How to choose the best Wacom pen tablet for your needs
All tablet models share the same key parts: a flat surface for input and a pressure sensitive pen. Other tablet advantages are efficiency and better ergonomics, making them an interesting option even for non-artists and general computer usage.
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 we're already seeing the new Wacom tablets 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, Bamboo and Intuos. The former has half the resolution of the flagship Intuos5 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 5 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 5 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. A full size keyboard may be too large to be used on the side of a tablet larger than an Intuos 5 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 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 13 years after that day.
Bamboo vs. Intuos 5
Generally speaking, the Intuos tablets are Wacom's professional line, while the Bamboo line is more geared to home users. This doesn't mean that the Bamboo models are unfit for professional use. I've used a Graphire, the precursor to the Bamboo, for lots of years without any problem.
Two key differences separate Intuos 5 and Bamboo lines: performance and customization. Wacom Intuos 5 models have better resolution and sensitivity, and can recognize the pen tilt angle, unlike the Bamboo. The Intuos 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 5 advantages are:
- Better resolution - 5,080 lpi vs. 2,540 lpi.
- More pressure levels - 2048 vs. 1024.
- Intuos5 pens are tilt sensitive.
- Precision mode, unavailable on the Bamboo, 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.
While previous Wacom tablets had separate versions for wired and wireless, the current Bamboo and Intuos 5 lines make use of a simple dongle to provide wireless functionality. The Wireless Accessory Kit includes a battery module and transmitter to be connected to the tablet and a tiny USB receptor on the computer.
Instead of Bluetooth, the proprietary RF connection has better range and longer battery life, which varies from 6 hours on the Intuos 5 Touch Large to 15 hours on the small Bamboo models, like the Capture. 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 Wireless Accessory Kit ACK40401 compatibility
All Intuos5 tablets, Bamboo Capture and Bamboo Create models.
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 Cintiq 24HD,the 21.3" Cintiq 21UX and the 12.1" Cintiq 12WX. All three can be used as main or secondary displays. The 24HD and 21UX models have very high quality LCD panels and can be suitably calibrated for color critical use.
The smaller model is not so well reviewed. Some users complain of jittery cursor response near the screen edges and inadequate display performance and viewing angles, an indication of a TN LCD panel in use, which is not recommended for applications where color accuracy is indispensable. Based on this feedback, we'd recommend the 12WX only as a secondary display.
For photography, graphic design, web design, illustration, and video editing, up to 30" LCD size:
Wacom Intuos 5 Medium (PTH650 model)
For less demanding creative work, general usage, and web surfing, up to 24" display size:
Bamboo Create (CTH670 model) (Bamboo Fun Medium Pen&Touch in Europe)
For an illustrator dream setup:
What to avoid
Small Bamboo models, such as the Bamboo Connect and Bamboo Capture, are too small for any precision work on higher resolution LCD screens above 1600px of horizontal resolution. They may be adequate for general use or handwriting recognition, but a medium size Bamboo Create is a better investment.
If multitouch support is important to you (and I believe it is!), keep in mind that the Bamboo Connect and Intuos 5 Extra Large models don't have touch input.
Check out this video for some examples of the Bamboo Create tablet in action.