What kind of hardware does a noob need?


Dec 9, 2006
The wife's laptop is getting very old, and she's suggested she wants her next machine to be a tablet.

Now, she is saying she wants to get into some digital design using her new tablet.

Our house is an Apple-free zone.

I don't know hardly anything about the hardware or software one might use for digital design. I've always been interested but I've not pulled the trigger and bought anything.

Ideally, I'd like a Windows 10 tablet/convertible/detachable and some suggestions for a stylus and software with the complete investment being around $500. To me, this doesn't seem unreasonable but if it's unreasonable that's good information to have as well.

I'm pretty sure we want a pen with pressure sensitivity and some searches today have shown people suggesting a machine with a 'digitizer'. I don't fully understand that but I thought all touch screens had digitizers? Also, I've found absolutely nothing available in the Android realm unless you get a specific Samsung device. If an Android were cheap enough, I'd be more than happy to go that route.
Honestly - decent digital design needs a large, good, monitor. Working on some cheapo $500 tablet makes actual work-work hard. You could buy a decent desktop and some tablet, or as the person above said, get a SP4 and a docking setup. The SP4 is an actual laptop in a tablet body.
SP4 would be great except those are $900-1500. I did see some Surface 3 machines in the $500 range but with an Atom processor. It isn't like she's suddenly going to become a professional designer (well, she might but... if that happens budgets will change accordingly) so even if it's somewhat inconvenient a cheap solution is currently a better option than getting a full-on pro setup. Honestly, if it were possible, we would get a stylus and a free app somewhere and be ready to experiment and learn how it all works for around $80. I just haven't found anything that leads me to believe that's actually possible since we don't have rooted iPads.
Well that's the issue, right? I mean put in mediocre amounts get mediocre returns. You can always pair a laptop with a Wacom and something like ArtRage or AutoDesk Sketcbook.. both are relatively light specs on the app needs (outside of a bit of ram)..
I suggested the Wacom tablet idea as a cheap way to get started but she has in her mind that she wants to draw straight onto the tablet. So, I figured there must be a Bluetooth pressure sensitive pen somewhere that will work on any Windows or Android tablet but I guess I figured wrong. I'm just imagining there is still a Windows based solution that must exist, just looking for help finding it.

I suppose a different way to go about it would be... what do I actually need? Do I need something with a certain type of touch screen or will any touch screen work? Is a pressure sensitive pen the only other hardware I need? I am imagining there's a wide array of software available ranging from open source up to thousands of dollars as well. She might have Photoshop leftover from her college stuff, I dunno. Graphic design isn't something in my realm of expertise.
I do my drawing on a wacom... and outside of buying a Cintiq drawing straight on the pad (for the price) is a little overrated. In theory a third party bluetooth stlyus will work, but I've heard they all end up being janky and frustrating to use.

The pen and the screen typically need to work together. Pressure sensitivity of 1024 or greater is best.
If she just wants to free draw - again, ArtRage, Sketchbook, Gimp, PS CS2, etc are out there. If she has something else in mind well.. that may be Illustrator, Publisher, etc.
Yeah, I think that sounds reasonable. Currently looking at the Surface 3 (not pro) plus pen ~$560 but I do see some people using HP convertibles with a Dell pen. Seems like palm and multitouch problems are pervasive in the latter.
Yeah.. You can find refurbed SP3 on Microsoft's site, the 'for sale' here, or fleabay. Maybe you'll get lucky. Though I would try and find something with more than 4mb of RAM..
What graphics apps are you/she thinking of working in? Yeah, the biggest things you'll need for design work are lots of display space and lots of RAM. I wouldn't consider building a graphics rig today with less that 16GB of ram. And you'll want 2-3 monitors at least 20" each. You really can't have too much screen real-estate, so I'd go with at least a laptop that can push 2 extra monitors.

I've been in the graphics business for ~15 years, and I don't bother with tablets or styluses for the most part. They're a fun gimmick, but you can do 95% of what you need to with mouse-KB, do it a lot faster, and once you get used to it, you can do the same free-hand painting/drawing type actions with the mouse as you would with the stylus.

So I'd say build a good work-station or buy laptop with a newer quad CPU, 16 or 32 gb RAM, and make sure it can push 2 extra monitors.
I'm mostly with madFive, with one exception.

