Graphire4 Tablet, by Wacom
Posted: 9-Mar-2007

5 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Wacom Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: HARDWARE

Overview
Macs are well known for being great computers for the creative-minded. The Mac is a long-time friend of users of creative software such as Photoshop, Painter and other graphics software titles. When doing hand-drawn artwork in these programs, however, it is difficult to achieve the kind of precision one might get when drawing or painting on a piece of paper or canvas. Mouse movement simply does not provide that kind of accuracy. One solution is to draw your work on paper, scan it into your computer, and then re-work from there. Another solution that eliminates the need for paper and a scanner, providing real-time hand-drawn updates, is to use a tablet device that you can draw on, recording your drawing directly into the computer. The most well-known drawing devices for the Mac are Wacom tablets.


Wacom Graphire4 with wireless Pen and Mouse

This review is for the Graphire4 Wacom tablet. There are three varieties of the Graphire4 tablet: 4x5 USB, 6x8 USB, and 6x8 bluetooth. The Graphire4 also comes in three colors: Silver, White and Metallic Blue. This review is for the white 6x8 USB tablet.

Vendor Description
Graphire gives you the control you need to quickly and easily edit your digital photos. It works great with any software your mouse does and runs on both PCs and Macs. The Bluetooth model even gives you up to 30 feet of wireless freedom. Draw, paint, and create fun artwork for scrapbooks, craft projects, and slide shows. Comfortably jot notes, annotate documents, sign your name, sketch quick diagrams, and communicate more personally. With both a Wacom pen and mouse, you'll have the right tool for any task. Using them alternately reduces repetitive motion. The Graphire Pen includes 512 levels of pressure sensitivity for natural brush control, patented cordless, battery-free technology, two programmable side buttons, and a pressure-sensitive eraser. The Graphire Mouse includes patented cordless, battery-free technology, a scrolling finger wheel for easy navigation (also functions as a third programmable button), and optical technology (no ball to get stuck). The software includes "chordable" ExpressKeys that can be used for modifier keys, keyboard shortcuts, mouse clicks, open/run applications, and pop-up menus.


Includes

  • Graphire4 6x8 Pen Tablet, Pen, Pen Stand, and Mouse
  • 2 CDs with Wacom tablet driver software, user manual, and bundled software
    • Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0
    • Corel Painter Essentials 2
    • Nik Color Efex Pro 2 GE
  • One-year warranty

Requirements

  • Mac OS X 10.2.8 or higher
  • Available USB port
  • CD-ROM drive
  • 128 MB RAM

Price

$199.95 Retail

How It Works
The first thing I did upon opening the package is connect the tablet to an available USB port on my G5. The pen and mouse (cordless and battery-free) instantly worked when used over the tablet drawing area.

Although the pen and mouse work before you install the software, this is not recommended. By default, without the Wacom drivers, they both work in relative mode (aka, "mouse" mode). This is okay for the mouse (since that is how mice typically work), but you will experience nothing but frustration using the pen in this mode. The preferred mode for the pen is absolute mode (this is discussed later in the review).

After hooking up the tablet and toying with it in pre-software mode, I then inserted the CD and installed the software. The Wacom installer uses the standard Apple installer program, asking you where to install, agree to the license, and so on. Once the software is installed, you are then asked if you want to Register the software. You can skip the registration, but it's best to register for technical support, driver updates and the warranty. Choosing to register takes you to the Wacom website where you fill in your registration information, including the model and serial number of your tablet.

The installer program also provides access to a users guide that helps familiarize you with the product before you begin using it. Don't worry if you don't catch everything at this point (I know I didn't). There is a PDF users manual that is installed with the software, so you'll have access to the guide even after the installer program is done and the CD removed.


CD Program includes Installer, Tutorial, User's Manual and More

The first thing I wanted to do was check out how the pen worked the "proper" way. Before the software was installed, the tracking of the pen was like that of the mouse, a relative pointing device (lift up the pen and move it, then place it down, and the cursor continues where you left off). This is very awkward when using a pen, and gives you none of the control one might imagine that a pen should give you. The key is the software. Once the software is installed, and the pen is set to absolute mode (by default), it works much better. Absolute mode means that when you pick the pen up and move it to another part of the tablet, and then place it down, the cursor on your display actually jumps to that position (mapping your tablet to the screen). This gives you decisive control over what and where you are drawing.

The Pen is also customizable. The Wacom software installs a system preference called "Pen Tablet", and the first tab in the preference options is for customizing the pen.


Customizing your Wacom Pen

This window lets you customize just about everything about the pen. The pen has an eraser on the end, and you can set the sensitivity of the eraser. You can also set the sensitivity of the tip. There are two buttons on the side of the pen, which both can be programmed to whatever you like.


Options for Programming Pen Buttons

The tracking setting determines whether you want the device to behave like a pen (absolute mode) or like a mouse (relative mode). There's also a slider for the double click distance (the amount of distance you need to lift the pen to trigger a double-click action).

