When Polyline's Marketing Director walked over to my desk holding the box that contained my new Bamboo Fun tablet, I literally clapped my hands and squealed with excitement. Polyline doesn't have a testing department, per se. But, as the person who writes the descriptions of all new products that are entered into our catalog, I spend a great deal of my time abusing CD packaging in the name of creating good marketing copy. At last, I had the opportunity to write about something I would presumably be able to use regularly in my job.
The Bamboo Fun tablet is manufactured by Wacom, a company known for creating high-quality graphic tablets for graphic design professionals. The Bamboo line of products is Wacom's foray into the consumer market. It is designed more for the serious hobbyist or for professionals who want to experiment/experience the benefits of using a graphics tablet, but aren't ready to shell out the big bucks for a pro-grade model of technology they aren't familiar with.
My first thought when opening the carton was "It's sooo cute!" In fact, I may have actually said those words out loud. I'm not usually prone to such girlie sentiments, but the small Bamboo Fun tablet was sleek, modern and TINY. Since I work in a cubical, I appreciated the theory behind the compact design of the small tablet, which has the same dimensions as a standard mouse pad. But, if you're using a large monitor or, like me, use two monitors while working, you may find the size a little cramped. My advice: get the Bamboo Fun Medium.
Although the overall dimensions of the small tablet are the same as a mouse pad, the active area is 5.8" W x 3.7" D. There is a large section at the top of the tablet devoted to four programmable function keys, which sound promising. The default functions originally programmed into these buttons are: back and forward for use with your browser, show desktop and switch application. I quickly changed my "switch application" button (the same as alt+tab on your keyboard) so it now launches my Web browser. I imagine a lot of designers, who are accustomed to using their mouse in tandem with the keyboard, will be switching out the function buttons for the quick launch of their favorite software programs.
There is also an iPod-like scroll wheel in the top center of the tablet. Wacom says the exact operation of the touch ring will vary depending on the application you are using at the time, typically being used for scrolling or zooming. However, in all the applications I had open (including Internet Explorer and FireFox) the touch ring only zoomed.
The work area also has a 1:1 relationship with your monitor area. That means when you place the stylus in the upper left hand corner of the work surface, the cursor appears in the upper left hand corner of your screen. Place the stylus in the lower right hand corner and the cursor moves to the bottom right hand corner of your screen. (Or, in my case, the bottom right hand corner of the monitor to my right.)
I was lucky enough to have someone from our IT department install the tablet for me. You don't have to be an IT professional to install your tablet, but you do need administrator rights on your PC or Mac. I was assured, however, that the installation process was really easy. If you're still nervous, the Bamboo Fun comes packed with a quick start guide and the Wacom Web site has an incredible support area with videos that can walk you through the entire installation process. Or, if you prefer, go to you tube and check out Wacom's channel devoted to the Bamboo fun unit (http://www.youtube.com/user/BambooByWacom). You can even find videos from real users who recorded themselves using the Bamboo Fun tablet.
Ease of Use
There is a learning curve involved if you've never used a graphics tablet. In fact, I almost guarantee your first few attempts at using the Bamboo Fun pen will result in accidentally highlighting a lot of text on your screen. Your natural inclination when using the stylus to move your cursor (let's say to access a drop down menu at the top of the screen) is to drag its tip across the work surface. This is wrong. Dragging your stylus across the tablet's active area is actually the same as holding down your click button when moving your mouse. To simply move your cursor around the screen, hold the stylus a few millimeters above the work surface. I'm not saying this is a difficult concept; I'm just saying it takes a while to get used to.
Another element that will seem strange to the first time user, is this whole 1:1 relationship between the monitor and Bamboo tablet. This means you don't have to scroll to a given area (or lift and reposition like you do with a traditional mouse). You just lift the stylus and move it to another area and your cursor will jump to the corresponding spot on your monitor. Again, this is a small thing, but it feels weird at first. You'd be surprised how frequently you lift and replace your computer mouse when doing simple navigation. We've been doing it so long it's almost instinctual. Luckily, the Bamboo Fun also comes with its own mouse. So, if you get frustrated, you can switch to what you're familiar with.
Now, all this goes with simple navigation. But, let's face it, the primary use of a Bamboo Fun tablet is for working with design applications. I decided to try out the Bamboo Fun immediately on what I consider to be a hard application: using the pen tool to create a vector mask and (eventually using this mask to create cutouts in both PhotoShop and InDesign). As expected, this is where the benefits of using a graphics tablet really come through. My very first time using the stylus for this purpose took the same amount of time it would have normally taken me to do the same application with a mouse. The main difference is I didn't have to hit alt+shift+z (step backward) nearly as often with the stylus. So I imagine, with very little practice using the stylus in graphics programs would quickly prove to be more efficient than using a mouse. I wouldn't recommend doing any highly detailed work after drinking several cups of coffee, however. A stylus is considerably less forgiving to shaky hands than a mouse is.
And, like all the literature promises, the textured surface of the tablet really does make the stylus feel like a real pencil when you are using it. Another cool feature is that, in many of your applications, you just flip the stylus over and you can use the "eraser" to delete wayward lines. The eraser even has a little "wiggle" to it so it feels surprisingly similar to a real eraser. I strongly suggest placing your tablet directly in front of you when using the stylus. This is how we typically position pencil and paper, whereas we keep our mouse to the side of our keyboard so we can mouse and type at the same time. Moving the graphics tablet directly in front of you really reduces the learning curve and gives you greater control over the stylus.
Overall, the Bamboo Fun graphics tablet is surprisingly powerful for its size and cost. Wacom packed a lot of cool features into a lightweight, consumer-friendly design. Give yourself time to wade through the entire learning curve and don't be embarrassed about grabbing your mouse if you're having difficulty. I'm not sure if I'll feel comfortable enough with the graphics tablet interface to use it for simple navigation, but it makes tracing images and creating cutouts in Photoshop a snap.