Which graphics tablet?

What’s the difference anyway?

One question I get asked again and again is, ‘What is the best graphics tablet?’ as I’m a digital artist, it seems only natural to ask me.

It’s easy to understand why this is perhaps the most frequently asked question to not just me, but every digital artist. The reason for this is because graphic tablets are a unique and confusing technology!

So, the first step to finding the right graphics tablet for you is to understand the technology that’s being offered!

Thank you to Nekoni for her thoughts as an artist on graphics tablets.

First I’ll explain the words that are used

Then look further down, to find out about sizes.

At the end, I’ve recommended the best tablets, in my opinion, depending on various types of artwork.


What is a graphics tablet?

The graphics tablet (or ‘digital design tablet’) is an input device (like a mouse, or keyboard) which acts like a giant and highly accurate touchpad, controlled by a stylus (digital pen). It allows artists to draw directly into their graphics programs on PCs, Macs and Laptops.

What can one do?

TRON – speedpainting by SaZo

Pen-specific technobabble:

The language that is used by graphics tablets sellers is very confusing.

Here is a list of the most popular phrases used in relation to the graphics tablet pens and what they actually mean!

The term specific for digital input pens used with graphics-tablets and other hardware. It’s not always used, but is the actual term. (imagine if you were told your new ipad came with a free ‘pen’? Why would you want a pen? Now imagine you were told it came with a free ‘stylus’? Awesome!)
“ergonomic pen” “grip pen” “easy to hold pen”
Almost all graphic tablets today come with a comfortable, easy to use variety of stylus (the exact shape and features vary). These don’t affect the quality of your digital artwork, but they do affect how comfortable you are while using them, and there’s no ‘right’ choice.
“cord/cable/wired stylus”
Refers to a stylus that is attached to its tablet by a cable. The stylus is therefore slim and light. It’s pretty rare today, as wireless is the standard for most models.
“battery operated stylus”
Sends a signal from the pen to your tablet. The stylus needs to be large enough to contain a AAA battery, but is shaped in a way so that it’s narrower at the point at which you hold it.
“battery-less stylus”
The tablet powers the stylus via electro-magnetic resonation, which means these styluses are slimmer and lighter than the battery powered alternatives.
“tilt sensitivity”, “tiltability” “rotation””tilt recognition”
What most artists are looking for when they chose a stylus with one of these descriptions is a stylus which has a sense of ‘right way up’ and ‘upside-down’ so that it can make more complex digital brush strokes (this is a great feature, especially for painters!). But these terms also may simply mean that the stylus still works when you’re holding it at an angle, (and I’ve never found a stylus that doesn’t). For this stylus it’s best to rely on reviews, as less scrupulous retailers and second-hand sellers who don’t understand the terms can easily use the wrong term, and lead you to disappointment if you don’t know what you’re buying.
“levels of pressure sensitivity”
The range of pressure sensitivity starts at 256 levels of pressure, and reaches 3000. 1024 levels of pressure can be registered by most graphics programs, and only the newest and more advanced programs can register anything higher. Levels of pressure sensitivity literally explains how sensitive your pen is, the more sensitive pens will be able to tell the difference between different pressures, but this will only be shown to have an effect if you’re using extremely large brush sizes (upwards of 1000 pixels, in the latest software), or, in some cases, very light pressure (the quality of the pen’s nib and the drawing surface can effect the pressure you need to apply just as much). I suggest 256 and 512 for the beginner or sketcher, 1024 for the student or professional artist, and 2048 or above for the super-professional or any artist who uses a tablet for poster-sized art-work.
“Interchangeable right and left-handed pen”
This is one of those marketing oddities, I assume the companies must say this in order to assure left-handed individuals that they too can use graphics tablets… though I’ve yet to find any evidence of a left-handed pen having ever existed.

Tablet-specific technobabble:

So now you know what they’re saying about the pens… how about the tablet themselves.

The tablets are all important and have their own range of specialist phrases.

Here’s a list of the phrases and their meanings.

“programmable hotlinks/ buttons/ scrollers / wheels?”
Most artists find the wheels/scrollers to be useful for controlling the zoom in graphics programs, and for rotating canvas in those that allow it. But neither they nor programmable hotlinks are a actually a required function on any tablet, they’re more of an extra feature that you can use, if you like, to save time.
“lines per inch” or “accuracy”
Much like dpi or dots per inch, this is the sensitivity of your graphics tablet and how accurately it recognizes the location of your pen. Unfortunately, not only is this rarely mentioned, but the effect this number has also changes depending on your computer’s settings, and the size of the tablet itself. The end result is that the pen does not follow the path you draw exactly, or makes your lines jagged. The way to avoid this is to read customer reviews, even if a number is given, and bear in mind that the cheapest of these tablets usually come with this disadvantage. For the beginner, or casual artist, or someone who does not intend to use their tablet for fine art, this isn’t much of a problem. It can usually be compensated by working zoomed in, but that has the disadvantage of letting you see less of your artwork at once, and takes longer to draw the same lines.
“work area/ live area”
Pay attention to this, a graphics tablet will be described as 10 by 15 inches, but the actual numbers you need to actually pay attention to those of the ‘work’ or ‘live’ areas, the space on which you can draw, which measure much less- say 5 by 8 inches. These numbers are possibly the most important thing when it comes to buying a tablet! What you need to look for is a graphics tablet that matches the size and ratio of your screen as much as possible.

What happens when you buy a tablet that is much smaller than your screen?

It’s very simple, when you draw in real life, say, on a piece of paper, you draw to a scale of 1:1. The motions you make with your hand equal the size of lines you end up with on paper exactly. When you draw on a graphic tablet, these sizes never match completely, but it’s best to get as close to reality as you can.

An example of a size mismatch:
Here is a small tablet and a large screen. You can see the actual line which is input into a tablet, then the line that comes up on screen.
imput: what is drawn in real life. result A mismatched size also has the disadvantage of being less sensitive.

If your tablet is half the size of another tablet, but only has the same level of sensitivity, your small tablet is only half as sensitive. Then add to that the fact your hand is only so accurate, and you are in effect trying to draw, really, really tiny.

If you’ve ever tried to draw a nice picture, but really, really tiny, then you can see the obvious flaw with that. There’s a limit to just how accurately you can control your hands.
There are ways to compensate for a small tablet, as you can simply zoom in until the size matches, or you can set your tablet to only represent a smaller part of your screen.

However, drawing on a smaller part of your screen has obvious flaws…andjust like with a tablet with low accuracy, drawing while zoomed in isn’t a flawless solutution either.

As well as being unable to see what you’re doing in relation to the rest of your artwork, or being unable to edit it quickly, you will end up taking slightly longer and each and every line. Proffesional artists should try to avoid this.
My own screen is actually 18 by 12 inches, and the tablet is smaller (around 12 by 7.5 inches of work area) but it is a much closer match and easier to draw with than my other tablet, which only has 5 x 3.5 inches of work area.

Another thing to take into account is screen ratio. I have a widescreen monitor. And so, I have a widescreen tablet.

Some tablets allow you to set a ratio for you to use, but remember, they can not ‘expand’ the work area outwards if you need a wider area to match your screen; they can only narrow it, vertically. If you anticipate keeping your screen for a long time, and it’s an unusual shape, try and buy accordingly.

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