Before You Buy a Graphics Tablet

Graphics Tablet Features and Advantages

Wacom Intuos Pro 2013 Model
Wacom Intuos Pro 2013 Model. © Wacom, used with permission

If you're a budding graphic artist, you may have been told that a graphics tablet can benefit you. This article discusses the features of graphics tablets to help you decide if a tablet is right for you, and which tablet best fits your needs and budget.

What is a graphics tablet?

Also referred to as a digitizing tablet, graphics pad, or drawing tablet, a tablet is an alternate type of input device that can be used in place of, or in conjunction with, a mouse, trackball, or other pointing device.

The tablet consists of two parts, a flat surface for drawing, and a pen, stylus, or puck that is programmed to work with the tablet. Usually, you also get a pen holder, and some tablets even come with a cordless mouse that works on the tablet surface. Even non-artists may choose to use a tablet because it offers a more ergonomic method of input that can reduce the likelihood of developing repetitive strain injury. Let's explore some of the common features of graphics tablets...

 

Size

Size is one of the first factors you'll need to consider in choosing a tablet. Bigger is not necessarily better. For home users and hobbyists, the most common sizes are 4" by 5" and 6" by 8". CAD users, artists, and technical illustrators may desire a larger surface area, but the price escalates as the size increases. Remember, the larger your tablet surface is, the more you will need to move your arms. Many people prefer a smaller tablet to minimize arm motion.

However, this may feel unnatural to an artist who is used to drawing or painting with large sweeping motions. Another important thing to know about tablet size is that the dimensions given almost always refer to the input surface area of the tablet. The actual footprint of the tablet can be as much as 4 to 5 inches larger than the input area.

Keep this in mind as you shop, or you may be surprised that your tablet takes up much more desktop space than you may have considered. My 6" by 8" Wacom Intuos tablet, for instance, has a footprint of 10" by 13.5".

Until recently, the popular sizes of graphics tablets have been 4x5, 6x8, and 9x12 which matches up neatly to the 4:3 aspect ratio of traditional computer monitors. But starting in the mid-2000s there has been a proliferation of widescreen aspect ratio monitors. Because of this, Wacom has begun producing wide-format graphics tablets to better correspond with the aspect ratio of widescreen monitors and for users working with multiple monitors. Although it's nice, it's not necessary that your graphics tablet match the aspect ratio of your monitor, because the tablet software takes care of the mapping. Personally, I use a 6x8 tablet with dual monitors and it works fine. Currently, Wacom and Aiptek are the only manufacturers I know of producing wide-format graphics tablets.

 

Interface

The interface is how your tablet connects to your computer. Most tablets these days have a USB interface which is ideal since most computers in use today support USB. USB devices are hot swapable so you'll be ale to move the tablet more easily for use on multiple computers or just to get it off the desk when you need to.

If you have a very old computer that does not support USB, you'll need to choose a tablet with a serial interface. If you need a serial interface, be sure your computer has an available serial port that does not conflict with another device. If you have both a serial mouse and a serial modem (rare these days), proceed with caution, because you could face a conflict if you add a serial tablet. A tablet with a USB interface gets its power from your computer, but a serial tablet requires a separate power connection, so you'll want to make sure you have an available outlet that can accommodate a medium-sized transformer.

Bluetooth is another option for connecting a graphics tablet to your computer without the use of wires. Bluetooth is a wireless protocol frequently used for connecting electronics devices.

Currently, Wacom is the only manufacturer I know of producing a Bluetooth-capable tablet, the Graphire Bluetooth, which can connect to your computer without wires.

 

Pen/Stylus and Accessories

Your tablet should come with a pen that feels comfortable and natural in your hand (if it doesn't it might be worth buying a stylus that's compatible with your tablet). Find out if the stylus requires a battery. A battery will not only require occasional replacement, but it will make the pen heavier, too. Your pen may be tethered or free. If the pen is untethered you'll have to be more careful about losing or misplacing it. If the pen is tethered, make sure you can choose which side of the tablet to attach the pen. Many pens will also have a switch or buttons built onto the pen, and some pens have an erasing end. This is an excellent feature because the buttons can be programmed for specific functions such as a right-click or double-click, and the erasing tip can perform a delete function in one swipe, or automatically activate the eraser tool in your graphics software. Some tablet manufacturers offer additional pens and other pointing tools that you can program independently. When using these optional accessories, your tablet should recognize it as a new tool and use the customized preferences you have specified for that specific tool.

