Years ago, I settled on a few trusted input devices: a Kensington Orbit trackball and a Griffin PowerMate for scrolling. Both have sat next to my keyboard at the office ever since. At home, I use an Apple Magic Mouse, and on the road I use nothing more than my laptop’s trackpad.
I consider these things old friends (even the youngish Mighty Mouse) and I’ve been loathe to switch. But switch I did.
Wacom, longtime leaders in the tablet market (not the Android/iPad kind, but the pen-and-slate kind your design nerd friends use in place of a mouse) has revamped its consumer line of Bamboo tablets, and I decided to dive in fingers-first.
Wacom loaned me the Bamboo Connect, its new entry-level pen-only tablet which retails for $80. Also debuting this week is the Capture ($100), a tablet which combines pen input and touch input so you can use gestures, and the Create ($200), a larger version of the Capture. Both higher-end tablets have programmable buttons next to the touch-sensitive surface so you can set up hotkeys and other shortcuts. Both higher-end Bamboos also have the option to go wireless via a tiny add-on module ($40), but otherwise connect over USB.
I spent a full month testing the basic, pen-only Connect, which is meant to replace the mouse. It seemed like the best fit for a tablet newbie like myself. The slightly rubberized stylus is very light and comfortable to hold. It’s about twice the girth of a normal ballpoint pen and operates without a battery. To move the cursor on the screen, you just slide your hand around, letting the tip of the pen float a half-centimeter over the tablet’s surface. A tap of the pen translates to a mouse click. Tap and drag, and you get a marquee selection.
There’s a rocker switch on the pen that sits beneath your fingertips. It feels like an oversized version of the volume rocker on a smartphone. Rock it toward the pen’s tip and it goes into scroll mode — the cursor stays put, but the movements of the pen instead let you scroll through pages or lists. Rock the switch towards the back of the pen and it acts like a right-click, bringing up context-sensitive menus. You can change all of these behaviors in the settings — if you are drawing with it in Sketchbook Pro, you can set the rocker to act as an eraser instead of a right-click, for example.
Some of my friends are tablet devotees, and they all told me it would take a week or two to get comfortable with the pen. And they were so very right. I struggled the first few days, not only with accuracy, but with rhythm — when you’re typing and you want to point at something, you have to stop, reach over and pick up the pen. This slowed me down and bugged me at first, but it soon became second nature. But by week two, my penmanship almost matched my mousemanship, touchscreenmanship and trackballmanship.
I say almost because, even after a full month on my desk, the pen still feels a bit twitchy. It’s too responsive. I have to slow down and really concentrate when selecting text, clicking and dragging in Photoshop, or when working in Google Spreadsheets.
Maybe I’m the odd man out here, using it for regular desktop office stuff — dealing with text files and browsing the web — and only just dipping into digital imaging and drawing. Needless to say, it’s the most natural feel I’ve ever experienced trying to draw something freehand on a computer, and it’s a dream tool in Photoshop, swooping around with the lasso tool.
The Bamboo comes with custom drivers (I was using Mac OS X but it also supports most Windows flavors, including Windows 8). To combat the shakes, I opened up the settings dialog and experimented with both pen mode, which relies on absolute one-to-one cursor positioning, and mouse mode, which gives you a more mouse-like freedom of movement.
Either way, switching input devices is a trying experiment. It’s akin to cutting off a foot and learning how to walk with a prosthetic (or so I imagine — no offense meant to the disabled). The language is the same and movements are familiar, but everything is a little different.
I can recommend the Bamboo Connect, which only uses the pen for input, to those who are more comfortable with traditional mice than touchscreens or gesture-enabled trackpads. But to the rest of us, the $100 Capture or the $200 Create would be the better fit.
During the first few days of my testing, I could barely resist the urge to drop the pen and just use my fingers to do the two-finger swipe scroll, or the pinch-to-zoom thing. In the era of touchscreen phones, these gestures are all too natural. The extra $20 to add that stuff is, in my mind, money well spent.
WIRED Refined design is compact and comfortable to use. Entirely battery-free in USB mode. Pen has 512 levels of pressure sensitivity (more expensive models have more). Can be set up for righties and lefties. Supports digital ink functions in MS Office. Comes with drivers, tutorials and a copy of Autodesk Sketchbook Express.
TIRED You’ll miss those touch-based gestures unless you pony up the extra $20 for a Capture. Wireless option only available on higher-end choices. Learning curve is a turn-off for casual users. Hypersensitive pen requires more concentration for finite movements. A tricky bit of finger-squirming is needed to reach that rocker switch.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired