Graphic Tablet Buyers Guide

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For the digital photographer or digital artist graphic tablets offer what is considered one of the most artistically intuitive interfaces available.  For those trained in traditional art forms like drawing and painting graphic tablets offer an input experience that is often times much more responsive and controllable than a traditional computer mouse.  In addition pressure sensitive surfaces and programmable buttons can increase your productivity and streamline your digital workflow.

If you are new to the world of graphic tablets there are a few things to consider.  Usability, feature set, size and cost are common factors when selecting graphic tablet.

Feature Set

There are many different features to consider when looking for a graphic tablet.  Aside from the overall size of the active pen area features can vary greatly from one tablet to the next.

Pen pressure or how many levels of pressure the pen and tablet can respond to will drive the price of the tablet.  The range of sensitivities can range greatly depending on how much you are willing to spend.  At the low end, tablets respond to 1 level.  By that the pen is either touching the tablet or not.  However, for this guide pressure sensative tablets will be considered.  Pressure sensitivities can vary from 512 distinguishable levels to 2048 levels of pressure.  Novice users may find it difficult to find a distinguishable difference in sensitivities on tablets with 1024 as compared to 2048.  With this in mind consider your personal needs.

The resolution of a tablet indicates on responsive the tablet is movements along the plane of the table.  Resolution is measured in lines per inch (lpi).  The current generation of tablets ranges from 2000 to 5080 lpi.

Programmable Buttons

Higher end tablets such as those in the Wacom Intuos line, include additional programmable buttons directly on the tablet or included pen.  These keys can be programmed to execute commonly used commands or open commonly used programs.  These keys if programmed well, can make all the difference between constantly using the keyboard and cruising through a digital workflow with ease.  Again consider your needs.  Professionals working for extended stretches in front of a screen will see a clear advantage.  Weekend warriors will find the keys a nice addition, but may not want to invest the extra cash.

Touch Capabilities

Wacom’s latest Intous5 line includes a touch enabled interface.  In addition to using the pen as an input device an artist can also use their hand.  By gesturing directly on the tablet surface with their fingers, scrolling, panning, and zooming can be done without going to the keyboard or without hunting for scroll bars with the cursor on the screen.  This could be one of the most important productivity advancements in tablet innovation in the current generation of graphic tablets.

Tablet Size

The active area of the tablet dictates how much surface area of the tablet is sensitive to pen inputs.  Size does matter, and bigger isn’t always better.  Most users will map a tablet so the entire active surface matches the entire screen.  This means if you touch the upper right corner of the tablet your cursor will be in the upper right corner of the screen regardless of the previous location of the cursor.  This can take some getting used to for traditional mouse users.

With this is mind, larger tablets mean larger arm and shoulder movements.  From an ergonomic standpoint picking the right size for your needs could mean the difference between arm and shoulder fatigue or discomfort after extended use.  Remember a proper chair and desk height are essential but the range of motion required by larger tablets should be considered.

As a rule of thumb the small tablets are often great for travel with a laptop but mid sized units may be better suited for most daily use if you have the desk space to spare.

How To Choose

First off consider how you will use the tablet.  Are you an occasional user just looking to edit a few family photos in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Elements, or are you a hardcore professional looking to streamline your Adobe Photoshop post processing workflow so you can increase your productive time in the studio or on location.

Your artistic background and comfort with a pencil or paintbrush may also indicate if spending the extra money for a more feature rich and responsive tablet is worth the investment.

As a final wrap up below is a table of popular tablets, their features and current prices (June 2012).

Additional Resources:

Wacom Website

Adesso Website

Vistablet Website

Intuous5 Offers  Mutli-Touch Support

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