Monday, March 30, 2009

REVIEW: Wacom Intuos 4 –vs- Wacom Intuos3 and 3DConnexion SpaceExplorer combination


Intuos 4 Image from

Words and Images by guest blogger - David Pitcher

When Wacom announced their latest pen tablet the Intuos4 I jumped at the chance to upgrade and and hopefully replace the Wacom Intuos3 and 3DConnexion SpaceExplorer combination as the primary hardware tools used for my image editing.

Image Editing Environment

My current environment that I use for image editing is a Windows Vista x64 machine with 8GB of memory and driving two Apple 20" Cinema Displays. I have customized the Photoshop workspace so that I have the menu bar and the tool palette are the only items displayed on the left monitor, the rest of the screen is dedicated to display of the image. The second monitor has all the other common used panels, such as Channels, Layers, Actions, History, and Histogram, opened and expanded.

Primary Display
Secondary Display

Prior to upgrading to the Wacom Intous4, I had a keyboard and mouse sitting on top of the desk and used a sturdy keyboard tray to hold the Wacom Intuos3 6" x 11" tablet and the 3DConnexion SpaceExplorer. After the upgrade, the Intuos4 replaced the Intuos3 and SpaceExplorer.

3DConnexion SpaceExplorer

The key element of the Space Explorer is the controller cap which gives the device ability to control 3 different axis of movement. The controller cap can be pushed forward, backward, left, right, down, pulled up, twisted left or right, and tilted. These movements allow the controller cap to make adjustments to the working area of an image that is being edited in Photoshop. Having the controller cap perform these actions definitely reduces trips to the keyboard and covered the most common repetitive actions taken when editing an image in Photoshop.

Panning Images

The panning feature is an especially nice change compared to holding down the spacebar and moving a mouse all over the desk to pan a large image. I can keep a tablet pen in one hand and pan around the image using the controller to move the image to the place I wanted to edit or review at 100%.

Zooming Images

By pushing down or pulling upward on the controller cap you can control the zoom level of an image. The simplicity of zooming is another of my favorite features and is something I do often while editing an image.

Adjusting Brush Size

The icing on the cake of controller cap feature is that you can twist the cap left or right to make brush size adjustments. No more reaching for the keyboard and tapping the "[" and "]" to increase or decrease the brush size which I do very often when creating masks and doing some dodging and burning.

The Space Explorer also has 15 programmable buttons which you can configure for common Photoshop keyboard shortcuts. I have configured these buttons to perform the following actions:

  • - and + buttons mapped to navigate History backward and forward
  • L and R buttons mapped to decreasing or increasing Brush Hardness
  • Fit button mapped to resize the image to fit the screen
  • 2D button mapped to swap Foreground & Background colors
  • Shift, Alt, Ctrl buttons remained the default
  • 1,2,T,and F buttons were left in their default configuration

The software provided with the SpaceExplorer is easy to install on Windows XP or Vista x64 in conjunction with Photoshop CS3 Extended and CS4 Extended(excluding the 64 bit version). To fully leverage the benefits of the SpaceExplorer, you will need to configure Photoshop to utilize the device by adding a custom keyboard shortcut for the Photoshop Automation menu.

I found the software at first difficult to use and to customize the buttons. I was also not too pleased with the overall reliability of the software under either of the operating systems and either version of Photoshop. Often the controller cap would stop responding to commands while in Photoshop and would require exiting Photoshop and launching the configuration tool again and other times would require a system reboot.

Wacom Intuos3 6" x 11" Pen Tablet

The Intuos3 comes with 4 programmable buttons and a vertical touch strip. Since I had the SpaceExplorer, I rarely used these buttons or the touch strip and kept them at their default configuration of emulation Alt, Shift, Ctrl, Space and Zoom for the touch strip.

The mouse never left the original box and I never thought for a minute about using it; I did not want another device on cluttering up the workspace.

I configured the tablet so that drawing surface was mapped to the same area as my primary image editing monitor. This gave me a 1:1 mapping of the displayed image and the tablet surface area which worked very well for me as far as pen stroke movement compared to the relative area covered on the displayed image. The only downside, was that I needed to use the mouse to activate and change settings of Photoshop panels displayed on the second monitor.

The pen has a two-position rocker switch located on the grip of the pen which you can customize it's functions. I mapped the lower switch position to activate the Photoshop Erase tool while pressed, and mapped the upper switch position to activate the Photoshop Fade Command.

