A drawing tablet is a term that many of you are familiar with and especially if you work with computer graphics or web graphics. If you are unfamiliar with a drawing tablet for pc, this is a flat surface of varying sizes and shapes that enables you to control the computer with a pen tool instead of a mouse. Many products also offer multi touch functionality.

The main purpose of a computer drawing tablet is to enable digital artists to emulate real pen or brush strokes directly into the computer.

In recent years though, drawing tablets have been adopted by many as an ergonomically sensible pointing device to replace or supplement a traditional computer mouse and the fact that many drawing tablets now include multi touch makes this migration even more appealing.

Immediate benefits

  • Risk reduction of attracting repetitive strain injury (in the following – RSI) or carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Pain relief from existing arm problems (when approved by your MD)
  • With multi touch you can navigate your computer without holding a pointing device.
  • You will be able to work faster in certain kind of programs such as graphics software.
  • You will be able to easily sketch or draw ideas which may increase your creativity even if you are not an artist. Many planning, text and productivity programs offer the ability to write and draw with pen or touch products.

Wacom Intuos Pro Small Tablet PTH-451

Wacom Intuos Pro Small Drawing Tablet

Is using a pen tablet difficult to learn?

I would call it a challenge more than difficult. Using a drawing tablet for normal mouse work is a totally new experience and it certainly takes some getting used to. You may even experience new or additional strain on your arm and hand while you are adjusting because it is a very different feeling than using a mouse.

But it is a great investment in your health and ability to keep doing desk work for a living. My best estimate is that you will feel comfortable with a pen tablet in 1-2 weeks, and within a month you will no longer be conscious about using the tablet.

If you use a drawing tablet with touch you can control your computer just like you control your smart phone or tablet.

Ergonomically terrific

Getting rid of the traditional mouse or at least reduce the use of one, is of great importance in order to prevent RSI or to seek some relief from existing problems. Using a pen tool as an alternative to a traditional computer mouse may do wonders for you as it has for me and many others.

I have been using drawing tablets for 12-13 years. I am not a doctor or physician of any kind, but I would claim that next to not using your arm at a computer at all, a pen tool is the best variation you can you can introduce to your work flow.

You have done so a million times, but next time you pick up a pen after using a standard mouse for a period of time, to do so with the thought of a pen tool in mind. Feel how much more natural this is to your arm.

By using a pen you can spread the strain to more muscle groups and you get rid of always over extending the fingers for mouse clicks or that awful mouse wheel.

When holding a pen you rotate your lower arm about 45 degrees less than when you use a standard mouse. This may not sound like much but that level of unnatural rotation is a significant contributing factor to RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The twisting effect on the bones in your lower arm is reduced and you are no longer resting your hand on the area where nerves and tendons pass through to your fingers.

You can read more about carpal tunnel on WebMd.com

Touch capability on drawing tablets

Since I first wrote this article I have tested and reviewed three different Wacom tablets which have all featured multi touch functionality and this feature now has to be mentioned in a drawing tablet introduction article.

From a mouse replacement and ergonomic point of view, introduing this feature into my workflow has been a true revelation because it is now possible to work for long periods of time without holding any kind of pointing device in my hand.

Using touch control is by no means suitable for all computer tasks but it is absolutely perfect for things like general computer handling, and web browsing and other tasks that don´t call for a high level of precision.

Wacom touch interaction

The main shortcoming of multi touch is the lack of precision and digital artists will still need to use the pen for the main portion of their work. High quality finger painting is probably still reserved for children and cavemen.

But since you can now get a drawing tablet and a touch input device in one gadget, makes a modern drawing tablet a no-brainer in my book.

Which tablet to choose

This is a gadget area with a limited number of players and one large market dominator which is called “Wacom”. This article is not about particular products but you simply can not go look for a drawing tablet without knowing about Wacom tablets before you make a decision.

I am a long time user and a huge fan of Wacom tablet products but there are different tablet brands available on the market that could help you integrate a drawing tablet/touch device into your work.

In the graphics, architect, games and movie industries this brand is synonymous with a drawing tablet and you will be hard pressed to find other products in those facilities.

But this article is all about finding a good ergonomic mouse alternative and other products may do the trick for you. I will get into more specific product considerations in the near future.

However, drawing tablets vary a lot in price, performance and quality so you ought try a tablet before buying one or be certain that you can return it if you don´t like the product.

Drawing tablet reviews here on Office Orbiter ▼

Detailed Wacom Intuos Pro Small Review PTH-451
Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch Small Tablet Review CTH-480
Wacom Intuos Photo Creative Pen Tablet Review CTH-490

Where to place a drawing tablet on your desk

So where do you put your shiny new drawing tablet? A natural place would be where the mouse used to be. While not ideal, this could work of course and would still be much more natural than holding a mouse of to the side of a centered keyboard.

I would say it depends on the kind of work that you do.