In addition to the pen, the Graphire4 comes with its own wireless mouse. The second tab in the Pen Tablet preferences lets you customize the mouse.


Customizing your Wacom Mouse

Like the pen, you customize just about everything about the mouse. You can program the left and right mouse buttons, the wheel button, the wheel function, and the tracking method of the mouse. The options for programming the buttons on the mouse are similar as with the pen (with just a few options, such as "erase", not present).

The Pen Tablet even includes customizations related to the Wacom Tablet itself. At the top of the tablet there are two buttons as well as a scroll wheel between the buttons. You can program the two buttons as well as the wheel functionality.


Customizing your Wacom Tablet

Finally, the Pen Tablet preferences lets you setup a "Pop-up Menu" for your Wacom device. This is a specialized menu that you can tailor to your specific needs while using the Graphire4. You can program any of the buttons on the pen, mouse or tablet to access this pop-up menu, and you can design what goes into the menu, the order of items, as well as the size and font.


Customizing the Wacom Pop-up Menu


Sample Pop-up Menu

Once you have your preferences set, it's just a matter of using the right application with the pen and tablet. The users manual, which can be opened up anytime by pressing the "Help" button in the above mentioned Pen Tablet preferences, illustrates the correct angle at which to use the pen. In a graphics program, such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter, you can touch up artwork or photos. If you wanted to add your true handwriting or signature to a document, the pen can be used in any word processor that accepts pictures, such as Microsoft Word. Even if you don't happen to own Photoshop or Painter, the Graphire4 comes with Photoshop Elements, Painter Essentials, and the Nik Color Efex Pro GE filter collection. Unlike some hardware/software bundles where the "extra" software titles are PC only, all three of these software extras run on Mac OS X. This package comes with everything you need to get started.

How It Rates
On my G5, I've got two displays set up, and by default, the Wacom tablet was mapped to the entire screen real estate (aka, both screens). I used the tablet like this for awhile, but then discovered that there is a nifty option within the Tablet preferences for adjusting the mapping.


Mapping the Screen Area to the Tablet

I changed the settings for "Screen Area" from "All Screens" to "Monitor", and selected monitor "1". I also experimented with the 3rd setting, "Portion", which lets you map a specific area on a screen to the tablet. For instance, I opened up a Photoshop window of a specific size, and then set the mapping area to the exact area of that window. This last option has potential, especially if you are working on a single piece of work for a long time. You can make it so that the canvas you are working on is exactly mapped to the tablet. The only downside is that if you move the window at all, or resize it, the mapping is thrown off. This third settings would be more useful if you could tell it to map to the foreground window, regardless of size and location. That way, if I resized a canvas or moved it on the screen, the tablet would adjust for the changes automatically.

I chose "Monitor 1" for my screen mapping for the duration of testing. I found this option best suited my needs, working in Photoshop and ArtRage. The preference dialog also provided a nice graphic illustrating the mapping as it would work with your existing desktop settings. This was a nice touch to the preference software.

You do require some desktop space for using a Wacom tablet. I can imagine this would have been a challenge in the old days with big fat CRT's taking up a large portion of your desk. However, with today's thin LCD displays, I found this to be a non-issue. The tablet fit comfortably right in front of the display.


Wacom Tablet In Use

As shown above, the pen comes with it's own handy stand for keeping the pen upright, as well as a pen holder at the top of the tablet for laying the pen down. While not in use, using the tablet for storage works the best for compactness. While in use, the stand is definitely the way to go. The upright position makes it much easier for grabbing the pen when you need it.


Laying the Pen into the Tablet Pen Holder

The pen is really well designed in terms of function as well as ergonomics. It has an excellent grip, for making those perfect strokes. The pen tip is pressure sensitive, so in a program such as Photoshop or ArtRage, you can really take advantage of those painting tools. With just a slight change up of pressure, you can go from thin sharp lines to thick saturated strokes. I have used the Photoshop paint brushes many times in the past using an ordinary mouse. Using a pressure sensitive pen makes a world of difference. After using the pen, it's hard to imagine ever using a mouse for a brush stroke again.

I was curious about the eraser function of the pen. I drew a line, then flipped the pen over and used the eraser on the line. Just like that, the line erased (just like a real eraser). This might seem like a no-brainer, since we're all used to erasers just working. However, in Photoshop, there's a special tool for erasing that must be selected to use it. The pen makes it all seamless due to the remarkable software working behind the scenes.

To demonstrate to myself visually what a difference it makes between using a mouse and a pen, I used my handwriting to write "John Hancock". With the mouse, it didn't look anything like my handwriting. The strokes were uneven, and it just appeared to have an overall appearance of randomness. Using the pen, the writing looked exactly like my handwriting. Granted, some might argue that it still looks sloppy, but that's my handwriting.


Using the Pen for Digital Handwriting

With this newly won confidence in the pen, I started running it through some serious testing. I did some basic line art in Photoshop, and then moved on to opening up some photos to touch up. It was great using the pen, as it provided superb exactness in motion and stroke quality. After awhile, it feels just like have the photo under your hand as you mark it up, except with the luxury of undoing undesirable effects.