The provided software is easy to install and configuration of the tablet and pen and can easily be reached from the Control Panel. Reliability of the software and drivers was never a problem and always worked as desired. The tablet and pen are fully configurable and functional even with the 64bit version of Photoshop CS4 Extended.

Wacom Intuos4 Large Pen Tablet

The Intuos4 is what I consider a significant upgrade from the Intuos3 series. The difference in the tablet capabilities is not so much the new pen that can detect up to 2048 different levels of pressure, but the inclusion of a programmable touch ring and 8 programmable buttons each with an OLED display.

I was happy with the dimensions of the Intous3 6" x 11" tablet that I had been using and desired to get something about the same size. With the new Intuos4 the sizing options are slightly different and you can select from a small, medium, large and extra large tablet sizes. The Intuos3 6" x 11" fall in between the Intuos4 Medium with an active area of 5.5" x 8.8" and the Intuos4 Large with an active area of 8" x 12.8". I decided to go with the Intuos4 Large since it maintained the same aspect ratio and I did not want to step down to something smaller.

Installing the tablet was no different than the Intuos3 and has the same familiar Wacom configuration interface with a few new tabs added to accommodate the new features. This is includes tabs for the Touch Ring, Display Toggle, and Radial Menus.

I kept the same 1:1 display mapping configuration that I has used with the Intuos3 tablet, so now I had a tablet surface area of 8" x 12.8" mapped to the area of the 20" Apple Cinema Display monitor. The 2" increase is surface was definitely noticeable but did not take long to adjust to. I also decided to keep the same pen configuration that I had before minimizing the amount of new settings that I had to relearn.

I first customized the actions of the 8 buttons included on the tablet which Wacom refers to as "ExpressKeys". There are two groups of 4 buttons with the Touch ring separating the two groups.

ExpressKeys Configuration
Radial Menu

I mapped the first button to the new on-screen Radial Menu feature. I really think this is one of the best features of the new Intuos4. When the Radial Menu is activated, it is displayed on screen centered on the current position of your cursor. The menu consists of 8 individual menu slices that can be configured with predefined tablet features, mapped to custom keystrokes, or a submenu of another 8 menu slices.

I am still experimenting with how I think I would like to configure the Radial Menu, but at the moment have it configured with keyboard shortcuts for the Brush Tool, Gradient Tool, Move Tool, set default foreground and background colors, swap foreground and background colors, move forward and backward thru history, and a submenu for selecting layer/tool opacity.

On-Screen Radial Menu

On-Screen Radial SubMenu of Layer Opacity

Display Toggle

The second button is mapped to the new Display Toggle feature which allows me to change which display the tablet's surface area is mapped to. I found this extremely handy and it has completely eliminated the need to use a mouse while editing an image. I can now easily switch between my primary monitor where the image is displayed and the secondary monitor where all the Photoshop Panels are displayed. With my previous setup there was not an equivalent in functionality.

Precision Mode

The third button is mapped to the new Precision Mode feature which changes the amount of distance the on-screen cursor moves in relation to the pen. With the Precision Mode active you need to move the pen twice the distance to get the same distance covered on the display. This is really helpful when for me when working within very detailed areas of an image and I want to have more precise control of painting masks, or creating selections.


The fourth button is mapped to the new Pan/Scroll feature. By pressing and holding this button down I can use the pen to pan an image around on the screen. This is very helpful when I am working on an image zoomed into 100% or greater. I click the button and move the pen in the direction I want the image to move. This feature is a direct replacement for the SpaceExplorer's panning capability of the controller cap.


Buttons 5, 6, and 7 remained at the default setting of keyboard modifiers Shift, Ctrl, and Alt. These keys are commonly used to temporarily alter the behavior of a Photoshop tools.

Show Settings

The eighth button is mapped to the new Show Settings feature which displays on screen the current configuration of the Touch Ring and all 8 buttons. I did not find this as useful as I initially thought it would be and ended up mapping the eight button to a Photoshop keyboard shortcut of Ctrl+0 which adjusts the zoom of an image to "Fit" on screen. This setting replaced the Fit button functionality of the SpaceExplorer.

The Touch Ring consists of an outer touch sensitive ring and an inner toggle button that you can use to select up to four different functions the ring can perform. I elected to configure the Touch Ring so that the first function would allow me to adjust the image zoom level and replaced the SpaceExplorer's zoom feature of the controller cap. The second function I configured so that I could adjust the size of a selected brush, replacing another capability of the SpaceExplorer's controller cap. The third Touch Ring function is configured to change the selected brush hardness. The fourth and final function is configured to cycle thru the Photoshop Blending Modes and is something I do often enough that this saves time and seems to make exploration of these blending modes easier.

