Anyone who spends significant amounts of time working on images will run into frustration with their primary input device, the humble mouse. For fine-grained control of what’s on the screen — and particularly for creating and manipulating images — a conventional mouse can be clumsy to use. Anyone with skill in drawing would be much happier using a pen: enter the graphics tablet.
Wacom dominates the graphics tablet market. Its Bamboo range is the leader in low-cost, high-quality entry-level tablets, while its PL and Cintiq models combine the precision of graphics tablets with LCD screens to more closely mimic the effect of drawing. Slap-bang in the middle is the Intuos, the professional-level graphics tablet used by artists and illustrators the world over.
One question on many users’ minds will be, how can the company improve on the Intuos3? Widely lauded as the king of the hill, the Intuos3 introduced some innovations that users would now refuse to go without. Wacom’s latest tablet appears less innovative at first glance, but with repeated use it quickly begins to shine.
As with the Intuos3, Wacom intends for the Intuos4 to take over the user’s desk, replacing the keyboard for most operations. The number of models in the range has been reduced in comparison with previous ranges. The 4:3 tablets have been ditched in favour of the widescreen A6, A5, A4, and A3 models – now called the Intuos4 S, M, L, and XL models by Wacom. The company says this is because most creatives use widescreen displays, so the 4:3 models were redundant — and we’re inclined to agree.
The customizable ExpressKeys introduced with the Intuos3 are still present and have been joined by the Touch Ring. This can be used for a number of functions including scrolling, zooming, canvas rotation, bush-size adjustment and cycling.
Pressing the Touch Ring’s central button switches the function, and to perform the action, you run a finger around the ring, in the same way you would with an iPod Classic. It takes a little getting used to, but after a while the action becomes second nature.
A white LED shows which function is currently in use, though a better display would be welcome here, as it’s frustrating to inadvertently perform the wrong action.
This shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. The issue has been dealt with the ExpressKeys, for example. Beside the ExpressKeys are small, monochrome OLED screens showing the keys’ current functions.
Happily, pressing the topmost ExpressKey pulls up a translucent Help screen (below) that explains what every key does. Once you’re fully accustomed to the keys this default can, of course, be changed to something else.
Pressing the Precision Mode ExpressKey slows down the pen’s movement across the screen, effectively increasing the tablet’s tracking resolution in order to enable finely detailed work.
A radial menu accessed from the ExpressKeys allows control of media such as iTunes and access to email and the web browsers, and to commands such as copy, paste and undo.
This seems a small point, but when the tablet is in use it becomes significant: the addition of this level of system control is a real boon as, it means the user can avoid moving back to the keyboard more easily. As our test model, the Intuos4L, is a large device and best positioned directly in front of the screen, the chances are the keyboard will be in an awkward location so switching between keyboard and tablet becomes a pain.
The tablet is extensively adjustable through its System Preferences panel. Everything from tilt sensitivity to screen mapping is included. Unfortunately, the panel is complex and will require some practice to get used to. Tip Feel is one of the most interesting options, allowing for fine-grained control of the amount of pressure required on the pen.
Tilt sensitivity is impressive. Working in an application such as Corel Painter, titling the stylus pen has exactly the same effect as tilting a pencil or brush.
Pressure sensitivity remains high, and the pen itself offers 1,024 levels of sensitivity — something which again becomes apparent when you use it with compatible software. Wacom claims that the new tip captures the slightest nuance of pressure, and we certainly wouldn’t dispute this claim.
The pen includes a DuoSwitch rocker button, which can be used for clicking, emulating keystokes and as a modifier. Flipping the pen over, an eraser is located at the top end.
The wide-format, textured tablet area is a joy to use. To the touch the active area feels like matte plastic but the pen’s nib really does drag across it like a real pen on paper – the resistance is remarkably similar. The sheer size of the active area, which can be divided into portions, means the Intuos4 will quickly become well-nigh indispensable. Over time, this product will pay for itself many times over in productivity gains.
On the downside, documentation was verging on non-existent. This may be because we received an advance review unit, but if not, Wacom could really do better. An interactive tutorial is included on the CD, but nothing beats detailed documentation, either printed or at least as a PDF. For example, muddling through the System Preferences panel will be baffling to new users who aren’t familiar with previous Wacom tablets.