How to Choose the Best Graphics Tablet for you!
So this is your first time shopping around for a graphics tablet and you want to know how to choose one. Maybe you’ve used one before, liked it, but want to try other tablet brands and don’t know what all the jargon in tablet specifications and reviews mean. Hopefully, this article will help you out in choosing the best graphics tablet for your needs.
First, let me put this out in the open…this topic can get extremely subjective. If you’ve already done a cursory search through the web then you are probably aware of what will be referred to as the “brand name pushers.” Granted they have a reasonable purpose to be adamant about a particular brand of tablet, however, here you will get a general breakdown of graphic tablets without any brand name pushing.
What is a Graphics Tablet?
Basically a graphics tablet is an input device which allows you to draw, sketch, paint, illustrate, color illustrations, airbrush, and sculpt in 3D software, etc., all directly from your tablet to the computer without the obstructions of a mouse. It mimics a touch pad and is controlled by a stylus (digital pen). You can do things with a graphics tablet that are nearly impossible with a mouse. You may be able to mimic some of the functions of a graphics tablet through a mouse, but it will take a lot of time and you will lose a great deal of the digitally produced natural look.
Under the Hood
Here are some summaries of how graphic tablets function. These quick breakdowns should help you know what to generally look for in a tablet tailored for your needs.
The active area of the tablet is the portion of the device where you write or draw. This is the pressure sensitive surface or more accurately the portion of the tablet that speaks or receives the signal from your stylus pen. Essentially it is the surface of the tablet meant to mimic paper and you should protect this area at all costs because once it is damaged the tablet losses its major function. The tablet is usually bigger than the active area. For example review the general size specifications on a VisTablet Muse:
Overall size: 14.1 inches by 10.3 inches
Active area: 10 inches by 6 inches.
If a tablet is only advertising its active area then you should add anywhere from 2-5 inches of width and length to get the actual dimensions if you need to know if it will fit in your work area. However, you should consider the size of the active area in relation to your screen. Although the tablet will scale screen to the size of the tablet, there can be some issues as far as the size in pixels in some smaller tablets used in conjunction with a severely larger screen, especially for detailed work.
Tablet resolution is measured in lines per inch, or LPI. This is a way to measure printing resolution that uses halftone screens. Halftone is made up of dots similar to dots per inch or DPI resolution in digital printing. Basically in LPI the dots are placed in lines and these lines are measured by how close they are together on a grid. Of course higher LPI indicates greater detail and sharpness.
Reports per Second/Points per Second
Some brands document this as RPS (Reports per second) while others like Wacom document it as PPS (Points per second), but both are the same. This is simply how many times the tablet or touch device notifies the computer per second where your hand or pen is on the surface of the device. Higher/Faster the better and more responsive whereas the lower/slower the worse and less responsive. Low response tablets can create jaggy lines while high response tablets create smoother lines.
Styluses are the digital pens used to draw on the tablet. Some are designed for comfort with special grips made of rubber. These ones are usually marketed as ergonomic, grip pens, easy to hold, comfortable, etc. Basically these styluses involve designing the pen to feel as natural and comfortable as possible. Nevertheless, pens are broken down in two categories:
Battery Operated: Uses an AAA battery. These styluses are usually thicker, but narrower at the point of the pen where you hold it.
Battery Less: These styluses are powered by the tablet through EMR (electro-magnetic resonance) technology. EMR technology is a method where low energy is imparted into the pen’s resonant circuit by the magnetic field of the tablet’s surface. The pen’s resonant circuit then returns the signal to the tablet.
Some high end tablets come with tilt sensitivity which may also be called tilt recognition. This can be interpreted as similar to using an air brush. If you tilt the stylus you will get a thicker or thinner line due to the angle of paint spray. Tilt sensitivity comes into play mostly in Corel Painter or with airbrush tools used for digital painting.
