Wacom PenPartner
Wacom improves on their previous tablet and cuts the price
PC or Macintosh
Graphics tablets are a good idea. As someone who has been compulsively drawing and writing since childhood, I believe this very strongly; anything that feels more like a pen or pencil is a good thing.

I first realized this as a young adolescent, when I unwrapped my new KoalaPad for the Commodore 64. Although crude by today's standards, it made me acutely aware that mice, trackballs, and joysticks are not the way to go for computer artistry. (If you're one of the few who can draw well with a mouse, I salute you. I don't have the talent or patience.)

Since then, we've seen the advent of pressure-sensitive tablets and cordless styluses, both of which contribute greatly to a more natural feeling when using tablets. A pressure-sensitive tablet detects how hard the stylus is being pressed down, and reacts accordingly. This usually means making drawn lines thicker and/or darker as the pressure increases. As the name implies, a cordless stylus feels more like a real pen or pencil, since there's no cord trying to drag the top of the stylus down.

My favorite tablets to date have been Wacom's, which range in size from a compact 4"x5" (11 cm x 13 cm) drawing surface to a desk-gobbling 18"x25" (46 cm x 64 cm). I've always felt they were aesthetically and ergonomically appealing, and a few years ago they added a vital component to their styluses: a pressure-sensitive eraser. In this case, pressing down harder controls the degree of lightening parts of the image. This is doubly convenient since flipping the pen in some applications automatically switches to the eraser function.

Wacom's latest addition to their product lineup is the PenPartner, which measures a diminutive 7"x7" (18 cm x 18 cm)--smaller than your average mousepad--and has an active area of 4"x5" (11 cm x 13 cm). Wacom considers the PenPartner a consumer-level tablet, compared to its close relative, the professional-level ArtPad II. While the PenPartner's packaging and included software (Corel Print & Photo House, 150 TrueType fonts, and thousands of included graphics) reflect this, almost everything about the PenPartner is superior to its older cousin. One noticeable difference: unlike the ArtPad II, the PenPartner does not require an external power adapter, a fact my over-burdened power bar appreciates. One assumes the newer tablet draws its power directly from the computer. Another improvement: users now have the option of connecting the PenPartner to a serial port, bus port, or keyboard port. This is wonderfully convenient for two reasons: first, you can plug the PenPartner into whichever port happens to be best for you; second, it makes it easier to have a mouse connected at the same time as the graphics tablet. As with previous models, the PenPartner can be used as a mouse substitute; unlike previous models, it can be connected at the same time as a mouse with no conflicts.

The last two enhancements are minor: the PenPartner is thinner by a barely perceptible two and a half millimeters, and has a thin plastic overlay which does double duty by protecting the tablet surface and holding any images for tracing.

Astonishingly enough, all of this comes at a reduced price: the PenPartner sells for about $50 less than the ArtPad II.

At this point, skeptics might wonder what the catch is--after all, there must be something wrong with the thing if it does more and costs less. After searching high and low, I managed to find two minor flaws. The PenPartner's UltraPen is a tiny bit fatter than that of the ArtPad II, and therefore less comfortable for me, but that's a matter of personal preference. Also, the PenPartner has a resolution of 1000 lines per inch, compared to the ArtPad's 2540 lpi--not that I would have noticed if it hadn't been written on the box. (Skeptics: These may not be major flaws, but they were the best I could do.)

Credit should be given where credit is due: Wacom has taken a great product and made it better for 3/4 of the price. I wonder what they'll do for an encore?

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (May 1998)