I agree that really screen real-estate as well as color accuracy is going to be a much bigger deal than drawing directly on a screen. I'd rather be working on a 27-32" monitor than working on a device that's 8-12". The only acceptable middle ground as already stated is the Wacom Cintiq line, which is waaaay out of your budget.
The part where I disagree with madFive is on the usefulness of a stylus. I'm a relatively recent convert: only using a tablet for about 6 months. I used a mouse to do edits for about 8 years (so less than his 15). But I find the ability to do extremely fine movements is easier on a stylus than on a mouse. On my desktop, I don't really even use a mouse anymore, I actually use my Wacom Intuos Pro to navigate the desktop. It's fully replaced my mouse (I don't really game anymore, I'm much more interested in productivity on my computer). And when I'm not using the Stylus, I'm using a touchpad. Now, I wouldn't say that my setup is for everybody (clearly it's not for madFive) and that's okay. But I would not discount how useful it is. Especially if your wife is interested in being a digital artist. If she wants to spend a lot of time doing fine drawing like movements. Getting adjusted to using a tablet though isn't easy. A lot of people give up after one day. But sticking with it I've found that now that I've learned the tool, it's faster for me than using a mouse was. The critical part though is that it took practice. Definitely more than one day to get it.

So anyway, to answer your questions about devices: something super fast isn't necessary. It doesn't take a lot of horse power these days to run Photoshop. An i5 with a decent video card, an SSD, and 8GB of RAM more than will fulfill the requirements for a speedy Photoshop experience (If she's going to do video though, I'd go 16GB minimum, 32GB preferred and move to an i7). I'd spend the cash on a monitor, color-calibrator (like the i1 Display Pro or Color Munki), and a Wacom Intuos/Intuos Pro. That is if I had to do it all over again. Barring that, I guess pick up a Surface, although like I mentioned earlier, I find working on a space that small to be extremely limiting. Still the Surface is an excellent crossover device. If I was working in Windows, I'd probably own one. HOWEVER, I probably wouldn't own one as my primary editing device. That's a pretty big caveat. Because like I mentioned, having that speedy desktop would just be better. A Surface would make an excellent mobile compliment though.
There is one other option: Wacom has a tablet line called the Companion, which if you just have cash to drop on it is something to consider. I certainly would, but it's probably out of your budget.
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As already stated, it might be a bit difficult to get the required hardware in a tablet to do graphic design. I had to upgrade an older i3 laptop from 4GB to 8GB of memory in order to get photoshop / lightroom to work well. 16GB isn't necessarily needed to make those work well, but more than 4GB is. Also, depending upon what features you are using, the processor does make a significant difference in those applications. Some of the filters in Photoshop can take time to render and going from a dual core laptop to a quad core desktop makes a big difference. That said I would also be looking at the possibility of upgrading a laptop to a Surface Pro, but it would have to be i5 and 8GB of ram for me to want to make the jump. An atom and 4GB of memory is just going to give a frustrating experience IMO. I'd probably just stick with a bulky laptop if budget is an issue and get the better CPU / memory and sacrifice portability if you want to use it to get work done.
Just to give the thread some closure, I guess I overestimated the level of control she wanted. She did a few finger drawings on her phone that end up sort of looking like a pen outline with watercolor and that's really all she wanted. Tried a cheap Android tablet from Amazon and it was a complete turd so that's getting sent back today. She is using Autodesk Sketchbook on her phone. I might buy one of the entry level Wacom pads in the $70 range for our second try. We both found the actual tablets to be too hard to hold in a comfortable position, so if you have to be at a desk anyway there's no sense in restricting yourself to an Android platform. So, maybe the USB Wacom added to our current PC will be good enough to be worth $70 so she can make sketches of dresses and whatnot. If not, free returns with Amazon Prime.

It's not all been a waste, though. I've been curious about graphic design stuff for years. Hopefully my next project at work will force me to learn Gimp (not because I don't want to, but because I'd rather get paid to learn it) and I'll get my introductory foray. I'll never be a pro at it, I'm no artist. But, hopefully she can get enough of a taste to decide if she wants to pursue it further or just do it as a hobby. Thanks for all the good info.
If you don't want to drop full Wacom money, but want more size, you may want to look at off brand tablets. Some folk do well with them.

I started with a Wacom Bamboo that was 4"x6.. not bad, but super cramped. I then found a used (gen or two back) 6"x8 Wacom and that helped tremendously.
This one is $80 possibly due to the ugly color. I'm not sure the size of the actual drawing area but it is listed at 6.7 x 8.25... that could be overall though. I've seen it cheaper as well but it seems like maybe the thing to go for as a beginner/tinkerer.
Whatever you do don't do it on a tablet. Limited space... go for a mac.