Wacom have a reputation as the leading manufacturer of graphics tablets, and in the past I've often found myself casting a lustful glance in the direction of their entry-level Graphire series and more professionally-oriented Intuos tablets. So far, however, I've never been able to justify the cost of such a device: I'd never learned to draw, and buying such a device merely as a mouse substitute seemed more than a little extravagant!
Wacom's new Bamboo series, however, finally brings a graphics tablet within the “impulse buy” price range. The cheapest in the line-up, the Bamboo One, can currently be yours for around £30. The more capable Bamboo Fun A6 model is around twice that cost, though I was lucky enough to find one second hand, barely used and cheaper still.
The tablet feels solid and looks nice, with curved corners and a slightly bevelled edge. The USB cable is detachable – which is a very nice touch if, like me, you want to be able to sling it in a laptop bag without fear of damaging the cable entry.
There are four buttons above the drawing area, and a scroll “wheel” between them – a touch-sensitive dial which is a useful addition.
The pen also feels nice and solid, not too heavy, not too light, and is comfortable to hold. It's somewhat larger round than most writing pens – but this didn't bother me in the slightest – in fact I wish I could find cheap writing pens of this diameter! Also provided is a little pen stand – which can take the pen either on its side, resting in a channel, or on end, held in a hole.
Trying it out
The first thing you notice when plugging the tablet into a USB port is the pretty blue glow around the scroll wheel. This pulsates slowly while the tablet is idle, and glows solidly while you're using it.
The provided software installs smoothly, and doesn't irritate with endless useless freebies and registration reminders. Once it's installed, you can control the mouse pointer by sweeping the pen slightly above the surface of the tablet. Touching the pen tip to the tablet is the equivalent of clicking the left mouse button, and the middle and right mouse buttons are on a rocker switch on the pen itself. The tablet doesn't interfere with the mouse, so you can swap between them at will.
The tablet can be used for any software that can handle “absolute mouse positioning” – which brings me to the most important difference between a graphics tablet and more traditional pointing devices. If you're expecting the tablet to behave like a laptop's trackpad, but operated with a pen rather than a finger, then you're in for a surprise: if you hover the pen over part of the tablet, the mouse pointer will jump instantly to the corresponding point on the screen, no matter where it was before. This is unlike a mouse, which you can pick up and reposition, or a trackpad where you can lift your finger and put it down somewhere else, without the pointer moving. The tablet's behaviour takes a little getting used to for long-time mouse users.
Some software – mostly games – has trouble with the “absolute positioning” behaviour of the tablet – and if you really want to use such software with the tablet, (Myst IV played with a graphics tablet is an interesting experience!) there's an option in its control panel which will save the day – just choose “Mouse mode” instead of “Tablet mode”. In this mode, the tablet will behave more like a laptop's trackpad.
Speaking of software – merely using the Bamboo Fun as a mouse-replacement ignores its greatest feature – pressure sensitivity. Sadly, not all software can make use of this, but with software that can, being able to achieve a darker penstroke just by pressing harder literally adds a new dimension to computerized drawing. Another neat feature is that if you want to use the eraser, instead of having to choose an eraser tool in your paint program, you can simply turn the pen upside down and draw with the other end!
The Bamboo Fun supports 512 pressure levels both on the pen and its eraser – half that of the more expensive tablets – and some other advanced such as tilt-detection and assigning different tools to multiple pens are not present on the Bamboo series. The target audience – people like me who like the idea of a graphics tablet, but haven't wanted to spend several hundred just to find out whether we'll get on with one – will not miss these features; by the time we've outgrown the Bamboo Fun we'll know whether or not we need the advanced features of the more expensive models.
The surface of the tablet feels good – the texture has been carefully engineered to feel much like paper – though I suspect it will “polish” and become somewhat slick with use. Because the pen's position can be sensed from about half an inch above the tablet, though, you can always stick a piece of paper on top of the tablet if you want a different texture. You can also trace an existing drawing that way, if you so wish.
Among the software provided with my tablet was a copy of ArtRage, which for those who've not met this program before, is a most impressive natural-media painting program. The “paper” has texture, paint strokes have convincing brushmarks and the virtual brush follows the angle of your strokes – the brush even “runs dry” if you make an extended stroke without lifing the pen from the tablet! Strokes also remain “wet” for a while and smear convincingly if you run another colour into them. There are also pencil, pastel, crayon, glitter(!) and various other tools.
Using the tablet with Linux
So far I've described the experience of using this tablet under Windows – but I use Linux for most of my day-to-day work, so naturally I wanted to use the tablet there too.
Wacom tablets are generally well-supported with Linux, but because the Bamboo range is still fairly new, support hasn't filtered into the major distributions yet. This meant that with Ubuntu 8.04 at least, I had to install the Linux Wacom package manually. With luck the new driver will find its way into updates in the near future, so this step will become unneccesary.
Thankfully, once the installation hurdle is past the tablet works flawlessly, and I'm able to draw in The GIMP with full pressure-sensitivity. I've even managed to acquire some drawing skills!
The tablet is “widescreen” format – 16:10 aspect ratio, while my particular monitor is 5:4 format (1280x1024) – if you're not using a widescreen monitor this mismatch of aspect ratios will result in a certain amount of distortion - a circle drawn on the tablet comes out as an ellipse. This can be fixed easily enough by going into the provided control panel, and checking the “Force proportions” option. This results in an unused portion on the right of the tablet, but at least the drawing proportions are correct!
After a while, the nib of the pen will wear down. You may even find it becomes sharpened to a point, and starts to scratch the drawing surface. When this happens the nib needs to be replaced. Replacement nibs are available direct from the Wacom store, but cost a small fortune in Europe – at the time of writing €10 for a pack of 5 nibs, but €11 carriage! If you know anyone in the States get them to buy you a few packs – they're about a third of the price over there – and don't charge postage either, but the Wacom US store won't accept overseas orders, so you'll need a “go-between”! Changing the nib is very easy – the pack of spares includes an “extractor ring” - a little metal ring which can be used like tweezers to grip the old nib and pull it out, then it's just a case of sliding in the new nib.
Being made of solid plastic, the eraser has no “give” in it, so feels a bit hard.
While actually using the pen, it's not easy to reach the buttons and scroll wheel with the other hand – I would have preferred them to be on the left, so I could use my left hand on the buttons while working. (Left-handers could be accommodated easily simply by rotating the pad 180 degrees in software, and using the tablet upside down.)
I would prefer the blue pulsating ring to be slightly less bright – though it's nowhere near as blinding as many blue-LED-equipped devices can be.
Since those are the only criticisms I can come up with, I think it's fair to say I'm very happy with my Bamboo Fun. I may even upgrade to the A5 model in the fullness of time.