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Keep taking the tablets

It is finally becoming possible to use a drawing tablet as you would a pen - if you ignore a tiny gap at the end of your pencil

I remember a demonstration years ago of a slightly troublesome Wacom drawing tablet when we were pushing the proposition put to us by an architect noted for his drawing. He wanted to see the line come out of the end of his pen - not come out of somewhere up there, remote on the screen. The suits smiled smugly among themselves and indicated that they were already on the case.

Now, many years later, the dream has finally come true with the new Wacom PL 400 LCD tablet. It uses the familiar Wacom cordless, batteryless, pressure-sensitive UltraPen, with the built-in virtual eraser at the other end. But there is an active matrix display in place of the blank tablet.

That is to say it is a TFT (that is good) LCD screen propped up at a comfortable angle in front of you with everything you normally see on screen right there on the tablet, waiting for you to start drawing.

The version with which I spent a pleasurable morning has a dedicated video card which allows you to have your customary monitor running as well. And, using some standard Logitech technology, you can have a cordless mouse and keyboard running on the side.

Learning the limits

I used the PL400 with a standard drawing program and it was great. You have to get used to the fact that the pen only works within a certain limit - inhibiting at first if you are into broad flourishes. But you can work out techniques, play around with the medium in the way that you play around with a new kind of pen or marker or paint or stencil. The screen's high resolution and good colour balance are slightly offset by the fact that you are using it at an acute angle, just about at the outer limits of viewability. When you have the tablet flat on the desk you can't really read the screen and there isn't a viewing-angle adjustment wheel which you sometimes see on LCD screens. Wacom has a solution: a built-in prop at the back to get the tablet at the right angle.

Making adjustments

Although the Wacom blurb for the PL400 talks about pinpoint accuracy there is actually a gap of a couple of millimetres vertically between the pen and the line coming out of it. It is probably just the thickness of the glass surface of the LCD screen but it is something everybody who tried out the system noticed immediately.

But actually it is something you get used to quite quickly - as you do the infinitesimal time lag between hand movement and on-screen action.

The PL400 is apparently being targeted at architects of a certain generation who still like the idea of lines coming straight out of pen ends. Maybe my architect was right and designers want that immediacy of contact between pen and resulting line. I was earnestly enunciating this theory to a young designer until I realised he was looking at me with that courteous contempt the young reserve for people explaining flat-earth theories. He could not quite get his head around the fact that anybody drew like that any more.

The pen-tablet thing

I confess that I go into train-spotting mode about pens and tablets, starting with that simple Genius pressure-sensitive pen pad which is best used with a left handed mouse, on up through the familiar Wacom Intuos tablets and, er, that seems to be it. Wacom has stayed the course whereas firms like Calcomp seem to have given up. You can just about draw freehand with the Genius and you can certainly use it to point and press accurately for day-to-day computer navigation, but you need the mouse as a backup or for when the pad gets lost under a mess of papers. Or when Windows does one of its grim blue screens of death.

People keep on trying to develop alternatives to the mouse but the technical problems can be a pain. Yes, we also do naive things like buying voice-recognition software but the more ways there are of accessing computers and the more simultaneous ways of interacting with computers there are, the better. So five cheers for the PL400. If only I could keep my desk tidy, I'd seriously considering getting one.

Oh, and were it not for the price tag - about £1,700.

Technical detail

I used a PC as the base computer but the LCD tablet works equally comfortably with Macs.

There is also a PL300 with half the resolution and tracking speed, a smaller active screen size and other lesser features, but the PL400 should be available in the UK from Apple dealer Shaye (www.Shaye.co.uk). It is also available with the software Plan2 from Panthar in a formation called the D Board whose combined performance Architech will examine later - together with AllPlanFT, the AutoCAD killer from Nemetschek which, says Panthar's Michael Axon, Santiago Calatrava uses in his studio.

The PL400 comes in two versions, one with a dedicated PCI video card which you slot into your terminal and which connects it to the tablet with a single cord and has a second video output. The other version has a converter box so the tablet can be run from off-the-shelf DFP or DVI digital graphics cards. The size of the working area of the tablet, a TFT screen, is 272 x 203mm which is just fine for sketching.

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