Mice are for Wimps: Pen Input

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Graphic Tablets to Interactive Displays

Tom Arah explores the alternatives from budget tablets through to pressure-sensitive screens.

The Windows-based PC that we are all so familiar with is generally seen as the product of the pioneering work done in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) on the creation of a Graphical User Interface (GUI). What made the PARC work stand out was the development of the "WIMP" interface, generally taken to stand for "Windows Icons Mouse Pointer", which enabled users to interact visually with their applications via a mouse.

The resulting Xerox Alto and Star weren't huge successes but their GUI caught the eye of Steve Jobs and the Apple developers whose work in turn attracted the attention of Bill Gates and Microsoft and the face of computing was changed for ever. What caught the eye of many users though wasn't just the new visual way that they could interact with their word processor and spreadsheet but the new creative opportunities that the GUI opened up. By dragging with the mouse in a program like Paintbrush suddenly you could draw onscreen just as you could on paper. Building on this huge advance, new bitmap and vector-based graphical programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator were developed and the computer was transformed into a design platform.

It's impossible to over-estimate the importance of this simple act of drawing onscreen but, after that first experience with Paintbrush, the creative excitement soon turns to frustration. The problem is that drawing with a mouse actually bears almost no relation to drawing on paper. And there's no real reason that it should - after all the mouse was designed to quickly navigate through menus not to provide fine control. Try anything beyond a straight line, such as signing your name or drawing a spiral, and you soon realize why drawing with a mouse is commonly compared to drawing with a brick on a string.

Trying to draw with a mouse is frustrating.

Despite its historical importance then the mouse soon proves a stumbling block for today's user interested in the graphical possibilities of the computer. But then there's no reason that we should be limited to the mouse - after all the GUI only requires some form of pointer (I prefer the interpretation of "WIMP" as standing for "Windows Icons Menus Pointer"). And the mouse, which was first invented by Doug Engelbart in the mid-60's, was actually a comparatively late contender compared to other pointing devices such as trackballs, joysticks and the light pen that Ivan Sutherland used in his seminal Sketchpad application.

These days though there's one pointing device that reigns supreme when it comes to controlling graphics applications - the digitizing graphics tablet. And there's one company that dominates the field - Wacom. I've been happily using an ancient Wacom ArtPad II for so long now that I simply take it for granted and don't think about it from one month to the next. That's a major injustice however as it's the interface I use every day for virtually every graphical application and I would be totally lost without it. I decided it was time to give the graphical tablet the recognition it deserves and asked Wacom to send me a representative cross-section of its current range.

Wacom dominates the field of graphics tablets.

Based on the Wacom website I had expected the bottom of the range tablet to be the Graphire2 but in fact the cheapest option is the Volito which has its own website (www.my-volito.com) The tablet is over A5 in size (224.1 x 221.0 to be precise) but the active area is less than half that at 127.6 x 92.8 mm. Everything's very simple to set up thanks to its USB plug and play interface and you're up and running in minutes.

And the benefit is immediate. The huge difference is that the location of the cursor is determined absolutely so that the same point on screen is always mapped to the same point on the tablet (this is achieved thanks to Wacom's patented use of electromagnetic resonance technology, which sends a very low radio signal to locate the pen on and immediately above the tablet surface). It takes a little bit of getting used to but soon becomes completely natural and offers much more creative freedom and expression when it comes to drawing - especially as the pen is cordless.

Apart from absolute positioning the other major difference is that, unlike a mouse, the graphics tablet can respond to pressure. Press harder on the pen and this can be interpreted by supporting applications as up to 512 different pressure levels. This is particularly useful in photo-editing applications where the strength of brushes and retouching tools can be made pressure-sensitive enabling much more subtle control. Where the feature really comes into its own though is with artistic brush-based applications and the Volito bundles Painter Classic for just this purpose. Compared to the recently launched version 8, Painter Classic is seriously cut-down and dated, but it still offers a whole host of brushes such as watercolours and multi-bristled oils that change strength, size and any number of other factors as you press on them to realistically mimic their real world counterparts. Compared to the crude marker pen effect of Windows Paintbrush they really are a revelation.

The Volito tablet includes Painter Classic to show off its capabilities.

Retouching and especially painting with a graphics tablet is infinitely superior to using a mouse, but of course you also need to navigate your applications GUI and that's a different story involving quite a bit of hand movement to traverse the screen from one side to the other. Thankfully it's not a huge problem for the Volito thanks to its compact size and you can also use the Volito's basic Control Panel to switch to mouse mode which offers relative positioning and acceleration to keep hand movement under control. In fact you don't even need to do this as the Volito comes with it own cordless, ball-less mouse! What's truly amazing is that the Volito's combination of pen, tablet, software and mouse costs just 40 inc VAT!

