A few days ago I was supplied with a demo sample of the new Wacom Intuos Pro tablet (medium size) to review. I already own a very old, but faithfully still working Wacom CTE-640 (a.k.a. Graphire 5) which I only use when I am working in Lightroom or Photoshop. I use it mainly to do dodging and burning but every now and then I will also do a bit of the dreaded deep etching via clipping path in Photoshop that is sometimes needed for my product photography where clients want to drop the photo onto a different background. It’s a mind-numbingly boring job, but having a Wacom makes it a little bit less taxing.
For the rest of the time while I am working on my Mac I use my Magic Trackpad, which has made a huge difference to my efficiency on the computer, mainly because of the numerous gestures it offers – things like swiping backwards and forwards between web pages, triple tapping to define words, swiping up to see open apps, etc. I love my Magic Trackpad. I also love that it sits beside the Wacom and I can chose to use either of them on the same computer without having to do any reconfigurations on the Mac.
So, what if the functionality of my Magic Trackpad and Wacom tablet could be combined into one product? Well, this is exactly what the people at Wacom have managed to do with this new range of Intuos Pro tablets. They are pen and touch sensitive PLUS you also get even more functionality in terms of swiping and gesture customisation than a Magic trackpad offers. In fact, the customisation available on the Intuos Pro I have is quite mind boggling. You can customise just about everything to a degree that would most definitely leave an OCD sufferer unable to ever leave their computer.
Reviewing a graphics tablet is very subjective, depending on what you use it for, so as a photographer who’s usage is pretty limited, what I have decided to do for the purpose of this review is explain how I have integrated the demo unit into my computer setup and explain how it has improved my productivity in a typical workday.
The version of the tablet I have for review, while only the medium option, is still pretty large. It’s called an A5 size because that’s roughly the size of the “active area” (which is also customisable) that you can use for regular touch and pen use. But the actual surface area of the tablet is just a tad smaller than an A4 size of paper. The size of the medium is actually way too big for my needs, as you can see by the amount of real estate it uses up on my desk in a photo down the page. This one is 38cm wide and 25cm tall. The large version is a massive 48cm wide and the small one is a more manageable, but still somewhat wide 32cm. People with smaller workspaces may need to think the size options over very carefully before deciding which one to get. Photographers will probably be quite well served by the small version.
If you use the tablet in mouse mode you will only be able to use the active area that is shown between the illuminated brackets that show up on the tablet surface. However, if you use the tablet in pen mode, you can decide how much of the surface area you want to map for use with the pen, and also, if you use more than one monitor, whether your pen will cover both or only one of the monitors. Or if you wish, only a portion of both the tablet and the monitor. The screen grab below shows you how you are able to customise this to your liking.
Screen mapping options for the Wacom Intuos Pro
Look, Feel & Layout Customisations
The Intuos Pro is a very handsome looking piece of hardware. It’s finished in a dark, graphite finish and it has 8 touch sensitive Express Keys on the side, as well as a Touch Ring in-between the 8 Express Keys. When you lightly touch over any of the Express Keys a translucent menu pops up on your display showing what each of the keys is assigned to do (in case you forget, which is not impossible given the staggering array of functions that can be programmed into them).
Each of the keys and the touch ring can be customised to perform everything from emulating a keystroke to opening an app to copying to the clipboard, etc, etc, etc. These functions can be customised per application. So say for instance you want the Express keys to do certain things on your OS when you are working generally you can program them to behave in a certain way, but then when you have an app like Photoshop open they can be programmed to do different things. Example, I have the top key set to toggle the touch functionality on or off in all other apps except Photoshop, where it is set to the Save command. If I wanted that button to do something else in Lightroom I could change it easily to have a different behaviour when that app is active.
Touch On/Off on screen display
The Touch Ring also has 4 customisable functions which you toggle through by pushing the button in the centre of it. These can be set to perform any keystroke you want, such as adjusting brush sizes in Photoshop, zooming into or out of a photo/drawing, rotating something, and so on. And of course you can set it to do different things in every app too.
Touch Ring Preferences
Did I mention how complex this can get? Fortunately it is possible to store, import and export all your saved settings using the Wacom Desktop Centre software that comes on a Cd or can be downloaded from the Wacom site. It’s highly advisable to back these settings up if you plan on buying a new computer and using the same Wacom on it.
One of the setup options that you can modify using that Wacom Desktop Centre app is whether you are using it left-handed or right-handed. It’s expected that lefty’s (like me) will have the Express Keys on the right side of the tablet and everyone else will have them on the left. However, if you want you can use it left-handed with the keys on the left too.
Wacom Desktop Centre screenshot
This is one customisation that depends on how you expect to use the tablet in relation to your workspace. As you can see in the photo of my workspace below, I have it over on the left side of the desk with my keyboard to the right. This means that if I have the Express keys on the right I will probably need to use my right hand to use them efficiently, BUT only if I move the keyboard out of the way and have the tablet directly between myself and the big 27” monitor in the middle of the desk (that’s the one I use for editing). Alternatively I could set it up with the Express Keys on the left, using my left hand to push them and leaving my keyboard where it always is.