 

Pressure-sensitivity

Pressure level refers to the sensitivity to pressure on the surface of the tablet. Most tablets have either 256, 512, or 1024 pressure levels. The pressure-sensitivity can control line thickness, transparency, and/or color. The higher the pressure-sensitivity, the more responsive and natural your tablet will feel and the more control you will have.

More of this article:
Page 2: Features and FAQs
Page 3: Overview of Popular Models
Page 4: Join the Discussion
Page 5: Graphics Tablet Top Picks

Continued from Page 1

Driver Software

All tablets require drivers, so you'll want to make sure the manufacturer provides a driver that is compatible with your operating system. You'll also want to look at what kind of features are offered in the driver software for the tablet you choose. The driver controls many aspects of how the tablet functions, and some of the higher-priced tablets offer advanced capabilities due to the driver software.

Some examples of advanced driver features include the ability to map certain areas of the tablet surface to portions of the screen, programmable menu strips, tool customization, tilt sensitivity, application-specific settings, and more.

Bundled Software

Bundled software can add a lot of value to your tablet purchase. Most tablets come with a painting program, and some will include utilities that offer enhancements to take advantage of your tablet. Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Painter Essentials are the titles most commonly bundled with graphics tablets. Some tablet manufacturers also bundle handwriting recognition software for converting hand written notes into text, although this is less common now that handwriting recognition is built into Windows Vista and Mac OS X.

Other considerations

Some tablets have a transparent overlay on the surface that can be lifted up to slide a photo or piece of artwork underneath for tracing.

Also consider the warranty period for your tablet and whether or not replacement parts can be easily obtained. Most tablets can be installed alongside a mouse or other input device, so if you share your computer with other users, there's no need to swap out devices.

Price

Graphics tablets can be quite expensive, with most of them in the hundreds of dollars range.

Prices are coming down, however, as more manufacturers are offering tablets aimed at the home user. These tablets are generally priced around $100 or less, though they lack some of the professional features of the more expensive tablets.

Tablet FAQs

Do I need special software to use a graphics tablet?
No. A tablet will work in any computer software and can even be used exclusively as a mouse replacement. To get the most out of your tablet, however, you will want to use it with graphics software that takes advantage of the pressure-sensitive features and tilt controls offered with most tablets.

Can I use a tablet and mouse interchangeably?
Yes. Most tablets can be used alongside a mouse with no problem whatsoever. In fact, many tablets now come with a mouse as part of the bundle. These bundled mice must be used on the tablet surface in order to work. If you prefer another mouse, though, you should have no problem having both connected at the same time. You'll want to be careful to keep the tablet's pen or mouse away from the tablet surface when using another pointing device--it can cause endless cursor confusion if a pen is left on the tablet while attempting to use another device!

How long will it take to learn to use a graphics tablet?
Not long at all!

Just a few hours of practice is all it will take to coordinate your movements and get used to tapping instead of clicking. I always suggest new tablet owners first play computer solitaire for a little while using the pen and tablet. If you have Windows Vista, Inkball is another fun game that can help you get used to using a tablet. After you're comfortable moving the cursor, dragging, and clicking with the tablet, you may want to go into the configuration program for your graphics tablet and customize some of the options. You can adjust the tablet software according to whether you generally write with a heavy hand or a light hand. You will also want to customize any special buttons on your stylus or the menu bar on your tablet, if one is provided. Most people like to configure the pen buttons for double-clicking and/or right-clicking.

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Page 3: Overview of Popular Models
Page 4: Join the Discussion
Page 5: Graphics Tablet Top Picks

Compare Prices: Graphics Tablet Top Picks

Wacom

Wacom is the most well-known tablet manufacturer, and they are well deserving of their fine reputation. Wacom makes graphics tablets for both Macintosh and Windows operating systems.

Bamboo is Wacom's consumer line of tablets, replacing the older Graphire series. Bamboo is offered in two different styles--Bamboo and Bamboo Fun. The Bamboo standard tablet is intended for office and home use, while the Bamboo Fun is designed more for creative users.

