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Wacom Intuos4 Professional Pen Tablet

Date: June 8, 2009
Author(s): Jen McPherson

Wacom’s tablets have long been considered an industry standard, and reasons as to why are obvious to anyone who uses them. Though the Intuos3 was a masterpiece of a tablet, the Intuos4 improves things all-around, such as with a higher level of sensitivity, LED-labeled quick-keys, removable USB cable, improved design and more.


Many artists and designers are looking for tools that make their lives and jobs just a little bit easier. Tablets are becoming an essential tool in digital artist’s toolset, a must-have for hobbyists and pros alike. With such tools in hand, we are given far greater flexibility for artistic ingenuity vs. the old mouse, opening a wide world of design possibilities.

Despite other tablets being available on the market, Wacom has carved a niche for themselves with dynamic tablets that are not only exceptionally easy to use, but also extremely stylish.

Today we are looking at the new professional pen tablet, the Intuos4. With a sleek new look and many new features, the Intuos4 tablets are indeed an attractive piece of work. But, how well does it function, especially in comparison to its well-established predecessor, the Intuos3? Allow me to give you a look at the Intuos4, and we can see if this ultra-modern tablet is the right one for you.

Closer Look

The packaging is mostly black, very sleek and modern. There is a large dust cover box over the first, which slides off, at which point you pull the tab and lift up. Inside, you pull back the flap panels and expose a cushion bag, which is where the Intuos4 is kept. Just under the tablet is a niche in the plastic holding shell where the pen sat. Lifting out the plastic shell, the other parts to the Intuos4 are underneath. Everything is packaged snuggly and securely, to assure the product arrives to your door in perfect condition.

The Intuos4 that I am working with is the “Medium” size, which is 14.6″ by 10″. The actual workable area of the table is 8.8″ by 5.5″. First impressions as I open the box are extremely high. It looks great, very streamlined, thin and relatively light-weight. The mouse and pen look nearly the same as the Intuos3 versions, but more in-depth comparisons will be made later on.

The most fascinating new feature of the Intuos4 to me is the LCD displays next to the eight express keys. They are fully programmable, so you can set any key to what ever shortcut you like, and the LCD screen will display what each express key is programmed to do when plugged in. This is real handy given that I would consistently forget what shortcuts I had programmed to the keys on my Intuos3. Another feature also made me joyously happy, and that was the new pen base, which stores all those tiny pen nibs. This ensures that you’ll never lose another pen nib again!

On the side of the tablet opposite the express keys and touch ring, are the USB ports. These are the mini-B port plug-ins. Only one port is visible at a time, due to a slider bar that allows you to use one of the ports while keeping the other port covered. The slider bar is located on the bottom of the tablet, and slides easily. Both ports are located towards the ends of the tablet side, opposite of each other.

I am glad the tablet has two USB plug-in ports. Why is because from frequent use of the ports, as with many USB items I use on a regular basis, eventually ports get stripped out and the plug-in wiggles or falls out. I was worried that eventually the same thing could occur here, and to have the port ruined on the tablet would just make me cry.

Of course, when plugging in the cord, it sets into the tablet a bit, giving the plug base support, and it doesn’t wiggle all that much. I was iffy about it, but seeing it eases my thoughts. Having worked with the Intuos3 for so long, it will be a nice change to not have to wrap up a cord after every use.

Installation of the software is of course straight-forward. Disc in, install drivers, follow directions and you should be good to go. However, if you own another Wacom tablet, such as the Intuos3, I’d suggest removing the drivers for that first. I had some issues with the computer not recognizing the Intuos4 tablet, even after driver installation. As soon as I removed my old drivers and installed the new ones, there was no problem.

I went to Wacom’s site after installation and downloaded my software bundle. The company gives you two plugins to download, and also your choice of two designer programs to download. What is available for the software bundle can depend on your region, so it is best to check your regions website for details on this.

Using the Intuos4

Having used the Intuos3 for so long, I was a bit intimidated by the latest model. But, I’m happy to report that working on it has been just as easy as the previous model. In some cases, it’s even more comfortable, thanks to the beveled shape at the top and bottom which makes it easier on your wrists. Also, because it’s so light-weight, I often have been using it on my lap.

The eight express keys are very easy to activate, needing very little pressure, and it’s great to have all of them available to one side, conveniently-placed, and with the LED displays, you will never forget what you program to each one.

One small nuisance, at least for me, is that dust and smudges/fingerprints show up on this tablet like a sore thumb. It is not a big deal, but something I figured worth mentioning. I give it a good wipe down with a partially-damp micro-fiber cloth after every use, to keep it tip-top.

Drawing with the tablet has shown significant difference, and that is with the pen pressure. The pen strokes feel smoother and more fluid, writing and drawing is clean and easy. With the new pen design they were able to give it a whopping 2048 levels of pressure. That gives the Intuos4 double the amount of pressure sensitivity that the Intuos3 did!

