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Hardware Review of:
9x12 graphics tablet


9x12 graphics tablet

Joseph de Leon is the Alamo PC Photoshop Class leader. Joseph has worked in the graphics industry for over 5 years and has been teaching at San Antonio College since 2000. He also develops workshops for the local chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH and Alamo PC. Joseph is currently a freelance graphics artist and Web page designer. 

From the October, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

When one thinks of input devices, keyboards, mice and trackballs instantly come to mind. Keyboards are essential for the input of text data, a mouse or trackball allows users to navigate the desktop and choose from menus. One of the major limitations of traditional input devices is that they do not allow users to dynamically control cursor movements. The most powerful and dynamic input device available on the market is the graphics tablet.

A graphics tablet is a rectangular device that can track the movement and proximity of a hand held device. The tablet surface often integrates a recessed plastic overlay that makes tracing existing artwork a snap. Tablets are complimented by a stylus, a pen shaped device that fits comfortably and naturally in ones hand. The tablet tracks the position of the pressure sensitive tip of the stylus. The combination of tracking (controls the position of the cursor) and pressure detection makes for a very dynamic and natural drawing experience. The key word is drawing; graphics tablets are intended for artistry, not menu hunting.  Making the transition from a mouse to a tablet can be tricky.

The biggest obstacle in learning how to work a tablet is overcoming the habit of treating the stylus as if it were a mouse. With a mouse, users are accustomed to working the mouse in a confined area, next to the keyboard on a small mouse pad. Mousers frequently drag the cursor across the screen by repeatedly lifting the mouse off of the mouse pad in a sweeping motion to creep the cursor in the desired direction. With a stylus, where you point is where you go. At first, this seems counterintuitive. Your natural reaction is to want to drag and lift, as you would a mouse. The surface of the tablet mirrors the surface of your desktop, in other words, if you want to go to the top of your desktop, point at the top of the tablet. Pressing down on the tablet corresponds to the left click on a mouse. A button is often located on the stylus, activating the right click or context sensitive menu. The real power of a tablet comes from being able to dynamically control such properties as size, transparency, color blending, etc. simply by pressing harder or softer on the surface of the tablet. This makes for a very natural experience — virtual artistry! 

The two industry leaders in graphics tablet technology are Wacom and CalComp. Wacom currently leads the visual graphics industry, while CalComp has a stronger CAD following. I have had the pleasure of using tablets from each manufacturer.

I worked frequently with CalComps SummaGraphics III tablet during my time with a former employer, 1999 - 2001. The SummaGraphics III (priced at about $330) has a 12” x 12” drawing surface, corded stylus, 2540 lpi resolution and a data rate of 114 per second. I mainly used the SummaGraphics III to make selections in Photoshop and occasionally to draw comics with it. I never could get the pressure sensitivity plugin to work correctly, so I could never take advantage of dynamic brushes in Photoshop. The biggest draw back to the model I had is that the stylus is attached to the tablet by a cord. Drawing was often encumbered by having to repeatedly push the cord out of the way. The stylus was natural to pick up and draw with, but was rather thin and did not feel molded for the hand due to its lack of contour. I also could not use my trackball with it, there was apparently a conflict with the Logitech driver, none of the tech guys could get both to work at the same time. I gave up the trackball for the tablet, opting to switch to the trackball whenever I worked with 3D projects.

Wacom makes a range of products for consumer and professional use. The most affordable tablet is the Graphire2. Priced at $99.95, the Graphire comes in a variety of colors, has a very small footprint and is designed with the average consumer in mind. On the high end, the Cintiq is one of Wacom’s latest products. The Cintiq is a touch sensitive LCD screen that doubles as a drawing surface, so you literally draw on screen and see results in real time. The most established professional tablet is the Intuos2, which ranges in price from $199.99-$659.99.

Upon receiving the Intuos2 I opened up the box to inspect the contents. One tablet, one cordless stylus, one cordless mouse, 2 CD ROMs and documentation. Everything seemed to be in order, so I began the set up procedure. Set up can be a daunting task: conflicts, driver updates, not enough USB ports — it’s enough to drive you nutty. I have an ergonomic keyboard which doubles as a USB hub plugged into my USB port #1 on my computer. I have a scanner connected to the keyboard hub, and an external USB CD burner occupying the #2 USB port on my computer. The only available port was the one on the hub. As soon as I plugged in the Intuos2, my computer reported that the hub could not power the device. I switched locations with my CD burner and continued with the set up.

The driver install was very quick. Included in the bundle were 2 free Nix Photoshop plug ins. The Intuos2 comes with a full version of Procreates Painter Classic v2, a paint and natural media simulator. I was excited to be able to play with Painter, as I have read good things about this program. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Painter to work. The program installs and loads, but the screen doesn’t seem to be drawing correctly. I looked online at various Websites in search of an update,  but found updates for version 6 and 7.

Configuring the Intuos2 control panel was pretty simple. There are controls for stylus and mouse alike. Control and test areas are obvious and easy to use allowing users to program buttons, control cursor speed, compensate for stylus tilt and more. The stylus itself is well designed on several levels. The stylus fits well in your hand. Its broad, contoured shape is inlaid with a rubberized grip that cushions your fingers. A dual-position button is accessible with either your index finger or thumb. One direction opens the context menu, the other performs a double click. I was most impressed by the stylus’ eraser function. Simply turn the stylus around and draw with the reverse side, the stylus is now in eraser mode. The mouse is comfortable and comes with a scroll button and four mouse buttons, all programmable. I found myself using my old mouse instead, simply because I’m used to the location next to my keyboard. 

My desk isn’t big enough to accommodate an ergonomic keyboard and a large graphics tablet. I pushed the keyboard slightly forward to allow the tablet to rest on my lap, propped up by the edge of the desk. This worked fine for the stylus, but the mouse was a little unnatural. The tablet really needs to rest flat on the desk to be able to use the mouse effectively. A fully programmable shortcut menu is located at the top of the tablet with function like undo, cut, copy, paste, print and save. QuickPoint technology allows users to set up 2 regions on the tablet, one for detailed work, the other for getting quickly across the screen. Photoshop integrates the Wacom drivers seamlessly. There are over 20 tools in Photoshop that support dynamic brush controls with the Wacom tablet. Each brush in Photoshop can be controlled dynamically with the stylus, creating an endless combination of settings. Making selections and painting in Photoshop is greatly enhanced with an Intuos2.

Intuos2 Specifications
Tablet Dimensions are 18” x 14.2” x .6”; Active Area is 9” x 12”;  Pressure Levels -1024; Resolution - 2540 lines per inch; Max. data rate - 200 reports per second; Connection - USB or serial. List price is $469.99.

I was impressed with the Intuos2. The level of sensitivity is amazing, and the tablet is very responsive. A solid set of utilities makes customizing your workspace a breeze.  The tablet and peripherals are sleek and attractively colored. Working with the stylus was very comfortable and intuitive. The trouble I did have was minor: having to swap devices on my USB hub, some of the 3rd party software didn’t work and the plastic overlay sheet was hard to lift.  Give yourself plenty of desk space and prepare to spend some time getting used to the feel of the stylus and mouse. Serious enthusiasts or professionals will appreciate the subtly in control and comfort the Intuos2 provides.

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