|Q: What is a tablet?|
A: A tablet is simply put a drawing board for the computer. It is like a mouse, only it's not. With a tablet you can do much more than moving the cursor around and clicking. Generally tablets have something called "pressure sensitivity" which means that the harder you press the thicker/stronger your strokes will be in the drawing program of your choice (which also has to support pressure sensitivity, i.e. not MS Paint).
|Q: Why a tablet and not a mouse?|
A: Yes, why should you use a tablet and not just stick with your mouse? For tablet users the answer to that question is obvious, however for the person who's never touched a tablet, or maybe don't even know of their existence, the reason to choose a tablet might be hazier.
Have you ever tried actually drawing with your mouse on your computer? Let's make a little experiment. First go and get a pen and some paper and draw a picture of a face. Anything more complex than a circle, two dots and a line will do fine. Next fire up the graphics program of your choice, MS Paint will do. I want you to draw a picture of that same face, but using the mouse. Don't spend too much time on it, since with time anything is possible. Look at the two pictures, which one looks better? That's exactly the reason why you should get a tablet if you're doing graphical design of any sort. It brings the traditional way of drawing into the computer and simplifies the whole process of digital 2d graphic creation.
While you can do pretty much everything you can do with a tablet with a mouse there is one great difference. Drawing with a mouse as opposed to a tablet is much more painstaking and takes a whole lot of time. Even drawing a simple circle (without using a circle tool) is near impossible with a mouse, yet with a tablet it's a walk in the park, and when you're done you'll have time over to actually physically take a walk in the park, should you wish.
There is another reason to choose tablets over mice as well, namely your health. Using a tablet cuts down the risk for repetitive stress syndrome in your arm, wrist and hand and also cuts down the risk for carpal tunnel syndrome.
|Q: What do all the specs mean?|
Tablet Dimensions: the size of the tablet itself
Active Area: the size of the active area, the are you actually draw on
Pressure Levels: how many levels of pressure there are. Tablets usually come with either 512 or 1024 pressure levels. A higher pressure sensitivity means that the strokes will become smoother, depending on the way you use the pressure sensitivity (like to change the size of the brush, opacity or flow for instance). According to wacom.com there are over 100 programs out there that have pressure-sensitive tools. Those programs are guaranteed to work with Wacom tablets at least, but not necessarily with other brands.
Resolution: generally measured in lip (lines per inch). Think of the active area as a grid, the higher the lip count the denser the grid. The denser the grid the more receptors there are to pick up the signal from the pen and thusly, generally, the more accurate the tablet gets.
Max. data rate: this is measured in pps (points per second) and meaning how much data can be transferred between the pen/tablet/computer in one second. The higher rate the smoother your lines will be, most apparent if you draw your strokes in a hastily manner.
Accuracy: measured in inches, or rather fractions of inches. Basically how accurate the tablet is, the higher the accuracy the more accurate. I don't know many more ways to spell that one out.
Tilt Range: measured in degrees, only pertinent to tablets that utilize pen tilt, such as the Wacom Intuos. Meaning how much pen tilt that the tablet will recognize, if you tilt the pen more it either will not work or it will just read that tilt as the maximum tilt level set by the hardware.
|Q: What is a good tablet?|
A: This is really a no-brainer. Wacom makes the best tablets around. The question is rather what is a good tablet for you.
If you have absolutely no experience with tablets it is a wonderful idea to start out with a Wacom Graphire3, it comes in two sizes 4x5 and 6x8 inches. It's cheaper than its bigger brother Intuos and it's a marvelous tablet to start with if you have no experience, for a number of reasons. If you find out you absolutely hate tablets after trying it you haven't spent too much money on it, and you should still be able to sell it off on eBay should you wish. If you do love it then you have a wonderful tablet to work with while you may want to save up for the Intuos. The Graphire3 has 512 pressure levels, 2032 lpi and range at about $100 in price.
A Graphire3 is generally a fine tablet if you're only doing photo manipulations and the like, though if you are more into the drawing side of things you might want to go for a Wacom Intuos2. The Intuos2 comes in five different sizes (4x5, 6x8, 9x12, 12x12 and 12x18 inches) and is generally a better tablet with higher better hardware. There are also plenty of extra accessories you can buy for your Intuos two, such as different pens and mice, though the pen that it ships with is more than good enough. The Intous2 comes with 1024 pressure levels, 2540 lpi and they vary in price from about $200 to about $750, depending on the size you want to go for.
