How to choose the best Wacom pen tablet for your needs
Why use a pen tablet instead of a mouse
Working with a tablet is faster and more efficient than with a mouse. Your hand can travel from point to point on the screen in a single movement instead of repeated slides, as with a conventional mouse. It also allows more natural input for activities such as drawing and photo retouching. Having pressure sensitivity is very handy and most graphic programs can benefit from this input. Touching the tip of the pen on the tablet surface is the equivalent of a click, and the pressure (plus tilt, in more feature-rich models) can be used to vary stroke width, opacity, effect intensity, and other attributes. There are two buttons on the pen and either can be programmed for right click or other commands.
Holding a pen is also much more ergonomic than using a mouse, and most users with repetitive strain injury (RSI) or tendonitis suffer less pain when using a tablet. In my personal case, it completely cured a chronic pain I had in my right wrist. Working with a mouse requires repetitive muscle movements while the rest of the hand keeps still, creating uneven muscle fatigue. A pen, on the other hand, allows you to work in a more relaxed position and eliminates the forearm twisting that strains muscles and tendons. At the end of the day, it feels much more natural and relaxed.
Areas in which tablets don't work so well
There are a few areas in which tablets are not the ideal input devices.
Most games don't work very well with pen input, as their interfaces were originally designed for mouse control. Think about controlling a first person shooter with a pen. It definitely makes little sense.
In the architectural and engineering fields, there's a split: some users love it, some hate it, mostly because the mouse scroll wheel is very handy for zooming in and out on programs like Autodesk AutoCAD and Wacom tablets have that feature on the tablet surface, requiring putting the pen aside to use it. Pressure sensitivity is also ignored in those programs, neglecting one of the tablet's main features. On the other hand, the more ergonomic position and programmable buttons could more than make up for it.
Will touch devices kill pen tablets?
I doubt it. Without a major exercise in user interface design, my feeling is that we won't be able to achieve the necessary drawing precision with bare fingers to replace tablets. The two technologies are complementary and all new Wacom tablets already incorporate touch gestures. This gives us the best of both worlds: bare finger touch and gestures for quick window transitions, icon and menu selections, with a pen for more precise actions where pinpoint accuracy and especially pressure sensitivity are indispensable.
Which tablet should I get?
Go Wacom, ignore the others
If you choose to buy a graphic tablet, invest in a Wacom model. There are some cheaper alternatives, but none of them has the same ubiquitous driver support, software integration, precision, and reliability as Wacom. No wonder they have over 85% of market share. Wacom pens use patented electromagnetic resonance technology, so they don't need batteries or any wires to function, reducing maintenance and weight for a more natural pen feel.
Tablet size and resolution vs. screen size
Tablet sizes should be relative to your screen size and resolution. The smaller the tablet surface, the less hand movement will be necessary to move the cursor on the screen. Having a tablet too small for your screen leads to a jumpy cursor and makes fine selections too difficult. A tablet too big for your screen feels slow, requiring too much hand movement, and may tire your arm muscles quicker.
Tablet resolution is also a factor. Wacom has two lines of tablets, Intuos and Intuos Pro. As of September, 2013, the regular Intuos replaces the Bamboo lineup, while the Intuos Pro is essencially the same product as the previous Intuos5, with the inclusion of built-in wireless connectivity and minor cosmetic changes on the ExpressKeys button design. The former has half the resolution of the flagship Intuos Pro line and this difference may be very noticeable, depending on your screen size. Given the same tablet size, the higher the resolution, the bigger the screen that can be used comfortably with it.
Bigger tablets, such as the 8" x 12.8" models (Intuos Pro Large, for example), are difficult to use along with a keyboard and tend to be more adequate for single task work where typing is secondary, for example video editing or drawing. If you are an illustrator and you are used to drawing with very long strokes, a larger drawing area may be necessary.
For dual display use, keep in mind that the overall screen proportion is much more horizontal than the tablet itself. Through the system preferences configuration panel, the tablet can be set up for different screen mappings, single screen mode or screen switching with a hotkey. The most natural way, in my opinion, is to keep the screen proportion exactly the same as the tablet surface. If you use dual displays, this means that some of the vertical area of the tablet would be inactive and that the horizontal resolution available will be mapped to a much bigger number of pixels—for example, 3840 x 1080 for dual 24" displays. This would require a larger drawing area than a single screen, and preferably a high end tablet such as the Intuos Pro Large model. An alternative that works fairly well is to use a smaller tablet and set up a hot key combination to switch the control between the two screens.
My favorite keyboard for use along with a Wacom tablet is the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Because it has no numerical keypad it has a smaller footprint and fits nicely at either side of the tablet. For about the same price, Logitech offers the K810 (PC) and K811 (Mac) keyboards that are highly rated and offer some additional features, like the ability to be paired to multiple devices and backlit keys. A full size keyboard may be too large to be used on the side of a tablet larger than an Intuos Pro Medium, leaving the tablet too far from the central seating position. Some users prefer to place the keyboard in front of the tablet. This position only works if you don't need to type much during the day.
Display resolution vs. Wacom tablet size
First days with your new tablet
Working with a tablet is a paradigm change and may require an adaptation period for hardcore mouse addicts.
All tablets work with absolute positioning, while mice are relative positioning devices. This means that you can slide your mouse several times to move the cursor across your screen, while on a tablet all you do is move your hand and position the pen tip on the corresponding point on the tablet surface.
This changes your eye vs. hand coordination logic and can be a little difficult the first time. In my case, I bought my first Wacom Graphire 4" x 5" model (replaced by the Bamboo and then regular Intuos line) after suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome for a good time. No matter what treatment or medicine I used, I always felt pain after using my mouse for extended periods, so adapting to a new input device was surely less painful than keeping the mouse.
My tablet arrived in the middle of a book design job and I delved straight into it, leaving the mouse disconnected. You can use a mouse along with the tablet, if you prefer, and Wacom also offers optional wireless mice that work on the tablet surface. But my reasoning was that the more I forced myself to get used to the tablet, the faster I'd master it. After two days of work, I was already comfortable with it and never used a mouse again in the 14 years after that day.
Intuos vs. Intuos Pro
Generally speaking, the Intuos Pro tablets are Wacom's professional line, while the Intuos line is more geared to home users. This doesn't mean that the regular Intuos models are unfit for professional use. I've used a Graphire, the precursor to the Bamboo and regular Intuos, for lots of years without any problem.
Two key differences separate Intuos Pro and Intuos lines: performance and customization. Pro models have better resolution and sensitivity, and can recognize the pen tilt angle, unlike the regular Intuos lineup. The Intuos Pro can also be customized in more ways, with eight express key buttons that can be mapped to application-specific profiles. For example, I have one of the tablet buttons mapped to the new tab command when I'm browsing the Internet.
On top of that, the professional line is better built and should last longer under intense usage.
Intuos Pro advantages are:
- Better resolution - 5,080 lpi vs. 2,540 lpi.
- More pressure levels - 2048 vs. 1024.
- Intuos Pro pens are tilt sensitive.
- Precision mode, unavailable on the regular Intuos, lowers the pen sensitivity momentarily, making it easier to draw fine lines and detailed selections.
- More programmable express keys and more comprehensive customization options.
- Slightly slimmer profile.
- Available in larger sizes.
- Optional wireless mouse support.
All Intuos Pro models come with built-in wireless connectivity, while the regular Intuos tablets require an additional dongle to provide wireless functionality. The Wireless Accessory Kit (ACK40401) includes a battery module and transmitter to be connected to the tablet and a tiny USB receptor on the computer. This is the same kit used on the previous Bamboo models.
Instead of Bluetooth, the proprietary RF connection has better range and longer battery life, which varies from 16 hours on the Intuos Pro Touch Large to 48 hours on the small Intuos models. The tablet can still be used during charging through a regular USB cable.
Performance wise, wired and wireless should be comparable. Previous models that used Bluetooth instead of a dedicated RF dongle had more lag and some freezing when switching between applications with specific tablet configurations. The current models have none of those problems. Buying the Wireless Kit is a great option if you have the habit of using the tablet on your lap or when working on location, specially considering the low US$ 40 price tag.
Wacom Cintiq vs. Intuos
The Cintiq family combines a pressure sensitive tablet with a slim LCD display, enabling users to interact directly on the surface of the screen and in a much more natural way. There are three models available: the top of the line 24" Cintiq 24HD, the 22" Cintiq 22HD and the 13" Cintiq 13HD. Both the 24" and 22" come in two variants, with or without touch input. The price difference is small and I'd recommend you to buy the touch versions, since all major operating systems already incorporate touch gestures for control and navigation. All models can be used as main or secondary displays. Unlike older models, like the discontinued 12WX, all current Cintiqs use high quality IPS panels that can be suitably calibrated for color critical use.
For photography, graphic design, web design, illustration, and video editing, up to 30" LCD size:
Wacom Intuos Pro Medium (PTH-651 model)
For less demanding creative work, general usage, and web surfing, up to 24" display size:
Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch Medium (CTH-680 model)
What to avoid
The small regular Intuos has too little active area for precision work on higher resolution LCD screens above 1600px of horizontal resolution. It may be adequate for general use or handwriting recognition, but a medium size Intuos Pen & Touch is a better investment.
I'd also avoid the small Intuos without touch support. Multitouch input is already deeply integrated into Windows 8 and a touch gestures can also be used to navigate on latest Mac OS operating systems. Touch devices are here to stay and the tendency is that we'll see even deeper integration in the future. The small Pen & Touch model costs only $20 more and is a more future-proof option.
Check out this video for some examples of the Intuos Pen & Touch Medium tablet in action.