If you're a budding graphic artist, you may have been told that a graphics tablet can benefit you. This article discusses the features of graphics tablets to help you decide if a tablet is right for you, and which tablet best fits your needs and budget.
Also referred to as a digitizing tablet, graphics pad, or drawing tablet, a tablet is an alternate type of input device that can be used in place of, or in conjunction with, a mouse, trackball, or other pointing device. The tablet consists of two parts, a flat surface for drawing, and a pen, stylus, or puck that is programmed to work with the tablet. Usually, you also get a pen holder, and some tablets even come with a cordless mouse that works on the tablet surface. Even non-artists may choose to use a tablet because it offers a more ergonomic method of input that can reduce the likelihood of developing repetitive strain injury. Let's explore some of the common features of graphics tablets...
Size is one of the first factors you'll need to consider in choosing a tablet. Bigger is not necessarily better. For home users and hobbyists, the most common sizes are 4" by 5" and 6" by 8". CAD users, artists, and technical illustrators may desire a larger surface area, but the price escalates as the size increases. Remember, the larger your tablet surface is, the more you will need to move your arms. Many people prefer a smaller tablet to minimize arm motion. However, this may feel unnatural to an artist who is used to drawing or painting with large sweeping motions. Another important thing to know about tablet size is that the dimensions given almost always refer to the input surface area of the tablet. The actual footprint of the tablet can be as much as 4 to 5 inches larger than the input area. Keep this in mind as you shop, or you may be surprised that your tablet takes up much more desktop space than you may have considered. My 6" by 8" Wacom Intuos tablet, for instance, has a footprint of 10" by 13.5".
Until recently, the popular sizes of graphics tablets have been 4x5, 6x8, and 9x12 which matches up neatly to the 4:3 aspect ratio of traditional computer monitors. But starting in the mid-2000s there has been a proliferation of widescreen aspect ratio monitors. Because of this, Wacom has begun producing wide-format graphics tablets to better correspond with the aspect ratio of widescreen monitors and for users working with multiple monitors. Although it's nice, it's not necessary that your graphics tablet match the aspect ratio of your monitor, because the tablet software takes care of the mapping. Personally, I use a 6x8 tablet with dual monitors and it works fine. Currently, Wacom and Aiptek are the only manufacturers I know of producing wide-format graphics tablets.
The interface is how your tablet connects to your computer. Most tablets these days have a USB interface which is ideal since most computers in use today support USB. USB devices are hot swapable so you'll be ale to move the tablet more easily for use on multiple computers or just to get it off the desk when you need to.
If you have a very old computer that does not support USB, you'll need to choose a tablet with a serial interface. If you need a serial interface, be sure your computer has an available serial port that does not conflict with another device. If you have both a serial mouse and a serial modem (rare these days), proceed with caution, because you could face a conflict if you add a serial tablet. A tablet with a USB interface gets its power from your computer, but a serial tablet requires a separate power connection, so you'll want to make sure you have an available outlet that can accommodate a medium-sized transformer.
Bluetooth is another option for connecting a graphics tablet to your computer without the use of wires. Bluetooth is a wireless protocol frequently used for connecting electronics devices. Currently, Wacom is the only manufacturer I know of producing a Bluetooth-capable tablet, the Graphire Bluetooth, which can connect to your computer without wires.
Your tablet should come with a pen that feels comfortable and natural in your hand. Find out if the stylus requires a battery. A battery will not only require occasional replacement, but it will make the pen heavier, too. Your pen may be tethered or free. If the pen is untethered you'll have to be more careful about losing or misplacing it. If the pen is tethered, make sure you can choose which side of the tablet to attach the pen. Many pens will also have a switch or buttons built onto the pen, and some pens have an erasing end. This is an excellent feature because the buttons can be programmed for specific functions such as a right-click or double-click, and the erasing tip can perform a delete function in one swipe, or automatically activate the eraser tool in your graphics software. Some tablet manufacturers offer additional pens and other pointing tools that you can program independently. When using these optional accessories, your tablet should recognize it as a new tool and use the customized preferences you have specified for that specific tool.
Pressure level refers to the sensitivity to pressure on the surface of the tablet. Most tablets have either 256, 512, or 1024 pressure levels. The pressure-sensitivity can control line thickness, transparency, and/or color. The higher the pressure-sensitivity, the more responsive and natural your tablet will feel and the more control you will have.