Friday, November 18, 2005

The Mighty Pen

Thought I’d write about using something other than a mouse for moment. Twenty years ago that sentence would have been incomprehensible eh? Now everybody just knows what a mouse is, funny! My son and daughter have never known a time where there wasn’t a computer in the house or didn't have to compete with it for my attention, shame on me!


I have been using a Wacom Graphire for over two years now, in fact very nearly three. I like it a lot. I also used a Wacom Cintiq for about 8 months last year, VERY nice! VERY expensive. When I went out on my own I had to say goodbye to it as well. For a few months I stopped using the pen. Happened when I started using a notebook pc primarily. It seemed too much to carry along at first. I'm back using it again partly because I like it and partly because my kids broke the wireless transmitter for the mouse. The newest versions from Wacom for the Graphire, Intous and Cintiq are very tempting. Maybe my wife will get me one for Christmas?

Pen tablets, they aren't for everyone but those that like them won't give them up. Here are some casual observations.

If you get one be prepared for muscles you haven't used in awhile complaining at first. Using a mouse for a long time you'll be surprised what holding a pen for 8 hours instead is like.

You may also struggle a bit with what to do with the pen when you type. You might put it in your mouth like the old days (don't chew), put it in the "inkwell" holder, hold it loosely in your fingers while you type, put it in your pocket and then wonder where it is and finally behind your ear or on the table perhaps? It's a lot easier to lose the pen than the mouse. I think they actually sell a lanyard to “tie the horse to the barn”.

It'll take a bit of time to transition and in the first day or two you may want to abandon it...but just give it a little time and you may find you reject the mouse the next time you sit down to work.

I had horrible posture at first, cranking my wrist around unnaturally and within a week my arm hurt. I started to pay more attention to what I was doing and it subsided immediately.

People either love the idea or hate it passionately. Everyone who saw the Cintiq was immediately taken with it, but as soon as they watched me work for a bit reacted negatively to the arm movement involved. Only two out of dozens still felt like they’d still want one after seeing it. It definitely isn’t the same as just moving a mouse around in a 3 inch square area.

Your hand covers your work. Just like the old days when you had to twist and turn a bit to sketch something on the sheet, same problem, with a Cintiq anyway. No such issue with a Graphire or Intous.

There are two sizes and the general consensus is the smaller size is better for routine cad work while the larger is very desirable for graphics work like Photoshop where you might actually be working at a pixel level of detail. In either case you can program the sketch area so you aren’t traveling as far along the tablet. I don’t use this feature because it feels less accurate and a bit sluggish to me. So the smaller tablet has been my choice for the two that I’ve owned so far.

Pressure sensitivity makes it possible to do things with a pen that is much harder to accomplish with a mouse. It can be quite fun in Photoshop for example. Also the buttons on the pen and the tip at the back can be programmed for application specific behaviour. For example the rear tip of the pen is an eraser in Word, just flip the pen around and erase.

I'm reminded of a user telling us in a newsgroup that she put "trash" (sketch) paper over her tablet to hear the sound she liked hearing while sketching. I also tried it for a time too and found that it wore the tip down pretty quickly. I also printed out a screen capture (of Revit naturally) and put it under the "screen" of my second Graphire, reminiscent of the Digitizer tablet and menu's we had with AutoCAD. It actually worked too! Clicking on a design bar button on the tablet actually sync'd up with the command on screen very well.

Last…the pens for each are very different. The Cintiq has the nicest pens that I’ve used and the Intous has the next best. The Graphire’s pen feels like a number two pencil compared to the more substantial and elegant Cintiq/Intous pens. I’m tempted to upgrade to an Intous, if my wife doesn’t get me the Cintiq that is, just to get a nicer pen. It also has a scroll glide pad and integral buttons, which the lowly Graphire doesn’t.

All in all I really like the Pen Tablet and highly recommend you give one a try if you get the chance. Just be prepared to give it a little time. You probably didn’t ride a bike well the first time out either?

No comments: