The Right Graphics Tablet for Performing Arts Designers

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Choosing the Right Graphics Tablet

A comparison chart detailing the features of a variety of top graphics and drawing tablets, with a special eye toward the needs of designers and artists. Copyright Angela D. Mitchell, About.com

When it comes to designing for the performing arts, a graphics tablet can be a powerful tool. But choosing just the right one will mean evaluating such aspects as pressure sensitivity, tilt recognition, resolution, and the size of the work area (the ‘drawing area’ on the screen).

To give you an immediate overview of the features, assets and differences between many popular graphics tablet models, I’ve put together the helpful chart on this page.

The Advantages of Graphics Tablets

The emergence of the graphics (or “drawing”) tablet over the past several years has opened up a whole new world for artists and designers, finally giving them a way to sketch, draw and paint without the clumsiness of the mouse, in an environment mimicking the use of pen (or brush) and paper.

For designers, graphics tablets open up the workspace in a wonderful and creative way. Suddenly, you’re not clenching a mouse – you’re able to hold lightly to a pen, working naturally from desktop, table, or even your lap.

Graphics tablets typically consist of a flat work area (the electronic ‘paper’), a pen or stylus, and various hotkeys or customizable buttons. While some offer touch capabilities as well, Graphics tablets are typically more about the ‘draw’ and less about the touch or mouseless keyboard aspects for many creatives. However, the touch options nevertheless make for a more comfortable and ergonomic work experience.

The biggest single asset offered by a graphics tablet, however, is simply its precision. There are things you can do with a good graphics tablet that would be incredibly difficult or even impossible with a mouse. A mouse involves the movement of your whole hand in an often ungainly fashion; a graphics tablet allows you to lightly grip the pen and work with tiny, delicate subtle motions.

For those who like to do a lot of photo retouching or airbrushing, the graphics tablet’s precision allows you to address nuanced shadings and details that would be tough to do with the mouse. The use of a pen for drawing also enables you to draw longer, stronger lines, instead of stopping and starting because you’ve run out of mousepad space.

Graphics tablets can be wireless, or connected (usually via USB), and usually include a few basic elements: the tablet itself, the pen (or stylus), replacement nibs (for pen), installation software, a stylus or pen stand, and a product guide. Some frequently include a mouse as well.

Some drawing tablets take the need for tracing into account (especially valuable for designers), including a transparent sheet or overlay on the surface. This is one of my favorite features of working with a graphics tablet -- by allowing the user to slide in a photo, drawing or other image beneath the transparency, you can now trace the image directly into your computer for further manipulation or editing.

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Performance and Brands

Cintiq 21UX
The Cintiq is the ultimate tablet for creative work, but all of Wacom's graphics tablet models are varying ranges of excellence, and they're all made with designers in mind. Courtesy of Wacom

Performance Aspects to Consider

When looking for a graphics tablet that’s right for you, remember that the biggest graphics tablet may not always be the best choice. They're great for certain tasks, but they’re also somewhat cumbersome if you’ve got a cluttered or tight desktop. Always take into account that the tablet itself is going to be a lot bigger than its ‘active area,’ which simply constitutes the tablet’s drawing area alone. However, if you’re someone who works with templates in your designs, make sure you choose a graphics tablet whose work area is large enough to accommodate them.

Pressure sensitivity typically ranges from 1024 to 2048, and basically, it’s about how responsive your tablet or ‘page’ is to the pen’s pressure when you draw. More pressure will result in a change in your brush weight or thickness, while less will result in a lighter one. The higher the pressure sensitivity, the more natural the pen is going to feel – resulting in a more detailed and realistic, smooth sketching process.

Less responsive tablets make for sketches that can have a "jagged" feel. They may be great for digitizing your signature or even for simply roughing out a light plot, but they'll be less useful for those seeking to create real art.

Surface feel is another important aspect to consider. The best tablets offer a surface that has just the right amount of friction and resistance, resulting in a feel that is more ‘paper-like’ while you’re sketching or working.

Tilt recognition is another important features for designers and artists, and it’s often only available in higher-end graphics tablets, but there are a few exceptions like a few affordable Manhattan and Aiptek models that do include tilt recognition. Tilt recognition, typically available in plus or minus sixty degrees of tilt, basically allows you to mimic a change in the ‘line’ you draw depending on the tilt of your pen, brush or airbrush, just as would occur with a real-life version.

Graphics Tablet Brands

Wacom's stylish line of drawing tablets sets the gold standard for the models, and they're justifiably popular with designers for a reason. The tablets are responsive, beautifully designed, many offer tilt sensitivity, and their stylus pens are not battery-powered, which can make a real difference in responsiveness and detail work. The Cintiq is the ultimate tablet for creative work, but all of Wacom's graphics tablet models are varying ranges of excellence, and they're all made with designers in mind.

Other popular brands include the previously-mentioned Aiptek, which is doing some exciting things (and its wallet-friendly models even include battery-free pens, like Wacom’s), and other budget-friendly options like Monoprice and Genius that are tailor-made for students, as well as such brands as Manhattan or Hanvon (another high-end provider).