Wacom Intuos5 review
You may be missing a lot on productivity and ergonomic comfort if you never used a pen tablet. And if you plan on buying a pen tablet that will last for the next 10 years, the Wacom Intuos5 is the model to get. Read on for our full review.
Update: As of September 2013, the Intuos5 tablets have been replaced by the new Intuos Pro lineup. The new models are essentially the same, with the addition of built-in wireless connectivity and a better design on the ExpressKeys buttons. Driver support and layout is also unchanged. All the information on this page is still current and applies to the new Intuos Pro models.
About pen tablets
Pen tablets, also known as graphics tablets, are input devices used to replace or complement a mouse. They all have the same basic components: a flat surface and a pressure sensitive pen-like stylus. Newer models, like the Intuos5 line, are also multi-touch sensitive, so they can be used as a giant trackpad. Very handy for interacting with the various gestures available on modern operating systems such as the Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and Windows 8.
Working with a pen tablet is faster than using a mouse. All tablets work with absolute positioning, while mice are relative positioning devices. This means that while you slide a mouse several times to move the cursor across the screen, on a tablet all you do is move your hand and position the pen tip on the corresponding point of the tablet’s surface.
This kind of movement also puts much less strain on your wrist; your hand moves as a whole instead of the small wrist bends used with a mouse, making the pen more friendly for people with carpal tunnel syndrome or chronic wrist pain.
This was my own motivation in buying a pen tablet almost 15 years ago. I had severe pain in my right wrist after using a mouse, and none of the treatments I tried was able to cure it. My first day with a now ancient Wacom Graphire, their first consumer-oriented model, was also the last time I ever touched a mouse.
Adapting to it only took a couple of days. Our brain is quick to develop eye to hand coordination, and mapping the position of the pen to the desired point on the screen becomes natural very quickly, especially if you put the mouse away. Since I spend most of my time on graphics programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, having pressure sensitivity and a much more precise selection tool surely comes in handy. Even nowadays, when web design and coding take a larger role in my professional life, it still feels very natural for me to use the stylus for general computer usage even when web browsing or coding.
If you have never used a pen tablet before, check this video by Wacom for a good overview of the Intuos5 in use.
The Wacom Intuos5 touch
The Intuos5 touch is the latest iteration of Wacom’s professional product line. This is their first pro model to incorporate multi-touch support, previously available only on the Bamboo lineup. It is available in three sizes sharing the same basic design, finish, resolution and features. The only differences are the working area and the number of programmable buttons (ExpressKeys in Wacom lingo): eight on all models except the small one, which has only six buttons.
How to choose the right tablet size
The perfect tablet size is a function of display size and intended usage. Since the surface of the tablet is mapped to the display area, very large or multiple displays require a correspondingly larger tablet area. Having a tablet too small for your screen leads to a jumpy cursor and makes fine selections difficult. On the other hand, a tablet too big for your screen feels slow, requiring too much hand movement and perhaps tiring your arm muscles more quickly.
If you’re an illustrator, keep in mind your stroke length when choosing the tablet size. If you like to draw with very broad strokes or work with the elbow, the large Intuos5 might be a sensible choice. For most users, the medium model is plenty large. This applies especially for simulating natural media, since vector illustration doesn’t require much freehand brush movement and is easier to work by zooming in and out as needed.
Intuos5 touch small
Active area: 6.2˝ x 3.9˝ (157 x 98 mm)
Physical size: 12.6˝ x 8.2˝ x 0.5˝ (320 x 208 x 12 mm)
Geared for users who need a professional tablet of a more portable size, or have limited desk space. This model has enough resolution to drive a 1920px width display with excellent accuracy. If you have a LCD over this size, a larger pen tablet would be advisable. A recommended accessory for mobile users is the carrying case made by Wacom, available for all three tablet sizes.
Street price: around $225.
Intuos5 touch medium
Active area: 8.8˝ x 5.5˝ (224 x 140 mm)
Physical size: 15˝ x 9.9˝ x 0.5˝ (380 x 251 x 12 mm)
The medium model is the most versatile of the bunch. It has enough area to handle 30˝ displays or multi-monitor setups with ease and still occupies a same amount of desk space. This is my size of choice. Keep in mind that it may be a little bit on the large size to be used at the side of a full size keyboard. Nowadays I prefer to use a smaller keyboard without the numeric keypad, like the Apple Wireless Keyboard, so I can sit with the tablet closer and in a more straight up position.
Street price: around $330.
Intuos5 touch large
Active area: Pen: 12.8˝ x 8.0˝ (325 x 203 mm) / Touch: 11.8˝ x 7.5˝ (299 x 190 mm)
Physical size: 19.2˝ x 12.5˝ x 0.5˝ (487 x 318 x 12 mm)
The large size Intuos5 is overkill for most users. It is big enough to justify a seating and table arrangement focused on the tablet as the most important input device. Think of video editors or illustrators who sit with the Wacom in front of them and put the keyboard in front of the tablet or push it aside, typing rarely.
Street price: around $450.
Wireless accessory kit
Wacom offers an improved wireless accessory kit for the Intuos5 line and for some newer Bamboo models. This new kit uses RF wireless instead of Bluetooth and has a much better battery life and improved connectivity reliability, with up to 10 meters of operating range. It plugs directly into the tablet with an available USB port on the computer. Battery life ranges from 10 hours with the Intuos5 small to six hours with the large model. The battery recharges when the tablet is plugged into a USB.
Street price: around $40.
Also available are carrying cases for all three models: small, medium and large. They’re made of nylon with a soft inner lining and feature internal pockets for a mouse and cables.
Adobe Photoshop Elements, Anime Studio Debut, Autodesk Sketchbook Express and Nik Color Effects Pro 4 Select Edition.
Physical design and usage
The Intuos5 has an understated and almost seamless matte black look. The active area is marked on each corner by white illuminated crop marks and has a lightly textured plastic surface, while the rest of the tablet is covered in a soft rubberized finish with a pleasant touch feel. The previous Intuos4 model had a shiny appearance, and the smooth plastic made my hand sweat much more. Overall, the new generation looks very modern and has top notch build quality. It is sturdy, and I could not feel any flex when working with it on my lap.
The working area has a different surface texture than previous models, and Wacom promises this new coating minimizes pen nib wear, one of the main complaints with the Intuos4 that preceded it. In my experience, the new surface definitely feels better when drawing and is much less prone to scratches. After almost one year of use, I see almost no wear on it and just a few hairline scratches, while my Intuos4 had very noticeable wear at about the same age. This is a great thing, since the new tablet doesn’t have a user replaceable surface, due to having the touch sensitive layer embedded in it. It still can be serviced by Wacom, though.
The side strip features a scroll wheel and buttons that can be customized independently for each application through the Wacom control panel. It has an ambidextrous design that allows the tablet to be flipped for left- or right-handed use. Medium and large have eight buttons, called ExpressKeys. The small model has only six.
The pen stylus is the same one used on the Intuos4 and Cintiq lines. It has a rubber grip and two buttons that can be programmed. One is, by default, the right click. On the back there’s a rounded tip that acts as an eraser on supported programs. The rubber grip cannot be replaced by the user, so I recommend taking good care of it. My previous pen lasted for three years and still had a good feeling on the grip. On the other hand, never drop your pen. Each pen has two ferrite tubes inside. This material is very hard, similar to graphite in texture, and cracks easily if the pen is dropped or knocked hard. If this happens, one or all of the pen tips won’t work anymore, and a replacement costs quite a bit — around US $65.
Wacom offers four additional pen models that might be interesting for illustrators. The Classic pen ($70) has a slimmer profile and no rubber grip, similar to the pens on older models. The Art pen ($100) replicates the feel and experience of a classical felt marker. The Airbrush pen ($100) provides realistic simulation of ink application, spray distance and tilt angle. The Inking pen ($80) is used to trace artwork over the tablet and offers a writing sensation like using a regular ballpoint pen. It traces the paper with ink and records the drawing to the computer at the same time.
The pen holder doubles as a nib holder and extractor. Each tablet comes with five black standard nibs, three gray felt nibs and one gray spring nib. I’m still using my original black nib after one year. Users with a heavier hand might go through them more quickly. A quick tip to make your pen nibs last longer is to adjust the pen sensitivity so less pressure is needed to achieve a bold stroke. The tip feel can be infinitely customized with a sensitivity curve, so it’s easy to achieve the perfect mix of feather light lines and bold stroke width.
Overall stylus performance is state-of-the-art. There’s not much to say about it other than it works flawlessly. Most of the improvements on the Intuos5 lineup are related to the physical design, and pen resolution and tracking are unchanged compared to the previous version. The only difference is the active area surface, and I like it better than the one on the Intuos4 that scratched easily and had a more coarse texture.
The only features that I miss from the Intuos4 are the OLED displays. On that model, each ExpressKey had a customizable mini-display that could be used to label the command attached to the button. The Intuos5 abandons it for a heads-up display that pops on the screen when you rest your finger over a button for more than a second. It works just fine and is a clever way of tackling the problem while cutting some cost and complexity, but I think the OLED displays on the Intuos4 made it faster for me identify each button at a glance. Swiping five fingers down the tablet shows a more complete overlay on the screen, with all the commands mapped to each ExpressKey, scroll wheel and pen button, along with shortcuts to customize each of the preferences.
