Product Review: Page (1) of 1 - 09/29/05 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at page facebook

Wacom Graphire4

Entry-level graphics tablet gets new look, added functionality By Dave Nagel
Summary: The Graphire4 is a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet that includes a pen and multi-button scrolling mouse. It's designed for visual artists who need something more than a mouse for their work--the "natural" feel of a stylus, plus the features of natural media tools, like the ability to vary the size of a brush stroke by increasing or decreasing the amount of pressure applied with the pen, rather than having to make adjustments manually using an application's parameter dials or sliders.
Recommendation: Strong Buy
Users: Visual artists
Platform: Mac OS X and Windows
Price: $99 for the 4" x 5" model, $199 for the 6" x 8" model.
More information:

More often than not, devices categorized as "entry-level" aren't worth the plastic from which they're made--and that applies to just about everything, from cameras to sound systems to telescopes. "Entry-level" is, generally, a euphemism for "junk." One of the few exceptions to this rule, however, is Wacom's Graphire line of pressure-sensitive graphics tablets, for which the "entry-level" tag really refers to a useful, high-quality device at an affordable price.

The Graphire4 is a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet that includes a pen and multi-button scrolling mouse. It's designed for visual artists who need something more than a mouse for their work--the "natural" feel of a stylus, plus the features of natural media tools, like the ability to vary the size of a brush stroke by increasing or decreasing the amount of pressure applied with the pen, rather than having to make adjustments manually using an application's parameter dials or sliders. Graphire4 is available in two sizes: 4" x 5" and 6" x 8", and the one you choose is really determined by yur preference and pocketbook. I worked on a 4" x 5" tablet for about 18 months and never found anything particularly wrong with it. It fits nicely on the keyboard tray, and I rarely found myself running out of tablet real estate for my work. A 6" x 8" tablet is better in terms of the amount of room you have to work with, but it's also $100 more. Frankly, if you're going to go for a Graphire, as opposed to an Intuos (which we'll get to below), you probably ought to opt for the 4" x 5" model. If you're willing to spend $199 for the larger model, I personally think it's better just to shell out a little more and go for the 6" x 8" Intuos, which is what I currently use myself.

Now, I give this spiel just about any time a new line of Graphires is announced. But I want to reiterate it because there's always a new generation of potential users coming along. The spiel is this: If you are in the visual arts, and you're not using a pressure-sensitive graphics tablet, you're missing out. You're short-changing yourself. You are not accessing the full potential of of your graphics (or motion graphics) applications. And you're putting yourself at a disadvantage against other graphics professionals out there. Whatever you're doing--from photo retouching and image editing to full-blown digital art or animation, a tablet opens up possibilities that simply aren't available with a regular mouse. In short, you need a tablet, and, if you don't already own one, you simply don't know that you need it. Try one out for a few days, and you'll understand.

I'm adamant about this. The only issue to resolve is not whether to use a tablet but which tablet to use. In terms of brands, there's really no question there. It's Wacom. (More on this in the section on "quality" below.)

The only question remaining is which Wacom tablet is right for you. On the top end, you have the Cintiq tablets, which have integrated LCD screens and allow you to draw directly on the screen. Those are pricey, but unquestionably worth it if you can afford them (i.e., if they will improve your productivity to the point where they become profitable). Right below the Cintiq line is the Intuos series of tablets, which are high-end but do not include an integrated LCD screen. And then there's Wacom's more affordable line of tablets, the Graphire series--the latest generation being the Graphire4.

The Graphire4 is considered "entry-level" only in comparison with the more feature-packed Intuos line, and it's targeted toward users who definitely need a tablet but might not need all the features offered by the Intuos series. For most users, the significant difference in features is that the Intuos can read the angle of tilt on your pen and use that as a parameter that can affect your artwork. So, for example, you might use tilt in a painting application to spray the paint in the direction of the tilt, while using pressure-sensitivity to modulate the paint's opacity or flow. This is, of course, important for digital artists working in programs like Corel Painter or Synthetik Studio Artist, where more control is always welcome. The Intuos can also use Wacom's optional 6D art pen, which supports not only tilt, but pen rotation as well. The Graphire does not support this pen. It only supports one kind of pen (the kind it ships with).