Touch Ring Configuration


I am extremely happy with the new Intuos4 and is nice to see Wacom continue creating great quality products. The new Intuos4 has been able to replace all the functionality that I had with the SpaceExplorer, although not as convenient as the SpaceExplorer's controller cap. The stability of the Intuos4 software and the support for CS4 64bit far out weighs the slight differences in convenience. With the new tablet the need for a mouse and keyboard is further reduced and I feel I gain further efficiencies in my Photoshop editing workflow by not having to reach for the keyboard as much and the mouse is never needed.

You can learn more about which size is right for you by using this guide.

You can order one now from Amazon in the following sizes:

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This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks. I just want to point out that the Display Toggle feature do exists in the Intuos 3, at least in the Macintosh. You may need to update the Wacom driver.

yffic said...

Hi, very interesting test of the Intuos 4.
I'm the happy owner since Monday of an Intuos 4 L, but I have some questions.
I have try to program the Touch Ring as you: Brush Tool, Gradient Tool, Move Tool... and so on... and of course the layer Opacity submenu... but I didn't succeed it at all.

Can you explain me how to program a Radial Menu (for example the Layer opacity one as I don't find the correct shortcuts..).

Thanks in advance.

Best regards.

Yves L

David said...

Yves, Each slice of the Radial Menu can be assigned a keystroke combination. Within the Tablet Properties dialog select the Radial Menu tab, select a menu slice, click on the Function drop-down menu and choose "Keystroke..." from the menu. This will popup another dialog where you can record a keystroke command. The keyboard shortcuts for Layer/Tool Opacity are the keys 1 thru 0 where 1 is 10% and 0 is 100%. Hope that helps.


walt said...

Hi David. I have the Intuos 4 medium tablet and have been trying to configure the radial menu. I can successfully configure for brush opacity but not hardness. I create a submenu called "Hardness" and try to configure the pie slices with keystrokes for hardness, but it does not work for me. I assume the correct keys are }10, }20, }30 and so on (the "brace" being "SHIFT ]"). Is this correct? Thanks.

David said...

Walt, I would recommend that you leverage the "Touch Ring" to adjust brush size and brush hardness instead of trying to use the on screen "Radial Menu". With the "Touch Ring" all you need to do is slide your finger tip around the circle and the brush grows or shrinks. The only keyboard shortcut I am aware for brush hardness is "Shift" + [" or "Shift" + "]" which increases or decreases brush hardness by 25% with each keypress. I am not aware of a keyboard shortcut combination for brush hardness that uses numeric values.


Martin said...

Thank you so very much for your article! It was well written and explained as well as described many of the questions I've had about buying one of these. I've never used one before but I can see now how it would benefit me : )

Keep up the good work!

Anil said...

This article is great, very helpful, i was so confused, i just returned back from WACOM shop thinking which one to buy intous 3 or 4, now your article gave me a clear idea...for sure i will go for 4.


Alima Bell said...

Just discovered your blog it’s really good. This blog is so helpful. I just reading this blog nice very nice. This is a great and interesting blog post. oh, I love my Wacom. I’ve got an intuos 4 and a bamboo fun to carry around with me. No, I’m not a graphic designer. I’m a video editor and casual photographer and I use the pen instead of a mouse. It’s so much faster and more natural. Couldn’t live without it now. thank you for posting and sharing it.

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty old post, and I don't know if you're even interested, but shift + brush size will change the brush hardness. And since you have the brush size on your wheel and shift mapped as a key, it seems like a waste to have hardness on the wheel as well. Just make sure to turn off sticky keys! :) Anywho, have a nice day!

Aaron said...

I am trying to configure my touch ring to have brush size, hardness, and opacity. I got the first two but can't find they keystrokes for adjusting opacity. Can you help?

Ron Martinsen said...

Here's Adobe's support info on the default keyboard shortcuts for Photoshop:

and Morris Photography has a great cheat sheet that is easier to search:

drtc said...

"With my previous setup there was not an equivalent in functionality." (display toggle)
As far as I'm concerned this not only exists in Intuos 3 series, on my 6x11 have mapped the small right function key to toggle displays, but it even exists on Intuos 1!... It does not give a hotkey option but is there in the mapping menu.