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Do You Need a Graphics Tablet? Find Out What You Need to Know

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Are you thinking about ditching your mouse and replacing it with a graphics tablet? Do you need more information about features, uses and optional accessories before rushing out to buy one? Not sure which size will best suit your needs? Read on!


What is a Graphics Tablet?

A graphics tablet (also known as a pen tablet, drawing tablet or digitizer) is a hardware input device used primarily by digital artists, though many non-artists use them as well. Graphics tablets have a hard plastic, touch-sensitive drawing surface that transfers stylus or mouse movements to a monitor. The position of the stylus or mouse directly correlates to the position of the cursor on the monitor. It takes a while to get used to drawing on the tablet surface, but once you get over the learning curve, it's as natural as using a pen or pencil on paper.

Graphics Tablet
Bamboo Capture © Wacom

Wacom Graphics Tablets

There are several brands of graphic tablets on the market, Wacom being the most popular manufacturer by far.

Wacom's Bamboo line, geared toward home and office users, is their most basic and affordable tablet. The Bamboo family includes the Connect, the Splash, the Capture, and the Create.

The Intuos series is Wacom's professional line and is used primarily by artists, graphic designers and other creative professionals. It comes in four sizes: Intuos5 Touch Small, Intuos5 Touch Medium, Intuos 5 Touch Large, and Intuos4 Extra Large. All Intuos tablets include touch ring controls, express keys, an advanced pen tip sensor, and 2048 levels of pressure. As an added bonus, Intuos5 tablets have a multi-touch surface. This means you can use gestures to position and navigate just as you would with a smart phone, iPad, Kindle Fire, etc.

The Cintiq, their top of the line model, allows users to draw directly on an HD screen. This is as close to drawing/painting with traditional media as it gets! Technically, the Cintiq is not a graphics tablet. Rather, it is an interactive pen display. Starting at $999 and soaring as high as several thousand dollars onwards, it could clean out your bank account in a hurry. But, if you have the money or a very good reason for needing one, go for it! It comes in three sizes: 13HD, 22HD and 24HD. They also offer the 22HD Touch and the 24HD Touch if you want multi-touch capabilities.

 

Graphics Tablet
Intuos5 Touch © Wacom

Other Brands to Consider

The following graphics tablet manufacturers don't offer all of the bells and the whistles of a high-end Wacom tablet, but they do offer everything most users need... and at an affordable price.

PenPower

For home and office use PenPower's TOOYA PRO will do the job. For those who need a bit more functionality, their midrange tablet, Monet, and their higher end tablet, Picasso, are both good choices for professional use.

VisTablet

VisTablet, a newcomer to the graphic tablet market, has been in the tablet business since 2007. Priced under forty dollars, the PenPad is their most affordable tablet. What makes this tablet unique is that the surface is flexible. I'm not sure why this is necessary, but it is a feature nonetheless! VisTablet offers four other models. All are reasonably priced.

Adesso

If you're thinking about going wireless, the Addesso CyberTablet W10 is one option to consider. Adesso also offers three non-wireless models at various price points and sizes for users ranging from students to architects.

Genius

With a line of eleven tablets, Genius has something for everyone. The PenSketch M912A is their top of the line model and is ideal for artists, designers and CAD users. The G-Pen 560 is their 4.5" x 6" entry level model. Unlike most basic tablets, the G-Pen 560 has hot-keys that can be programmed for a variety of functions.

Graphics Tablet
Picasso Multi-functional Digital Tablet © PenPower

Does Size Matter?

Graphics tablets range in size from 4" x 5" to 18" x 12". If you need something bigger, the Cintiq measures a whopping 20.4" x 12.8". While small tablets are suitable for home and professional use, most artists prefer mid-size to large tablets because they allow for more natural drawing/painting movement. For non-artists, a small tablet will usually suffice. In fact, it is preferred by people who don't need a large tablet to express their inner Picasso. Those with carpal tunnel and similar issues also prefer smaller tablets because less movement means less stress on their wrists and hands.

