What do you need a graphics tablet for?

Technically, nothing.  There’s no process that’s literally impossible without a tablet.  Sure, there are some I’ll cover that are so difficult they might as well be, but nothing is completely impossible without it.  I’d say you should invest in a tablet if you’re planning on doing the following things regularly…

Advanced coloring

If you’re planning on doing any significant coloring, processing, or screentoning to a scanned image, having a tablet will make it go several times as fast, with several times better-looking results.  There are a lot of strokes and manual blending effects that are either extremely difficult with a mouse, like hand-painting shine onto hair or creating precise drop shadows.  The pen tool can handle some of these, but spending hours manually plotting hundreds of dots and curves will drive you to drink.  The amount of time you’ll save is worth the investment.

Digital painting

Digital painting from scratch is almost inconceivable with anything but a solid graphics tablet.  Yes, I know there must be some genius who can paint a photorealistic fantasy scene with only a mouse and MS Paint, but you’re not him, so please don’t leave me an irate comment.

Large photomanipulation projects

Having a tablet makes precise use of the lasso, clone stamp, brush, and all related tools a hundred times easier.  If you need to make a lot of fast or precise edits to a lot of photos, get yourself a tablet.

Drawing from scratch, if the alternative is a mouse

Anything is better than drawing with a mouse.  I mean literally anything, even non art-related pursuits like mining coal or being shot in the face.

Here’s what you don’t need one for:

Drawing from scratch, if the alternative is pencil and paper

I’ve always been a fan of using traditional media for the drawings themselves and digital media for processing and coloring them.  Of course, there are plenty of professional artists—I might even go as far as to say this is the standard—who do the entire thing, from initial roughs to the finished work on a tablet, but it’s not at all necessary for drawing at any level.

Inking

This might just be my experience, but I find a tablet stylus much harder to keep steady than a pen on paper.

Design

Simply put, if you’re just a graphic or web designer, and you don’t do any illustration, you don’t need one.

What Features Do You Need?

For the record, I use a Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch Medium.  But I’m not going to tell you exactly which model to buy.  Instead, there’s a certain feature set you should look out for.

Size

If you have the budget for it, a medium tablet is small enough to fit in a laptop bag, and on most desks, but big enough to keep your hand from constantly falling off it.

Pressure Sensitivity

Like RAM, levels of pressure sensitivity come in increments of 256.  Almost all common ones come with 512, 1024, or 2048.  Aim for the middle.  512 will probably seem cumbersome, but unless you’re a master digital painter, you won’t need 2048.

Touch Sensitivity

One of the best things about a touch tablet is that it can be used as a total mouse replacement.  I haven’t missed my mouse since I got it, and mundane computer tasks are a lot more fun when you can do them by swiping and tapping a magic touchpad.

Cables

If you travel with your tablet at all, I recommend one with a micro-USB jack instead of one with the cable hard-wired into the tablet.  You will have to wrap the cord up, and it will eventually get shorted.  That’s just going to happen.

Drivers

Check any Amazon reviews to see if they mention anything about the installation process, incompatibilities, or the drivers being all screwy in general.  Those are the most likely problems with off-brand tablets, which are otherwise perfectly capable replacements for a Wacom.

Tablet or Tablet PC?

I normally don’t care for tablet PCs, but one of the developments I’m most excited about is that, for the first time, we have a combination of cheap tablet PCs and styluses that let you draw with them: Wacom makes a series of them ranging in price from $10 to $80.  Personally, I haven’t gotten a chance to use them.

You see, in the old days, the only way to draw directly onto a screen was to buy a Wacom Cintiq, which cost $1,000 for the smallest model and as much as an ugly-but-perfectly-good used car for the larger ones.  But now, there’s an alternative that can be had for under $300 (for both the tablet and the pen).  And if you don’t like it, you still have a perfectly functional tablet PC you can use for anything else.

I haven’t tried this method myself, but a lot of users complain that it has a fatal flaw in the fact that you can’t rest your hand on the screen while you draw, making it near impossible to create steady lines on a larger screen.  Tablet screens also aren’t designed to handle how sharp stylus tips can get when they wear down unevenly, so they can scratch much more easily than a Wacom surface.

It’s a technology worth watching, though, and may become a valid Cintiq-killer once they get the bugs worked out.

What tablet do you use, and how often?  Leave us a comment.

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