More than one computer artist, struggling with a mouse, has asked this question: "Why can't you just put the monitor in your lap and draw on the screen?"
You can certainly try it, but it's not likely to work, and you'll wind up smudging the glass. Or you can buy a pressure-sensitive liquid crystal display if you have a few thousand dollars to spare.
For the rest of us frustrated artists, a graphics tablet with a stylus that works like a pen comes pretty close to the golden days when Etch A Sketch was king.
For years, tablets priced at $200 and more have found their way onto the desktops of graphics artists and designers who want an alternative to the mouse.
Today, however, tablets that hook up to the Universal Serial Bus ports of PCs and Macs are available for $100 or so. We looked at three packages designed for consumers, all of which included a stylus and a plastic drawing pad. Two came with a mouse that slides across the top of the pad.
Although they feel awkward at first, a stylus and tablet can make drawing, doodling or signing your name simpler and more accurate than they are when you use a mouse.
For example, unlike a mouse, which can slide across vast areas of the desktop, a stylus' position is absolute within the drawing pad. Touch the stylus to the upper left corner of the tablet, your cursor appears in the corresponding corner of the screen. Lightly move the stylus around less than an inch from the tablet's surface and the cursor will move around a proportional distance from the edges of the screen.
This arrangement makes for faster and more accurate drawings and tracings. But the designers of most tablets understand that the mouse is important -- and a better tool when you're not using a graphics program for navigating through windows or selecting options on your screen when you're not using a graphics program.
One caveat about these USB-enabled devices: Read the instructions to determine whether you should plug in the device first or after you've installed the software. Unlike some other USB devices, plugging in the hardware first may cause problems.
Aiptek's HyperPen (for PCs only) comes in three models. The 5000 will plug into a computer's conventional serial port while the 6000 and 8000 connect to a USB port. We looked at the 8000 ($80 when you send in the $20 rebate coupon) with a large, 8- by 6-inch drawing surface.
Compared with its colorful competition, the Aiptek 8000 is a bland, off-white addition to your computer desktop, but its cordless stylus and mouse (both of which use batteries) tracked very well. Changing the pressure on the stylus produced thicker lines with some graphics programs, which added a touch of reality to the process.
The HyperPen uses a rocker switch to simulate the left and right mouse buttons. Tapping a selection twice with the tip of the stylus also simulates double-clicking the left mouse button. There are 12 function keypads at the top of the tablet for more automation.
The HyperPen ships with MetaCreations Art Dabbler for turning artwork into cartoons, Paragraph Pen Office-SE, for adding handwritten notes in Microsoft Word documents, and CADIX Cyber-Sign, which allows you to write and verify electronically recorded signatures.
Wacom's Graphire (PC and Mac) comes from a longtime manufacturer of graphics tablets, mostly designed for professionals. A consumer version of Wacom's more sophisticated tablets, the $100 Graphire comes with a cordless stylus and no-ball, cordless mouse (neither of which uses batteries).
Graphire's 4- by 5-inch drawing pad was the smallest of the three we reviewed. Nevertheless, the pen's nib slid across the tablet smoothly and rendered shapes and designs with differing degrees of sensitivity. A clear tracing sheet will hold the artwork you're trying to copy in place, while a programmable rocker switch on the stylus activates the left and right mouse buttons.
Using PenTools, an add-on for Photoshop that ships with the Graphire, you can create a very thin line or a very thick one with the pressure-sensitive stylus.
The Graphire, which is sold in colors, also comes with Corel Painter Classic, an art program, and Paragraph PenOffice SE.
KB Gear's Pablo Internet Edition (PC and Mac) gives you the least bang for the buck (actually, 100 bucks) -- but it also appeared to be the most kid-compatible of the three.
The stylus attaches to the tablet with a cord that's too easy to tangle with, and there's no mouse. And while USB installations are supposed to be easy, I had to reinstall the tablet and software twice before I got it working.
On the up side, the rugged Pablo tablet, at 8 inches by 6 inches, appeared more likely to survive an assault by children's hands, and the heavy transparent plastic sheet that covers material to be traced was attached firmly.
Pablo Internet Edition comes with Adobe Photoshop LE, Adobe Pagemill 3.0, and WebPainter 3 by Totally Hip Software. For photo editing and creating family Web pages, the software alone is worth the price.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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