Review: Wacom Intuos4

Body: 

Score: 95

Pros: Beautiful design, great feel. New buttons, TouchRing, and Radial menu are useful additions that let you drive a huge number of functions from the tablet.

Cons: No way to access menu items using the Mac driver; no way to share settings among multiple machines.

It always surprises me when I discover that an otherwise gear-laden photographer lacks a Wacom pressure-sensitive drawing tablet. I forget that not everyone understands that a Wacom tablet is an essential piece of post-production equipment, like a computer. For that matter, anyone who works with image editing, painting, or illustration software needs a Wacom tablet. Graphic designers, illustrators, visual effects artists -- if you ever brush on a paint stroke, it's silly to use a mouse.

The reasons are simple: A pen/tablet interface makes painting -- be it big broad strokes or fine detail work -- much easier and faster. It’s more comfortable on your hand and, thanks to pressure sensitivity, more expressive. Because the tablet can send pressure, tilt, and bearing information to the computer, you can create calligraphic brush strokes, and other effects that work just like real tools. And all without clenching your hand into the tight little claw a mouse requires.

Although there are other tablet makers, Wacom stands apart because of its extremely well-made products, battery-free pen technology, and a range of tablet sizes with prices starting at $79 for a 4" x 6" tablet. Because Wacom tablets have long provided low-profile, comfortable designs and excellent pen tracking, the company has focused on improving the additional features that a tablet can provide.

The most recent example of this improvement is the Intuos4. While it has a number of Wacom’s ideas from the past, it’s also a very different tablet from its predecessors. The Intuos4 ships in four sizes: small ($229), medium ($369), large ($499) and extra large ($789) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Intuos4 ships in four different sizes.

Wacom has completely re-designed the tablet, and the result is beautiful. A combination of glossy and matte black finishes, the tablet is very thin with gently curved edges (Figure 2). As befits a device that you use with your hand, the Intuos4’s beautiful design makes you want to touch it. (And, though this has no effect on the tablet’s functionality, I’d like to give a shout-out to Wacom’s packing designers who have crafted a box that is as beautiful as the tablet.)

Figure 2. This is the medium Intuos4.Click on the image to see a larger version.The Design
The tablet part of the Intuos4 is mostly unchanged. A large bezel contains the active area of the tablet, which has a different finish from the rest of the tablet’s surface. The active area is flush with the surface of the bezel, with only a slight separation between the two.

A side panel houses the tablet’s extra controls: eight buttons and a wheel like the controller on an iPod. (For this review, I looked at the 6" x 9" medium tablet. The small tablet has six buttons.)

Wacom has often struggled with its tablets' handedness. If the company puts the buttons on the left side of the tablet, where most people will use them, then it's awkward for lefties. If the buttons are at the top of the tablet, there’s no way to use them with your off hand without reaching over the drawing area. But with the Intuos4, Wacom has finally produced is a truly ambidextrous device. The tablet is perfectly symmetrical on both axes, which means you just flip it over to move the side-mounted controls to the other side. In both cases, the cord exits the tablet on the same side as your brush hand. Using the Wacom control panel, you can tell the driver which orientation you’re using, and it will automatically change its tracking orientation accordingly. This is an elegantly simple solution that works very well.

The active surface of the Intuos4 is different from its predecessor. It’s got a little more grab than the Intuos3, so the pen doesn’t skate across the surface at all, and the feedback is extremely close to writing on a pad of paper. My only concern is how it will wear over time. I’d hate for it to become slipperier, as it has such a nice feel now.

A new pen ships with the Intuos4 (Figure 3), and while it has the same controls as previous pens -- a two-position rocker switch on the side, and a pressure-sensitive eraser on the end -- the pen's guts are different. The nib is now far more sensitive, requiring only one gram of pressure to register a response, and it’s sensitive to 2,048 levels of pressure. The eraser has a different finish to it, and when you flip the pen over to use the eraser it feels different from the writing end. Like a real eraser, it has more resistance. You have to push it a little harder to get it to move, which is good as you’ll be less accident-prone.

Figure 3. The new pen. The Tablet
A mouse is a relative device. Move it to the left, and your cursor moves to the left. By contrast, the Intuous4 has a direct correspondence to the screen. Each corner of the active area maps to a corner of your monitor, so when you put the pen on the tablet in a particular place, the cursor shows up where you would expect it to, on-screen. (You can change the mapping so that it works more like a mouse, but I’ve never found a good use for this option.) Thanks to the feel of the surface, using the Intuos4 is very intuitive -- it’s just like drawing on a piece of paper.

