- Excellent input device for all graphics work
- mouse is better than most ordinary mice
- excellent styling
- Takes up lots of desktop area
- no soft buttons
- relatively expensive
The very first mass market data input device in the history of humanity was a stylus -- a sharpened reed used to draw pictures in wet clay. It is thus peculiarly satisfying to review the latest mass market data input device from Wacom –- the £179.99 (inc. VAT) Graphire3 Studio XL tablet, complete with stylus. Good ideas have staying power.
Design & features
The tablet itself measures 27.5cm wide by 25.7cm deep and gently angles towards the user. The active area is 21cm by 15cm and is bounded by lips at the bottom and the top; a pale orange light embedded in the top lip shows when the tablet is plugged in and active; this changes to green on mouse clicks, stylus touches and other events. There's a stylus storage compartment at the top of the tablet and a silver USB lead, which the tablet uses for data and power. The tablet comes with a transparent, clip-on cover that can be used to hold down a picture for tracing. Other than that, the tablet is featureless: our review model was finished in a dark, pearlescent blue -– white and grey are also available -– and looks exceptionally stylish. This compares well with some of Wacom's previous products, which sometimes seemed to have an air of the Fisher-Price Activity Centre about them. Wacom's mouse is excellent. Cordless, batteryless and apparently sensorless, it looks more like an industrial model than a working device. The base is just a sheet of soft, featureless fabric which lets the mouse move across the face of the tablet smoothly. There are two buttons and a rubber wheel that can be used as a third, and that's that. The mouse works up to a couple of millimetres away from the surface -- just about right when you want to whisk the pointer across your desktop by picking up the mouse and repositioning it between strokes. Apart from colouration, the stylus hasn't changed much since previous models. It weighs 11g, has a thin, low-friction tip -– replaceable, as it wears out with time -– and a thicker, harder button at the other end. This is normally used as an eraser. A quarter of the way along the barrel, a rocker switch provides two buttons; there's a grip slightly below this switch where you can hold the stylus with a reduced risk of accidental pressing. The pen works up to five millimetres from the tablet surface, which means you can work on top of a variety of printed materials if you want to capture details or outlines by tracing. Like the mouse, the stylus is batteryless -– the tablet emits a series of radio frequency pulses from a mesh of conductors beneath its surface, and circuits in the mouse and stylus pick this up and echo it back. The tablet knows from the timing and strength of the echoes where on the surface the input device is. By changing the shape of the echo, the input devices can also signal whether they have buttons pressed, and in the case of the stylus how heavily it's being pressed. All this works with considerable precision –- Wacom claims 512 levels of pressure can be detected at an accuracy of plus or minus half a millimetre, and up to a hundred points a second reported. With Windows XP, the system works out of the box without drivers: plug it in, it gets recognised as a USB input device, and is ready to go. That's only in the crudest mode, though, where the pointer on the screen corresponds absolutely to the position of the mouse or the pen on the tablet and no pressure or other enhanced information is reported. With the drivers loaded, the tablet is transformed: you can switch between absolute and relative modes -– otherwise known as pen and mouse modes. In mouse mode, the tablet works exactly as a mouse does: if you pick up the input device and move it to another part of the tablet, the pointer stays where it is. Sensibly, the tablet's default configuration is pen mode for the pen and mouse mode for the mouse, switching automatically as you change input device. There's an army of options in the Wacom control program: you can restrict its active area to a defined part of your screen; and fine tune acceleration, pressure, eraser, button and wheel assignations. Some things are never easy with a tablet -- double-clicking with a pen, for example -- and here the software tries to compensate as far as possible, letting you define a radius within which a second tap counts as a double click even if the pen's moved slightly in the meanwhile. It's hard to think of a tuning option that's been missed: Wacom has been in this business for a long time, and it shows. You get a selection of editing and paint software with the package; Corel Painter, which simulates a variety of surfaces and painterly brushes, pens, scrapers and so on; Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, for photographic retouching, Pinnacle Studio 8.0 SE for video editing, ACDSee for album management and penPalette SE filter and pen plug-ins for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Like most bundled software, these programs all show off aspects of the system, but may not be exactly what you want; with Wacom being pretty much the industry standard for graphics tablets you have a good chance of making it work with your chosen software or operating system. Wacom explicitly supports Mac OS 9, 10.1.5 or higher and Windows 98 SE or above: there is some support from the Linux community, but you may have to work hard to find exact answers.
In use, the Graphire3 Studio XL was delightful. A handheld stylus is the best way to draw, paint or edit graphics, and the tablet never gets in the way of that –- any limitations will be those of the application software or your own level of skill and patience. You can't ask for more from an input device than perfect transparency, and when it comes to pen input the Graphire3 delivers. We were pleasantly surprised by how well the mouse worked: it's also unique in that there is no battery to wear out, no cord to snag, no ball to clog; give the tablet a wipe down from time to time and there's no reason why the system shouldn't outlast you. Wacom's concentration on the aesthetics of the system, from the feel of the mouse and stylus making contact with the tablet to the styling and colouring, is also commendable. The only problem is that the fabric underside of the mouse soon picks up dirt and there's no easy way to clean or replace it. There are downsides to any tablet system, though. A larger tablet will perforce need more desk space, and one the size of the Graphire3 Studio XL needs the same footprint as a notebook. That necessarily displaces the keyboard somewhat, and makes an ergonomic layout of the workplace harder to achieve. If you're mostly working on the table then this isn't too onerous, but mixed work needs thought. Wacom does let you assign keyboard macros to a button, but doesn't have any sort of soft keyboard on the device itself. In general, though, pen input can be more ergonomic than mousing. The mouse forces you to hold your hand and fingers in a less natural way than does a pen, which fits in with the way the hand sits at rest. You can also pick up the tablet and use it with the pen as you would a sketchpad, which relieves some of the problems in the wrist, arm and shoulder that come from intensive screen and mouse work. Certainly, for some people a graphics tablet can make a huge difference, but like any medical problem you should discuss your options with an expert. Is it worth £180? That's a significant percentage of the total price of a high performance modern computer system, and for light work it may be worth looking at some of the smaller Graphire tablets -– the range starts at £70. Those who do lots of work with digital images will probably find the larger tablet area a justifiable expense -– given the sheer amount of time the rest of us spend moving that little pointer around the screen, it's hard to begrudge making the process as pleasant as possible. And yes, with custom brushes and the right paint package, you can use it to write in Sanskrit. Not well, though: the system can't tell if you twist the pen. It's nice to report that in one department at least, the 5000-year-old input device still has the edge.