SAN FRANCISCO (01/24/2000) - Digital artists know that nothing compares to a graphics tablet for easy editing of drawings and scanned photos. Alas, graphics tablets like Wacom Technology Co.'s Intuos, which starts at $200, are beyond the means of SOHO users on limited budgets. Wacom's $99.95 Graphire, which pairs a capable graphics tablet with an imperfect mouse, is an economical solution.
The blue-and-gray Graphire tablet measures a mere 8 by 9 inches, so all but the most cluttered of desktops should accommodate it. Like many new input devices, the Graphire supports only USB ports, so you'll need an add-on card if your Mac doesn't have a USB connection. A transparent overlay built into the tablet makes it a snap to trace artwork or photos.
The Graphire's smoothly tapered pen is comfortable to hold, and when you're not using it, you can stow it in a handy removable receptacle at the top of the tablet. The stylus sports a pressure-sensitive tip, an eraser, and a dual-action rocker switch in the middle. Wacom's control panel lets you program each end of the switch to perform a different function, including clicking, double-clicking, or entering simple keyboard sequences such as command-shift-S.
You can also use the control panel to adjust the pen's tip or eraser sensitivity, and you can program the tablet to recognize only a portion of the 4-by-5-inch active area.
Whether you're creating a masterpiece from scratch or retouching a digital photo of your kids, the pen makes it a joy to manipulate almost any type of digital drawing tool. The pressure-sensitive tip and eraser are compatible with a broad selection of graphics programs, including Adobe Photoshop and MicroFrontier's Color It. (See Wacom's Web site, http://www.wacom.com, for a list of compatible applications.) The Graphire ships with MetaCreations' $99 Painter Classic 1.0.2 and Wacom PenTools, a set of Photoshop-compatible plug-ins.
Although the pen is ideal for drawing, it can't replace a mouse or trackball for most routine Mac work. Unfortunately, the Graphire mouse has a few limitations, which range from annoying to serious. The mouse works only when used on the tablet, and unlike an Apple mouse, neither it nor the pen begin to function until the tablet's driver loads. That means you can't use the Graphire with Apple's Extensions Manager or Casady & Greene's Conflict Catcher while the Mac is booting.
The mouse also lacks rubberized side grips, and its light weight makes it feel less substantial than many other mice. Because the mouse's movement is electronically calibrated to the tablet's surface, you have to pay attention to the tablet's orientation when using the mouse; if the tablet is askew, the cursor tracks at an angle. And although the mouse worked consistently on our PowerBook G3, we encountered occasional lapses in cursor response and scrolling on our blue Power Mac G3. Neither trashing the tablet's preferences file nor reinstalling the driver alleviated the problem.
On the plus side, the Graphire mouse is cordless, and it doesn't have a dirt-trapping ball or rollers. Its two large buttons are easy to press; a knurled scroll wheel in the center doubles as a third button. Graphire's control panel lets you assign the wheel one of 16 levels of scrolling action, from the equivalent of clicking once on the scroll bar to moving one page at a time.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If you need an affordable graphics tablet, the Graphire is a good choice, but its mouse is far from perfect. Still, the Graphire mouse is adequate for most tasks, although it won't liberate you from your Apple mouse completely.
RATING: 3.0 mice
PROS: Pen works with most graphics applications; cordless mouse.
CONS: Mouse can't be used with extensions managers while the Mac is booting.
COMPANY: Wacom Technology Co. (360-896-9833, http://www.wacom.com).
LIST PRICE: $99.95.