If you have a little more money to invest, next up in the Wacom range is the Graphire2 which like the Volito takes the form of a roughly A5 tablet with an A6 active area. In fact at 127.6 x 92.8 mm the active area is identical to the Volito's. So what more does the Graphire2 offer for its street price of around 75 inc VAT. Well to begin with the tablet sports rather more professional styling than the consumer-oriented Volito. The Graphire2 also offers a more advanced pen complete with double side-switch and an eraser that supporting applications can recognize so that in Word, for example, you can up-end your pen to rub out your mistakes.

Frankly it's a bit of a gimmick and more effort - and even trouble - than it's worth. What does make a big difference though is the Graphire2's higher quality mouse. This is a three-button affair but, more importantly, it also offers a scroll wheel. Trying to use any pointing device to work scrollbars can be demanding and the ability to quickly and instantly scroll through long documents and web pages via the mouse's central scrollwheel is a huge advance. It's not just useful for office work and browsing, it's very handy within graphical applications. And some applications make particularly good use of it. One of my current favourite applications, SketchUp, is an excellent example using the scrollwheel to pan, rotate and zoom your view within 3D space.

The other main advantage of the Graphire2 over the Volito is that it shares Wacom's unified driver and Control panel (incidentally if you're still using an old ArtPad it's well worth upgrading to the latest driver, version 4.76). This offers comprehensive control over your tablet including the ability to set the speed of double-clicking, the function of the side buttons, the speed of acceleration in mouse mode and so on. More than this, the settings can be customized for individual applications so that, for example, you can have different scroll speeds within Word and Explorer or set the side switches to copy and paste or zoom in and zoom out depending on the current program.

The Graphire2 shares the main Wacom Tablet control panel.

The differences between the Volito and Graphire2 aren't exactly revolutionary but they are well worth the difference in cost. Moving further up-market is Wacom's flagship digitizing tablet the Intuos2. This really does push back the boundaries with a host of new features and capabilities designed to make the absolute most of the possibilities that graphic tablets can offer.

The most immediate difference is that the Intuos2 comes in a range of different sizes - A6, A5, A4 Regular, A4 Oversize and A3. I asked to look at the A4 Regular (street price around 385 inc VAT) which gives more room both for expansive strokes and better detail work and is also handy for tracing drawings and photos placed under its transparent overlay. What I had completely forgotten is that the size refers to the active area and that the tablet itself is actually over A3! It's a lot of desk space to give up (an awful lot if you've ever seen my desktop), but it does provide another big advantage. Because the tablet is quite thin and light you can bring it onto your lap and hold it at an angle for more natural drawing.

Other improvements that mark the Intuos2's top-of-the-range status are its support for 1024 pressure levels; 2,540 lpi resolution providing .25 mm accuracy; the ability to pick up movement up to 10mm above the tablet's surface rather than the Graphire2's 3mm; and higher sample frequency for even closer tracking. Completely new is the support for tilt information so that your brush strokes can taper naturally depending on the angle at which you're holding the pen (you'll need modern programs such as Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint or the full Corel Painter 8 to take advantage of this). And there's a very useful programmable menu strip above the active area that provides instant access to your application's most common commands.

The advance that Wacom pushes most strongly is the ability to extend your Intuos2 tablet through a range of alternative input devices. To begin with of course there's the included mouse which is now a five-button, felt-based, stately flagship. Other options available at a price (generally between 60 and 80 each) are the Cursor Lens for precision CAD-style tracing, the Stroke Pen which has no side buttons and is purely used for drawing and the Ink Pen which has a biro nib option so that what you draw on paper appears onscreen. Particularly noteworthy is the Airbrush that includes a wheel that can be used to control the flow of ink in supporting applications such as Deep Paint.

The Intuos2 tablets boast a range of sizes and pens.

It all sounds impressive in theory but what about in practice? To be honest I was perfectly happy with the responsivity of the previous models so didn't really appreciate the improvements though more demanding users might notice the difference. My biggest issue was the sheer size of the tablet. There's a very good reason for the Volito's and Graphire2's A6 size as traversing a bigger area soon becomes very tiring - you might be safe from RSI but watch out for tennis elbow!

Wacom is clearly aware of the problem and it has done all it can to minimize the strain. To begin with there's the provided mouse but I just found this too heavy to be comfortable. You can switch the pen to mouse mode instead, and with the menu strip you can switch between absolute and relative location mapping instantly, but the pen will never be a perfect replacement for the mouse for simple GUI work. You can set the screen to map to just a section of the tablet but of course this is a waste of space and money. The best alternative is the dedicated QuickPoint mode which maps both a small area and large area of the tablet to the screen so that you can use a corner for navigating menus and the rest of the tablet for drawing. You might get used to it over time but to my mind the small area was too small and the larger still too big, and I kept finding myself in the wrong one.