For those not aware of ArtRage, ArtRage 2 is a fantastic canvas painting program from
Ambient Design. It may not have all the complexities of Painter, but it is twice as intuitive, and packs a solid punch with the art tools that it does provide. It's a great painting tool for both kids and adults alike. It uses the entire display as the canvas, so the Wacom mapping is perfect for it. ArtRage is quite a bit of fun with just the mouse, but using the Wacom pen and tablet takes the experience to a whole new level. Armed with ArtRage and a Wacom tablet, any digital painter, or even a painter who is new to the digital experience, it going to be in a painter's heaven.

While the life of this party is definitely the pen, the Wacom mouse deserves honorable mention. First of all, like the pen, it's wireless and battery-less, which is a big plus (first wireless mouse I've seen that didn't require batteries). It includes all the functionality of a 2-button scroll wheel mouse, and incorporates a decent ergonomic design.


The Wacom Mouse

It's not intended to replace your normal mouse, especially since it only works in the tablet area. However, when you are using the tablet, it is likely that you have moved your normal keyboard and mouse out of the way to better reach the Wacom tablet. In my case, it's just a matter of sliding in the keyboard tray. There are times using the Wacom where you just want to grab the mouse to do some tasks. Granted, you could use the pen for anything the mouse can do, but reaching for menus and other screen functions feel intuitive with a mouse and awkward using the pen. With the Wacom mouse, you can grab the mouse when you need it without having to pull back out the keyboard tray. This is a very nice convenience. For those that like fine tuning the mouse for speed and acceleration, you can do so using the Mouse options in the Wacom tablet preferences.


Extended Preferences for the Wacom Mouse

I should also mention that the tablet itself includes two buttons and a scroll wheel. I would imagine that if you got into the habit of using these controls, it does provide an additional tool set for your artistic endeavors. I just never got into the habit of using them.

Although I explored the Wacom tablet using Adobe Photoshop and Ambient Design ArtRage, for those who may not have these titles, the Graphire4 comes with some great software that will help you unleash the power of the pen. It includes Photoshop Elements, a thinned down version of Photoshop that lets you do some really cool things with your digital photographs. It includes Core Painter Essentials 2, which is a scaled down version of Painter (and it's plenty for most people). In addition, the Graphire4 also comes with the Nik Color Efex Pro 2 plug-in for use with Photoshop Elements. If you have Photoshop, you can use the plug-in there as well. Overall, a very powerful set of applications to round off this fantastic package. The best part is that all of the software runs on both the Mac as well as Windows (aka, none of that "Windows Only; Mac Users please use iLife" bunk).

It should be noted that the Wacom tablet may not be for everyone. If your computer needs do not go beyond checking email, surfing the web, writing the occasional letter using a word processor, and playing games, the investment in a Wacom tablet may be difficult to justify. For these users, it's a novelty at most. However, if you do any work in graphics applications such as Photoshop and ArtRage, the Wacom pen and tablet will enhance your work dramatically. Likewise, if you have any inclinations towards artistic activities, such as drawing and/or touching up photos, but have never found the budget for graphics applications, the Wacom package includes a nice set of applications to allow you to experience your artistic side with the precision of a digital pressure-sensitive "brush". It just may unlock the artist side that you never knew you had.

Support
As mentioned earlier, by clicking on the "Help" button in the tablet preferences, you launch a very detailed and well-written users manual. I referred to the manual a few times in learning about the Wacom tools, but for the most part, I found both the tools and the software quite intuitive. I never ran into any problems that required support. However, if an issue arises that does require support, Wacom does provide free technical support over the web as well as on the phone.


Troubleshooting Section in the Wacom Users Manual



Summary
The Wacom Graphire4 package provides the legendary Wacom tablet along with a wireless pen and wireless mouse, excellent customization software, and some awesome third party applications for making the most of the tablet.
Amazingly, both the pen and mouse operate without the need for batteries. The pen is stylish and ergonomic, providing excellent grip and precision control when in use. The pressure sensitivity of both the pen tip and the eraser provide an infinite set of possibilities for brush strokes. The mouse is a two-button scroll wheel mouse, and although it only works on the tablet, it makes for a handy tool when your normal keyboard and mouse are not in use. After using the pen and tablet for precision drawing and touch-up, you'll never want to go back to using the mouse for these types of functions again. Whether you are an experienced graphics artists looking to enhance your digital precision, or a Mac user looking to unlock your artistic side, the Wacom tablet has the tools to take your digital artwork and photo touch up to an entirely new level.

Pros

  • Ergonomic and press-sensitive pen
  • Wireless and battery-less technology
  • Includes some great Mac software
  • Excellent preferences for customizing your needs
  • Provides great control for handwriting, photo touch-up and digital art


Cons

  • Does requires some available desktop space
  • Mouse only works on tablet
  • May not be for everyone
  • Does not provide real-time self-adjusting mapping of tablet to work window


Overall Rating

5 out of 5 Mice