Beyond the lack of support for pen tilt and rotation, the Graphire differs from the Intuos in a few other functional ways. First off, the Graphire supports "only" 512 levels of pressure, meaning that when you press down on the pen, it will recognize 512 different degrees of pressure. The Intuos tablets support 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. How big a deal is this? Not much of one. Frankly, I've never been able to tell the difference between the two extremes.

Second, the Intuos uses a superior pen, one whose nib and eraser feel more "natural" (squishy) when used. It's not something you'll miss if you've never used an Intuos pen, but, for me, it's nice to get the tactile feedback that the Intuos' pen offers.

And, third, the Intuos tablet itself has several buttons and two scroll strips. The Graphire4 has just two buttons and a scroll wheel (up from zero buttons on the Graphire3) and no scroll strips. However, in addition to the buttons on the tablet itself, the Graphire's pen has two side buttons (in addition to the nib and eraser), and the cordless mouse has two buttons, plus a clickable scroll wheel. The mouse itself is included free and is basically designed for everyday navigation when you're not using your pen. Personally, I don't use any mouse at all. I've used the pen long enough to be thoroughly used to it. After six years of constant tablet use, mice in general just feel clunky and archaic. But if you do like to use a mouse, you'll find the Graphire's satisfactory. It's comfortable, and the buttons on it are fully programmable via the included software for Mac OS X and Windows.

The images below shows the System Preferences panes for adjusting parameters for the pen, mouse and tablet.

The pen can be operated in "pen mode," where there's a direct, one-to-one relationship between the position where you click on the tablet and where the cursor appears on screen. (Most users prefer this option. It also allows you to trace images on the tablet with positional accuracy.) In "mouse mode," the pen's position is relative, just like a mouse. (This is the way I like to use it.)

The mouse offers two programmable buttons, plus a programmable, clickable scroll wheel.

And the table itself offers two programmable buttons, plus a scroll wheel.

The Graphire4 also includes a software bundle comprising Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 and Corel Painter Essentials 2, plus other productivity tools.

The market leader, in this case, also happens to be the producer of the highest-quality graphics tablets. Not only are Wacom devices the most supported of all tablets, but they also happen to be of exceptional quality. I've mentioned this before, but I'll mention it again: I have Wacom tablets that are six years old that work as well today as they did the day I got them, despite my many unintentional efforts to destroy them (such as spilling my drinks on them, slamming them around, cleaning them with household sprays and other types of counter-indicated treatment). I even have an old ADB tablet from Wacom that, last time I plugged in one of my old Macs, was still working--and that poor thing has been through hell over the last, what, 15 years or so.

As for performance, there's really nothing to complain about here. The Graphire4, like other Wacom tablets, is USB-based and bus-powered. The USB connection is fine for the amount of data the tablet sends through.

A Wacom tablet is an absolute necessity for visual artists because it provides not just the feel of a pencil or pen, but additional controls that will truly make you more productive. The Graphire4 is a great way to get started without a heavy investment, particularly if you're primarily working on photo retouching and image editing. For more intensive graphical work (in particular digital fine art and animation), you might want to opt for the more powerful Intuos line of tablets. But it's hard to go wrong with a $99 (4" x 5") tablet. As I say, the 6" x 8" offers the same features, but will a little more room to work with. If you're going to bump up to $199 for the larger model, you might as well just bump up a little further and go for the 6" x 8" Intuos3 ($329). The 4" x 5" Graphire4 is a steal at $99, and I give it a Strong Buy recommendation.

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Related Keywords:wacom graphire, graphire4, graphire tablet, graphics tablet, pressure-sensitive tablet, pen and mouse

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