Wacom is the dominant name in the tablet market — not the touchy-swipey kind, but the pen-based input kind, devices that sit on your desk and serve as tools for pointing and clicking.
The company has just announced a total refresh of its marquee Intuos line, its family of tablets made for professional designers, artists and anyone who uses digital production software.
The big news is that with the Intuos5, Wacom’s tablets now fully support multitouch finger gestures. So in addition to using the input stylus of yore, you can put down the pen and scroll, pinch-to-zoom, rotate and pan just like you would on the other kind of tablet, or on one of Apple’s Magic Trackpads.
The Intuos5 can handle all the standard Mac and Windows gestures out of the box, but it can also be programmed to support custom gestures. If you want to trick out Photoshop to run some automated action when you tap or swipe in a certain way, the sky’s the limit.
Intuos5 tablets come in three sizes: small ($230), medium ($350) and large ($470). Each tablet comes with a comfortable Wacom input pen (no battery required), a pen holder that resembles an inkwell and holds extra pen nibs, and a USB cable to attach the tablet to your PC. Also available is a $40 wireless kit (a small USB receiver and a 10-hour battery) that lets you run the Intuos5 free of cables.
Wacom loaned me a medium-sized tablet to test for the month leading up to Thursday’s launch. I can say that it’s a significant improvement over the previous Intuos4 tablets, as well as a suitable upgrade for those who feel limited by the less-expensive, less-capable Bamboo tablets Wacom makes for consumers. However, while the pen-based input is crisper and more intuitive than ever, the multitouch features aren’t quite as refined as those found on a glass interface like the Magic Trackpad or a smartphone’s screen.
New features are numerous. You get extremely precise and well-defined pen-based input with 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity and up to 60 degrees of tilt recognition. You also get a set of eight programmable function keys along the edge of the tablet to modify your taps and drags, plus a circular touch-sensitive ring for scrolling. These function keys (called “ExpressKeys”) have a new heads-up display that appears on screen when you hold your finger on of them for a second, sort of like a cheat sheet. It’s helpful when you forget which ExpressKey is mapped to “shift” and which one is mapped to “command.”
Treating it as a mouse replacement in a standard desktop environment, it fares much better than the inexpensive ($80) Wacom Bamboo tablet I’ve been using for the past six months. But where the Intuos5 really shines is in the digital production setting. Inside Adobe Creative Suite, the ExpressKeys are suddenly able to modify brushes, and the toggle button inside the touch-sensitive ring transforms the whole circular assembly into a tool for quickly cycling through layers or tabs on a floating palette. The input pen is a marvel — the sensitivity and responsiveness when you’re drawing with it are unmatched.
The addition of multitouch support is also nice here. The Intuos5 can handle all the standard Mac and Windows gestures out of the box, but it can also be programmed to support custom gestures, handling up to five fingers. If you want to trick out Photoshop to run some automated action when you tap or swipe in a certain way, the sky’s the limit.
I stuck mostly with the standard gestures during my test, finding the most useful ones to be pinch-to-zoom (especially nice in Photoshop, Google Maps, and when reading PDFs) and swiping up and down to scroll. Basically, anything involving pinching or swiping was aces. But moving the cursor around on the screen using my finger instead of the pen wasn’t as precise as I wanted it to be. Tap-to-click finger gestures were cumbersome — I often missed my target. Text selection, double-clicking, right-clicking and drag-and-drop actions were more problematic. One positive thing to note: touch input is disabled when the pen is in use, and the tablet never once got confused about which input method I wanted.
Maybe I’m spoiled by the glass touch interfaces on my other devices, but I found the Wacom’s matte black plastic surface to be less sensitive and responsive than I was expecting. I ended up keeping the input pen very close by whenever I switched to using my fingers.
Update: This review was updated to add more details about the multitouch features.