I draw a lot and I am using up a lot of paper. I would like to start drawing on something more virtual as I make a lot of mistakes. I also want to start drawing on some kind of tablet, as when I am older I would like to be an animator. Should I buy a drawing/graphics tablet or a normal tablet but use it for drawing only? Niamh (aged 12)
Drawing on a graphics tablet and drawing on a tablet screen, are both very different from drawing on paper, so it’s a good idea to try before you buy. It seems to me – and I admit I’m rubbish at drawing – that it requires a lot of effort and many hours of practice to produce reasonable results. The digital products that come closest to matching the experience of drawing on paper tend to be somewhat expensive.
Getting hands-on experience could be difficult. If you’re lucky, your school may have some products you can try. Could you engineer a visit to a local art college? Do any family friends have graphics tablets? Could you try some in shops?
Lots of people own digital graphics products even if they have no interest in digital drawing. Examples include Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and phablets with S-Pen styluses, Microsoft Surface Pro tablets and Apple iPad Pros. Ordinary touch-screen tablets are not suitable for drawing, even if you can write on their screens.
If all else fails, the Wacom Intuos Draw graphics tablet is a simple, reliable and affordable answer. This plugs into a PC’s USB port and gets you going for around £50. The package includes an entry-level drawing tablet, a pressure-sensitive stylus, the ArtRage Lite program for Microsoft Windows or Mac, and some online tutorials.
Graphics tablets go back a long way: they were used in the 1970s for high-end CAD (computer-aided design) workstations, and entered the home computing market in the 1980s with the cheap KoalaPad, which was available for the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 800.
The graphics tablet essentially replaced a mouse. However, the hand-held stylus enabled users to have much finer control.
As when using a mouse, your eyes are on the screen, not on the stylus and the graphics tablet. It’s certainly possible to do very detailed work this way, but it’s not quite the same as using a pencil and paper.
The next step was to combine the digitiser with the screen. The first popular example was the GRiDPad, which was launched in 1989. The GRiDPad was a thick tablet running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, and it had a monochrome screen with a resolution of 640 x 400 pixels. It wasn’t much use for drawing, but it had industrial and military uses as a sort of electronic clipboard.
Digitising tablets finally hit the mainstream in 2002 with Tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. These came with Ink Art, a licensed copy of ArtRage, and they could also do handwriting recognition synced to sound recordings – a popular feature with journalists. However, the screens were “laggy” and not very responsive, and XP Tablets were expensive and heavy, so they never caught on.
Wacom, a Japanese company, came to dominate the market for graphics tablets. Its patented technology was used in the screen of the Compaq Concerto laptop released in 1992. Wacom expanded its range to include graphics tablets with LCD screens, so that users could draw directly onto the display surface. Being designed for graphics professionals, they were pressure-sensitive. They were also expensive.
Wacom’s screen-based Companion tablets now work as standalone tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows 8.1, though you can still use them plugged into a Windows PC or Mac. The dedicated buttons and Wacom software make them specialised devices.
When Microsoft launched the Surface Pro range of tablets in 2013, it included a pen and a Wacom digitiser for screen input. The performance and prices made them very attractive to artists, but less appealing to people who didn’t want pen input.
With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft switched to using active (battery-powered) pens and N-Trig DuoSense digitising technology with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. I’d guess that Surface Pro sales had reached the sort of volume where Microsoft wanted a cheaper solution, and it avoided future licence payments by buying N-Trig.
There has been a lot of debate about how N-Trig’s 256 levels of pressure sensitivity compare with Wacom’s 1024-levels in the Surface Pro 2. I’m no artist and I couldn’t tell the difference. However, I did find the Surface Pro 3 pen nicer to use.
The most recent candidate is Apple’s iPad Pro, for which you can buy a powered stylus. This works extremely well. It’s at least the equivalent of Wacom’s Cintiq Companion and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 and 4 in being smooth and responsive, and probably better.
However, the Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro tablets have the advantage of being full-spec computers with standard USB and monitor ports. You can use them to run professional drawing and animation programs, the full Adobe Creative Suite of software, Microsoft Office and so on. There’s no hurry, in your case, but if you’re going to do this professionally, it’s important to be proficient with professional software.
More is usually better, but also costs more. The things to look for include the size of the active drawing area, the resolution and the pressure sensitivity.
From this point of view, the Wacom Intuos graphics tablets are the best value, because you are not paying for a built-in LCD screen, processor, memory and other electronics. Of course, this does assume that you can plug your Intuos tablet into an existing desktop or laptop PC.
The Intuos Draw has a small active area of 152 x 95mm, 1024 levels of pen-pressure sensitivity and a resolution of 2540 lines per inch (lpi) for £49. Wacom also offers an Intuos Pro range, which comes in small, medium and large sizes. The medium has an active area of 224 x 140mm, 2048 pressure levels, and a resolution of 5080lpi, while the Large has an active area of 325 x 203mm. Wex Photographic’s prices are £165, £239 and £335 respectively. (You can shop around.)
The cheapest 13.3in Wacom Cintiq 13HD Interactive Pen Display costs £580 or more, and still needs to be plugged into a PC or Mac. The cheapest standalone Cintiq Companion 2 running Windows 8.1 on an Intel Core i5 processor costs £1,269 or more. But these are overkill for your purposes, even if you can afford them.
If you really want to draw on a tablet screen, the cheapest options are probably the 10.1in Samsung Galaxy Note and the 9.7in Apple iPad Pro (£499 plus £79 for the Pencil). An alternative would be a second-hand or refurbished Microsoft Surface Pro 2. You can find them for around £235 to £300, depending on specification and condition. However, if they go wrong, they may be expensive to repair.
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