The perfect graphics tablet doesn't exist. Choosing a graphics tablet for an artist can be compared to finding a music instrument for a musician. And so, I received a lot of emails concerning what kind of graphics tablet I use for my digital paintings. I bought a lot of tablets trying to get the best setup. My quest for the best graphic tablet finally ended with the A5. A 'little' tablet is now my main tool ( A "Wacom Intuos 4 Medium" to be precise ). But this result might only apply to me.
Let me share with you all my studies about ergonomics, cause behind the tablet size , the real question is about ergonomic of work.
1. A good access
Most of CG artists use shortcuts on the keyboard to speed up their work-flow. It's really good that constructor add more and more button to setup custom shortcuts on the graphics tablet, but it will never replace a complete left hand on a keyboard, in my humble point of view.
If you like to write notes, add descriptions, answer to IRC discussions while you are working, you need to have a good access to a keyboard.
The extra mouse
Many users believe graphics tablet can replace mouse. Sure it can. But for some work-flow I'm sometime use the mouse because I am faster with it. That's why I try keeping an extra mouse on my desktop. Why didn't I use the mouse delivered with the graphics tablet ? Because it has to be removed from the active surface area each time you switch the pen and the mouse.
2. Big graphics tablet
Big graphics tablet are certainly the most precise and comfortable graphics tablet from a technical point of view. I owned a "Wacom Intuos 3 A4" for years. From my point of view the main problem with big graphics tablets is all about ergonomics.
a. The first way poeple usually place graphics tablet is on their desktop, as a mouse pad. This position hurts the arm and shoulder as represented in red on the picture. This position is good for typing text cause the keyboard is still in front of you.
b. One solution is putting the graphics tablet to the center of the desk and pushing the keyboard to the left. Drawing/painting is really comfortable in front of the LCD display.
c. Putting the keyboard on the side might make you twist your back too often while editting text.
d. e. The best solution I found is a curved desk with a chair on the pivot. Because everything is around you, you won't be twisting your back or extending your arm too much.
f. The best way to edit long texts with a big graphics tablet is to use the keyboard on the top of it for the time needed. To avoid scratches on the surface of your tablet, just glue pieces of soft material under your keyboard.
g. Using a big graphics tablet with a laptop is difficult and can be painful for the shoulder, and it's not comfortable during travelling because of its size.
3. Small graphics tablet
Small graphics tablet offers a less big active area and are certainly less precise. Since the surface is smaller , it would be better having a graphics tablet with a good resolution if you work on a big screen. On a desktop, ergonomics are usually better this way than with a bigger tablet, and the size makes it easier to transport it while traveling. I owned a "Graphire 3 A5" a "Wacom Bamboo Fun A5", and a "Wacom Intuos 4 Medium". - The "Graphire 3 A5" was my first graphics tablet and got a good feeling for drawing on the 1280x1024 pixel LCD display. The 512 levels of pressures were good enough. - The "Wacom Bamboo Fun A5" was my graphics tablet for traveling and working remotely, during the period I worked at home with the "Wacom Intuos 3 A4". The resolution of the "Wacom Bamboo Fun A5" was perfect for my laptop display (1440x900) and for the conferences display ( usually still 1024x768 ). But this tablet got issues with precision on drawing on a large screen 1680x1050 or 1920x1050. The 512 levels of pressure are enough. - The "Wacom Intuos 4 Medium" mixes precision , high-resolution and the little size, I use it for both traveling and working at home. I like it for everything I use it for, always the same comfort.
h. Here is how I use my graphics tablet at home. I noticed that having my elbow on the desk enables me to paint during longer periods.
i. The most confortable situation I was, was with a desk from IKEA at the Blender Institute. The setup was a curved desktop and the 2 elbows on the desk.
j. Working with the laptop and a small tablet is not that bad, but as the tablet is not in front of the LCD panel it causes some pain in the shoulder on the long run.
k. Little graphics tablet can be useful in a plane or a train. But of course, it's only a temporary solution for an uncomfortable situation.
4. LCD pen tablets display
I tested the "Wacom Cintiq 21ux" on a demo booth, and I owned a "Wacom Cintiq 12wx" for a year. This graphics tablet display allows working on the surface of the integrated LCD display but they are very expensive. Hand gets warm, the surface of the tablet attracts dirt easily and the surface gets scratched and there's no way of replacing it. I keep an eye on these technologies, and I'm still convinced they are the key to the future work-flow for digital painters.
l. The big models of LCD pen tablet display have a lot of issues of ergonomy with the keyboard. Those issues are related to the chapter 1. You can't put your keyboard on it and type as in (f.)
m. The little models are to use in dual mode with a traditional LCD. One of the bests ways I found when I used one was putting the keyboard between the LCD and the graphics tablet. One of the most annoying things was the different color calibration of the 2 LCD devices and the constant switching between monitors.
As I said in the intro, the perfect graphics tablet doesn't exist and going back to my comparison about the musician and the music instrument, the best way to find the better one will certainly be to try them. For the moment, mine is the "Wacom Intuos 4 Medium". If you want to share your experience and continue discussing about this, your welcome to comments.
additional informations :
Note 1: In my opinion, Intuos 4 tablets are shipped with nibs that wears out ridiculously fast, maybe because of the grainy plastic layout cover. But it can be fixed by cutting an Intuos 3 A4 layout gray cover , and replacing the nibs with Intuos 3 pen nibs. It's too bad and sad we have to fix it, but it's cool we can still do it. If you are against this regression of quality, you can sign this petition.
Note 2: All the graphics were done with Inkscape, thanks to the developers for this great free and open-source vector graphics software. I enjoyed working with it for this presentation
Note 3: As this article is about my experience, all examples are for right-handed people. Left-handed people are welcome to mirror the example in their mind.
Note 4: All the graphics and text of this post are under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 , read the following page to know more about here
Note 5: As I'm French, my English is not perfect and if you notice some mistakes and want to help me to correct it, send me an email with your corrections, I will update it as soon as I can. Thanks !
Corrections: 11 august 2010: Thanks a lot Slug45 for the english corrections and the nice email, I learned a lot and that was easy to update ! Thanks again