Graphics Tablets and Tablet PCs

Last Edited – February 20, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Technology

As I mentioned in my post on Apple’s new iPad, I was hoping that it would be more like a tablet PC or slate computer rather than an oversized iPhone. I was disappointed that it didn’t come with a tablet pen, partly because it would have been super awesome to use the iPad as a graphics tablet similar to the Wacom Cintiq. If you want my full opinion on the iPad you can read that post here. This post will be more about graphics tablets and tablet PCs where pen input is key.

I have been using tablet PCs for the last 4 years, and I have been very impressed with how versatile they are and how useful they can be. In high school, my class had tablets for three years, and I was one of only a few to heavily use the tablet features. I did my math homework on my computer, I took all my notes in ink, but I didn’t really use it very much for any graphic design or other artistic work. I decided that I like the tablet PC features enough to get my own tablet for college, and it has proven to be an excellent investment. In high school, we used the HP TC4200 and TC4400 business class tablets, and I now have a Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet which is even better.

The Intuos4 Series tablets from Wacom

The main draw of tablet PCs is that you have a pen, sometimes called a stylus, which you can use to draw right on the screen in digital ink, or use as a mouse and keyboard with an on-screen input panel. Tablet PCs are in use in many industries from healthcare to education to construction to engineering to art. Tablets are a very versatile tool and very natural and intuitive to work with. Writing on a computer screen is no different than writing with a normal pen and paper, which makes it easy to transition between the two. Using the pen as a mouse is also very easy since you simply point it at where you want the cursor, and it moves the cursor accordingly.

For professional artists and designers, one of the downsides to tablet PCs as opposed to a professional graphics tablet is the precision of the pen. For example, many tablet PCs have precision in the pen at 1000 lines per inch (lpi), whereas the new Intuos4 series of graphics tablets from Wacom have over 5000 lpi of precision to work with. Tablet PCs also tend to be smaller and more compact for portability, around 12-13 inches diagonal, and many designers use very large tablets with an active area diagonal of 17-22 inches. However, tablet PCs provide a key feature many traditional graphics tablets don’t: the ability to see what you are doing underneath the pen. The Intuos series of tablets give you great precision, but it takes much more time to get used to drawing where the image appears elsewhere. Wacom’s Cintiq series of tablets do provide this feature of integrating the display, but are very costly at $1000 for the 12″ model and $2000 for the 21″ model. I would love to have a Cintiq, but I will give up the extra precision for a tablet PC which gives me the same features plus being a full computer.

Tablet PCs do tend to be more expensive than other laptop options, but recently the prices have been dropping significantly. Tablets are becoming more competitive with the small laptop crowd, rather than the desktop replacement variety mainly because they are priced competitively, but don’t have the power to really replace a desktop machine. Most tablets don’t have good graphics, simply using a low-end integrated type graphics chipset, but a few have gone with higher end chipsets to support better graphics. Tablet PCs also tend to have slower processors and memory, so running multiple huge programs on them at the same time can slow it down. This isn’t necessarily a problem for all tablets though. My tablet has a lot more power than most, but only struggles when I try to run more than 3 Adobe products at once (Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, Illustrator) alongside Outlook and whatever music I happen to be playing.

The Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC

If you are in the market for a new laptop, I would highly recommend some kind of tablet PC, but look into the business class models like the X61 or Dell Latitude XT series. They will cost a bit more, but they are worth the extra durability and features. Many tablet PCs geared toward home users don’t have the longevity or durability of the business class machines, and break much more easily. If you are in the market for a graphics tablet for your desktop or workstation, you have a few options, mainly from Wacom. If you have the dough, go for the Cintiq series with the integrated display. They have the same precision as the Intuos3 series (about 3000 lpi), and you get the benefit of working on the image. If you sill want the professional level precision and features, go for the Intuos4 or an older Intuos3. They are a little harder to get used to, but are still awesome for graphic design and 3D modeling and animation. If you are on the budget end of the spectrum, the Wacom Bamboo series of tablets are great. They are small, portable, and the new ones even have multitouch input. I keep going on about Wacom because they dominate the industry, but there are other professional options out there at lower prices. VisTablet and a few other companies make products competing with both the Intuos and Cintiq series tablets, but I have not used their products.

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