The size is another issue which you obviously need to confront. Sit down and draw on a paper, how big do you actually draw? Do you make big sweeping strokes or are you more someone who draws in a very petite manner? I know the 4x5" of the Graphire3 may sound terribly small, but consider that you map the entire size of your screen to that active area and then it's suddenly not so small any more. It also is quite stupid to think that bigger equals better only to realize when you've spend $750 that you have to change the configuration of the tablet to use a smaller area because you can't use your tablet properly due to its size. Go for something that fits you. Generally a 4x5 or a 6x8 inch tablet is perfect for a regular John Doe.
There are a couple of other brands that Wacom makes that I've neglected to bring up, and will continue to neglect after this paragraph. The Wacom Cintiq is a positively huge tablet that can show your screen on the active area on the tablet. In essence it is a LCD screen with pressure sensitivity. It's also terribly expensive, and considering what kind of colors and such you get out of your own screen a Cintiq is not something that's especially interesting for the home user. Then there is the TabletPC which basically extends the Cintiq into a full computer and runs on Windows XP. Just as I don't recommend the Cintiq to the average tablet user neither do I recommend the TabletPC. While Cintiqs and TabletPC have their uses it's more within a corporate environment than on a home user basis.
Both the Wacom Graphire3 and the Intuos2 work with a USB connection, so if your computer does not have any USB ports you might want to get a USB card that fits into your motherboard. The Intuos2 does however also come with a serial connection, but is less avaliable since most computers these days support USB. Other than that the system requirements can be read on wacom.com.
|Q: So why isn't brand X better than Wacom?|
A: Since Wacom doesn't have the patent on tablet making in general there are obviously other actors on the market, the two most popular ones aside from Wacom are Trust with their wireless tablets and Aiptek with their HyperPen line.
Now, before I say anything more, consider this. You have a company that's been around for some time that specialize entirely on tablets and then you have some other companies that also make tablets, but they make many other products as well, effectively not specializing themselves on anything. Which company do you think, just based on that assumption, will put out the best quality product?
During my time in various forums around the net I have read plenty of testimonials about tablets, Wacoms, Trusts and Aipteks, and others, alike. One thing that I caught on fairly quickly to was that it's the cheaper brands that have the most problems. They tend to suffer from a lack of compatibility, software/driver errors, and hardware errors (such as crass durability) more often than Wacom. While I've seen plenty of people have problem with their Wacom tablets as well the problems were mostly the person not understanding the tablet or its configuration, or just plainly expecting that they would be awesome artists just by getting a Wacom when they were crap before.
I can personally testify on the durability of Wacom tablets. I have a Wacom Graphire myself, bought around three years ago, I have used it pretty much every day and it still works as good as the day I bought it. Yes, the nib on the pen is wearing down and the plastic cover on the tablet itself is scratched and worn down too, but those parts are seen as replacement parts, no matter what tablet brand you'll buy. I haven't treated my tablet with silk gloves either, it's been banged up from time to time, and it doubles as my mouse pad for my regular mouse, yet it works perfectly still. I challenge anyone to abuse their cheaper Trust or Aiptek tablet to my amount of misconduct and then say it still works perfectly.
With all that said though, if you buy a Trust or an Aiptek tablet it will probably work just fine for you, but do not count on it. Play it safe, be satisfied, buy a Wacom. While they are more expensive, what you lose in pocket change you get back, tenfold, in quality.
|Q: Where can I get myself a Wacom tablet?|
A: That depends slightly on where you currently reside. The obvious place to start looking would be at wacom.com. Enter the region of your choice at the front page and look for the online store.
Other places to look are general computer accessory retailers. If you happen to live in the Americas you can use the online resellers linked from Wacom's site. You can also, obviously, look in stores around your immediate vicinity. Though, chances are if you live out in the boonies like myself finding one of those in a store is like finding ostrich eggs in the supermarket.
Another great place to look, especially if you are strapped for cash, is eBay. You can usually find both new and refurbished tablets for well under the usual retail price. Do be careful to only buy from what seems to be decent retailers though.
Wacom Online Shop: