Tablet Buying Guide

What's a Tablet? Isn't that an iPad?

Back before tablet computers became an actual product, we generally referred to graphics digitizers like Wacoms simply as tablets. Nowadays, it's a little more complicated now that tablet computers are functionally different than graphic digitizers and neither of them are interchangable in terms of function.

As it stands, the most useful tool for a digital artist is the graphic digitzer tablet simply because it interacts with PC/Mac software, which is ages ahead of the tablet computer offerings. Basically, you want a tablet that interacts with your computer like a mouse, not a tablet you walk around and watch movies on. The exception to this rule is the Wacom Cintiq Companion, but that product is well out of the price range of any beginner artist.

I'm really not sure which one to get. Should I be worried?

So you want to get into digital drawing but you're not sure what tablet to get, especially when the smallest Wacom tablet is pretty expensive.

You see a ton of features, all of which sound really important. How does anybody choose the right tablet as a beginner with all these professional words and tech specs flying around? The truth is most of the fancy specs don't influence a lot in actual drawing. The only factor that truly matters is whether the tablet works or not.

The good news is that the biggest differentiating factor for each tablet is size. The second most important is form-factor. The third is the physical features. Last are the driver features. On paper, the product market appears a lot more diverse than it actually is in terms of digitizer quality, but in actual practice many tablets product the same output that you draw with. I draw with and Intuos5 Medium and an UC-Logic tablet and the differences between the drawings are completely negligable. 

What should be my target goal with a tablet?

Ideally, the goal is to become natural with a tablet and the programs you prefer to the point of simply understanding how to draw on a tablet. This does not necessarily mean drawing well, but rather, gaining the ability to learn in the digital space instead of constantly adapting to it.

The hardest part of learning how to draw on a graphics tablet is dealing with the drawing on a surface you're not angled towards. Similar to contour drawing, you have to get used to drawing at something you're not necessarily looking at. What makes this extra difficult is that your cursor is often moving faster than what you're actually gesturing.

In the long term, drawing becomes natural no matter how fast the cursor is going, so the ultimate goal is getting to that point where it isn't chore to draw. One concern I see frequently on forums is this sense that if you invest poorly into a tablet, it'll come to bite you later. In my experience, this is only partially true. Usually what happens is that the artist either gives up or gets a larger tablet before he/she reaches a level of comfort with drawing on a tablet.

So what doesn't matter?

Levels of pressure sensitivity is not a factor you should concern yourself too much with. Even when side by side, I have a hard time seeing the difference between an Intuos3 which has 1024 levels and the Intuos5, which has 2048. They do not magically make your lines look better.

Touch features are somewhat clunky at the moment. It's simply not responsive enough to make it worth the few hotkeys it potentially shaves off a workflow. Until the technology matures, touch isn't worth the price premium you'll pay for a higher end Wacom model.

Ironically, the professional options like the Wacom Intuos Pro are better suited for casual use. By having buttons on the tablet, it's a lot easier to access the interface with your tablet resting on your knees when you can access buttons on the tablet itself.

Should I keep working on a tablet even if I'm not showing any progress?

As long as the tablet actually works on your computer and is fully functioning, there are zero absolutely necessary upgrades at the time of this writing. No tablet model can instantly improve your art. This is an assumption that many beginner digital artists make when they see the varying product lines, one slotted for hobbyist and another for a professional. In actual practice, you don't need an Intuos Pro to do professional level work, nor will your work be substantially worse off due to an older tablet model. Rather, the product market exists to accomadate a variety of different needs.

That being said, my view on tablets is that their milleage varies entirely on what the tablet means to you. Is the tablet an expenditure that turns into motivation? If so, then it may well be worth looking for an upgrade if it encourages you to draw better. Art is very personal since its about building your own individual skill, so anything that encourages you to endure more ultimately has great value.

The Picks

The Standard Recommendation: Wacom Intuos Medium

When I first started getting serious about digital art, I bought a fairly expensive Intuos3 Medium back in the day. This product is essentially the same tablet for significantly less. This is basically the core standard that all other tablets are measured by with an average size and good reliability. It works with practically every program without a hitch, so if you're in the market for trying out multiple programs, I'd give the Wacom Intuos Medium a spin and skip the worry.

What I'm currently using: Tursion 9x12 Inch (Lapazz/UC-Logic)

For half the price of an Intuos Medium, I have acquired a titan of a tablet that has great pressure sensitivity and great size. There are a few trade offs. The driver software isn't as fancy as Wacom's well defined drivers and it doesn't play nicely with Sketchbook Pro, but for Manga Studio 5, it's a perfect pairing. This is primarily due to being able to adjust the pressure sensitivity inside the program. To me, it's a steal, but there are reports here and there about it not working properly. I haven't run into any issues, even when there weren't any official Windows 8.1 drivers out for the product.