Choosing a New Tablet
(a summary is located at the bottom of the page)
The general consensus is that Wacom is the only company worth buying from. Not only do they manufacture the highest quality product on the market, most image programs are designed for compatibility with Wacom products specifically. Wacom tablets are professional industry standard and their cheaper models are also very good for casual use. While there are other companies that may sell cheaper tablets, for absolute assurance of quality, Wacom is your go-to brand.
Pen Pressure. All Intuos4 models have 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, twice that of the Bamboo Fun, Pen & Touch and the Intuos3, and four times the Bamboo Pen's. This is not as large as a gap as it seems; you will probably not notice terribly much of a difference if you upgrade from 1024 to 2048. I do, however, notice the stiffness when I downgrade -- but I don't personally feel this affects the quality of my work in any significant capacity. However, your mileage may vary, so this is a factor to consider.
The touch ring. It can allow you to scroll, zoom, adjust brush size, cycle layers, or the very useful ability to dynamically rotate your canvas in programs that support it. The Intuos4 is the only tablet with this feature.
Pen tilt. This allows you to manipulate your brushes depending on the angle you tilt your pen; you can use this to emulate the behavior of traditional tool techniques like drawing with the side of a pencil. Like pen pressure, though, this will not seriously affect the quality of your work. The Intuos4 and Intuos3 support pen tilt, but the Bamboo line does not.
Size. This is probably the biggest factor to consider. The small sizes of the Bamboo Pen, the Bamboo Pen & Touch and the small Intuos make them suitable for traveling or backup use, but for home use, the maneuverability the larger sizes afford is invaluable. The Bamboo Fun and the Intuos3/4 medium are both large enough to do the job without costing too much money or desk space; professionals or artists with more space and disposable income may want to look into the large or XL Intuos4 models, which allow you as much control as possible.
If you have a tight budget, your best bet is probably one of the Bamboo models; The most advanced Bamboo model is the $199 USD Bamboo Fun, a 13.3" x 8.8" (338mm x 224mm) tablet with an active pen working area of 8.5" x 5.4" (216mm x 137mm). It has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and a resolution of 2540 LPI.
The Bamboo Pen & Touch is a cheaper option at just $99 USD, but its pen working area of 5.8" x 3.6" (147mm x 91mm) is about 50% smaller than the Bamboo Fun. There's also the even cheaper $69 USD Bamboo Pen, which is the same size as the Pen & Touch, but it has half the pressure sensitivity and resolution of the Bamboo Fun and Pen & Touch and does not support Multi-Touch.
For those who are more serious about their work, or just want the best technology available, the Intuos line has the best quality tablets on the market. The most recent Intuos model is the Intuos4, which comes in 4 sizes (the $229 USD small, which is 12.2" x 8.2" x 0.5" (309mm x 209mm x 12mm) with a working area of 6.2" x 3.9" (157.5mm x 98.4mm); the $369 USD medium, which is 14.6" x 10.0" x 0.5" (370mm x 254mm x 12mm) with a working area of 8.8" x 5.5" (223.2mm x 139.7mm); the $499 USD large, which is 18.7" x 12.6" x 0.6" (474mm x 320mm x 15mm) with a working area of 12.8" x 8.0" (325.1mm x 203.2mm); and the $789 USD XL, which is 24.5" x 18.2" x 1.1" (623mm x 462mm x 28mm) with a working area of 18.2" x 12.0" (462mm x 304.8mm)) plus a wireless model (which is 14.3" x 10.0" x 0.6" (363mm x 253mm x 15mm) with a working area of 8.0" x 5.0" (203.2mm x 127.0mm)).
All of the Intuos4 models share 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, ± 60 degree pen tilt sensitivity, a resolution of 5080 LPI, and the 4-Function Touch Ring; all of the models have 8 programmable hotkeys, with the exception of the small, which only has 6 and no illuminated display. Unique to the XL model is a transparent plastic sheet that allows you to place paper beneath it for tracing traditional work.
