Date: July 24, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
Have you ever been tempted to give a pen tablet a try, but were worried about the cost or the fact of getting used to the new control? I am taking a fresh look at the Graphire4, which is easy to do since this is the first time I’ve used one.
Pen tablets are nothing new, but up to this point I still have never had a chance to give one a go. For whatever reason, they have always intrigued me even though I am not an artist. I can barely scribble a line, let alone draw something. So because of this, I never had a good reason to consider one. However, recently I was thinking about how much picture editing I do in Photoshop, and this is something that the Graphire line caters to.
Last year, Jen took a look at the Intuos3 tablet. The primary difference between the Graphire and Intuos is that the latter is designed more for serious artists, which she is. Since I am more of a hobbyist, the Graphire was practically designed for people like me. I was quite excited to give it a go to say the least, so before getting into my thoughts about it, let’s see what your $200 will get you.
The dimensions of the tablet are 10.95″ x 10.39″ x .71″, so it’s a fair size. Although, it’s roughly the same size as my Func 1030 mousepad. The pen has 512 levels of sensitivity, which is quite good for a hobbyist tablet. By comparison, the Intuos3 line has 1024 levels of sensitivity. Ok, let’s see what we are dealing with.
The box is very clean looking and chock full of information you should know. It states on the front that the tablet has a full 48″ of drawing area, so that should prove more than enough. As you can see, not only a pen is included but also a mouse. Neither of these use batteries, so there’s no worry there.
What you see in the following picture is the full tablet as it will be when it’s on your desk. It consists of a few separate pieces. The utmost top piece is a completely clear plastic, which is also quite sturdy. Your pen will be touching this when you draw. You can remove this piece to reveal the blue [silver or white depending on which you buy] underbody. This is the sensitivity piece that will convert your pen strokes into something the computer can understand. Just like a mouse. The picture you see can be replaced by your own, to personalize it a little.
On the top, you will see two buttons and a scroll wheel. They function exactly as you would expect.. the same as the mouse. Above that is a slot to set your pen when you are finished. Also included though is a clear desk pen holder, if you prefer to go that route.
There are four clips on the back which is used to remove the clear plastic front, in order to clean or replace it. You can also remove it to put in your personalized picture underneath. You could also lay a pencil or charcoal image here, for tracing into your paint app.
Besides the manual, there are two CDs included for the driver and software. The software included is Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0, Corel Painter Essentials 2, Nik Color Efex Pro 2 GE, Evernote Plus and JustWrite Office 4. All of these products take full advantage of all the tablet has to offer.
The pen itself is actually quite comfortable to hold due to a soft rubber grip being placed where you will hold it. There are two buttons here which you can customize as you like, although the defaults (Right-click, Double-click) seem to work well enough for me personally. The tip of the pen is made of a white plastic, similar to pens used for other handhelds out there, such as PDAs or the DS Lite. The mouse included is quite simplistic in every sense of the word, and will not replace your regular mouse for intensive tasks that require it, such as a game. I will touch more on this later though.
This is a really well put together product. $200 seems like quite a reasonable price at this point, especially if you include the software that’s here. Photoshop Elements retails for over $100 alone.
After plugging in the tablet to an available USB port, Windows XP picked up on it right away. Though it wasn’t functioning properly without the Wacom driver, it sufficed long enough to install it. After installing the driver, the pen worked great. Before the installation let’s you go though, it gives you some tips on how to hold the pen and how to perform basic operations.
Here are some quick shots of the software installation CD and the loader for PS Elements 3. Elements is slightly outdated, as version 4 has been out since September. After looking through reviews though, it appears 3 is far superior to 4, and some considered the newer version an actual ‘downgrade’.
Whenever I have a new peripheral, I always try to see if I can get it working under Linux. Wacom tablet support for Linux does indeed exist, and is even supported by default in some distros. I was unable to correctly set it on both of my PC’s though, due to compile errors. So if Linux is your plan, you may have to do some tweaking.
I have already noted that I have never used a pen tablet before this, even for a second. So I was somewhat wary about whether or not I was actually going to be able to get used to it. At first, it was odd, I admit. Learning how to properly control the cursor on the screen was a little challenging, but I picked up on it quickly. After about two hours of using the pen, I was completely sold, and that’s no exaggeration. Holding a pen to write feels natural, and the same goes for the same use on the PC. Once you get a hang of how the pen controls, you can perform basic Windows tasks, such as moving folders, just as easily as if you had a mouse.
One factor that was a little challenging, and still is to an extent, is the fact that any spot on the 6*8 area corresponds to your monitor. So, if you tap your pen in the bottom left corner, that’s exactly where your cursor will be. Also, there is a 3mm lenience for hovering your pen over the pad, which is necessary for normal movement. I was in the habit of sliding the pen along the surface, but that usually ended up in spontaneous actions in Windows, like double tapping. It all may sound confusing, but I am impressed by how easy it was to get used to.
There are a few features of the tablet that I find hard to get used to. The first would be the two buttons on the pen. I found myself having to lift the pen up to push a button, as opposed to pushing it while the tip is touching the tablet. The way I hold the pen, I have to lift up my thumb in order to push the button. This usually results in the pen moving at the same time, and it will screw up whatever action I was trying to perform. Not everyone will have this issue though. I may have an odd way to hold the pen, but you may not.
The buttons on the top of the tablet are something I have never found myself needing, although it’s still nice to have them there. In the end, I found it just as easy to use the left-click and right-click functions via the pen, and for the scroll wheel I just used a scroll bar. Again, this is really preference and can vary between users.
Overall though, I became accustomed to the tablet fairly quickly. Now to use it is really like second nature, and it’s by far better for working on Photoshop. Speaking of…
Because the tablet came with Photoshop Elements 3, I used it for starters as opposed to Photoshop CS2 which was already installed. I have never used Elements before, but I have to say I am quite impressed by what’s included. For the usual ~$100 asking price, it’s really packed. Perfect for novices, and this tablet. One thing I noticed, that the brushes change to reflect that you are using a tablet. Instead of circle brushes, they are displayed as strokes.
Either way, to give the tablet a real world test, I wanted to take a few photographs and edit them using only the pen, and keyboard shortcuts of course. Can’t live without those in Photoshop! The first photograph is one I took of a yellow flower. While I like the picture quite a bit, there is some random glare in there, which I am unsure is garbage or a sun reflection. Either way, it detracts from the rest of the photo because it’s so noticeable.
I quickly figured out that a couple tools in Elements are a little on the weak side compared to the full blown Photoshop, such as the clone tool, so I ended up finishing the picture up in CS2. All in all, I found it actually fun to edit the picture up. The pen seems to give so much more control, just as if you were editing a photo on a piece of paper. If you are familiar with shortcuts in PS, it will pay off. Even the simple Undo. Because it will get tedious if you often move your pen all the way up to the menu to select the option. Since the tablet represents the entire desktop, you will be all over the pad, as opposed to a mouse where you usually don’t need to move your hand that far.
For the next photo, I chose one I took just down the road from the flower. In this picture, I figured I would remove the sewer grate and also the tan colored car just ahead. For no other reason than to simply test out the tablet. Elements worked just great here. Although I am using the same methods, this picture did not have to be edited in Photoshop as the previous picture was.
I have to admit, editing pictures is hardly a chore using the pen. Things seem to work so much easier.. it’s great. As you can see from the result, the pen sure didn’t hold back any potential. Maybe I should have removed that Wal-Mart in the distance.. Hmm..
The tablet came with other software also, but I didn’t really touch any of it. EverNotes Plus is a program for taking simple notes, but of course you can write with the pen as opposed to the keyboard. I found this completely useless, but you may not. I’m a fan of notepad if I need to take quick notes. Also included is some Corel software and Nik Color Efex Pro 2 GE, a Photoshop plugin. I did not find any of these to be incredibly useful, but it all depends on what you like. If you were to buy all this software separately, it would likely end up costing more than the tablet itself. Great value overall.
After using the pen for a bit, I figured “Hey, I wonder how well I can do things in PS with a mouse now”. So that’s exactly what I did. I created two 500*500px images and scribbled in the first one with the pen, and the second with the mouse.
I think the difference is clear… the 512 levels of sensitivity are clear with the pen, while the mouse has.. 1. As you can see, I didn’t even bother trying to draw the face :-)
After using the Graphire4 for about a week, I have to admit I am much more impressed with it than I thought I would be. If you are hesitant to purchase one due to the fact you are not sure you can get used to the difference, scrap that mind set. It took a good two hours to fully get used to it, and now it’s like second nature. I still prefer to use a mouse for regular desktop work, just because it’s faster. However, for Photoshop work and the like, it’s a dream to use.
With the retail package, you get a tablet, pen, mouse, software and pen stand. All of this includes a 1 year warranty. The SRP is $200, but as you can see by our advertising, some stores sell for much less. I have to say, even at $200, the Graphire 4 is worth the cash without a doubt. Whether you are a hobbyist or an artist who wants some creative freedom, you will not go wrong with a purchase. I am awarding the Graphire 4 6*8 a well deserved 9 out of 10 and our Editors Choice award.
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