The biggest disappointment though was the alternative input devices. I tried the Inking Pen and Stroke Pen and, apart from the missing side buttons, they feel almost identical to the default Grip pen. You can create more of a difference by setting up different responsivity in the control panel and then instantly swap between the different settings by swapping brushes but you really expect the pens to feel different too and they don't. It's the same with the Airbrush. I can't pretend to be an expert, but the lightweight plastic Intuos2 version still seems more like a tablet pen than the real thing.

I can see exactly what Wacom is hoping to achieve with the upper reaches of its Intuos2 range with their larger sizes and multiple brushes - it is trying to reproduce the experience of drawing on a sketchpad as closely as possible. For traditional artists re-skilling that might even be an advantage, but for the average computer-literate designer it's unnecessary. After all, if you want to have greater resolution and control, you can simply zoom in on your work. And if you want to have another brush you don't need to buy one - in a program like Corel Painter you have hundreds at your disposal and each is fully customizable.

To my mind then the Intuos2 is graphics tablet overkill and I found myself pushing it away in favour of the Graphire2. As such I wasn't sure what I would make of Wacom's real top-of-the-range tablet. The Cintiq 18SX provides the same induction-based pressure sensitivity as the other tablets but it incorporates this directly into a LCD flat screen. This is a full-size 18.1" high-quality display capable of resolutions up to 1280 x 1024 and can be plugged into a VGA or DVI port. It's a capable performer with a good refresh rate and can happily be used as your main display but if you have a double-headed graphics card you can use it as your secondary monitor which is what I did.

Of course what makes the Cintiq 18SX unique is that it's interactive and you can draw on it. I had visions of a light pen set-up like the one I used 20 years ago with my trusty Amstrad PCW but thankfully that's not the case. Drawing on a vertical surface is unrewarding and soon becomes very tiring and an integral part of the Cintiq 18SX is its stand which lets you easily lower the monitor to any angle down to around 15 degrees to the desk surface. Assuming there's space you can also rotate the screen/tablet to any angle +/-180 degrees - very useful to prevent your hand from blocking your work. The Cintiq is great when acting as a drawing table, but the real coup is that you can lift the screen off the stand completely and bring it onto your lap. It's not exactly a sketchpad as it weighs in at over 8Kg (!), but it is surprisingly workable especially if you sit near a table and prop a corner on it.

The Cintiq 18SX integrates its tablet into its LCD screen.

So the big question is does it make a working difference? Unequivocally. Being able to look at your pen as it draws gives you far greater control of your strokes and the combined visual/tactile feedback lets you vary your pressure and its results much more responsively. Suddenly you realize just how artificial it is expecting your hand to draw while your eye is looking elsewhere. Yes a digitizing tablet is leagues ahead of a mouse when it comes to control and responsivity but the Cintiq represents a similar leap again. At last we've achieved the dream: an experience that truly mimics that of drawing on paper.

So how else does the Cintiq compare to the other tablets? To begin with, it drops all the advanced features of the Intuos2 such as the higher resolution/sampling/sensitivity and pen-based extensibility though their loss is hardly noticeable. I was more concerned about the large size of the screen/tablet especially as there's no option for mouse mode or QuickPoint mode, but the direct visual feedback makes navigation much simpler and easier and, because you're happy to lift the pen off the surface without losing the sense of where you are, hand movement is less tiring. And in any case, when you're working with non-graphical applications or applications that won't directly benefit, you can always put the Cintiq back on its stand and interact with it using a mouse or another tablet.

It's not all good news. When you're working with your graphical applications you still need access to your keyboard, for example to type in new filenames or use the Shift, Alt and Ctrl keys, and this is particularly awkward if you've got the Cintiq in your lap. I'm also not as convinced about the Cintiq for high-end colour-accurate photo-editing as I am for artistic work. The problem is the same with all LCDs in that the contrast depends heavily on the angle at which you look at the screen - and with the Cintiq this is constantly changing.

Otherwise the two main downsides to the Cintiq and the major obstacles to its wider acceptance are its weight and expense (well over 3000!). In time no doubt both these factors will reduce substantially - once you've seen one in action you can't help feeling that one day all flat screens will double up as sketchpads - and you might well want to wait to see what Wacom comes up with for its next offering before parting with your money. You might also want to wait until next month to read my experience with a Tablet PC to see how that compares.

In the meantime though, if you don't already have a graphics tablet, there's no excuse not to get yourself a Volito or a Graphire2. It's simple: for graphics you need a pen.

Tom Arah

July 2003

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