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When I started my new job in January 03, I demanded a graphics tablet. I already had a cheap battery-powered tablet at home, and had caught the tablet bug. My work computer is an Apple Mac though, and there were no drivers for this model, so we splashed out on a Wacom Intuos 2, which I’m very glad about.

I managed to break my cheap tablet at home almost as soon as I got it by pulling the pen in half when trying to load the battery. And it didn’t seem to hold its charge on the NiMH AAA battery I was using: all very frustrating. At the time of writing, the Wacom (definitely the Rolls Royce of the tablet world) has worked without fault, up to 40 hours a week for over three years.

I can’t say I use all the Intuos features: the pen has a tilt-detect function for realistic brush/pen simulation. There are also a variety of different pens and even a airbrush nozzle for it. Most of the pens also have an eraser on the other end which can be set to an erase tool (or any other). I pick up the pen upside down so often that I just use the eraser end as a standard mouse, else I’d be erasing things all the time. The pens come with spare nibs, but I still haven’t worn through the first one yet. If I were to place a sheet of paper on the tablet to get a realistic “drawing on paper” feel, it probably would’ve worn down a lot quicker.

After discarding my temperamental cheap tablet at home, I splashed out on a Wacom of my own. All the Wacoms work without batteries as far as I know. I got the cheaper Graphire 3 XL (when buying a tablet, take note of the usable area - some people sell tablets that claim to be A5, but only have an A6 usable area - a bit small for a lot of programs). The Graphire is clearly cheaper than the Intuos: it has a smaller area (Intuos is 6x8 inches, whereas the Graphire is only A5), a lighter pen (the pens are not interchangeable) and no tilt sensitivity. As far as I know you can only get one kind of pen for the Graphire. The Intous also has some “function keys” across the top that can be programmed to do various things.

On mine, I had a fault for a few days where the pen seemed to stay pressed down all the time even when it was removed from the tablet. It happened off and on for a few days, but then it recovered and it’s been fine for months since. Replacement pens are available, but they’re not cheap.

Wacom tablets come with a “mouse” that will only work on top of the tablet. Given the position of m tablet (see below) I don’t find them at all useful, and I never use them. Like as not you’ve already got a mouse.

What’s so good about a tablet?

The obvious use is for digital art. Wacom tablets come with Procreate Painter which even a novice can create nice watercolour effects in, or make the same smudgy ink mess that they’d make on paper. The tablet clearly isn’t a pen and paper, or brush or whatever, but it is a very powerful tool. I tend to draw on paper and scan in the picture, then do the colouring with the Wacom.

For photo retouching it’s great, especially on a Mac which is more mouse-intensive than a Windows. Pressure-sensitivity is really useful for using Quick Mask or for rubber-stamping or deleting. And the ability to jump around the screen and lightning speed is good too.

That extra speed is good for text-based work too. I had to do about 12,000 cut and paste operations for www.dshed.net/90secondchallenge and moving the mouse around would’ve played havoc with my arm. The Wacom helped me do the job a lot more quickly (though I was so fast that I played havoc with my neck and shoulders instead, which may have given me a months-long headache!)

Tips

  1. Double clicking is too hard with a pen, so programme one of the buttons to be a double-click and he other to be a right-click (the pen nib is a left click).

  2. “Hovering” is really tricky (eg to see “tool tips”): you’ll have to line up the mouse on the tool, then left the pen slowly right away from the tablet so the mouse pointer stops moving and you can get your tip.

  3. For working in graphics applications, I keep the tablet in front of me, with the keyboard behind it: I can reach the keyboard to type shortcut keys or filenames, but the pen is comfortable in from of me. Use it like you would a piece of paper, not like a mouse. But if you’re typing a lot, swap the two around or you may damage your neck and shoulders.

Have fun!