I did try this for a while but it wasn’t very practical because I had to move my hand way over to the other side of the desk to use something stored on one of those keys. Because the Wacom isn’t surface clickable like my Magic Trackpad is I have set the bottom Express Key to perform the function of a regular mouse click for when I want to click and drag to highlight text (there is a 2 finger gesture that does the same thing but my muscle memory is so ingrained with the click and drag method that temporarily changing that behaviour will cause me issues when I have to give the demo unit back).
My desk with the Wacom on the left.
One problem I do foresee me having over time should I eventually upgrade to this size Wacom is that I will have to remove my watch when working with it, or use some kind of a protective pad to rest my wrist on. Although I am left-handed, I wear my watch on the left wrist and have done so since I was a kid. It has something to do with my multi-dextrousness (I am not entirely left-handed, I eat right-handed, play guitar right-handed and kick a ball with the right leg). Working With The Intuos Pro
As I said at the start of the review, as a photographer my use of a Wacom tablet is purely to do a very small set of brush strokes on images that require dodging and burning in Lightroom, or sometimes Photoshop to draw clipping paths around products I have photographed for clients. The Wacom Intuos Pro is actually way too much tablet for me. A professional graphic designer will undoubtedly find a considerably larger scope of utility with this device than I ever could, especially when it comes to the pressure sensitivity (2048 levels of it) that is available with the Intuos Pro. You are also able to calibrate the sensitivity of the pen so that it feels either soft or firm on the surface when translating to an app, as well as how sensitive it is to the tilt of the pen. Artists will love it.
So, I decided to try out some deep etching in Photoshop to see how it feels with the Pen. I still use the Wacom in “mouse” mode when doing this because the Pen mode is going to take a whole lot of getting used to and I really don’t have this thing for too long. I suppose I should explain what the difference is between the modes for those of you who have never used a Wacom before. Basically in Mouse mode it acts exactly like a trackpad does. In Pen mode wherever you touch the trackpad on its surface it moves to the mapped area on the screen, so you have to develop strong hand-to-eye coordination between the tablet and screen otherwise you will frustrate yourself quickly. Using that method does help to locate the cursor quickly though, but I couldn’t see myself using the tablet that way, so I have it set to mouse mode permanently. Strangely toggling between these two modes doesn’t seem to be possible via Express Key customisation (although it is possible via application preference). I suppose you either use one or the other permanently.
Anyway, getting back to the use of the pen in Photoshop for my typical purposes of deep etching, I most definitely can see how much easier it is to use the Intuos Pro for something like this, especially by having one of the Express Keys assigned to the Undo command. On my old tablet I have to use the keyboard shortcut, which slows me down a bit. This way is much faster.
Here’s a partially finished bit of deep etching that took me a few minutes to do (pros will probably do this in seconds).
Partially finished deep etch
Apart from the convenience of having an Express Key setup to step backwards as I am working (and cursing about dragging the pen handles too wide when tracing around curves), having the Touch Ring functions where I can zoom in and out and also being able to easily adjust the size of a brush when erasing the background, is seriously helpful. Also, if I am zoomed right in on a complex part of the image while deep etching I am also able to pan around just by using two free fingers on the suface of the tablet. I can’t tell you just how useful that is compared to the way I have to work with my old Wacom.
The Wacom surface feels a lot different when using the touch functions compared to Apple’s Magic Trackpad. It’s not as smooth, which is I suppose the way it needs to be to provide the right amount of friction when using the pen. The Magic Trackpad does have a glass finish to it, so that accounts for it being easier on your fingers, but in saying that, the Wacom isn’t all that bad and after a while of using it you probably won’t even notice this.
Using the pen on the tablet is a lot nicer feel wise compared to my old Graphire. It actually feels like a real felt-tip pen on a piece of paper, which is wonderful. Graphic artists will absolutely love this aspect of the Intuos Pro. Also, Wacom have cleverly hidden in the base of the pen stand some 10 extra nibs, a few extras of the default nib plus a few other types of nibs that are bound to suit just about any users preferences. Also found in the base of the stand is a steel ring that you can use to remove the nibs from the pen. A very nice design touch.
Removing a nib with the steel ring provided
Other Features Of The Intuos Pro
One really cool aspect of the Intuos Pro is that you can get a wireless kit for it that consists of a rechargeable Lithuim Ion battery and a USB dongle so that you can dispense with the USB cable that normally sends power to the device. In the setup preferences you can also determine how long you want the Intuos to stay awake for when you are using battery mode, so that battery life is maximised. It looks as if the battery will last about 2 or 3 days with all day use, so make sure you keep the USB cable handy to recharge it when needed.
Getting back to the customisability, there is an area of customisation that I think Apple people would like to hear about and that is the ability to customise what happens when you tap and swipe with 3, 4 or 5 fingers. A three finger tap can be set to bring up another feature I haven’t yet touched on and that is an on-screen control menu. There are a whole bunch of these that you can create that will pop up a translucent menu wherever you want to position in on the screen. Or you could just use the 3 or 5 finger tap to open an app. You decide.
Swiping preferences THE BOTTOM LINE
Wacom tablets are a must for anybody who takes digital imagery seriously, be they professionals or amateurs. This particular model is chock full of really useful features and customisations. Once you get it set up the way you want it will most definitely improve your efficiency around the digital workspaces you use it in. I’m not looking forward to going back to using my old tablet after my loan period is up, so I will certainly be looking to upgrade to one of these very soon, most likely the smaller version.
The combination of pen and touch is a masterstroke by Wacom. Mind the pun.