Another thing to consider when choosing a tablet is your available desk real estate. Keep in mind that the dimensions of a tablet refer to the actual drawing space and not the outer dimensions of the tablet. For example, my tablet is 7" x 4.5". However, its footprint is 12" x 8". And, finally, as is true with most things, the larger the product, the higher the price.

Graphics Tablet
Intuos4 XL and Bamboo Splash © Wacom

Programmable Features

Features vary from tablet to tablet, but most come with at least a few programmable buttons whether they are on the tablet itself or on the stylus. The following is a list of a few of the buttons and doodads you might find.

Express Keys

Most tablets include express keys, even the teeny-tiny models. These keys can be programmed to perform frequently used keystrokes and functions.

Stylus Side Switches

The side switches on a stylus are typically set at double-click and right-click. However, some models give you the option to modify these default functions.

Touch Ring

Wacom's Intuos tablets come with a nifty little touch ring. This touch sensitive area controls auto scroll/zoom, layers, brush size, and canvas rotation. You can also program it to perform other functions by simply visiting the tablet properties menu and assigning new functions. Once assigned, one click on the center button brings up the menu on your monitor and allows you to choose your weapon.

Graphics Tablet

© Wacom

Stylus Features

The Nib

In addition to the standard hard plastic nib, Wacom offers a variety of additional nibs for their pens. If you desire a pencil on paper feel, the hard felt nib will do the job. Flex nibs will give you a similar feel but will not wear down as quickly as their felt counterpart. Need a brush-like feel? Stroke nibs have a tiny spring that allows the nib just enough give to transform your stylus into what feels like a paintbrush.

Adesso tablets come with only one style of nib, but they do have an interesting stylus that is both a touch-screen pen and an ink pen. Twist the barrel and you have an ink pen. Twist it again and you have a tablet pen. If I had one of these, I have a feeling my tablet surface would be splotched with ink. Oops! If that's not enough, this stylus also has a laser pointer. Great for presentations and play time with your cat.

Eraser Tip

Many tablet pens come with a pressure-sensitive eraser that works just like a pencil eraser. Instead of erasing graphite or ink, it erases digital marks and information in programs ranging from Microsoft Word to Adobe Photoshop.

Stylus Side Switches

The side switches on a stylus are typically set at double-click and right-click. However, some models give you the option to modify these default functions.

Graphics Tablet
© Wacom

Other Stylus Options

When it comes to stylus options, Wacom is the leader. Most manufacturers don't sell alternative pens or even alternative nibs, for that matter. You get their basic pen and that's it! In addition to the standard grip pen that comes with a Wacom tablet, they also sell add-on pens such as an air brush (shaped like an air brush), an art pen, a classic pen (slimmer with no rubber grip), and an inking pen. Each stylus is designed to mimic feel and effects of the art tool it represents.

Graphics Tablet
© Wacom

Pressure Levels

Pressure levels for most tablets are either 256, 512, 1024, or 2048. These numbers refer to the levels of sensitivity of the stylus. Higher levels are the most sensitive and produce the best results, particularly if you are using your stylus as an art tool. Pressure levels work on the same principle as a paintbrush, pencil or piece of chalk. The harder you press, the darker and thicker the line. Stylus pressure sensitivity is especially important to digital artists who need to control line thickness, color, transparency, and blending.

Some higher end pens also allow you to use tilt and rotation to control line width and brush orientation.

Graphics Tablet

Do You Need a Graphics Tablet?

No one needs a graphics tablet. However, if you do digital illustration work or photo retouching, a graphics tablet could make your work a good deal easier and a lot more fun. A stylus offers a more natural way to draw, paint and retouch than a mouse could ever provide. I purchased a graphics tablet about seven years ago after I started doing more illustration work. Using a mouse was slow and clunky and didn't allow me the smooth, pressure-sensitive flow I needed. Now, using a mouse feels like drawing with a bar of soap!

Graphics Tablet
Cintiq 24HD Touch © Wacom

Conclusion

Say goodbye to your mouse! You are now ready to start shopping for a graphics tablet that meets your needs and your budget. Do you have a tablet? What model/make is it? How have you found it for vectoring with?

Graphics Tablet
Vector art by Sharon Milne / www.chewedkandi.net
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