I didn’t think that such a change would make such a large difference, but it does make drawing with the tablet that much easier. I even did some quick calligraphy and a fast sketch with the Intuos4. The sketch was done with Corel Painter Sketch Pad, one of the bundle programs available to download (in the Americas region). The new pen design is really nice; it feels slimmer, lighter and more comfortable than the old one.

For my first real run with the Intuos4, I started work on a commissioned piece in Photoshop CS2. Again, drawing was fantastic, working lines and coloring has never been easier. During the drawing of my commission, the pen nib seemed to rub off onto the board a bit, leaving some scuff marks on the tablet surface. This pen’s nib is not the same white plastic nibs as the Intuos3’s nibs, but rather a black plastic.

I was worried it might scrape the surface, as these pen nibs feel a bit harder than the Intuos3’s version. Yet, after a wipe down it came off and the board was fine. I now use a sheet of smooth paper over my Intuos4 surface area while working, just in case. It works just fine and keeps the active area clean.

The pen nib does seem to be wearing down significantly with just this use, vs. the pen nib I’ve never changed on my Intuos3. Perhaps it is just normal for them to wear down a little bit to start, but we’ll see how long they last after a year of use. I completed my commission with the Intuos4 and was pleased with how well it worked. I had no real trouble converting from the Intuos3 to the Intuos4, it was an easy transition.

I really do like the new touch ring. This ring works much like the touch strips on the Intuos3. Touch your finger to the surface and either move clock-wise or counter clock-wise to perform a function. There are four small LED lights located on the outer side of the ring (close to the tablet face), which let you know which function you have active on your touch ring. These functions can be programmed, but for my tablet I am using the default settings; top is zooming in/out, second is cycle layers, third is brush size, and fourth is canvas rotation.

I’ll have to say that using the touch ring will take some getting used to. The reason I say this is that in order to use it for specific purposes you have to press the center toggle button inside the touch ring to switch between functions. Often I had my touch ring speed set too high to start, often overshooting where I wanted the zoom or brushes to sit. It isn’t hard to do, though, and I am sure my accuracy on the button presses will be better with practice. I used it a lot during my commissioned piece, and although I was a bit slow with it to start, I grew more comfortable with it and speed picked up.

Intuos3 vs. Intuos4

Now we come to the comparison of the Intuos3 to the Intuos4. There are many distinct differences that set these two tablets apart and you can see many of these differences with the supplied images.

First off is the new tablet pen. This pen is much lighter than the original, and thinner. I find that gripping and holding this pen is much closer to the feel of a real pen or pencil. It is a slight bit shorter too, and has a very streamlined look and feel. Of course I have small hands, so someone with larger hands may or may not like the smaller pen size.

The tablet comes with three little color rings, gray, red and white, which are for the pen. You can take the default black ring off from the tablet pen by screwing off the pen top, sliding off the black ring and replacing with a color of your choice. I placed the white ring on my pen, just to give a visual.

Another defining feature of the Intuos4 pen is the Generation 2 technology it boasts. As I had mentioned previously, this new tech the pen is capable of delivering 2048 levels of pressure, as compared to the Intuos3 which only has 1024 levels of pressure. It also has non-zero starting pressure, which means the tablet can recognize the pen at a mere one gram of pressure. The pen’s design is of course more in line with typical design instruments, feeling closer to that of a traditional pen. The new Intuos4 pen, however, is only compatible with the Intuos4 tablet series.

The new Intuos4 pen base is simply brilliant. I think this was one of the features that excited me the most and that I liked best about the new tablet. Before, with the Intuos3, I consistently had to store my nibs in a drawer, which would get overrun with more PC devices. Finding them was always difficult, and I believe I have lost one already.

With this new pen base you twist and pull the upper part off, and inside is a foam insert to securely hold all the pen nibs. In the center of the ring is the metal pen nib extractor. With the Intuos4 you get ten replacement nibs; five standard nibs, one flex nib, one stroke nib, and three hard felt nibs. The Intuos3 only had five nibs; three standard nibs, one stroke nib, and one felt nib.

The Intuos3 has an attached USB cable, which is quite durable and easy to position. The only hassle with this cord is when I have to put the tablet away after use. This may not have been an issue for others, who can keep their tablet on their desk. But having small kids at home I always put my tablet away after every use. Wrapping the cord around the tablet was my solution, but it does put kinks in the cording.

As an alternative though, the Intuos4 has new connectable USB ports, so you can unplug the cording and put it away. It makes it easier to store the tablet and stash the cord in a drawer. The Intuos4 just has a more portable feel to it; it feels lighter, although the Intuos3 is easily just as travelable. I had already voiced my concern about the USB ports, being that maybe after extended use they could become stripped out or bent, but that will require a longer tablet study. With proper care I believe the ports can last indefinitely. I find that they both have their own unique benefits.

Although I rarely use the mouse, the new Intuos4 mouse is again smaller and more streamlined. It is rounded, vs. the slightly square-like Intuos3 mouse. They both have left and right-click buttons and a center scroll wheel button. The only difference between the two is that the Intuos3 mouse has its programmable buttons on the sides, one on the left and right. The Intuos4 mouse has its two programmable buttons in the center of the mouse, one in front of and one behind the scroll wheel.

