Every now and then a product comes along that makes me wish my desk weren't such a cluttered mess. I've been a fan of digitizing tablets for a long time; they're useful for such disparate tasks as creating digital signatures for Acrobat and selections in Photoshop. But as a writer, my keyboard always has to be front and center and if my USB devices can't operate through a hub there's generally no room at the inn. And for text work, a mouse has always been more precise than a pen (or even the mouse that accompanied the tablets). So previous tablets have always ended up shunted to the side, to be pulled out only when I have some really painful masking to do in Photoshop. Such was the case with Wacom's last-generation tablet, the Intuos3, which I generally liked, but since it was too difficult to remember how I'd programmed buttons, it wasn't text friendly, and it wasn't very stable operating via my hub, it usually sat at the bottom of a pile. Not only has Wacom rectified those issues, but the redesigned Intuos4 simply looks cool, too. So I've finally managed to carve out a full-time spot for it.
Matte black on black with a shiny black plastic control panel on the side, the Intuos4 has a radically updated look over its shiny gray predecessor. Slimmer than the previous generation, with 16:9 aspect active tablet areas, eight dynamically labeled programmable ExpressKeys (buttons), and a four-function programmable iPod-like Touch Dial, the Intuos4's usability jumps far ahead of the Intuos3. Technologically, the new pen has a more responsive tip sensor and supports 2,048 levels of sensitivity compared to the older model's 1,024, and Wacom has tweaked the response curve of the system for increased sensitivity at lighter pressures and a more fluid feel overall. Wacom also claims that the new tip's life cycle increases to 20 million strokes, and that it's improved signal-to-noise performance around the edges of the tablet. Although I didn't test it, the new version of the 6D Art Pen is now cylindrical, so that it rotates uniformly when upright.
In addition to redesigning the tablet, Wacom has reconfigured the product line with new sizes: small, medium (the model I tested), large, and extra large. In general, they're all larger than their rough Intuos3 counterparts, and all identical with the exception of some necessary accommodations for size. For example, the small lacks LED labels next to the ExpressKeys and only has a single USB port, while the extra large has a captured USB cable.
The ExpressKeys default to Shift, Alt, Ctrl, or their Mac equivalents; pan/scroll; display toggle, for jumping the cursor between two displays; Precision Mode, which shrinks the screen-to-tablet mapping to a smaller area, primarily for working in Photoshop CS4's pixel-level editing mode; Info, which brings up an onscreen cheat sheet of the current assigned functions; and Radial Menu. The Radial menu is a programmable onscreen menu for single-function operations, which comes preset for operations like cut, copy, and paste, as well as media controls for music and video. The four Touch Dial presets are auto scroll/zoom, cycle layers, brush size, and canvas rotation.