Graphics tablet

Category: Archive Informatics

In the populated world of computer peripherals, the graphics tablet represents a practical, creative and, if desired, economical solution for managing one's creativity. Designers, designers and graphic designers will find this tool, after a short and appropriate apprenticeship period, incredibly intuitive and exciting.


Once upon a time there was drawing… We could start our guide on the graphics tablet like this, and rightly so… In the beginning there was drawing, and the drawing was carried out on a support (stone, clay, and so on) thanks to a tool that was capable of engraving or coloring it. And so far, let's talk about prehistory. The multimedia era has not only used drawing styles and techniques making them a matter of pixels, but has also given birth to these "magic" pointing devices that allow you to beautifully emulate hand drawing: graphics tablets. The graphics tablet, or digitizer, is a pointing device which, thanks to the action of a special pen on a specially designed smooth surface, allows you to enter data into a computer, simulating the way in which we write with a pen or nib on paper. Later we will understand better how the mechanism works. This peripheral has its first ancestors in the Telautograph of 1888, a sort of ancestor of the fax in which you wrote to the recipient using a pen, created by Elisha Gray, an American engineer with considerable talent. The first graphics tablet vaguely similar to the current ones was dated 1957, and was called Styalator. Subsequently, the development of digitizers will lead to the birth of new and increasingly sophisticated models: first of all the "Intelligent Digitizer", developed in the 1980s, then the "koala pad", the first product in the sector for home computing; therefore also other hardware which found application mainly in the CAD area with particularly complex software such as AutoCAD, created for technical drawing (CAD means "Computer aided design", or computer-aided design). As the popularity of the digitizer declined among professionals in the architectural/engineering sector, thanks to the introduction of the scanner, other professionals and developers thought of exploiting the potential of the technology by trying to improve it and identifying a new audience. Here, therefore, designers, graphic designers and photographers come into play, while increasingly sophisticated models of graphics tablets make their way.

Features of the best graphics tablets

Whether we like to draw, or want to work professionally in photo editing, video editing, comics or anything else, a graphics tablet can prove to be the best choice to optimize your workflow and discover incredible new potential. What are the basic components of a graphics tablet when purchased? A graphics tablet is essentially composed, in its basic version, of the following elements:

  • a surface to write on, called a display, which takes up most of the space (excluding the edges); it can be accompanied by keys on both sides, whose functions can often be assigned as desired;
  • a touch sensitive pen, equipped with two buttons with the same functions as the right and left buttons of our mouse;
  • the pen can also integrate a "virtual eraser" at one end, capable of erasing what we have written by activating the corresponding function in the software we use. The pen can run on batteries, and in this case it will be heavier, or be wireless, in more sophisticated and expensive models;

Some tablets may also come with:

  • a multi-button mouse capable of working on the writable surface;
  • a transparent surface, to be used as tissue paper to insert drawings or images underneath to be traced;

The tablet can be used in connection with the mouse or other peripherals, or on its own. The package may also include a CD-ROM with photo editing and vector drawing software, to better channel our creativity, spare stiletto tips and a pen holder, which is usually integrated into the tablet. Obviously, quantity and quality of accessories will depend on the model purchased. Furthermore, it is a good idea to check that the tablet is equipped with a USB port, to quickly connect it to the computer without the need to use a power supply. Some more recent models, and obviously less economical, use a Bluetooth connection with the PC, allowing us to do without cables.

Which graphics tablet to choose

The variety of products on the market requires the opening of a new parenthesis, to examine the best products on the market, evaluating those that are most suitable for us. In the case of the graphics tablet, the gap can be very large. We can evaluate a product first of all based on the features implemented, but also based on the costs. The appearance will usually be in the background, even if most of the products are made with a particularly modern, essential and interesting design. Basic models of graphics tablet can cost up to 30-40 euros, and be very small. The formats on the market are among the most diverse: starting from A6 (practically 14.8 x 10.5 cm), up to A5, A4, A3. This means that the size of the sensitive surface will vary, and it will be up to us to choose the solution that we find most comfortable and practical. But, as we were saying, it is also a question of investments. Predictably, an A4 or an A3 will cost much more, easily exceeding even a thousand euros when the product presents itself with good credentials. The choice must be made in anticipation or according to use: for high performances you need to aim high. A particularly important element when choosing a graphics tablet is resolution. Resolution here means the precision that the tablet has in transforming our movements made with the pen into cursor movements on the monitor. Resolution here is measured in lpi (lines per inch). Medium to good quality graphics tablets usually have an accuracy of 2000 lpi. Be careful when this value is not indicated on the package, or when it is lower. We will also consider sensitivity. By sensitivity we mean the sensitivity of the surface to the pressure we apply with the pen: this factor will allow us to control important parameters such as line thickness, gradients, chiaroscuro, and so on. Sensitivity is measured in pressure levels: an average quality tablet will have an average sensitivity of 512, the best can reach 1024 levels, and also be particularly sensitive to rotation and inclination.