Some people have trouble when they first start using a tablet because they’re not used to drawing in one place and looking at another, as you do when sketching with pencil and paper. But they usually adjust in a day or two.

The Wacom control panel provides options for limiting how much of the tablet surface is active, and how much of the screen the tablet effects (Figure 4). If you have a particularly large screen, and find yourself having to move your hand a long way to get from one side to the other, this can help you reduce the amount of physical motion required to use the tablet.

Figure 4. Using the Wacom driver software, you can control how much of the screen is affected by how much of the tablet. Click on the image to see a larger version.The Pen
Almost all modern painting and drawing programs recognize pressure sensitivity and use it in various ways. For example, in Photoshop, default pressure sensitivity controls brush size. Press harder and your brush gets larger, with the maximum being your currently selected size. But you can also opt to control opacity and shape with pressure, or color, ink scattering, and much more. Photoshop's Brushes palette provides simple checkbox controls for activating different pressure sensitivities (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Photoshop’s Brushes palette lets you activate different properties for pressure sensitive control.

Corel Painter offers even more options, with the ability to control brush parameters based on the tilt and bearing of the brush. With these options, you can create brushes that can’t exist in the real world.

The Wacom pen is completely customizable. In addition to changing the sensitivity of the tips, you can program the side buttons with different functions (by default, they’re set to right-click and double-click) and change the function of the eraser. You can set the buttons to deliver keystrokes, mouse actions, and much more, including such specialized actions as showing the desktop or launching an application (which can include an AppleScript on the Mac).

You can define different settings for different applications, and as you change apps, the well-designed, thorough software will automatically activate those settings.

The Controls
When you're painting digitally, the keyboard is as important as the tablet. But because it can be awkward to switch between devices, Wacom has added various keyboard-like controls to its tablets so that you can keep your hands on the tablet. Over the years, Wacom added an eraser and buttons to the pen; programmable buttons that generated keystrokes; wheels that could be used to zoom; and touch-sensitive strips that could be programmed for zooming, brush size, and any number of other functions. With each new tablet design, Wacom has kept some of these innovations and discarded others.

With the Intuos4, the position of the tablet's buttons is a little more convenient. But what really makes them usable are the displays next to each button (Figure 6). When you configure a button, you can also give it a title, which is displayed in the screen, so you no longer have to memorize which button does what. It's an extremely functional addition that also looks great on the tablet.

Figure 6. The titles save you from memorizing each button's purpose.

As with the pen controls, you can define different buttons sets for different applications. As you switch applications, you’ll see the button tags change automatically.

If eight buttons aren’t enough for you, you can also configure a button (or a switch on the pen) to activate the Radial menu, a new virtual menu that appears on-screen at the current mouse location (Figure 7).

Figure 7. The Radial menu provides a programmable soft menu that you can easily navigate with the pen.

If you click in the center (where the cursor appears by default when you invoke the menu), the menu will cancel. But, by simply sliding the pen to one of the four wedges, you can execute the associated command. You can even create sub-menus off of the main Radial menu.

For example, the upper wedge is a sub-menu, which takes me to a menu of Layer-related commands (Figure 8).

Figure 8. This submenu is configured with layer-related commands.

If you spend a little time configuring these menus, you can have a huge assortment of commands available entirely by pen stroke. Unfortunately, the Wacom software doesn't let you assign menu commands to a control. However, Photoshop lets you assign keyboard commands to every menu and submenu function. So I set up keyboard shortcuts for the options I wanted, and then configured the Radial menu to generate those keyboard shortcuts.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of outputting any of these settings, so you can’t move them to another machine. If you move your tablet around from computer to computer, you’ll have to configure the Wacom settings on each machine, separately. For complex setups, this can be a headache.

The Intuos4 has yet another control, a scroll wheel with a big button in the middle that's called the TouchRing. Just think “iPod wheel” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. There are four small LEDs next to the wheel that indicate four different wheel functions. Pressing the center button cycles through all four, so you can have four different capabilities on the wheel.

The wheel is ideally suited to zooming, changing brush size, cycling through multiple layers, and changing applications. I find it a little sensitive for accurate zooming, but it’s great for brush size. I'm not a fan of the touch strips on previous Wacom tablets, but the TouchRing is a great addition I use all the time.

Buy!
Wacom's products are very dependable. I’ve been using Wacom tablets for fifteen years, and only once has one broken. Because of this reliability, most users probably don't upgrade their tablets. The new features on the Intuos4 are good enough, though, that I recommend an upgrade even if you have a tablet now.

And for those of you who don’t already have a tablet, what are you waiting for?

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