Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 6 (June 2000)

REVIEWS: Wacom PL-400 LCD monitor doubles as graphics tablet

One of the most vexing problems of computer graphics remains one of interactivity. A 10-cent pencil still has a better interface than most computers I've used: Press harder and the line gets darker. Angle the pencil and the line gets wider. Computers still have a long way to go in this regard. One of the biggest problems for artists is one of visual disconnect, meaning that you draw on a tablet or with the mouse, but have to look at a CRT screen in a completely different location. This messes with the visual hand/eye coordination that we've spent most of our lives developing. Many digital artists have become used to the disconnect, but only out of sheer necessity.

Wacom has tried to bridge this gap with its second-generation PL-400 graphics tab let. The device is a flat-screen LCD monitor mated with a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet. The screen doubles as the drawing surface, which eliminates the visual disconnect. It's the closest thing to a digital version of pencil and paper you can get today.
The PL-400 allows artists to draft, design, and doodle directly on the monitor screen.

The tablet is 11.7 by 13.7 inches with an 8- by 10.7-inch screen (13.4-inch diagonal.) The whole thing is about 1.5 inches deep. On the back of the device is a foldout stand that allows it to be used vertically, like a monitor, or fold down, where it can be used horizontally as a tablet.

The PL-400 has a thick cable that plugs into a little junction box, which, in turn, has three plugs-one for power, another for the serial (or USB) connection, and a third for the monitor connection. This last plug is a DFP connector, which connects the LCD screen digitally to the video card. Most standard video cards support only analog 15-pin SVGA connectors, not the newer DFP connectors. This means you probably need a special video card for use with the PL-400. The one I used was made by ATI, and several other vendors also make cards with this connector. Check Wacom's Web site for a complete list of supported cards. The system also comes with a DFP-to-DVI converter for use with other graphics cards.

I tested the tablet first with MetaCreations Painter and Adobe Systems' Photoshop. Both these applications worked flawlessly. The pen was responsive and the pressure sensitivity quite good. Tracking was excellent-the cursor always re mained under the pen (though this is more the result of a fast CPU than the tablet.) The pen is battery-less, which makes it light and easy to use. An "eraser" on the top side of the pen worked well in both applications. The pen also has a two-way rocker switch on the barrel, which simulates a right mouse click.

I soon became addicted to drawing on the tablet. I even found myself doodling-something I normally do with pencil and paper, but rarely on a computer. My three-year-old son picked up the pen and started drawing on the tablet and became so enthralled that he wouldn't give back the pen. It shows just how easy to use and compelling this technology can be.

As cool as this tablet is, I wish it were bigger. The PL-400's 13-inch screen seems small compared to a 21-inch monitor. I think it would probably be best used as a second monitor. This means you should probably set it up under Windows 2000 or Mac OS, since Windows 98 and NT both have lackluster support for dual-monitor configurations. Another option would be to dedicate an entire system to the tablet. Another problem is that the LCD displays only 262,144 colors, as opposed to the 16 million of a standard graphics display. This deficiency shows up in areas such as fine color gradients, which can exhibit banding and other artifacts.

One last downfall was that none of the supported video cards seemed to have decent OpenGL support. This is probably not much of a concern for most people who would use this product-folks who like to draw and paint in 2D-but it would be nice to use this with 3D applications as well. The ATI graphics card provided worked pretty well with Painter3D, but failed miserably with Maya Artisan, a package that relies heavily on OpenGL. It would be nice if Wacom officially supported a 3D card such as the Intense3D Wildcat, which has excellent 3D performance as well as an optional DVI connector.

These problems are certainly minor compared to the tablet's biggest advantage, which is its completely addicting interface. The tablet would be perfect for anyone who spends large amounts of time drawing or painting on a computer. I certainly hope Wacom continues to expand and improve upon this very cool and promising product.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $2995
minimum system requirements: Windows 95/98/NT/2000 or Mac OS 6.04 or higher; available PCI or AGP slot for DFP/DVI- compatible graphics card
Vancouver, WA