The single biggest change on the Intuos5 line is that it has multi-touch support. This is a more than welcome, if not absolutely needed, feature nowadays, when all operating systems make extensive use of gestures for interface navigation. If there were any question about its necessity, Windows 8 put it aside.
It’s very natural to use the tablet for touch, along with the pen. The only conundrum is that some of the most complicated four- or five-finger gestures cannot be executed when holding a pen. Nevertheless, I found myself using two- and three-finger gestures all the time after a few days with the new tablet. Going back to a model without touch support felt awkwardly bare.
The Wacom control panel does a god job of customizing the gestures. As with the pen, ExpressKeys and scroll wheel, touch support can be adjusted independently for each program. This goes much further than OS level trackpad support and allows us to, for example, map a four-finger swipe differently in Chrome and Lightroom, each evoking a particular behavior. Supported actions include keystrokes and running programs.
Wacom took a lot of heat soon after the launch of the Intuos5 for the buggy touch support. I experienced it myself in the beginning: sometimes the tablet would just forget a gesture, say the two-finger scroll, and it would work again only after a reboot. I’m happy to report that it’s not the case anymore and, at least on the Mac platform, their latest driver is rock solid. It took them almost a year to get there, so I think the criticism was well deserved.
In my testing, touch support worked very well, at least with the latest driver version. It’s not up to the quality of a good dedicated trackpad, like the Apple Magic Trackpad, but I’d give it an 8 out of 10 in comparison. There’s no cursor lag, and precision is very good. Investing some time to learn and set up the gestures rewards the user with a definite improvement in productivity and creates a more natural way to interact with the programs. This feature alone makes the Intuos5 a worthwhile upgrade for owners of previous models. A cool thing is to be able to map a gesture to a specific keystroke. For example, if I swipe four fingers down in Lightroom, this marks an image as a select. If I do the same gesture, but swiping up, it marks the image as a reject.
Disable tap to click, keep your sanity
With tap to click enabled, I found myself constantly dragging icons or executing commands while just resting my palm on the tablet. I advise all users to disable it. Other than that, there’s no interference between pen and touch use, and the software never mistook one for another, even when holding the pen in hand while executing touch gestures.
The off brand temptation. Why it’s not worth it for most users.
Wacom dominates around 85% of the tablet market and license technology for various uses, including industrial applications and consumer products such as the Microsoft Surface Pro. There is a good reason for this dominance: they created most of the technology used on those tablets, including one key feature — Wacom pens use electromagnetic resonance technology to operate, so they don’t need batteries or any wires to function.
This technology also allows for some cool unique features that off brand manufacturers, such as Monoprice, don’t have. For example:
- No batteries in the pen
- Extremely precise pressure sensitivity and customizable pen tip feel
- Different pen tips, such as felt and spring loaded
- Optional pens such as the Airbrush, Art and Inking pens
- Tilt sensitivity up to 60 degrees
- Ability to track the pen without actually touching the tablet surface, which is key to simulate airbrushing with the optional Airbrush pen
Another key difference is driver support. Wacom offers full featured and well supported drivers for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux; key players in the graphics field, such as Adobe, work to ensure their products work well with Wacom tablets.
If you’re on a budget, take a good look at the Bamboo Create model. It shares many of the features available in the Intuos line for less money and surely is a competent product — suitable even for professional work and comparable to the Intuos tablets of two generations ago. Just be sure to buy the medium sized Create model, also known as Bamboo Fun Medium Pen & Touch in Europe. The smaller Bamboo tablets are too small for any precision work and are more geared for office tasks and handwriting recognition.
Check out our Wacom pen tablet buyer’s guide for a comparison between Intuos and Bamboo models.
Wacom tablet setup tips
It pays to invest some time learning how to use each of the tablet’s functions and customizing its behavior to your applications. Before first plugging in your tablet, be sure to install the latest drivers for your operating system from Wacom’s website. Those drivers are constantly updated, and I’ve experienced bugs with previous versions, especially with touch support.
The Wacom tablet control panel is divided into two key areas: Tool and Application. The first controls the behavior of each of the tablet’s inputs: function buttons, touch and pen input. The latter tells the driver where that configuration should be applied: to all programs or to a specific application.
This means it is possible to tailor each tablet behavior to any specific program. For example, the same gesture can mean a different shortcut or command for each program. A system-wide gesture can be used to cycle through open apps. A button can be mapped to save the current file or to assign the tablet to a secondary display in multi-monitor setups. The possibilities are endless, and there’s no such thing as a correct configuration. Explore and configure it to streamline your workflow and most used operations.
Check out our Wacom setup tutorial and tips page for a more complete walkthrough of all settings.