How to use the graphics tablet

Using the graphics tablet is particularly intuitive: the movement of the pen on the surface will correspond to a movement of the cursor on the monitor. Exactly as happens with the mouse, it will not be necessary to fix the tablet to move in the space of the monitor, but with practice we will learn to use the pen by looking exclusively at the screen. The movements to be carried out will become familiar to us with a little practice. Let's not be discouraged! This tool has incredible potential, and we realize it as soon as we get a little used to it. The operation of the mechanism is simple and intuitive, and occurs via electromagnetism: the tablet emits radio waves which, upon contact with the pen, return back, thus allowing its position on the surface to be identified. The cursor on the monitor will therefore follow the movement of our hand. Installation is also simple and intuitive, and often guided. We can choose, if we are happy with it, to use the graphics tablet also to replace the mouse, to move the cursor. It's not necessary, but once you become familiar with the tool it can be particularly convenient. For those who want to limit the use of the keyboard, it is possible to install a virtual keyboard, or simply load it whenever needed via USB (with a pendrive). These applications, available free of charge, allow you to have virtual keys on your monitor, to be activated via the pendrive. Keyboards can be customized by including a limited number of keys. In more sophisticated models, however, the product becomes a real drawing board. In this case we are talking about digital sheets, on which what we write or draw with our graphic pen appears directly. It is a particularly practical tool, as it can be held comfortably on the lap and used without looking at the monitor. But, predictably, it is also the most expensive. Let's now find out in more detail how many uses we can make of our graphics tablet.

Many uses, just one tablet

Yes, agreed. We purchased our graphics tablet. And now? If we are unfamiliar with drawing and drawing techniques, we might encounter some difficulty, even just in holding the pen. However, before enrolling in the hand drawing course held by our neighbor, let's try to understand how many uses it is possible to make of this amazing product. First of all, the design. It is drawn for many reasons, and using various techniques. We draw as a hobby, or in some cases as a profession, with a totally different technical background behind us. The graphics tablet can be a godsend for the professional designer or cartoonist: it allows you to draw directly on the monitor, thus correcting errors in a practical and quick way, or it can be used on sketches previously made by hand, to be colored and traced. It is a particularly effective method, today used by numerous great personalities in the sector, especially in the so-called "speed painting" field. Obviously, there is no tablet that will hold if we don't know how to draw. But learning is never impossible. Another very common use of the graphics tablet in the software sector appears in contour operations. Cutting out is an operation that usually takes place on a bitmap image of which you want to select one or more elements. By identifying the contours thanks to tools contained in special programs such as Photoshop (who has already heard of "polygonal lasso"?) the part is selected with respect to the whole and pasted elsewhere, cut out or whatever. Since many photo-editing and photo-processing operations require very precise, if not impeccable, contours, a precision instrument such as the pen of a graphics tablet is perfect (we can say so!), being much easier to handle than a common mouse. Even web designers and professionals in the graphic and advertising sector can benefit from the graphics tablet: this, in fact, will allow you to carry out operations with both vector and bitmap programs. These programs recognize the tablet and allow you to take advantage of numerous features in combination with the use of the pen (pressure, shading, opacity and size of the brush, etc.).

Buying advice

Buying a graphics tablet can mean making a considerable expense. For this reason, before reaching hasty conclusions, it will be necessary to identify our real need in relation to the product. A newbie, in short, someone who has never handled this product yet, must take into account a few days of "tinkering" to become familiar with the instrument… learning not to be discouraged because with a minimum of habituation the pen will be used with extreme ease and fluidity. Who doesn't remember their "beginnings" with the mouse? Yet, look how good you have become! It is scientifically proven that the use of a graphics tablet is more beneficial to health than using a mouse: using a graphics tablet, in fact, will allow us to exercise the entire arm, without becoming sclerotic in just one position. Furthermore, it is not necessary to think of the digitizer as a mouse replacement: the two peripherals can easily coexist, without the obligation of having to start from scratch. It will be fundamental to consider the intended use of the tool: if we are already established professionals, an A4 or A3 tablet could be useful for us, but it is always better to initially invest in economical versions (an A6/A5 costing 50-100 euros can be fine) and then think about a qualitatively higher expense. We also remember to check the warranty period of the product, and check how easy it is to obtain any spare parts. The best purchase is the one made by focusing on a manufacturer that focuses exclusively on the sector… It will be easier, this way, to have greater variety and quality, and buy directly from the internet. Online shops and auctions also offer a good variety, but in this case the purchase requires that you inform yourself well about the retailer. Finally, for those who want to know more, the internet presents itself as the best medium, and most of the Computer forums are full of threads dedicated to the graphics tablet where users argue about the pros and cons. Good purchase!

Published: 2010-04-03From: Redazione

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