November 1, 2005

Intuos 3 tablet is no one's best choice

Author: Mary E. Tyler

Wacom products are generally considered the industry standard among computer drawing tablets for quality, compatibility with application software, and usability. While Wacom's current professional-grade offering, the Intuos 3, offers a fine set of core drawing functions, its Linux support is minimal, despite the company's support of the open source project that develops the Linux drivers. But even worse, the Intuos 3 had significant problems on Mac and Windows computers.

Drawing tablets have long been a tool of both casual and professional artists. Anyone who has tried to create computer art without one can vouch for how much more productive they can be when working with a good tablet. Instead of a clunky mouse that draws with an opaque, static-shaped cursor, a tablet's pen works with the same natural motion of a regular pen, brush, or airbrush. Pressure sensitivity allows for varying "paint" flow, opacity, or brush shape. Tablets are commonly used in creating original art and illustrations and in retouching photographs.

The Intuos 3 boasts a 5,080 lines per inch (lpi) resolution and 1,024 levels of pressure in the nib and eraser, comparable to other modern tablets. The pen is light, and has a large barrel with a programmable toggle switch and an eraser switch on the "wrong" end. It's on the long side compared to other manufacturers' pens. There are two sets of four programmable buttons on each side of the tablet and a touch-sensitive zoom strip. It takes some acclimating to keep from pressing the buttons and zooming the strip when you don't mean to. Otherwise, the design is attractive, and the contoured edge comfortable for those with repetitive strain injuries.

The Intuos 3 includes driver software for Mac and Windows. On those operating systems, installation is relatively simple, but requires an administrator account.

Unfortunately, Wacom apparently hasn't figured out that computers aren't single user any more. On Windows (XP Pro), drivers installed in one account don't carry over to any other accounts. Installing in the Owner account went fine and the tablet worked. But in a non-administrator account, you need to authenticate as an Administrator or Owner to install the drivers. Unfortunately, once we authenticated, the installer crashed, not even loading the splash screen. No dice, no install, no tablet.

No dice, no tablet also aptly describes what happens when you try to use the Intuos 3 in a Managed account on the Mac. Without full access to the system preferences -- something you don't want to give untrusted individuals like students or computer newbies -- the drivers don't load at all. The Intuos 3 becomes an expensive hunk of plastic. Moreover, Wacom's support for individual preferences is notably lacking. Preferences carry over from one account to another, instead of being separate for each account. Trying to use an Intuos 3 on a computer shared by a righty and a lefty is an extremely frustrating experience. Users must change preferences by hand each and every time they log in because the preferences are system-wide rather than kept in the user's individual account. This is most definitely non-standard behavior.

While Intuos doesn't provide them, you can find open source drivers that work on many Linux distributions. The drivers from the LinuxWacom Project have been successfully used on various versions of Red Hat, Fedora Core, Mandrake, Gentoo, Debian, and Slackware. Drivers are coming for Yellow Dog on the PowerMac.

Installation on Linux varies from kind of tricky to Oh-My-God-Why-Did-I-Ever-Think-I-Could-Do-This. Make sure to check to see if you have the drivers already (try find /lib/modules/ -name '*acom*' at the command line) before you go the compile route; otherwise, you can mess things up badly. SUSE 10.0, on which we tested, has a built in driver. Once we found a how-to at Novell's Cool Solutions, getting the basic functions of the tablet to work was a bit involved, but not impossible.

As far as we could see, the Linux driver in SUSE doesn't suffer from the same single user issues that plague the Mac and Windows drivers. SUSE keeps tablet preferences -- what few preferences there are -- separate for each account, though you must set up the tablet and modify /etc/X11/Xorg.conf for each account. Installing drivers from source is very intimidating if you've never done it, but an exhaustive how-to at the LinuxWacom Project may help.

The programmable buttons on the tablet and the zoom strip are not supported by the Linux driver, nor are almost all of the configurable options provided by the Mac and Windows drivers. The Linux driver has no support for different preference sets for different programs, unlike Mac and Windows, where you can configure the programmable options differently for each application. Without the programmable buttons on the pad, the Intuos 3 is simply a much bigger, much more expensive Graphire, Wacom's low-end tablet.

Unfortunately, even after hours of fiddling, the pressure sensitivity still didn't work in the GIMP 2.2.8 for Linux -- or in the GIMP for Windows XP for that matter. While the pen does work in the GIMP as a simple mouse, and it's fine to draw with if you don't mind changing brushes every other minute, it won't do what it's supposed to. For example, in Adobe Photoshop for Windows or the Mac, when the brush tool is selected, a light pressure will give a small, light stroke. As you press harder, the brush stroke gets bigger and more opaque. In the GIMP, the stroke stays at the same size and opacity, no matter how you set the pressure sensitivity controls.

The eraser switch on the tail of the stylus also doesn't work as it should. If this was a problem with just the Linux version of the GIMP, we'd be tempted to blame it on the bare-bones driver. But with the GIMP for Windows XP having the same problems, it looks more like it's a glitch in the GIMP. The recently announced GIMP 2.4 claims to fix this problem, at least with the airbrush tool. Regardless of what's responsible, the fact remains that the Intuos 3 doesn't, at present, work the way a tablet should in the GIMP.

The bottom line here is that if you're using Photoshop (even an old version) on Windows or the Mac and your machine is single-user, you won't have any problems and may indeed enjoy the Intuos 3 a great deal. Most artists, casual or professional, will tell you how much more productive and creative they are with a tablet. The core functions are the Intuos 3's saving grace, even if most of the high-end features remain unused by the less serious artist, who might be better off with the cheaper Graphire 4, which will replace the Graphire 3 this fall. However, if you have more than one person using a computer, or if you eschew Photoshop for the GIMP, or if you're on Linux, you're going to be disappointed with the Intuos 3. If you need a table for Linux-based computer artistry, consider the much less expensive Aiptek Hyperpen 12000U, which according to one review works fine with Linux and X11.

Click Here!