One of the most useful accessories that can be added to a personal computer setup is a graphics tablet. These devices allow you to put aside your mouse and use a pen-like stylus instead, with which you can draw and write with naturalistic hand movements, as well as carry out all the usual pointing and clicking tasks. These capabilities are especially useful for artistic and graphics professionals, but they can profoundly change the way that almost anybody interacts with a computer. However, not all graphics tablets are created equal. They vary greatly in terms of quality, features, support, and of course price. In this article I will discuss what to look for when choosing a graphics tablet, and compare some of the most popular models on the current market.
Choosing a tablet
So what should you look for when you decide to buy a graphics tablet? The first thing to consider is the range of features that you require. The most basic tablets are simple mouse replacements, intended mainly for office rather than creative work. They typically include no additional software other than the drivers that translate the stylus movements into computer input.
This isn’t necessarily too much of a problem, as modern operating systems such as Microsoft Vista and OS X have built-in handwriting recognition, while recent versions of Microsoft Office include pen features. Where the most basic tablets are often lacking is in the precise stylus pressure and tilt sensitivity required by artists and creative users. High end tablets can have up to 1,024 levels of sensitivity, while in cheaper tablets this can be as low as 256 levels, or can even be absent altogether.
Another major consideration is size. The active area of a tablet can vary from as small as 5” x 4” right up to 12” x 9” monsters. The tablet’s actual footprint can be several inches larger all around than its active area, so the available physical desktop area is clearly a consideration. Equally important are the ergonomics of use. Artists are often accustomed to making expansive sweeping movements with pencils and brushes, so may find a larger area is more helpful to the creative process. On the other hand, non-artists are likely to find such a drawing area unnaturally large and awkward to get used to, besides which the price increases rapidly with the cost, so there’s little value in going for a large active area unless you know you need it.
A third major consideration is the interface between the tablet and the host computer. Most modern tablets are connected by USB, and this is an adequate choice in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Owners of older hardware not equipped with USB ports, for example will need to look for a tablet with a serial interface. Other users may prefer a wireless solution which offers the flexibility to use the tablet at a greater distance from the computer itself, as well as making it slightly easier to move it from one computer to another.
As has already been mentioned, depending on your requirements it may also be worth looking at the software bundle that is included with a tablet. Most tablet packages contain some form of drawing software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. Established graphic artists are likely to already own a selection of this type of software, but beginners in the field may find that buying a tablet offers an opportunity to obtain a selection of useful software titles for a competitive price at the same time.
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