A Tablet for the Rest of Us

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in The Computer Paper,  December 2001

Affordable Graphire 2 provides pressure-sensitive drawing tools 

While you can create digital artwork from scratch using software like Adobe Photoshop, drawing with your mouse on a computer screen lacks the expressiveness of natural media--of pens and pencils, paintbrushes, and chalk on real, textured paper. Even software that tries to simulate natural media--Procreate Painter, for example--comes up short when used with a mouse. 

Wacom Graphire2 
From: Wacom 
System requirements: USB-capable PC (Windows 98 or later) or Mac (OS 8.5 or later) 
Price: $150 

If you want to create art on a computer screen, you really need to throw away your mouse and replace it with a graphics tablet. Because these peripherals are pressure-sensitive, they allow you to draw lines that change over their length, just like ink on paper. No more sterile, perfect computer shapes. 

These tablets aren't new; companies like Wacom have been making them for more than a decade, with pens for freehand drawing, pucks for tracing, and yes, even mice. They've been connected to PCs, Macs, Amigas, Unix workstations, and more for artwork and precision computer aided design (CAD) work. 

But for the most part, these were high-end, professional tools, sold to a limited audience for a high-end price. 

Wacom's new Graphire2 would like to be the graphics tablet for the rest of us. 

It has an affordable price, and comes in a choice of iMac-like colours. Connecting to a computer through a powered USB port, it's compatible with recent PCs (Windows 98 or later) and Macs (OS 8.5 through 10.1). Owners of older Macs and PCs may still be able to find the original serial-port model. It includes a cordless, battery-less pressure-sensitive pen (complete with digital eraser) and mouse, and comes bundled with PC and Mac versions of Adobe Photoshop LE and Corel Painter Classic, so users can plunge right into freeing up their artistic souls. 

It will also work with any other graphic software, particularly products that support pressure sensitivity, a feature that mouse users never knew was there. All the Painter tools are pressure sensitive, but so are several Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, and CorelDraw tools. In Photoshop, for instance, more pressure produces a darker rubber stamp or a fatter stroke. Like in the real world, a light touch results in lighter, almost transparent lines. While you can
get the same effects by mousing around, the process is hardly intuitive. With a graphics tablet and pen, you just draw. 

Graphics tablets like the Graphire2 can also be used with some business applications. Microsoft's Office XP suite, for example, supports handwriting recognition, letting you write with the Graphire's pen onto the tablet into the new versions of Word and Excel. In PowerPoint, you can write right onto presentation slides. Similarly, the latest revision of Adobe Acrobat allows for electronic ink on so-called ePaper. With this technology, you can mark up
Acrobat documents with Wacom's digital pen. 

The tablet's transparent overlay is easily used for tracing--put a photo under the cover, trace the outlines, and you're well on your way to instant art. The mouse, with three programmable buttons, and a scroll wheel is a precise, optical model, and connects to the Graphire (and the computer) wirelessly, making it the match of standalone models from the likes of Microsoft and Logitech. 

While featuring precise, 1,015 dots per inch (dpi) resolution, Wacom's popularly priced Graphire is aimed more at home users and hobbyists than at professional artists and CAD-users. That's because of its size: it's active area of 9.2x12.8 cm (3.65x5 in.) is more like working with a snapshot than a full-sized piece of paper. 

Of course, Wacom would be happy to help users who need more. Its Intuos2 product line offers twice the pressure sensitivity (1,024 levels) and tablets with active areas ranging from 10x12.7 cm (4x5 in.) to a massive 30.5x45.7 cm (12x18 in.), at prices ranging from $300 to $1,000. Or there's Cintiq, which combines an LCD monitor with a graphics tablet--yours for about $2,900. 

But given its limited size, the Graphire2's affordable price, easy installation, range of features, and bundled software should make it a fun tool to help unlock the inner artist in all of us..                                                                                                 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan