A Peek at Graphics Tablets

If you frequent HotHardware, then you are probably well aware that we tend to include a fair number of photos, screenshots, and other relevant art elements in all of our product reviews. We go to great pains to dive deep into the technical details of the products in the text of the reviews, but we also understand the importance of including visual elements that exemplify what we are talking about. In fact, if we've done our job right, you should be able to learn a lot about the product just from studying the images.

Unfortunately, getting the images to look good enough to include in a review is seldom as simple as just copying the image off the camera and uploading it to the site. The images usually need some visual massaging--typically in the form of color, brightness, contrast, and levels adjustments. With product shots we often have to matte out portions of the image background; and at the very least, we need to resize each image so that its dimensions properly fit the page as well as compress the image so that it loads quickly. The application of choice to do these chores is Adobe Photoshop. And while a mouse and keyboard will get the job done, a graphics tablet is much better suited for the tasks at hand.

I use the Wacom Bamboo tablet during my daily image-manipulation grind. The Bamboo is an inexpensive ($79) and small (active area: 5.8x3.7-inches) tablet, which includes fairly-limited bells-and-whistles (when compared to its more expensive siblings). It has a resolution of 2,540 lines-per-inch (LPI), pressure-sensitivity of 512 levels, four programmable buttons, a scroll wheel, and comes with a two-button stylus that doesn't need batteries. As I use it exclusively for photo manipulation, its small size and limited features meet my basic needs. This is in part because I am anything but a Photoshop power user. Certainly, those more-versed in the art of Photoshop, and especially those who create illustrations (with apps such as Adobe Illustrator), would be better served by using a larger-sized tablet with more functionality (such as a higher resolution, greater pressure sensitivity, and more programmable buttons).

The problem is, larger tablets with more features can cost much more than the mere $79 I paid for the Bamboo (yes, I bought it with my own hard-earned cash). Wacom's least-expensive, professional-level tablet--the Intuos4 Small--costs $229 and has an active area of 6.2x3.9-inches. The Intuos4 Large has an active area of 12.8x8.0-inches and it sells for $469. Of course, if you are a graphics professional who earns his or her keep working in apps such as Photoshop and Illustrator, these professional-level tablets are often a necessity. The Wacom Intuos line is perhaps the most popular brand of graphics tablet on the market today. The specs for the entire Intuos4 line include 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity, 5,080-LPI resolution, 8 programmable keys, a scroll wheel, and a stylus that does not need batteries.

A relatively new product category that is starting to gain some traction with graphics professionals is the "interactive pen display." You can look at these products one of two ways, depending on their size: you can regard them as a graphics tablet that includes an LCD monitor, or as an LCD display that includes graphics tablet functionality. Wacom currently has two interactive pen display models: the Cintiq.12WX ($999), with a WXGA (1280x800) display that measures 10.3x6.4-inches (12.1-inches diagonal); and the Cintiq.21UX ($1,999), with a UXGA (1600 x 1200) display that measures 17.0x12.75-inches (21.1-inches diagonal).

While Wacom might get the lion's share of attention, it is not the only graphics tablet player out there. Companies, such as Adesso, Genius-KYE, and VisTablet also make graphics tablets--and these manufacturers tend to focus on products that are significantly less-expensive than the Wacom offerings.

A while back Adesso sent me its highest-end graphics tablet, the CyberTablet M14, to experiment with. The CyberTablet M14 has an active area of 12.0x7.25-inches, a resolution of 4,000-LPI, 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, 34 "macro keys" (of which 12 to 19 of them are programmable--depending on the application), two scroll wheels, and a stylus that requires an AAA battery. I've been using the CyberTablet M14 on my Windows machine, while I continue to use the Bamboo on my Mac (although I did spend some time with the CyberTablet M14 also connected to my Mac to evaluate its Mac functionality). The CyberTablet M14 sells for $199.99, which is $169 cheaper than the comparable Wacom Intuos4 tablet. The CyberTablet M14 has far more programmable buttons than the Intuos4 Large and it even has two scroll wheels compared to the Intuos4 Large's one scroll wheel (although, the CyberTablet's "buttons" and dual scroll wheels do not work exactly as you might expect them to--see below). From a pure specs perspective, however, the CyberTablet M14 doesn't quite measure up to the Intuos4 Large's capabilities.

The CyberTablet M14 worked fine on both my Windows and Mac systems without even needing to install any software. To utilize the macro button functionality, however, requires that you install drivers. I saw online that some users were running into problems with the Mac version of the software, so I made sure to install the latest version that was available online for download. I ran into no problems during either install, but I was unhappy when the respective software installations required that I reboot both my Windows Vista and Mac systems.

I found the pen input to be smooth and predictable with no noticeable lag. At first, I couldn't get the pressure sensitivity to work, until I realized that the driver was in "Ink Mode." Once I switched it over to "Graphics Mode," the pressure sensitivity kicked in. In Graphics Mode you can also set the tablet's tracking mode to absolute or relative; program the two stylus buttons for left or right mouse clicks, double clicks, or scroll bar up and down; and adjust the pressure sensitivity. I found the stylus to be a bit thicker than I am used to with the Wacom pen, and I would have preferred a stylus that didn't require a battery.

The tablet has scroll wheels located in each of the top two corners. Buttons on the top of the tablet, shift the scroll wheels' function from scrolling to zooming or volume controls. The idea behind the dual scroll wheels is that it makes them easily accessible to both left and right-handed users. Unfortunately, you cannot assign separate functions to the two wheels--whatever one wheel is set to do, the other wheel does as well.

A total of 34 macro buttons ring the left, right, and top portions of the active area of the tablet. Unlike the physical buttons on the Wacom tablets, however, the buttons on the CyberTablet M14 are actually accessible only by pressing them with the stylus. The Windows version of the software comes with macro button presets for Windows XP and 2000, Windows Vista, Photoshop Elements, and PhotoImpact XL SE. I could not discern any means of adding additional application presets with the Windows version of the Software--you can easily do this with the Mac version. Of the 34 buttons, all but the Photoshop Elements preset, reserve 15 of the macro buttons for predetermined function, such as Open, Save, and Paste. The Photoshop Elements preset has a total of 22 already programmed functions. While you cannot alter any of the preset functions, the remaining unused macro buttons can be custom programmed by the user.

The Adesso Website claims that the CyberTablet M14 comes with Photoshop Elements 7.0 for Windows. Our unit actually came with Photoshop Elements 5.0; but this discrepancy could possibly be from us receiving an older package (the CyberTablet M14 has been on the market for over a year now). The CyberTablet M14 also comes with Photoshop Elements 4.0 for the Mac.

I liked working with the CyberTablet M14--especially the larger active area and the greater number of macro buttons. However, I would have a hard time dedicating full-time space for it on my desk. If I needed a larger tablet and was trying to pinch pennies as much as possible, this is a tablet that I would seriously consider. That said, there is something to be said for the long track record Wacom has with the quality and support of its tablets--two unproved variables as far as Adesso is considered, at least from my perspective. If I had money to burn, which tablet would I buy? The $1,999 Wacom Cintiq.21UX interactive pen display, of course!