This is the portion of the product you need to pay the most attention to. Pressure sensitivity determines the weight of your lines and this is an important part of getting organic lines in character drawings. Think of it as how you use a paint brush or marker. The lighter you press on the paint brush/marker, the lighter the line, but the harder you press the thicker the line. Levels of pressure sensitivity determine how sensitive the stylus and tablet are. Thus higher levels show more sensitivity. Pressure levels start off at 256 and can go up to 3000. 1024 is the most common in contemporary graphics tablets because most graphics software can handle these levels. Anything above 1024 requires some of the newer, more progressive, graphics software. Pressure sensitivity can also be affected by the quality of the stylus tip and the amount of friction on the tablet surface as well.
Programmable Hot keys/Buttons
Basically these are extra functions on the tablet that can be convenient time savers. They allow you to program shortcuts, commands and tools into your tablet. For instance, you are painting a character, you make a mistake and want to erase. Instead of interrupting your work flow and selecting the eraser tool, you can hit a hot key with the eraser programmed into it, erase the mistake, then hit the hot key for your paint brush and continue your work.
Function Buttons may or may not come with programmable functions already set, but customizable. It depends on the tablet.
These are self-explanatory. On many tablets there will be a large or two large circular devices where you can slide your finger to zoom, rotate, pan, etc., mimicking various functions of the mouse wheel in certain programs or zoom in/out and pan tools of certain programs without interrupting your work flow.
Information overload, so…how do I choose one?
My advice would be to take all this into account in order to choose the best graphics tablet for you. Read reviews, compare tablets and try to tune out the brand name pushing opinions and think objectively based on your budget and needs. If you are just starting out, you may not want to jump in with a $3,000 purchase on a Wacom Cintiq. Yet, you may very well want to start at the tip of graphics tablet pyramid. Getting familiar with what’s at the top of the hierarchy in tablet technology may best suit your needs. However, you may not be able to afford anything above $100-$200 and can get the job done long as the tablet can produce certain tasks you have. Here is a list of what I think you should consider:
- Your budget.
- Your size needs in comparison with your work area and monitor size.
- If you are just looking for something to do digital sketches, this may not matter much to you as some low responsive tablets still function well for rough sketching. However, if you are looking for something to help you provide more detailed digital artwork then you want to consider the report/point per second rate. You shouldn’t be too concerned as most modern tablets come with a RPS/PPS in the mid 100’s to 200.
- Type of Stylus.
- Most non-Wacom’s come with a battery operated pen.
- Check reviews here to see how fast they eat through battery energy.
- Sensitivity functions and levels.
- Tilt may or may not matter to you if you don’t plan to do a great deal of digital painting.
- Pressure sensitivity may be the most important thing if you are doing cartoons, comics, webcomics or graphic design.
- Quality of the device.
- Surface of the drawing area, how natural it feels to draw on it, etc.
- How well the stylus holds up to use.
- How well the device holds up to use.
Here’s a little story I’d like to share with you. I was first introduced to tablets over ten years ago. My first tablet was a Wacom Grapphire3 and I kept that tablet for over seven years until it broke. It broke due to the flimsy desk I had it sitting on. Mostly because it was placed on the pull out shelf for keyboards and when I pulled the shelf out the USB cord would yank the Grapphire3 backwards and it would fall to the floor. Don’t ask me why, but at the time I was pretty careless as this occurred several times. It also took a beating due to my children who, since they’ve come into this world, have always shared a recreational place in my home office due to lack of space. In their youth they would venture over to my desk and knock things off. Thus, as expected, after some time the Grapphire stopped working. It fought the good fight for long enough and gave up the ghost.
So what’s the point? Well, quality of device may also evoke durability. Things may happen beyond your control or, in my case, completely within your control and you don’t want something that will break at the first sign of stress. It’s not my intention to push Wacom on you because I’ve gone through Digipro, Genius and currently VisTablet. All three of those were just as durable. I’ve had the VT Muse for over three years now with no durability problems. Granted, I’ve become far more conscious of where I place my tools in my work area now.
But the VT Muse felt right. It has its quirks, but it serves its purpose. It was the right price and had the right functions at the time I shopped around for a tablet. I wasn’t ready to shell out dollars for the Wacoms yet, but I may work myself up to it over time.
Make sure you find the one that fits your needs.