2006-08-05

Wacom Graphire 4x5

As a programmer, you perhaps wouldn't expect me to have much interest in graphics tablets. And it's not that I lead a secret double life: programmer by day, cartoonist by night. I haven't drawn or painted since they stopped making me do so at school, and my skill is about what you'd expect from someone who's never been trained or practiced. My drawing skills are limited to visual aids for solving geometry problems, and I have no particular interest in getting better until it becomes as easy as the "I know kung-fu" scene in The Matrix.

Although I do own a digital camera, I don't want to "have fun with [my] digital photos", which was another suggestion on the box. And I can type far faster than I can write, so the promise of being able to "annotate Microsoft Office documents" wouldn't be very tempting even if I had a Windows machine to run the Windows version of Microsoft Office (which is what they mean).

So why did I buy the bottom of the range Wacom tablet the other week?

One reason is because I've long been curious. I played with light pens in the 1980s, in the days when you built your own because it was interesting rather than because there was anything very useful I could do with one. I also owned a Newton in the mid 1990s. (Again, because it was interesting rather than because there was anything very useful I could do with one.)

The other reason is that I've never been entirely happy or comfortable with the mouse, but I've never found anything that was good enough to replace it.

The first thing I did was unclip the plastic cover and pull out the semi-transparent insert with the pictures of smiling children. Seriously. They deface their own product, but at least have the sense to make the mess removable. I don't know why they include it at all, and the thought of having something that ugly on my desk right in front of me almost lost them a sale.

Without the insert, the tablet looks odd, like it's not sure what generation it belongs to. It's obviously supposed to go with a Mac, but it's not clear which kind. The main body of the tablet is iPod/iBook/iMac shiny white. The stylus is a similar white with iPod-wheel-gray rubber areas, and similar colored plastic buttons. The scroll wheel on the tablet body is likewise click-wheel gray, but the two buttons either side are like the button on an Aluminium PowerBook. The USB cable is the ugly transparent kind with the metallic weave inside that Apple used for G3 desktop keyboards (I believe; that's before my time), and don't ask about the USB connector. It's transparent like the cheap PC knock-off peripherals at the time of the original CRT iMac.

Setting up

I connected the tablet to my PowerMac first, because I wanted to check it worked. I plugged it in, and everything just worked. I didn't try the accompanying CD because I don't like to install third-party crapware if I can avoid it. I still have 15 crappy applications lying around unused since the Canon MP500 printer needed me to install drivers for it. I'm perfectly capable of making a mess of my desktop by myself, thanks.

Really, though, I wanted the tablet on my Ubuntu box. That's been seeing more use lately. I plugged it in, and nothing worked. I asked Google, and found that I had to:

sudo apt-get install wacom-tools

Then I had to reboot. That gave me a /dev/input/wacom device. Necessary, but not sufficient.

I also had to make these changes to /etc/X11/xorg.conf:

--- /etc/X11/xorg.conf.20060731 2006-08-05 15:57:47.000000000 -0700
+++ /etc/X11/xorg.conf 2006-08-05 17:18:14.000000000 -0700
@@ -61,6 +61,41 @@
Option "ZAxisMapping" "4 5"
EndSection

+Section "InputDevice"
+ Driver "wacom"
+ Identifier "Wacom Stylus"
+ Option "Device" "/dev/input/wacom"
+ Option "Type" "stylus"
+ Option "USB" "on"
+EndSection
+
+Section "InputDevice"
+ Driver "wacom"
+ Identifier "Wacom Eraser"
+ Option "Device" "/dev/input/wacom"
+ Option "Type" "eraser"
+ Option "USB" "on"
+EndSection
+
+Section "InputDevice"
+ Driver "wacom"
+ Identifier "Wacom Cursor"
+ Option "Device" "/dev/input/wacom"
+ Option "Type" "cursor"
+ Option "USB" "on"
+EndSection
+
+Section "InputDevice"
+ Driver "wacom"
+ Identifier "Wacom Pad"
+ Option "ButtonsOnly" "on"
+ Option "Button9" "1"
+ Option "Button13" "3"
+ Option "Device" "/dev/input/wacom"
+ Option "Type" "pad"
+ Option "USB" "on"
+EndSection
+
Section "Device"
Identifier "NVIDIA Corporation NV37GL [Quadro FX 330]"
Driver "nvidia"
@@ -88,6 +123,10 @@
Screen "Default Screen"
InputDevice "Generic Keyboard"
InputDevice "Configured Mouse"
+ InputDevice "Wacom Stylus" "SendCoreEvents"
+ InputDevice "Wacom Eraser" "SendCoreEvents"
+ InputDevice "Wacom Cursor" "SendCoreEvents"
+ InputDevice "Wacom Pad" "SendCoreEvents"
EndSection

Section "DRI"

This isn't exactly like any of the suggestions I found on the web, which had a tendency to include stuff they didn't explain. You can find out a lot (but not everything) from the wacom(4) man page, which is seemingly only available on the web (and which I don't want to link to because I couldn't find a convincingly up-to-date source; search for yourself).