Both tablets offer the following common features:

  • wide-format active area
  • thinner body style compared to previous Wacom models
  • a textured work surface that is designed to feel like pen on paper
  • 512-levels of pressure sensitivity and 2,540 LPI resolution
  • four programmable express keys and a finger-sensitive touch ring
  • a 5-foot long detachable USB cable
  • a two-button pen with stand
  • one year warranty
  • Mac and Windows compatibility

The Bamboo tablet has an active area of approximately 6x4 inches and comes in black only. It does not come with a mouse. Bamboo includes driver software, but does not come with additional software and is intended to be used with the built-in pen features within Windows Vista, Office 2007, and Mac Inkwell. Bamboo's suggested retail price is US$79.
Bamboo Review

Digital photographers and creative users will be more inclined to go for the Bamboo Fun model. Bamboo Fun comes in two sizes--small, with an active area about 6x4 inches; or medium, with an active area about 5x8 inches.

It is also available in four color choices--white, black, silver, and blue. It comes with a two-button eraser pen, 3 replacement pen nibs, and a mouse that works on the tablet surface. Bamboo Fun also includes a software DVD containing full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 Win/4.0 Mac, Corel Painter Essentials 3.0, and Nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 GE.

Bamboo's suggested retail price is US$99 for the small size and US$199 for the medium size.
Bamboo Fun Review

Intuos is Wacom's professional line of tablets. Intuos3 comes in 4x6, 6x8, 6x11, 9x12, 12x12, and 12x19 sizes and offers professional features and a variety of optional accessories. Intuos3 offers tilt control and 1024 levels of sensitivity, the highest sensitivity of any graphics tablet available today. The batteryless Intuos Grip Pen features a two-button switch, eraser, and cushioned grip. All Intuos3 tablets also include a ball-free, cordless and batteryless 5-button scrolling mouse. The menu strip of previous Intuos models is replaced with a set of programmable ExpressKeys and touch strips in Intuos3. Intuos3 tablets are bundled with Photoshop Elements, Corel Painter Essentials, nik Color Efex Pro 2 IE, and the Wacom Driver and Control Panel. Intuos3 tablets are only available for USB connections. Manufacturer suggested pricing on the Intuos line starts at $199. Additional accessories such as the airbrush or extra pens can be purchased for Intuos tablets. The ToolID recognition feature of Intuos allows you to program individual tools for specific functions. Intuos comes with a limited lifetime warranty.


Wacom Intuos3 Full Review

More graphics tablet manufacturers:

Wacom tablets are top of the line, but if you're looking for other choices, there are some alternatives.

  • UC-Logic / DigiPro - UC-Logic offers several models of affordable graphics tablet models in various sizes for both professional and personal use. All UC-Logic Tablets are both Macintosh and Windows compatible. UC-Logic graphics tablets are sold under the DigiPro brand name in the USA, and can often be purchased through the online technology overstock/closeout store Geeks.com.
    • DigiPro Graphics Tablet Review

     

  • Aiptek - Aiptek Inc. was founded in 1997 and made a name for themselves with their HyperPen line affordable of graphics tablets. They also provide other peripherals for everyday consumers including PenCams, PC Cameras, and VideoPhones.

     

  • CalComp - CalComp offers desktop graphics tablets as well as large format digitizers for Windows and DOS. The DrawingBoard line is primarily designed for CAD users. The SummaSketch line offers a choice of pointing devices, including 2-button corded pen, 4-button corded cursor, or 16-button corded cursor. SummaSketch is available in 12x12 and 12x18 sizes and features a clear overlay.

     

  • Dynalink - This Netherlands based company offers a 4x5 inch USB graphics tablet called FreeDraw for Windows and Macintosh.

     

  • Genius - Based in Taiwan, Genius offers several models of graphics tablets Including NewSketch, ePen, and EasyPen.

     

  • KB Gear - KB Gear has discontinued their line of interactive computer gear for kids and teens, which previously included the Pablo Internet Edition, Jam Studio, and Sketchboard Studio graphics tablets.

