The one indispensable accessory for any professional graphic artist is the graphics tablet, but not all graphics tablets are equal. How do you choose the right one for your needs and budget? In this article, we’ll look at some of the factors that are important in selecting graphics tablets.
By far the most important thing to know before you buy a graphics tablet is what resolution it provides. Essentially, the higher the resolution provided, the finer you can get the detail in your drawings.
Does that mean you should buy the highest resolution available? Well, if you can afford it, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but if you’re on a budget then you’ll need to think about whether the kind of work you do requires incredibly fine detail or not.
For a simple webtoon, or even basic logo design, fine detail may not be necessary, and you could save yourself some money by buying a more basic tablet with a lower resolution. If you’re producing fine art, or photo realistic drawings, on the other hand, high resolution is necessary and should be considered an investment.
Keep in mind that your needs may change if your work evolves. It probably makes sense to wait until you really need the better technology before buying it, because there is a chance that the technology will evolve more rapidly than your work.
Some tablets measure resolution in pixels, while most use the Lines per Inch (LPI) standard.
2. Pressure Sensitivity
Many modern graphics tablets include pressure sensitivity, and can vary the depth of your stroke depending on how firmly you apply the pen. As with resolution, the products can vary a lot in terms of how sensitive they are. Some of the cheapest models do not have pressure sensitivity at all.
Pressure sensitivity is such an important factor in the quality you can achieve in your drawings. If you only need to do simple sketches, you may not care too much about pressure sensitivity. But for any serious art and design work, it is essential.
Ideally you should seek out a model with the highest levels of pressure sensitivity you can afford. This will get you the closest feeling to actually working with real pens and brushes on paper or canvas.
When you can see the results pressure sensitivity can provide, you will never consider working with tablets that don’t provide it. The difference is just too great.
3. Tracking Speed
This factor is measured in Points per Second (PPS). The higher the number, the better the tracking speed, which means there is less delay time (lag) between when you make a stroke on the drawing surface and when the computer responds to that stroke.
Note that some older tablets with very low PPS ratings may give quite poor performance, including choppiness.
4. Physical Size
Normally it makes sense to go with the logic that bigger is better, but this is not always true when it comes to graphics tablets. For a start, larger size usually also means larger cost, and you don’t always get the best bang for your buck this way.
A smaller tablet may provide higher resolution for the amount you spend, and most artists find that small tablets work perfectly fine.
When buying a larger tablet, you need to be sure you have room for it on your desk surface. Of course you could possibly buy a larger desk, which would solve the problem, but then you’ll need to make sure you have room in your office for the larger desk. Buying a larger office is not always an option.
If you want a large tablet with high resolution, be prepared to pay top dollar for it. Sometimes there can be an advantage to having a larger tablet.
An advantage that smaller tablets have over larger ones is that they’re easier to travel with and less likely to become damaged.
5. Physical Material
What your tablet is constructed from is also a factor. The majority of graphics tablets are made from cheap plastics. Clearly there is an advantage if the construction of the tablet exterior contains more metals than plastics, because it will provide extra strength.
The downside of metal construction is that it is heavier, and will attract condensation from the air in cold environments.
Obviously the drawing surface is even more important than the frame, and in this case it is not so much about what material is used, it is more about the texture of the material. Ideally you want the surface to be as smooth as possible.
Some of the cheapest tablets may almost have a granular texture to the drawing surface, and this will definitely affect the smoothness with which your pen can glide over the surface.
More recently, Wacom has been producing a special line of graphics tablets called Cintiq. It is the smoothest tablet experience you will ever find because you are drawing directly on glass.
To be more precise, the Cintiq is not a traditional graphics tablet which passively plugs into a PC, but a touch screen monitor you can draw on directly.
This may sound desirable, but the price tag is huge compared to regular graphics tablets, and touch screens can develop flaws over time. It is likely a Cintiq model will need replacing sooner than a less expensive traditional graphics tablet.
Glass is also more delicate than metal or plastic. You will need to handle a Cintiq tablet more carefully if you are traveling with it or if you are a clumsy type. Placing your hot coffee mug on top of a regular graphics tablet is not a fantastic idea, but it is nothing short of a disaster to do the same with a Cintiq tablet.
6. Cintiq still rocks
The real reason for choosing a Cintiq, if you can afford it, is that some artists find they can work more quickly with this model. They don’t necessarily create better designs, but the efficiency of their work may be improved. The exact degree of improvement, if any at all, would vary greatly between individuals.
Because you can instantly see the result of each stroke while looking directly at the drawing surface, you likely to make fewer drawing errors. This will be especially noticeable when creating complex designs, especially when it comes to curves and squiggles.
How your tablet can connect to your computer (or even if it needs to) is another important factor to consider.
If you have an older computer, your only option will be USB 2. It is rare for a tablet in the current generation to have (or require) USB 3. In any case, a USB 3 connector will plug into a USB 2 port and work perfectly fine.
More modern computers may be able to communicate with some graphics tablets using BlueTooth. Not all graphics tablets have BlueTooth technology installed, so you’ll need to check this if it’s how you’d prefer to work.
8. OS and Software Compatibility
Your choice of graphics tablets may be restricted by the operating system you use. As the current market leader, Wacom offers the best compatibility with devices that will work on Windows, Mac, and most versions of Linux.
For the ultimate in compatibility with all popular graphics software titles and operating systems, the safest choices are Wacom Intuos 5, Wacom Intuos 4, and Wacom Intuos 3.
Apple devices such as Mac, iPad, and iPhone come with Wacom drivers already installed, as do the most popular Linux distros. Windows users will still have to manually install drivers as usual. Other brands of tablets will most likely require the manual installation of drivers regardless of which operating system you use.
9. Bundled Software
If your tablet comes with bundled software, it will be potentially better value, but only if it doesn’t cost you more and only if you actually need that software. In many cases the bundled software that comes with hardware products is not really suitable for professional use, though it may be fun to play with.
This is clearly the factor that will have the most significance in terms of what you can choose, no matter how much the other factors are in play. Here are the recommendations for each budget level:
Best High End: Wacom Cintiq (any). All the Wacom Cintiq products are the best in their class, and the only barrier for new users is the astronomical price tag.
Best Upper Division: Wacom Intuos Pro. A solid performer with excellent compatibility and good technology features to help speed up your workflow.
Best for Colorists: If you are a professional colorist, you will find the Wacom Intuos Art will best meet your needs, and with a price tag just under $100, it is quite reasonable in terms of value. It comes with bundled software that adds to its value and will be of interest to colorists.
Best for Beginners: Wacom Intuos Draw. This tablet is suited to basic uses and would be perfectly fine for simple manga drawing or similar tasks. It has good compatibility and some fine bundled software for Windows and OSX.
Best Mid-Range: HUION H610 Pro. With a generous drawing surface, 8 programmable keys and 16 fixed function keys, plus 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, this is going to meet the needs of many designers, and the cost is only around $70. It’s only drawback is that as a relative newcomer to the scene, software support still hasn’t really caught up with it yet.
Best Budget Buy: Turcom TS-6610. This little powerhouse is amazing value at under $50, and comes with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, 8 hot keys, and 5080 LPI resolution (equivalent to Intuos 4). The downside to this one is driver installation, which can be a mind-boggling nightmare for technophobes. Software compatibility is hit and miss, but it does work with major titles like PhotoShop and GIMP.