ST Graphics TabletsIf you dislike "drawing with a bar of soap ..."
Reviewed by FRANK HAYES
The ST mouse is great for selecting an onscreen item by pointing and clicking. That, after all, is what it was designed for. Unfortunately, for other things the mouse simply doesn't work as well.
For instance, boot up your favorite ST drawing program and use the mouse to sign your name on the screen. If you're like most people, you'll find it's a little uncomfortable--and the result won't be a very good sample of your signature.
Many artists find that they have a similar problem when they try to use a mouse with computer drawing programs. As computer artist Eleanor Kent once commented, "Working with a mouse is like trying to draw with a bar of soap."
Fortunately for ST users there's an alternative. You can do your drawing with a stylus and a graphics tablet.
What's a graphics tablet? Put your hand on your ST's mouse. Now imagine that the mouse has suddenly transformed itself into a pen, and your mousepad has changed into a small drawing board. That's what a graphics tablet is like. To the ST, it appears to be a mouse, but you use it much more like a pencil and drawing board. Use that electronic pencil to sign your name and you'll probably produce an easily recognizable signature.
Two graphics tablets for the ST are the ARTablet, available from EI/O Products, and the ProTablet ST from Quantum. Like other peripherals such as modems, printers and scanners, these graphics tablets aren't built just for the ST. They can be connected to a wide range of other computers. But the ARTablet and ProTablet both come with driver software that's specifically designed to work on the ST, making these tablets more productive and easier to use.
The ARTablet from EI/O Products uses a graphics tablet manufactured by Summa. It comes in various sizes. We reviewed the smallest and Ieast expensive ($395), which measures 9-1/2x13 inches physically. However, the actual drawing area is only about 6x9 inches--slightly larger than your ST screen.
What's the ARTablet got to recommend it? Like a regular ST mouse, it has two "buttons" on the pen. When you would normally press the left mouse button, you simply press down a little harder with the stylus. That makes sense, since most ST drawing programs let you draw by pressing down the left button. The "right button" is a real button on the side of the stylus.
The graphics tablet itself sets up at an angle, like a drawing easel. The cords are long enough to give you plenty of flexibility when you're using the tablet and stylus. Best of all, the software is designed to let you use either the graphics tablet or the mouse. The graphics tablet has priority, but it's very easy and convenient to simply put down the stylus and use the mouse whenever you want to.
The disadvantages? The biggest one is the ARTablet's fairly small drawing area. It feels a little cramped when you're trying to do detailed work--though that's probably not such a problem with the larger sizes. The replaceable plastic tip in the stylus isn't as smooth as a metal tip would be for writing or drawing, and the stylus connects to the underside of the graphics tablet. As a result, the ARTablet can't lie flat on your desk, but must be angled like an easel. It's also too easy to accidentally hit the button on the stylus.
There are no switches or calibrations to set for the ARTablet--you just plug it into your ST and begin using it. All in all, it's a convenient and useful way to draw.
Quantum's $395 ProTablet ST is manufactured by Mitsubishi. This graphics tablet is much larger than the ARTablet we tested--11x17-1/2 inches, with an 8x12 inch drawing area. That's almost twice the drawing area and a big advantage. The ProTablet has a number of other attractive features--but with that power comes much more complexity.
For example, the ProTablet's metal-tipped stylus works with a smooth, light touch and you can replace the metal tip with a ball-point pen tip if you like. But there's no second button on the stylus--you can only click by pressing harder with the stylus. Supposedly you can click the right mouse button by clicking with the stylus in one of the corners of the tablet, but it's difficult to use correctly.
You can also scale the drawing area for your particular work, using only a portion of the tablet's drawing surface for the whole ST screen. This makes it much easier to trace a drawing into DEGAS or into a CAD program. It's very easy to reset the scaling. Too easy, in fact--the scaling seemed to reset itself even when we didn't want it to.
Many of the ProTablet's options are controlled by 10 DIP switches on the underside of the tablet, which are supposed to be set correctly for the ST when you receive the tablet. Ours weren't, and we had a difficult time getting the switch settings right. If they're wrong, you may get no results at all.
But there are some major advantages to the ProTablet too. All the connections are made to the rear of the tablet rather than the underside, so the tablet can either sit flat or set angled as an easel. The power-on LED makes it easy to tell whether everything's connected properly. And though you can't use the mouse and tablet at the same time, you can easily switch between them using the software, which comes in the form of a Desk Accessory programs.
One of the best features of the ProTablet is the optional drawing puck. The puck plugs into the ProTablet tablet, replacing the stylus. It looks something like a mouse with crosshairs, and it allows very precise tracing. That's extremely useful when you're trying to copy a sketch into a drawing or CADD program. The puck has felt pads on the underside, so it glides very smoothly across the surface of the graphics tablet. There are also four buttons on the puck, solving the "missing button" problem. Unfortunately, the software version we tested only recognized one of the buttons.
The puck exemplified the ProTablet. It was wonderful, but I wished the software was easier to use and made better use of the hardware.
Fortunately, both Quantum and EI/O Products have promised to improve and update their software. If you only need your mouse for choosing items from dropdown menus, you certainly don't need a graphics tablet. But either the ProTablet ST or the ARTablet will make your life much easier if you're an artist, drafter or other graphics professional who's tired of drawing with a bar of soap.
$395, 6x9 inches
1559 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20852
$395, 12x8 inches
Quantum Microsystems Inc.
P.O. Box 179
Liverpool, NY 13088