With use, I tend to like the Intuos3’s mouse better, because it fits my hand better. It is not a bad aspect, though, for the Intuos4 mouse could be a great match for someone. Also, the new position for the programmable buttons feels odd to me, as I’m used to having a button to press next to my thumb. Just like the pen, the Intuos4 mouse is only compatible with the Intuos4 series of tablets.

Finally we get to the tablets themselves. Both tablets have a very nice feel to them. The Intuos4 has a matte finish on the main part of the board, and then a glossy finish where the quick buttons and touch ring are located. The Intuos3 is a gray with a glossy clear coating over the the board, with the active touch area a matte gray. Both active areas are smooth, making precise pen strokes a snap.

To be completely honest, I like the gray color of the Intuos3 better. Now don’t get me wrong, the Intuos4 is extremely nice, the black is very sleek and modern, and suits the new tablet perfect. Yet as I had mentioned before, the Intuos4 gets smudged up and lint covered quite easily and it is extremely noticeable. If such things irritate you as they do me, you’ll be wiping the Intuos4 off with your dust cloth every five minutes. On the other hand, such small nuisances don’t show up as much on the Intuos3, due to its gray color.

Besides the color, there are many significant differences in the tablets. The position of the express keys and touch pad are one such significant change. The Intuos3 has buttons and touch pads positioned on both left and right sides of the tablet, for both left handed and right handed users. The Intuos4 went above this and designed a side panel of buttons, which can easily accommodate left handed or right handed users by turning the tablet around so the buttons are either on the left or right.

I really love this feature. Being right-handed, I was consistently brushing my hand against the Intuos3’s touch pad while working. This would accidentally zoom my screen and mess up anything I had been previously doing. This isn’t something to completely condemn the Intuos3 over, but it certainly was a bit of an irritant at times.

This button positioning also appears to have left more room for the tablet’s active area. The Intuos3 medium sized tablet has an active area of 6 x 8, as compared to the Intuos4 which has an active area of 8.8 x 5.5. This width of the tablet active area on the Intuos4 is significantly wider than the Intuos3. Of course, the active area is also slightly shorter than the Intuos3, but the Intuos4 active area is in scale with many of the wide screen displays used today. Although it isn’t a highly noticeable difference when in use, I do find I like the wider panel of the Intuos4 better.

Oddly, the Intuos3 and the Intuos4 weigh the same, listed as 1kg, or 2.2 pounds. Earlier I had mentioned that the Intuos4 feels lighter, and so found it odd that they are both listed at the same weight in their specifications. I didn’t weigh them, as I don’t have a scale to do so, but with my own comparisons holding and using the two tablets, the Intuos3 feels just slightly heavier.

I have even asked several people their opinion, holding both tablets and they also believe the Intuos3 feels a little heavier. Perhaps this is because the Intuos3 is not as wide as the Intuos4 tablet, distributing the weight differently. Maybe it is the attached cord to the Intuos3, causing it to feel heavier. Although I can find no specific reason, it is an interesting find none-the-less.

Final Thoughts

Reading this, or my previous Intuos3 review, one might say I am biased for Wacom’s products. Yet the quality of Wacom’s tablets speaks for themselves. I’ve used the Intuos3 for years now, it was my first pen tablet, and it has set a high standard for any tablet I would use or recommend.

The Intuos4 has exceeded my expectations and introduced the next steps up in tablet functionality. As was to be expected, Wacom didn’t disappoint. Despite the minor nuisances I came across, the Intuos4 has proven to be a stunning product and an excellent successor to the Intuos3. I love the wider active panel on the tablet as well as the new pen with its slim design and higher pen sensitivity. I’m still unsure about the pen nibs, though, and may update on those in the future.

Price-wise, the Intuos4 design series are somewhat costly, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. The Intuos4 medium size, the tablet reviewed here, runs for $349.00 USD at the Wacom eStore. The price may seem steep, yet you get to pick a software bundle, which can total over $100 worth of software. Corel Painter Sketch Pad alone is priced at $119 USD on Corel’s website.

I do have to say that if you own an Intuos3 weigh the pros and cons before rushing off and purchasing the new Intuos4. I say this not to affront the Intuos4, because it is brilliant, but to give current Intuos3 users something to consider. If you use your tablet for general hobby use, basic drawing and photo editing, and not for professional purposes then the newer features might not warrant you to rush out and buy one; at least not today, anyway.

Intuos3 is still a great tablet. Of course if you want to upgrade to the next level and absolutely cannot live without the new features, especially the fantastic new pen pressure level, then by all means run and grab yourself one. I assure you won’t be disappointed.

For those just coming into contact with tablets, shopping around for a good one, I say look no further. The Intuos4 is a superb artist’s tool and would bolster any artist’s repertoire. I highly recommend it.

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Wacom Intuos4 Tablet

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