Compare Prices: Graphics Tablet Top Picks

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Page 2: Features and FAQs
Page 3: You are here
Page 4: Join the Discussion
Page 5: Graphics Tablet Top Picks

Tablet Buyer's Guide

Over the years, our members have had many discussions about graphics tablets in our Graphics Software Discussion Forum. I've highlighted some of the questions and comments from these discussions here. Click through to the forum to read the discussions in full and post your own questions or advice. The title takes you to the top of the discussion. Clicking a name will take you to that particular message in the discussion.

Graphic Tablets: Do you find them useful?
“I would really like to know how much graphic tablets are used. Do you find them very useful?” -- Debbie

“I cannot use a mouse for long because of arthritis. I use my tablet as my main pointing device (about 90%). I highly recommend alternatives to mice to relieve the stress of constant clicking.” -- Midnight

“What size tablet do you have and find most useful? Some say small is better, some say larger is better. I would really like to know.” -- Debbie

“I can't believe such beautiful art came from such a small tablet.” -- Debbie

“My hubby just bought a cheaper tablet, can't remember the brand, but he hates it. Try to avoid purchasing one that has the pen attached with a cord. He feels restricted in his movements with it.” -- RAVENMAGE

Which computer drawing tablet is best?
“I would like to get a tablet to draw with for my computer, but don't know which one is best and/or has the best price for the value, etc.” -- Ann

“I just like using the pen better than the mouse for much of my work, it just feels better. The only tricky thing is getting the hang of the "over but not touching" the tablet to move around without clicking, but that comes fairly quickly.” -- Dave

“I use the Intous 9x12 graphics tablet for all kinds of artwork.

It's pricey, but you get quality and free software, a pen and cordless mouse with it.” -- SHADOE211

“I'm just wondering, which size is best for graphic artists? The small ones seem to be the most popular, but somehow, I just can't see how you can work on such small surfaces.” -- Topaze

Graphics Tablets... What to buy?
“I've been looking at Graphics Tablets for a while now and have my heart set on the Wacom Intuos2 9x12, because I am an aspiring artist and love digitalizing my works. Is there anyone out there that already owns the Intuos2? Would you recommend it? Does size really matter that much?” -- julie

“I own a Graphire2, 3.5x5 and I must tell you that I am very pleased indeed...” -- MB4U11

“It's very inconvenient to use a large tablet because you have to use your whole arm to move the cursor across the screen. With a smaller tabler you only have to move your wrist.” -- HOLLEYINAK

Who uses an Aiptek graphic tablet?
“My daughter wants a tablet of her own so I want to know if anyone uses the Aiptek graphic tablets. I know Wacom is the best, but until I know she is going to stick with using one I don't want to put a lot of money out, but want a half decent one for her to give it a try.” -- Debbie

“I've had a 4X5 Aiptek Hyper Pen tablet for about two years and use it daily... The precision is adequate and it seems to be compatible with most tablet interfaces that I've tried.” -- Dave

“I have been using the AIPTEK tablets for quite some time and I'm very pleased with their products.” -- GSZAKAC

WACOM Graphics Tablets
“I am considering the purchase of a Wacom Graphire2 set and would like to have more input about this product. Anyone with any experience using this product line? Has anyone purchased one of the reconditioned Wacom products and are they satisfied with it?” -- Mark

“My first Wacom tablet was a refurb bought in 1998 and I never had a problem with it.” -- Sue

“The thing I like best about the Intuos 2 over the Graphire right now is the grip of the pen.” -- Dave

Using a Tablet
“If I'm using the airbrush or something in Photoshop with the pen, does the tracing start as soon as I press on the tablet with the pen, or do I also have to press the button to start the tracing while I move the pen?

(ie. like a regular mouse.)” -- STICKSBS

Wacom or Aiptek?
“I am trying to decide between a Wacom or Aiptek tablet. The prices of the smaller Wacom and the larger Aiptek are the same. I am wondering if the sizes are that big a difference. I also like the idea that that the Wacom has an eraser. Is this a valuable tool!” -- ANDREASARRAH

“If there was a 24 X 36 Tablet available I would buy one if I had to eat beans for a month, to save the money to purchase same!” -- ARTCRUNCHER

“I've seen complaints in the research about graphic pens with batteries. Mostly concerning the additional weight a battery adds to a pen. Now if you have a heavy touch I don't suppose this makes much difference. I tend to have a lighter touch and really appreciate my light weight pen with its lovely eraser.” -- Rita