Does not have all the additional hardware buttons of the Cintiq
- Resolution is not as high as the Cintiq
- It is another machine so needs additional licenses
- Moving files back and forth is an annoyance
So in conclusion, if you would like a pressure-sensitive drawing screen with modern drivers and great connectivity, try a seven-year-old Tablet PC.