Choosing between the Intuos4 models is largely a matter of size and price. The Intuos4 medium strikes a suitable balance, but if it the cost and desk space is not an issue, the extra size of the Large or XL (or the latter's transparent cover sheet) may be useful to you. The small is probably not worth buying as a general-use tablet; the additional tilt and pressure sensitivity is not enough of bonus to justify the the fact it costs 29 dollars more than the Bamboo Fun, but has a 40% smaller working area.
Although the Intuos4 is the latest and greatest, some artists still prefer the older Intuos3; the new textured plastic sheets on the Bamboo and Intuos4 models greatly accelerate nib wear, which can lead to a need to order replacement nibs much more frequently. The Intuos3 also has several 4:3 models, while the Bamboo and Intuos4 line are all 16:10; while they will still work fine without distortion on non-widescreen manuals, you may find a tablet with a matching ratio more comfortable to use. On the downside, the Intuos3 only has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. the Intuos4's 2048. The Intuos3 is also not ambidextrously reversible like the Intuos4 and Bamboo models. As the Intuos3 is now outdated, it can often be found secondhand cheaper than the Intuos4.
The choice between any of the models in the Bamboo and Intuos lines come down to a couple of major deciding factors:
I would personally recommend an Intuos4 over the Bamboo models. It is the best model you can get for the money, and the extra features and space more than make up for the cost. The Intuos3 is a suitable alternative if you find the nib wear to be an issue, but it is likely that Wacom will issue replacement nibs less susceptible to wear in the future in response to complaints.
The last product to consider is the Cintiq. The Cintiq combines monitor and tablet technology and lets you draw directly onto the screen. It is also very expensive. The 12WX is 16" x 10.5" x .67" (406.4mm x266.7mm x 17mm) in size with an active area of 10.3" x 6.4" (261.6mm x 162.6mm) and a pricetag of $999 USD; the 21UX physically measures 22.1" x 16.5" x 1.8" (561.3mm x 419.1mm x 45.7mm), has an active area of 17" x 12.75" (431.8mm x 323.9mm) and costs $1999 USD.
While it is not a replacement for pen and paper, it's the closest thing you'll find in digital art tools; the immediate connect of the pen and the screen can bring back the familiarity and control of traditional media. If you were never able to get used to the disconnect between your hand and your drawing, the Cintiq may help.
That being said, the Cintiq has its share of bugs. Some cite an uncomfortable lag time between the pen screen, jagged lines, very high levels of heat, messy and bulky cables that impede advertised portability, heaviness, pen jitteriness towards the edges of the screen (this is especially prevalent on the smaller 12WX, and may effectively eliminate a sizable portion of the working area), screen smudging, low screen quality (blurred lines, dull colors) and poor pen design as major problems. It is not a perfected technology by any means, and many consider it too flawed for the price tag.
However, the 21UX has been redesigned; due for release in April 2010, the new 21UX features 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, 16 programmable ExpressKeys with two finger-sensitive back-mounted Touch Strips, a 1600x1200 resolution display, and 10 to 65 degree adjustable stand incline and 180 degrees of rotational capability. By comparison, the 12WX features only 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity (half that of the Intuos4 and redesigned 21UX), 10 programmable ExpressKeys with two finger-sensitive front-mounted Touch Strips, a 1280x800 resolution display, 360 degree rotation, and an array of bugs that make its worth rather questionable.
As it has yet to be released, it's not yet possible to say whether the new 21UX has addressed the issues that plagued the last generation of Cintiq models, but this page will be updated once there is more information.
Keep in mind that no matter what model of tablet you purchase, or whether you purchase a tablet at all, a tablet is not going to magically make you into an amazing artist. It is just a tool.
In summary: if you're cheap, get a Wacom Bamboo. If you're serious about your work, get a Wacom Intuos. If you're rich and crazy, get a Wacom Cintiq.