Wacom's Intuos5 touch interface gives this graphics tablet a distinctive edge
When I started dabbling with digital cartooning in high school, the very first big purchase I made was an Intuos2 6x8. In the 12 years since I purchased it, that tablet has been a valuable part of my digital arsenal; it still has a vaunted place of honor in my first desk drawer. I’ve never been tempted to upgrade in those intervening years, not even by out-of-my-price-range Cintiqs ( ) or higher levels of pressure sensitivity.
Not until now.
Wacom’s newest Intuos has done what its predecessors could not, and I can’t wait to pick up one for myself. There are three things that compel me to put this tablet at the top of my gadget shopping list: design, software, and touch.
I tested the company’s medium-size model, which features an 8.8 by 5.5-inch workspace for $349. The actual tablet dimension is somewhat larger—15 by 10 inches—and though it fits comfortably into my backpack, I wouldn't recommend trying to wedge it into anything smaller (like an 11-inch MacBook Air bag). The tablet also comes in two other sizes—small (4-by-6-inch active area, $229), and large (13-by-8-inch active area, $469).
Designed to a T (for touch)
As mentioned in Macworld’s news story, the Intuos’s design has been subtly rethought and polished in a delightfully sleek way. The entire bezel of the tablet is coated in a matte grey rubber. The smooth plastic of the drawing area has received an extra few inches of buffer, for those who like to sketch freely without worrying about smashing their pen nib along the edge of the bezel. The active area is now highlighted with glowing corner marks.
The ExpressKeys too have the same rubber matte finish as the bezel; the buttons, recessed underneath the coating, have a smooth look. The button is debossed just enough to provide a basic rectangular shape, helping your finger find where the button ends and bezel begins. The second and third buttons from the top and bottom have rectangular lines and tiny dots embossed onto them.
The ballad of HUD
Fans of the larger Intuos4s may initially miss the LED labels—something the Intuos5 lacks—but Wacom has replaced them with a new software overlay: the Heads-Up Display (HUD).
I’ve dinged Wacom on its software efforts in the past; when first told about the HUD in my briefing with the company, I fully expected to hate it.
It’s easy to make something clunky, but difficult to make it elegant. This time, Wacom has avoided such pitfalls and produced something quite useful.
After installing the driver, you need only lightly rest your finger on one of the ExpressKeys to bring up the HUD, which immediately lets you know which button is which.
By default, one of the ExpressKeys links to an additional preferences overlay, which details the configuration for the Intuos5 pen’s buttons and provides direct links to the preference panes for the pen, ExpressKeys, and touch interface.
The radial menu (an Intuos4 perk) is still present, though it receives a minor facelift to match the rest of the HUD.
You can turn off the HUD in the preference pane if you’d rather not have it pop up every time you brush against a button, but I loved having it around.
Touched by an artist
If you’ve used a Wacom tablet before, you can probably guess how the pen will function. Not much has changed in this regard since I purchased my Intuos2, and even less has changed between the Intuos4 and 5. The pressure sensitivity levels have stayed the same (2048), the pen looks identical to the Intuos4, and sketching and retouching is just as comfortable as it has always been.
Things differ when you begin interacting with the tablet using your finger. Like the recently updated Bamboo models, the Intuos5 supports gestures and finger input; you can treat it like a giant Magic Trackpad, if you so choose—and I did on multiple occasions during my testing. All of the big system gestures are there: You can swipe through Spaces, two finger scroll on Lion, or pull up Mission Control.
Zooming in and out is also supported, though it’s clearly implemented through Wacom’s plug-in and not the system software itself—it’s a little slow at times, and not as responsive as my trackpad. (To be fair, that’s actually a good thing in my case, as I tend to over-zoom in Photoshop when using my Magic Trackpad.)
Customization may be my favorite part of Wacom’s touch implementation, however. You can assign a variety of commands to three-, four-, and five-finger gestures, including opening or running an app, Photoshop or Painter shortcuts, or a key command. (Being able to three finger swipe up/down to undo/redo, for example.)
Thankfully, Wacom has chosen to separate pen and touch when it comes to interaction: You can’t draw and zoom, which cuts down on any accidental palm input while attempting to polish up some linework. There’s also an ExpressKey command to enable or disable touch, if you find it interfering with your work.
Going back and forth is a joy. It required a bit of mind retraining at first not to immediately go to the keyboard when I needed to zoom, but once I got used to the action, I fell into a very natural rhythm. (Adding those undo/redo commands really helped cement the tablet as a touch interface, not just a place to scribble with the pen.) By the end of my testing period, I rarely went back to my keyboard except to type—something I’ve never before been able to do with a Wacom tablet.
For those who value working sans wires, the Intuos5 doesn’t offer a Bluetooth model like its predecessor—but it is compatible with the $39 Wireless Accessory Kit released with the latest Bamboo tablets. This also opens up wireless capabilities to every model of the Intuos5, even the small 6 by 4 version.
Wired users gain a small, but appreciated perk: The connection from wire to tablet has a plastic clip, so that you can reverse the wire direction should you need to turn the tablet around (for artistic or dominant hand reasons).
Macworld's buying advice
When it comes to purchasing something for artistic work, fancy features are nice, but it all comes down to the actual experience of creating something with the product. This is why I’ve loved sketching on my iPad since the beginning: Even though it doesn’t provide pressure sensitivity, I feel like I’m actually working with my canvas. The Intuos5 feels like Wacom’s first major attempt to do the same—and boy, it’s a great one. I can gesture when I need to, draw when I don't, and get my work done more gracefully without the need for keyboards and extra accessories. It's a lovely leap forward for the company, and I can’t wait to see how Wacom takes this technology forward. (Touch-based Cintiqs would certainly be a nice gesture.)
[Serenity Caldwell is a staff editor for Macworld. She hopes her Intuos2 will not read this review.]