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.
It's not immediately obvious how to use or program all the bells and whistles of the Intuos4. Even after I'd had a demo and watched the on-disc tutorial, it took me a while to figure out exactly how certain things were supposed to behave and had to turn to the documentation for help.
For whatever reason, the wider aspect (I don't have wide-aspect displays) and gently sloping edges feel more natural than the Intous3. The tablet does seem more responsive to lighter strokes, though only when directly connected to the PC. Through my hub, at least, there's always a slight delay sensing the stroke if it starts off with little pressure, and it doesn't register. I didn't have that problem when connected to a motherboard USB port. (Since I don't spend all day in Painter, I can't tell whether the response curve feels any different, though.)
For obvious reasons, the LED labels next to the ExpressKeys make them truly productive. Though it may seem an awfully mainstream application, I think a lot of users will find the media controls in the Radial Menu convenient; if not, you can reprogram them to your taste. While I'm not a big fan of using the RM for operations like cutting and pasting--it's easier to use keystrokes with my left hand, for example, even if the keyboard is off to the side--I found the menus great for launching Photoshop Actions. It would be nice if Wacom added the ability to load saved settings so that either the company or third parties could offer some presets; configuration, especially for multiple applications, can be a bit tedious.
I also wish there were more buttons, or a shift-type toggle that would increase the number of functions you could assign per button, and that the buttons weren't all identical. Though they tilt slightly, they're closely packed, and some sort of bumps or indents might help to make you a bit more secure that you're pressing the right one without having to look down. The Touch Dial is great, as long as you adjust the sensitivity appropriately. The button that cycles you through the different Touch Dial functions has only a tiny LED dot to indicate which position you're in, and I couldn't help wishing that it had labels as well; pulling up the onscreen reference can get quite tedious. And the Radial Menu has one seriously annoying behavior; it pops up under your cursor, but each subsequent submenu crawls up the screen rather than appearing in the same spot as the previous (even though the previous menu disappears). I frequently ended up with a submenu disappearing partly off the upper right corner of my display.
All in all, however, the Intuos4 is a great improvement over the Intuos3, and probably worth the upgrade if you spend all day with pen in hand. As usual, more casual users will likely find the price a bit off-putting, especially in the case of the $200-plus small version, which lacks the useful labels. However, if you've ever toyed with the idea of adding a tablet to your array of input devices, whether for business-related ink note taking, drawing, or for digital photo retouching, this is the model to jump in with.