Pen tablets are an awesome invention. I don’t mean those tiny pads you use to sign electronic documents at the bank (although those are nice too). I mean the serious, professional models that artists use to create mind-blowing paintings and conjure Photoshop magic. They are pressure-sensitive, sense the angle at which you’re holding the pen, and are generally a huge step up from the mouse or trackpad when trying to create artwork using a computer.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive a Wacom Intuos5 touch Small pen tablet. This is my second Wacom tablet, after an ancient model originally bought around 4-5 years ago. The advances in tablet technology are very noticeable, and the included software feels refined and intuitive. Simply speaking, this is a new generation of tablets, and you can read all about it below.
We will be giving away a brand-new Wacom Intuos5 touch Small tablet to a lucky winner, so if you’d like to have a chance at winning it, just join the giveaway after the review.
The Wacom Intuos5 touch Small retails for $229 and has an active area of 157mm x 98mm (6.2” x 3.9”). It is one of three models in the Intuos5 series, the other two being the Medium ($349, 224mm x 140mm) and the Large ($469, 325mm x 203mm). All three Intuos5 models support an optional wireless accessory kit that allows them to be used without cables, but today I will be reviewing the base configuration without the wireless kit.
In terms of products from other companies, I must say there are not many viable alternatives to Wacom. Genius offers a number of pen tablets, such as theretailing for $70 and aimed at occasional users, and the for $170, aimed at professional artists and designers (the same market the Intuos5 is targeting). The pro model G-Pen has a resolution of 4,000 LPI (lines per inch), significantly less than the 5,080 LPI offered by the Intuos5. It also offers only 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, while the Intuos5 supports 2048 levels of sensitivity. While specs often don’t tell the whole story, they do count for something – and the top-of-the-line model from Genius does not match the Intuos5 by the numbers. Then again, it also retails for $59 less than the Wacom and has a larger working area than the small Intuos5 model (304mm x 184mm).
What’s In The Box?
The Intuos5 ships with a touch-sensitive pen and a pen stand which opens to reveal ten replacement nibs:
Oh, and there’s also a USB cable: Mentioning it seems silly at first, but it’s actually very good: It is two meters long (meaning, super-long), and features a custom-made Mini USB connector on the tablet side. The cable exits the connector from the side, and the connector contains a little holder into which you can slot the cable, to reverse its direction. This image should make things clearer:
The included pen stand feels sturdy, and should look lovely on most desks. The pen fits into it vertically, and can also lie across it in a molded groove as shown above.
In a word, the Intuos5 is gorgeous. The first thing I noticed is that the Intuos5 is completely blank: There isn’t a single label on the tablet’s face. Not a single button is visually marked, and even the Wacom logo is embossed. The tiny dots of color are actually indication LEDs. I find that brilliant: Since you will be touching the tablet all the time, any ink markings might wear off. Not using any labels ensures the tablet always looks at its best.
There are markings though, as you can see above: These are tactile bumps on key buttons. Like the primary work surface, the buttons are pressure-sensitive: Rest your finger lightly on a button, and a semi-transparent on-screen legend pops up. Apply a bit more pressure, and the button will activate. The on-screen legend is brilliant, because you don’t have to take your eyes off the screen to find the button you are looking for.
Operation and Customization
The very first thing you should know about working with the Intuos5 is that it supports both pen and touch input, and that it is actually multi-touch. So if you think Apple’s Magic Trackpad is cool, you should really look at what the Intuos5 can do. It’s like a huge Magic Trackpad on steroids, with state-of-the-art pen support. It’s all customizable, too:
Pressing the Settings button on the tablet pops up a full-screen overlay showing all current settings at a glance, and allowing you to change anything you need. For example, to re-bind one of the action buttons, just move the mouse cursor over to it and tap (or click):
This will pop open the Wacom Tablet Properties dialog, which has a more sedate interface. This is where all the action happens:
This powerful dialog lets you change every aspect of the tablet’s behavior. You can freely remap buttons, assigning them with tablet-related actions or arbitrary keystrokes as you see fit. Not only that, but you can tweak and change the tablet’s settings for each individual app you use. For example, one app may use Tab to hide all toolbars, while another may use Escape. With the Wacom Tablet Properties dialog, you can have the same physical tablet button send two different keystrokes, depending on the application you are currently using.
Being left handed, one of the most important settings for me is the left-handed mode: This makes a big difference, because it lets you turn the tablet around so that the buttons are on the right side (for pressing with you right hand), and the work area is on the left, making drawing natural and avoiding accidental button presses. Another important feature of per-app settings is that you can limit the active area:
If you have a large desktop work area, being able to constrain the pen to just one window or even one part of the window can help you draw more accurately. Then again, if the tablet itself is too large for you (unlikely on the Small model), you can limit its active surface area.
Wacom didn’t skimp on the multi-touch gestures, and they are numerous:
The Standard Gestures tab shows the default gestures, with an animated display that rotates between the different gestures, demonstrating them with simple animations. It’s all here: Rotating, zooming, scrolling, and swiping with multiple fingers. The four-finger swipe is interesting: It triggers Windows’ built-in Alt-Tab dialog, letting you swipe between all active windows. It is easy to use because you don’t have to keep your fingers down: You can let go of the tablet, then swipe again to switch to the next app, and so on.
Living With the Wacom Intuos5
The Intuos5 is a precision instrument. While theoretically portable, I wouldn’t just chuck it in a laptop bag with no protection. It doesn’t come with a case, but Wacom does offer a case for it at $25. Also, being a pen tablet, it makes some assumptions about the way you work: For example, you are really supposed to use it with a desk. If you work with a laptop on a bed, or have a custom workstation that doesn’t have a desk, you are not the user Wacom had in mind when they designed the tablet. I built a shelf just for the Intuos5, which you can see above. That makes it easy to store, but doesn’t help me when using it: I can use it by propping it on my lap, but when I need to work with my keyboard in parallel, things start getting awkward. Even the Small model has a sizable footprint, so expect to dedicate some desk space to the Intuos5.
Another thing to consider is the pen and holder combo: Both pen and holder are finely made, but are not military-grade robust. In other words, if you have cats (I have three), don’t expect to just leave the pen in its holder on your desk or shelf. A curious cat can easily overturn the holder, causing the pen to tumble out, perhaps to the floor. At $70 just for the pen, this is not an accessory you want to absent-mindedly run over with your chair.
At the end of the day, a pen tablet is just an accessory: It’s like a mouse, but much, much fancier. So, just like some applications work great with mice (Web browsers) and others don’t make such great use of them (word processors), the same is true for pen tablets: If you’re mainly creating vector graphics using CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, you may not get so much mileage out of the Intuos5. But if you use something like Photoshop or Corel Painter to retouch photos, paint with natural media or do other raster work, a high-quality pen tablet makes a big difference even if you’re not a pro (and certainly when you are).
Should You Buy It?
If you have the money, my answer would be an unequivocal yes. I was very impressed with the Intuos5 as a device, in terms of hardware design, human engineering, and bundled customization software. That said, it will not make you an artist overnight, and you do need to set up your workspace so you can easily use it and make sure no harm comes to it. If you are serious about creating digital art, the Intuos5 can take you far.
How do I win the Wacom Intuos5 touch Small Pen Tablet?
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