Ideal spot

Ideally, the tablet should be placed towards the front of you. However, if a majority of your workload is typing, then that is where your keyboard belongs of course.

On the other hand, if your work is more about pointing, selecting and moving things on the screen with some kind of pointing device, then you can move the keyboard to the side and leave the prime spot in front of you to the drawing tablet.

The exact position of tablet and keyboard will depend on your arm length, keyboard size and tablet size. With some experimentation you will quickly find a good spot for both keyboard and tablet.

Find your natural arm posture

Try to let your arms hang down your side. Then put them on the edge of the table without thinking about where you put them. There is a good chance that this is the ideal place to put the tablet. You also want to turn the drawing tablet so that the active pen area is perpendicular to your lower arm. If you need to twist your wrist to use the tablet then you are just about back where you started.

If you arrange your workstation like this, you can leave your old mouse where it is now so that you can use it at a moments notice.

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What to look for when you shop for tablets:

Size of active area.

A typical office or hobbyist approximate size is 6″x4″ (150x90). A larger drawing tablet than that is unnecessary unless you will be drawing or painting a lot. As a mouse replacement, this is a good compromise of size and performance.

The bigger ones are nice, but they also take up significantly more space on your desk. Artists will prefer A5 size and up for more freedom to work with larger hand strokes.

I will go more into detail with the size considerations in the upcoming reviews. But this size is a good place to begin your research.

Hand rest

Is there room to rest your hand on the tablet outside of the active area? It is critical that your hand can rest easily on the tablet itself.

With the tablets that I have used there was the option of adjusting the active area and even to move it around. That way can effectively compensate for a tablet with a narrow frame.

Pen/Stylus

If the pen has buttons, be careful that the pen is not too thin. A thin pen with buttons will strain your hand over time. Check out the pen examples below.

Also make sure that you do not inadvertently buy a tablet where the pen requires batteries.

Wacom pen examples

(From the top: Intuos Pro, Intuos Pen & Touch, Intuos Photo).

Surface texture

Does the pen slide easily on the tablet surface? You know the feeling of pushing your finger over a glass surface. I have experienced that kind of stickiness on cheap tablets in the past. The latest trend is that they want to give you the sense of drawing on paper by creating this kind of coarse contact sensation that you get when you draw with pencil on paper.

Personally I prefer a more smooth contact, but some tablets come with pen nibs of different materials to simulate different surfaces. That way you can create the pen resistance that you prefer.

Also, be aware that a coarse surface causes more wear on the pen nibs.

Resolution

This specifies the resolution of the underlying grid that senses where the stylus is placed. This factor will probably increase and decrease in unison with the price of the tablet (compare this between products. This affects your ability to work comfortably with high precision.)

Sensitivity

If you know that you will eventually also use the tablet to draw or paint you want the device to offer pressure and tilt sensitivity so that you can draw or paint with the line thickness being affected by how hard you press and the angle at which you hold the pen.

Distance from surface

How much can you lift the pen before it looses contact to the tablet. This may sound unimportant at first, but over time it will be incredibly annoying if you can only lift the pen a few millimeters before the connection is lost.

Wireless

Wireless drawing tablets are available. On some products it is integrated and on others it is an expansion option that must be purchased separately.

System requirements

Make sure that your operating system and pc meets the minimum (and more) requirements to use a particular product. You can find that information on the product website or on the box.

Price

My advice is not to go out and buy cheap a tablet. I would much rather buy a good second hand tablet before buying a cheap one. A cheap tablet will end up in the trash. Trust me on that!

However you can find great entry level products these days that are more than adequate for home use or as an ergonomic mouse alternative.

Tablet customization

Most tablet products offer customizable buttons on the stylus as well as on the tablet itself. In the tablet software you can then designate commands to the buttons such as; left, middle and right click function or all kinds of application functions.

Wacom tablet pen settings

The tablets that I have used also have an adjustable active area which you adjust to your liking in regards to how much you have to move your arm to reach the whole screen area with the pointer.

It can be tempting to scale down this area so that you don´t need to reach so far. Experiment with this so that you do not end up cramping up your arm because your active area gets to small and you can´t control small movements well.

Wacom tablet active area control

Pros and Cons of using a tablet as a mouse replacement

Pros

  • Immediate positive effect on lower arm and wrist strain.
  • You are actively doing your best to prevent RSI and carpal tunnel problems.
  • You can combine a drawing tablet and a touch input device
  •  have experienced the ability to work faster in the kind of application where you rarely let go of the mouse. Not only for drawing tasks but also in other kind of “point, click and move” applications.
  • In most cases, both stylus and tablet have programmable buttons that you can use as hotkeys for frequently used commands and tools.

Cons

  • If typing with both hands is a big part of your job, using only a pen tool will take some dedication.
  • Arranging keyboard and tablet in an ideal position is not always easy. The two do work against each other slightly from an ergonomic point of view.
  • Tablets are more expensive than most computer mice.