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Drawing Conclusions: This Pen-and-Tablet is a Good Value

ACECAD's graphics tablet will let you explore the "tablet" lifestyle. By Esther Schindler
My friend Julie has a Tablet PC. It's cool. I've drooled on her computer on several occasions.. But when I went shopping for a new notebook computer, I couldn't justify the extra cost for the Tablet functions. It wasn't clear that I needed such a thing. If I had that functionality available, would I even use it?

On the other hand: how do I know I wouldn't use such a thing, unless I tried?

As a result, I was happy to get my hands on the ACECAD Enhanced Pen Tablet, marketed by CompAmerica. The 5"x3.75" tablet and its pen cost under $50, making this the sort of tool you can buy for yourself on a whim. And since it delivers what it promises, you'll probably keep using the pen -- for more than drawing in graphics applications.

The USB tablet attaches to either a Windows or Macintosh computer, and you stuff the pen full of batteries (which are supplied). The software driver adds a Tablet application, which lets you control how the buttons on the pen operate (just like changing the functions for mouse clicks), how sensitive the.tablet should be to your arm-waving, and so on. You're more likely to leave the defaults as-is on Windows (where it's set up to right-click with the first button) than on the Mac (which has oddly useless defaults). In any case, getting it set up is as easy as pouring water downhill.

acecad enhanced pen tabletUsing the tablet and mouse, however, definitely takes some getting used to. (Fortunately, your mouse continues to work normally, so you can still get work done if you're temporarily frustrated. Not that I would ever admit being frustrated, but it might happen to somebody.) The adjustment period is not specific to the ACECAD, particularly, but to the fact that you're holding a pen instead of moving around a mouse.

You're used to leaning your hand on the mouse, maybe shoving it over and clicking -- not picking up a pen and waving it around. After all these years, it's second nature for me to click on a field on a web form and start typing; but with the pen interface, I had to set the pen down somewhere before I put my fingers back on the Home Row.

Also, since the tablet represents the whole screen or window, it can be startling to find the on-screen pointer zoom to somewhere unexpected. The tablet reads the pen movement an eensy bit above the surface, so the "hand feel" is very different.

It took me a few days to get used to the difference in the interface, and I'm still not completely comfortable; yet, in some ways, I like it a lot.

One of the easiest reasons to like the ACECAD is its use with any graphics application. Whether you use the tablet with Xara Xtreme (which I reviewed here recently), Microsoft Paint, a shareware graphics app (I tested with LiveQuartz on the Mac), or PhotoShop (which I don't own, so I can't speak to personally) -- the pen-and-tablet interface brings back the immediacy of scribbling in pencil on a paper pad. In addition to the sense of "drawing" with a crayon, the pen gives you a lot more control over pen pressure. I could never manage to "sign my name" with a mouse, but the pen version looked just like... well, what I'd do with a pen.
ACECAD tablet: adjust settings
You can easily adjust settings.

In other words, if you use graphics apps even haphazardly, this is a no-brainer.
ACECAD pen tablet macintosh setup
You can control what each button on the pen does. In fact, you'll want to, as the Mac setup assigns everything a single click.

Would you use it for other purposes? The company hopes so, but I think that will be a more personal decision. You can certainly use the pen-and-tablet for your ordinary computing needs, such as web browsing and e-mail and spreadsheet work. I had more of the sense of pointing at an item in the list -- as in, poking at it with a sharp fingernail -- than my gentle stab with the mouse. You might prefer it; I never quite warmed up to it. Also, the pen might be more comfortable for those with carpal tunnel tendencies; at least it's a different set of muscles used than is the mouse. My hand felt equally tired at the end of the day.

One tool built into the Mac -- and not, as far as I can tell, to Windows -- might help you adjust to the tablet lifestyle. Mac OS X has an Inkwell feature that lets you use a tablet (any tablet, including this one) to write in "handwriting." When you're done, you click on a button and it transfers the text to the usual application, such as Microsoft Word.

The ACECAD worked just dandy with Inkwell, but my paltry efforts were so ugly that I didn't have the nerve to take a screen shot. My excuse is that I'd be showing you Inkwell, not the ACECAD tablet. And I'm sticking to it. Anyway: the tablet works with Inkwell. It'll let you "write" and then send it to Word. Assuming that you're willing to invest the time to get comfortable with the skill of "writing" to your screen.

At the end of the day: I like the ACECAD Enhanced Pen Tablet. It's an affordable way to experiment with the "tablet" lifestyle, and surely a boon to anyone who works with graphics applications. Just be sure to plan a bit of time to adjust to the way it works.

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Esther Schindler has been writing about technology professionally since 1992, and her byline has appeared in dozens of IT publications. She's optimized compilers, owned a computer store, taught corporate training classes, moderated online communities, run computer user groups, and, in her spare time, written a few books. You can reach her at
Related Keywords:tablet, pen, mouse, user interface, usability, gizmo, gadget, draw, graphics


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