Sep 11 2008

Digital Pen Tablets Go Mainstream

Wacom's new products are aimed at everyday business users.


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The digital tablet has long been indispensable for graphic artists who create and manipulate images by drawing on the tablet with a pen-like tool. Now, as operating systems and applications increase support for natural computing, digital tablets are becoming mainstream devices. Wacom’s Bamboo series of digital pen tablets is designed to introduce users to pen input and navigation, and won me over with their ease of use and outstanding tutorials.


End-User Advantages

The Bamboo tablet is as flat as a legal pad, takes up little desk space and provides an active 6-inch-by-4-inch writing area.  The stylish black tablet includes four programmable “Express Keys” and a “Touch Ring ” that aids navigation within and among applications.  Once connected to the computer by a USB cable, the tablet and pen require no additional power. The packaging is well organized and installation is straightforward in Windows XP and Vista.

The interactive tutorials provided by Wacom are clear and concise, covering all the basics in less than 20 minutes. Writing, drawing, and Vista features are explained, but about half of the tutorial focuses on pen navigation.    

The cordless, comfortably thick Bamboo pen is held like any lightweight pen.  It has two programmable buttons positioned near the thumb, with a drawing tip on one end and an eraser on the other.  Hold the pen tip less than an inch away from the tablet, and you can begin navigating the desktop.

Why It Works For IT

IT departments will love the ease of deployment of these products. The Bamboo default navigation method is Pen Mode, in which the active area of the tablet is automatically mapped to match the display. The Bamboo tablets accurately map four different displays in pen mode, including widescreen monitors. Move the pen to a spot on the tablet, and the cursor jumps to the corresponding spot on the screen. After completing the tutorial and working for 30 minutes in pen mode, I realized, almost without thinking about it, that I had complete navigational control. Navigation was even easier in Vista using its Pen Flicks feature.

The other navigation method is Mouse Mode, in which the pen movement is more like using a mouse or touchpad. Mouse Mode, however, seemed counterproductive once I became comfortable with pen mode.

The Bamboo has a nice pencil-to-paper feel when drawing. I quickly made some sketches that I could never do with a mouse. For applications that support it, the Bamboo provides 512 levels of pressure sensitivity to vary line width and textures as you draw.

Wacom’s Medium Bamboo Fun tablet is a larger version of the Bamboo, with an 8.5-inch-by-5.3-inch active area. The Bamboo Fun adds a cordless wheel mouse designed specifically for the tablet. Place the mouse on the tablet and it automatically converts to Mouse Mode. Put the mouse aside and grab the pen and it instantly changes back to Pen Mode. The Bamboo Fun also includes three graphics applications that really demonstrate the drawing capabilities of the Bamboo pen tablets.


It does take some time to get comfortable with the pen, and navigation seems easier with the smaller Bamboo. Pen navigation requires unlearning years of mouse training, but that really isn’t very hard. Learning to draw without looking at the pen is a little harder. The pen is clearly better than the mouse for drawing, and the larger Bamboo Fun allows freer hand movement.  

The advantages of Bamboo pen tablets only start with drawing.  Vista, Office 2007 and other applications provide extensive tablet support, including handwriting recognition, note- taking and digital document markup and signing.  The natural movement of pen navigation reduces muscle strain and the risk of repetitive stress injury. The benefits and ease of pen navigation alone earn the Bamboo tablet its place as a complementary input device to the keyboard and mouse.

Phil Leiter is the information technology manager for Cumberland Associates LLC, a private investment advisory firm based in New York City.