You seemingly add three input devices. The "stylus" type is for the sharp end of the stylus. The "eraser" type is for the "wrong" end of the stylus. The "cursor" type is for the "wireless mouse" that comes with the tablet. It doesn't require batteries because it's effectively just another stylus. It's a typical Windows mouse with two distinct buttons (without a seam, so what Apple's crappy "mighty" mouse could have been) plus a scroll wheel that acts as a middle button.

The "Mode" can be set to "absolute" or "relative", which aren't explained on the man page, but which seem to choose between modes where the tablet area corresponds exactly to the screen ("absolute") and a more mouse-like mode ("relative" where you can lift the stylus off and come back to any point without moving the cursor. In the latter mode, each quadrant of the tablet seems to correspond to the entire display. I'm honestly not sure which I prefer, so you might want to experiment. I have a suspicion that "absolute" might work better, but only if you can train your brain out of the "relative" mouse-like behavior.

Anyway, with a modified xorg.conf I restarted the X server and all was well. It's pretty sad this doesn't just work, though. Not quite as sad as the fact that the X server won't start without any input device connected (and in such cases produces so much output that it's not immediately obvious what the problem is), but it's sad all the same. Hopefully hotswapping of X11 input devices is something that will be fixed. Linux is still years behind Mac OS and Windows in this.

The most interesting part above is the "pad" input device. That corresponds to the tablet's scroll wheel and two surrounding buttons. I didn't manage to find working magic anywhere on the net, and what I show above doesn't work exactly right. The scroll wheel is inverted compared to a mouse scroll wheel, and that can't be fixed by mapping button 4 to 5 and vice versa, strangely. But having click and right-click on those big flat stable tablet buttons is much better than having them on the stylus. If I used the middle button more, I might map button 9 (the left tablet button) to button 2 (the middle mouse button) instead.

In use

So what's it like to use?

As a pointing device, it's pretty good. It has a much higher resolution than the light pens of the 1980s, and it doesn't suffer from the same sluggishness of the Newton. It's every bit as accurate and responsive as a mouse. I won't say it's as fast as a mouse, though, because I can't point as fast as I can with a mouse. ("Absolute" mode is faster, but only if I can remember I'm not in "relative" mode, which years of mouse-diddling makes difficult.)

I find I have to drag the stylus across the surface because if I aim while not in contact with the surface, I move the cursor too much as I come down to perform the click. This seems especially true of "relative" mode, for some reason. The buttons on the stylus (a large "middle" button and a small "right" button) are pretty hard to use, especially the "right" button, which for me is far the more useful. I hardly ever use the middle button, and still look forward to the day when X11's selection behavior curls up and dies. I find it almost impossible to right-click with the stylus button while the stylus is in contact with the tablet, and if I lift the stylus there's the drift problem I mentioned. There's also the fact that if you lift the stylus too far above the tablet, the stylus buttons don't work at all. So you can't aim while in contact with the tablet, lift, and then fire. The two big buttons on the tablet itself are a good workaround for this problem.

The stylus is also less than great for scrolling. It's pretty much like a non-wheel mouse. I'd rather use the page up and page down keys. I haven't managed to stop the built-in scroll wheel from behaving inverted, and it's also quite deeply recessed, and it's also centered on the top of the tablet. It would be better for me (as a right-hander) to have the wheel less recessed and on the left hand side of the tablet.

Speaking of hands, it's sometimes annoying that you have to use the stylus. It looks like a MacBook touchpad, so it's a shame it doesn't work like one. I find I spend a lot of time with the stylus balanced between my first and second fingers while I type, but it does hinder typing somewhat. And it takes a long time to pick up the stylus if you do give up and put it down.

The modern MacBook trick of letting you scroll with your fingers would be a major improvement. Scrolling is something I do a lot of, and the best and most comfortable way I've found of doing that is by stroking my thumb (oriented as if I were about to hit the space bar) across a touchpad.

As a text selection device, the tablet is a mixed bag. Even if you're one of those freaks who can stand drag-and-drop text editing when using a mouse, you'll be rushing to join the sane people who turn it off, should you try to use a tablet.

As a drawing device in GIMP, the tablet is pretty good. I can draw and write much better than I can with a mouse. I was a little surprised that the eraser is actually any tool I choose, but I guess that works well if you're actually doing real work (though surely the eraser tool would be a good default choice?). It's pretty weird to actually use the pressure sensitivity: it's quite an unnatural idea that pressing harder on a computer's input device actually makes a difference, because for the devices we grow up with that just isn't true. I'll admit I don't know what I'm talking about, but I reckon you can't live without one of these if you do any drawing.

But back to terminals, text editors, and web browsers, where I spend 99% of my time...

Using a tablet is a great way to find out where the applications you use are weak in terms of keyboard support or require excessively fine mousing skills. As long as I stick this experiment out, you can expect the applications I'm responsible for to improve in this regard. Where a poor choice of focus motion, say, is a minor annoyance for a mouse user, you really feel it when you have to fiddle about to find a pen.

Conclusion

Neither of us really liked the tablet as a general-purpose input device. After a month or so, we gave up and went back to mice.