Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch Review

First let me say that I'm no hardware snob. For me, value is the most important aspect of a purchase. I'll admit it, I'm cheap. So you'll never see me paying 500+ bucks for a huge fancy Intuos or Cintiq when a perfectly usable Bamboo can be bought with enough change left over from a $100 to get a coffee & a cookie on the way home. That old saying, "A craftsman is only as good as his tools" does have some merit, but don't go thinking that if you spend enough you'll reach a higher level of productivity or perfection. A tool is only as agile as the one who wields it, and when it comes to Wacom pads I can wield a 5.x8 inch graphire as good as any 27 inch Cintiq. I think lots of designers prefer the large size tablets because of the high degree of precision, but to each his own. The small size feels perfect to me. But then again I like drawing small, most of my sketchbooks are pocket sized.

I have owned this pad since my birthday, 2 months ago. If I had to guess I'd say that I've spent 150 hours using it. It was an upgrade from my old Bamboo Fun tablet. But it has a feature the Fun didn't, the ability to use your fingers.

So as you probably guessed, the "touch" portion of it's name means you can use your fingers. Now you won't be doing any drawing or fingerpainting, your fingers aren't nearly as precise as the pen. But there are some cool things you can do with the touch function. There's a set of predefined "gestures" that can be used to control various functions. For example, you can place two fingers down on the pad and rotate your hand to rotate photos and Photoshop documents. All the gestures work reasonably well, although Illustrator (on the PC) isn't compatible with the gestures, and no patch has been released yet. I hear the Mac versions of these programs are working fine, but I'm on PC (and if you've got a problem with that I'd gladly schedule a back-ally knife fight).

I found the gestures to me most useful when doing normal stuff like surfing the web. You can place 2 fingers down on the pad and slide to scroll around pages, you can make a "pinch" motion to shrink or zoom pages, and the pad make right-clicking and left-clicking feel natural by placing hotspots beside the active finger. It feels like a tablet version of the iMac's mouse - So basically, it just feels right.

But my favorite part of the package is the pen. The pen is shaped just right for my taste, with a sharp squared eraser on the back end, a classy beveled side that holds the side buttons, and the tablet has a fabric pen holder along the side (a stroke of genius). The pen feels just right on the surface of the tablet too, with just the right about of friction to feel somewhat paper-ish, but not as much as the older Bamboo Fun which was so textured it started to show signs of wear after about a week. My Bamboo Pen & Touch still looks brand new (when I wipe off the fingerprints and coffee splats). The 4 built in buttons look and work great too, nice and sexy.

But it's not all fun & games, there are some notable downsides to this tablet. One gripe I have is the software. It works well enough out of the box, and most users will have no problems adapting to the gestures system, but I found it quite limiting. I really hope in future versions of the tablet/software that they provide a gesture editing suite to customize the device's usefulness across the board, not just in the applications they pre-programmed. Picture of all the buttons on tablets were pre-determined. It'd suck not to be able to program "undo" to button x if you wanted. The gestures should work the same way.

Another gripe is the cord. The Bamboo Fun had a great cord system - miniUSB. It was removable, so when you tossed it in your bag the cord didn't have to be bent and mangled and eventually break (like my Graphire 3). For some reason they went back to the built-in cord, and even now I can tell it's the weak link that'll be the death of my pad.

But my biggest gripe - the glitchy touch. This doesn't happen often, and when it's working it's a pleasure to use. But every now & then the touch function will get all drunk and do weird stuff. Silly things like crumbs underneath the tablet or sweaty fingers will sometimes make the cursor accidentally right click, or jump across the screen. Sometimes there's no visible reason why it's being glitchy, and all you can do is turn off the touch function and wait until it starts working again on it's own (which it always does).

A few small gripes aside, this is a good tablet at a great value. The touch function is amusing and often helpful, but not game-changing and won't really affect your workflow as much as it'll affect everyday tasks like simple browsing. If they came up with a customizable gesture system in their software, fixed the application compatibility (for PC users) of the touch functions, and went back to the Bamboo Fun's miniUSB cord, it could be perfect. But those are small gripes, if you like Wacom's smaller tablets or you're a cheap chap like me, upgrade to the Pen & Touch and you'll be a happy camper.

+ Great new pen & sheathe
+ High quality build and sexy aesthetic
+ Touch function is fun and useful
+ Awesome value

- The touch function has limited usefulness for doing actual work due to the inability to customize the functions through the software
- The touch surface can occasionally start misbehaving
- The cord isn't detachable miniUSB, so if it breaks your pad is useless
- Compatibility issues with PC applications (like Illustrator)
Grade: B+