A couple of weeks ago I received a Wacom Graphire 4 USB tablet for use with my desktop running Microsoft Windows Vista. It is a special edition - not different from the standard tablet you can find in stores, but with a laminated "Windows Vista" logo.
Some of you probably know by now that Microsoft Windows Vista incorporates the Tablet PC extensions by default in all its versions, except the Home edition. This is interesting, because it brings a new way of entering data into a Windows PC.
Now you don't need a Tablet PC to take advantage of "electronic ink", and can enter handwriting information directly into ink capable applications, such as Microsoft Journal or Microsoft OneNote. Not only this, but the indexing and searching capabilities of Windows Vista recognise handwriting, allowing you to use the native search to find notes you have typed on your keyboard or written with a pen on a tablet.
The Wacom Graphire 4 is a medium-sized tablet measuring 10.95" x 10.39" x .71" - yes very thin. The usable area is approximately 6" x 8", which can be configured to correspond exactly to your monitor or multiple monitors. When it's mapped to a monitor each corner on the table correspond to a corner in the monitor - so you know how to orient yourself in the interface.
It comes with software drivers for Windows XP and Mac, but there are beta drivers already available for Windows Vista - and this is the driver I am running.
It was my first time using a tablet device on a desktop. I have a Tablet PC laptop, and I am no stranger to "electronic ink" but when using a desktop tablet you are not writing directly on the screen, like on your Tablet PC. I found out the best way to use it is to align the tablet on your desk with your monitor. With a bit of practice you will be able to write and use it without even taking the eyes off of the screen.
The Tablet Input Panel is now an integral part of Windows Vista and you can enable the toolbar. While using your PC the TIP will hide on the side of the screen, and will show up at an instant notice when you need it most.
There are two ways of entering data: some programs (such as Microsoft OneNote) recognise the "electronic ink" and will store it as you entered it, while other non-Ink programs will expect a "translation" from your handwriting.
While writing in the TIP area you will notice how it automatically extends on the screen, and create new lines, so you don't have to "insert" the text into the text area in your program. Also the handwriting recognition engine is very flexible and more "sentient" than its previous versions. I noticed how more accurate the recognition is when compared with my Tablet PC running Windows XP Pro Tablet PC Edition. But you also have to remember that it will learn as you write and corrects your mistakes.
Once you finished entering the text, check that it's all ok, and hit the "Insert" button. This will transfer the information into the text area in your application.
If you notice a problem after you have entered some text, simply highlight the word, bring up the TIP again and it will suggest a series of words. You can then select the correct one - and this process will teach the engine about your handwriting!
Another good feature is the "web" button in the TIP. This will bring additional buttons including shortcuts to "http://", "www.", ".com", ".net", ".org" and a couple of buttons localised depending on your Local Settings. In my case it shows ".co" and ".nz", our Internet TLD (top level domains). Also, when you start entering a URL it will automatically show your browsing history and filter the list as it recognises your handwriting. Very handy (no pun intended).
In the Control Panel you will find the "Pen and Input Devices" applet and also the driver manager, "Pen Tablet".
With "Pen and Input Devices" you can define some of the features provided by the OS itself, such as the visual feedback or the "gestures". Gestures are really cool allowing you to scroll a window horizontally or vertically by doing a "flick" with the pen on the tablet. You can also create your own "flicks" adding different actions for different gestures.
The "Pen Tablet" applet controls features specific to the Wacom device, and it's the interface to the driver. With this aplet you control the pen feedback, such as the eraser, button assignments, click sound, as well as controlling the hardware buttons on the tablet.
These hardware buttons are very useful. For example while reading a web page you can have those buttons configured as Back and Forward, and the scroll button in the middle can be configured to scroll the page up and down by a cetain number of lines or pages.
I am really enjoying using this combination now. Actually I like it better than my experience on the proper Tablet PC hardware. Perhaps because of the Wacom's low profile I can rest my arm and hand comfortably on the desk while writing, or just because I don't have to use the mouse button that much now. I also use the keyboard a lot less these days. A great experience in my opinion.