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It was a dark day in May that lead me to writing this article. My trusty Wacom Bamboo Fun rendered it’s last pixels (right in the midst of inking a page of course). After the flurry of unprintable words subsided, the reality set in. It was time to consider the options and replace my trusty work horse. Standing in the aisle, weighing options, and sending frantic text messages to both my financial advisor (A.K.A the loving wife) and one of my artist friends, I made the decision to jump from the Bamboo line to the Intuos line of Wacom tablets. Being the frugal guy that I am, I was thrilled to find the last of the Intuos4 Medium tablets sitting on the shelf, awaiting my eager grasp, and marked down significantly now that the Intuos5 line has reared its awesome head.
To set the stage and get the technical comparison out of the way, I had been working on a medium sized Bamboo Fun. This particular incarnation has an 8.5 x 5.4” active surface area, 4 programmable hot keys, a pen with eraser end, and 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity on the pen tip. Being accustomed to the active surface area, I went with the Intuos4 Medium as a replacement; similar surface area (8.8″ x 5.5”), 8 programmable hot keys (with digital display identifying function), and a user-defined touch ring with toggle, a variety of nib types, and 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity on the pen tip. That’s what you’d see comparing the back of the boxes, now on to the good stuff!!
My initial reaction after installing the drivers and hooking up the new rig was, WOW! The pen has a bit more heft to it than the Bamboo pen I was used to, not so much that it becomes cumbersome and tiring, but enough that it feels more solid and natural in your hand. Even with the standard black nib in the pen you get more of a sense of drawing with paper and pencil than the Bamboo provides, which was always my only complaint with the Bamboo tablets.
I assumed going into this transition that the levels of pressure sensitivity wouldn’t be noticeable. I mean, really, what person is going to be able to tell the difference when they already had 1024 levels of sensitivity, right? Wrong. The doubled sensitivity is what made me fall head over heals in love with the Intuos (especially when combined with the Frenden brush pack for Photoshop). With the hard felt nib in the pen sketching on a base layer is freakishly like sketching on paper. While the felt nib provides the feel of pencil on paper, it’s the pressure sensitivity that really lets you pull off a convincing blue line sketch. I was never able to say that using a Bamboo tablet. Win.
The Intuos comes with a variety of interchangeable nibs; 6x standard black plastic nibs, 1x stroke nib (spring loaded and uber-flexible), 1x flex nib (white tipped black nib, softer and more flexible than the standard black, but less so than the spring nib), and 3x hard felt nibs (higher friction and much more of a pencil feel). I freaked when I loaded the stroke nib into the pen. The spring built into this nib inspires a whole new level of confidence when dropping digital inks. While the pen will never emulate a sable hair ink brush, the stroke nib does successfully make digital inking much more natural feeling. Word of warning though, the stroke nib is SOFT. I prefer a heavy pressure setting on my tablet, and with it set up this way I ate through my stroke nib about 3x faster than a standard black nib.
The toggled touch ring allows you to quickly cycle through zoom/scroll, layer select, brush size, and canvas rotation as standard settings. I’ve yet to find a need to change these, but the option for user customization is there should you find the need. I find myself toggling between zoom/scroll (which functions as zoom in Photoshop) and layer select mode most frequently. It’s slightly annoying that to switch from layer select to zoom I have to cycle through the other 2 presets, and more times than not I stay in zoom/scroll and select layers with the layers palette instead.
Another bright spot of the Intuos is the illuminated hot keys (forgive the pun!). My personal favorite of the default keys is the Precision Mode key, it’s like Matrix mode for your pen! Using Precision Mode basically slows the interface, but not in a stuttering/malfunctioning manner, more of a weaving through a hail of gunfire without taking a single hit manner. These hot keys are stackable as well, so you can pull off Command+Alt shortcuts or any other combination that you would typically read for. I prefer mine set for specific functions (achievable through the Wacom software) rather than using them as an extended keyboard. It’s more awkward to push two buttons on the tablet and reach for the appropriate key on the keyboard than it would be to do it all with the keyboard. But, once again, with the programmable interface you can set yours up however you’d like, which is awesome.
My first impressions when comparing the Intuos to the Bamboo I knew and loved was apples to oranges. But the more I think about it, the more I realize they are both apples. The Bamboo is a delicious, nutritious, great every day option. The Intuos is also an apple, just a robotic apple wrapped in shiny diamonds with laser vision.
Axton Kahler is a middle school art teacher in Nebraska, and creator of http://zombieoakscomic.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ZombieOaks.