How Does a Graphic Tablet Work?

By J.T. Barett

A brief description of what graphic tablets are, how they work, and what distinguishes them from computer mice and trackpads.

A graphics tablet is an alternative electronic input device for computers, widely used by artists, architects, engineers and others with a need to create accurately-scaled images. It consists of two main parts: a flat, rectangular pad upon which to draw, and a stylus or mouse-like puck used to trace out shapes on the pad. The tablet controls painting and drawing software to produce a wide variety of art and technical images.

Tablet

The main area of the tablet is used for drawing and tracing; touching a point on the surface of the tablet with a stylus or puck moves the cursor on the screen directly to that point. The surface of the pad has assignable areas you can treat as special function “keys;” when you tap an area with the stylus, the computer may open a menu on the display or otherwise control the software.

Stylus and Puck

The stylus is a pen-like electronic device used to sketch on the tablet’s surface. As you draw on the tablet with the stylus, the software on the computer follows your movements, producing a drawing on the screen. On many tablets, you can use a tablet cursor or puck -- an alternative to the stylus. The puck looks like a computer mouse that has a target crosshairs grafted onto it. The crosshairs are used to precisely trace out photos, drawings or maps placed on the tablet.

Interface

Many graphics tablets use a Bluetooth connection, the same wireless computer interface used by keyboards, trackpads, mice and other devices. Other tablets use the Universal Serial Bus, which connects to the computer with a cable.

Pressure Sensitivity

Some graphics tablets have a pressure-sensitive mechanism that lets an artist put nuance into computer drawings. By pressing harder on the stylus, the software may respond by making a line wider or darker, although other effects are possible. This feature can mimic traditional artistic techniques, such as airbrushing.

Software

The graphics tablet works in conjunction with software on the computer. When you first connect the tablet to the computer, you open a Windows control panel on the PC and configure the graphics tablet. Also, the software you use, such as Autodesk’s AutoCAD, Adobe's Illustrator or Corel’s Painter, must accommodate and make good use of the graphics tablet’s features and techniques.