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Hardware Review
CalComp UltraSlate 6"x9" Drawing Tablet
by Stephen R.Jones (March 1998)

Occasionally a product comes along that quietly transforms the way you work. The UltraSlate graphics tablet is one such product. While graphics tablets have been around since the days of being exclusively used by professional engineers and computer draftsmen, the last couple of years have seen prices finally drop to a point that these devices can truly benefit anyone.

The CalComp UltraSlate is the latest in a long line of graphics input devices from a company whose heritage extends back to some of the first high-resolution tablets for engineering markets. The UltraSlate, however, is a truly modern graphics tablet that offers the latest features including a small desktop footprint and a battery-less, pressure-sensitive pen with fumble-free erasing.

Installation
Hooking up this unit is especially easy. It plugs into any available serial port and conveniently gets its power from either a standard or PS/2 keyboard port. This feature is a real convenience since it eliminates the need for an external power brick. The CD-ROM installation software installs in less than two minutes, unless you feel the need to sit through the well done, but largely unnecessary multimedia installation tutorial.

The tablet
The digitizing tablet itself is approximately 11" x 12" and is slightly thicker at the top (0.49") than the bottom (0.39") giving it a comfortable, subtly slanted drawing surface. The 6" x 9" active area is normally oriented horizontally to match most computer screens' "landscape" orientation. Through software it can be logically rotated into "portrait" configuration. The surface itself is covered by a transparent plastic overlay under which you can secure images for tracing or (when not tracing) pictures of your kids. Surprisingly, as slick as this plastic surface feels to the touch, in actual use it is perfectly matched to the pen tip giving the convincing tactile sensation of writing on paper while protecting the traced original. If you need to trace thicker material placed on top of the plastic overlay, the pen will continue to work up to .4" above the tablet. But you'll have to be more careful because the pen tip tends to dig into paper surfaces. However, a couple of minutes of practice is enough for you to acquire the light touch needed for working directly on paper.

The Pen Stylus
CalComp has taken great pains to make the UltraSlate pen stylus something special. It is exceedingly lightweight and very comfortable to use for prolonged periods. In addition, its tip can sense 512 levels of pressure, twice the sensitivity of most tablets. On first examination, this seems like an unnecessary extravagance but I began to appreciate this extra sensitivity as I tuned the pen control panel settings to work at lower levels of pressure. UltraSlate's range of sensitivity allowed me to find my hand's sweet spot without losing fine pressure control. In other words, I probably will never use even 256 levels of pressure, but the UltraSlate's wider range lets me pick the range of pressure that's best for me. This should really make a difference during marathon drawing sessions.

In addition to its sensitive tip, the pen also offers two other buttons providing a total of three programmable sources of input. In mouse-emulation mode, the pen-tip acts as a left-click, the first button acts as a right-click, and the third button brings up a programmable "hot-key" menu. Using the provided control panel application, you can choose to make any of these inputs act as double-clicks, mouse drags, or switch the tablet between absolute and relative mode. I found that the second button was cumbersome even after several days of use and so the hot-key menu was not as useful as it might have been. In particular, the placement of the secondary button directly above the primary button seemed to require an unnatural and cramp-inducing motion when bending my index finger up enough to depress the button. I'd rather have the secondary button be a different shape (or texture) and be placed at the same level as the primary one so that either a flick of the index finger or a subtle roll of the pen would bring the button in reach.

Move Over Mouse
Certainly, as a drawing device, the UltraSlate is a joy to use. But, you shouldn't overlook the tablet as a solid mouse-alternative. Just switching occasionally between the tablet and a mouse during everyday use should provide enough variety of motion to reduce the chance of Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI). However, if you use the tablet as a mouse substitute, you may want to configure the tablet differently. For one thing, using the pen tip for traditional clicking and dragging was unreliable using the default settings. Double-clicking with the mouse tip was frustrating and quite difficult, even after tweaking both the tablet settings and Window 95's mouse settings. I recommend reassigning left-clicks to the first button while setting the mouse tip to act as a right-click. This combination makes the tablet a very efficient and enjoyable replacement for a mouse even during click-intensive word processing sessions. There's something especially pleasant about swiping your pen across a few lines of text and then effortlessly dragging that text to another paragraph. Using the pen can make doing even common editing tasks a little magical, replacing the mouse's awkward "roll-and-click" with true "point-and-click."

Drawing with Style
Of course, where the UltraSlate truly justifies itself is as a drawing tool. In PhotoShop or other graphics packages that support the industry-standard WinTablet interface, the UltraSlate restores tactile sensation and subtle nuance to artists working in the digital domain. In fact, the natural media tools and settings of PhotoShop or Fractal Design Painter veritably come to life only when applied with a pressure-sensitive drawing tool. By employing gentle pressure, you can very effectively mimic the tapering of a rising brush stroke on wet paper or gain very fine control over the shade of a brushstroke as it darkens from pale green to vivid purple. In particular, you can control any combination of brush size, color, or opacity with pen pressure. Another nice feature of the UltraSlate is "fumble-free erasing" that uses the second pen button as a kind of virtual eraser. CalComp points out, correctly I believe, that this is far less an intrusion than other tablets that require you to flip the pen to erase (as if a pencil were the perfect model for a drawing device).

Bottom Line
Overall, CalComp's UltraSlate is a delightfully solid input device that just might change the way you work. The form and function of the product are first rate and inspire the confidence that this tablet can become a welcome replacement for your mouse for everyday functions and the single-most useful addition to your illustration toolbox. With a street price of under $400, this tablet should be an easy buying decision for demanding graphic artists and anyone seeking the most natural alternative to a mouse, touchpad or trackball.

Almost immediately, drawing or painting with the UltraSlate evokes a kind of giddy nostalgia as the age-old sensation of pen on a surface reminds you that illustration remains a highly tactile art that comes alive in the hand as well as the eye. The effortless way that this sensitive, lightweight pen and tablet bring nuance back to digital art and everyday work makes the UltraSlate an easy purchase to recommend.

Price
$499 retail ($449 street)

Pros
Easy installation
No batteries or power cord required
512 levels of pressure
Allows subtle, natural effects in illustration or paint programs
Natural pen-on-paper feel
Tracing is quick alternative to a scanner
Fumble-free erasure

Cons
It is difficult to accurately configure tablet aspect ratio
Difficult to left-click or right-click without moving mouse
In PhotoShop, position skips and jumps at lighter pressure or when pen is above tablet.
Cumbersome second button

Company Information
CalComp Technology, Inc.
14555 North 82nd Street
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
United States
Phone: (800)458-5888
Web Site previously was located at: http://www.calcomp.com

Review was performed on a Pentium 133 MHz with 24 Megabytes of RAM

Copyright 1998 Stephen R. Jones All rights reserved.

   
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