The pen is mightier than the... err... mouse- by Christopher B. Wright

ACECAT II vs. Wacom ArtPad II Digitizer Tablet

Do you do a lot of graphics for OS/2? Any desktop publishing? Web authoring? If you have, chances are you sometimes find a mouse or trackball less than adequate for your needs. Mice have moving parts -- which, at times, don't move. There are few things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, that vex more than trying to move a complicated graphic just so , only to have your mouse ball jam on a crumb from that danish you were eating earlier this morning.

The solution, of course, is to find a pointer with fewer moving parts. There are a few solutions to this: optical mice (I hate them), touchpads (too tiny for much graphics work, and they tend to build up static which can make your pointer zoom around erratically) and, if you work with a lot of graphics, digitizer tablets.

Digitizer tablets are flat tablets that map out straight to your monitor screen: the upper right hand corner of the active tablet area is equal to the upper right hand corner of your OS/2 Desktop and the lower left hand corner of the active tablet area is equal to the lower left hand corner of your OS/2 Desktop. To move your pointer around your Desktop, a digitizer tablet will either come with a pen (which is pretty much what the name implies) or a puck (something that looks like a mouse with four buttons and a magnifying glass with a set of crosshairs attached to the front of it).

Digitizer tablets were originally used for transferring hand drawn blueprints into CAD applications. A CAD specialist would place the blueprint on top of a large digitizer tablet, then trace over the blueprint, usually with a puck. This would transfer the lines of the paper blueprint into the application. After a while, however, pen-based tablets became popular with many computer graphic artists since drawing with a pen often feels more natural than drawing with a mouse. Over time, digitizer tablets became smaller and smaller as more people began to use them primarily as drawing and pointing device tools (though there are still plenty of large tablets out there for anyone who wants the precision).

In my mind, the digitizer tablet is the ideal pointing device -- if it's designed right. If it's not, it can be a very frustrating piece of equipment to use. Not only can it be used flexibly as a mouse, but I think it's superior to a mouse when it comes to working with graphics.

Over the years, it's been my pleasure to become acquainted with two 'entry-level' digitizer tablets -- the ACECAD ACECAT II and the Wacom ArtPad II. Both have their strengths and weaknesses: depending on what you need, either may be able to satisfy you.

Using Digitizers in OS/2

As you might expect from experience in other areas, Digitizer support in OS/2 is not quite current with the Macintosh and Windows operating systems. Still, you have a few options as far as this is considered.

First, IBM has an add-on called Pen for OS/2 that integrates Pen devices with the OS/2 operating system, giving it some (limited) handwriting recognition to boot. This utility is available for download from the OS/2 Device Driver Pack on-line web site as is a driver for the ACECAT II. Anyone using Warp 4 should know that an updated version of Pen for OS/2 is available that should work (it can be found in either the /Patches or /Drivers directories of Hobbes, and is called "v4penos2.zip"). To my knowledge these files are free.

Pen for OS/2 currently supports the following devices:

If you don't have any of these, you have a few other options:

1. You can hope the equipment comes with stand-alone drivers for OS/2. I haven't looked into many digitizers, but from what I've heard this is rare.

2. You can try using Scott Moore's SummaSketch drivers. Scott wrote some drivers from scratch to use with a Summa tablet and he wound up making drivers that work on a fair number of tablets. The file is summa.zip, and it can be found on the IBM OS/2 Device Driver Repository. Read the documentation included with the file before you install these... it's very thorough and will give you a lot of good information on what to expect.

And now, the tablets...

The ACECAT II

The ACECAT II is a very traditionally designed digitizer tablet and pen: the tablet itself is sloped off the desk (the top of the tablet is raised higher off the desk than the bottom) and the pen is connected by a cable to the top of the tablet (for power). While many digitizer tablets require you use an AC adapter to power them, the ACECAT comes with an adaptor that allows it to be powered from the keyboard outlet on your computer.

The ACECAT II (and its successor, the ACECAT III) both come with drivers for OS/2 on the disk. The ACECAT II's drivers are not as complete for OS/2 as they are for Windows, but they still give you a Workplace Shell utility that lets you configure the active area of your tablet and assign specific functions to your digitizer pen or puck's buttons. From the information on their web site, the ACECAT III's OS/2 drivers appear to be current with their Windows drivers. Both the ACECAT II and ACECAT III are supposed to be able to work with Pen for OS/2, but I've never tried this.

The ACECAT II and III tablets can be used as a standalone mouse replacement or can be used simultaneously with a mouse or trackball. I was never able to get this feature to work for my ACECAT II but I was not able to verify if this was due to old drivers or COM Port conflicts with other devices.

Hooking up the tablet to your computer is not a problem, since the directions are very clear and the graphics showing how everything hooks together are well thought out. Installing the software, while not a challenge, is not as nice or pretty -- the install routine looks hurriedly put together, typos and all ("Press any key to coutinue..."). Once it's installed, you reboot and it works.

My ACECAT II came with a 2 button pen. You can order other pointers (a 3 button pen, a 4 button puck) from ACECAD. The drivers that come with the ACECAT II let you specify what kind of pointer you're using, but I found the 2 button pen setting wouldn't let me 'chord' buttons 1 and 2 to bring up the OS/2 task list. Choosing the 4 button puck setting, however, allowed me to assign button 1 and 2 functions correctly, and 'chord' like a regular mouse.

Another nice feature is the ability to define how much of the tablet's active area you actually want to use. The ACECAT II has a 5x5 inch tablet area, which is adequate for graphics work but may be a bit too much if you simply want to use it as a pointer. Using the ACECAT WPS utility you can define how much of that space will actually be used, allowing you to cover more screen real estate with less effort on your part.

The ACECAT II works fine in a seamless Win-OS/2 session but if you use full screen Win-OS/2 sessions at resolutions higher than 640x480, you'll run into a problem. For some reason, the higher your resolution in a full screen Win-OS/2 session, the less screen the ACECAT is actually able to move around in. This limitation never bothered me because I never had need for a full screen Win-OS/2 session but for those of you who do you will find this limiting. The ACECAT III may not have this problem.

I was generally satisfied with the ACECAT II but I was very annoyed at the fact that the pen was attached to the tablet -- my hand kept getting tangled up in it. Also, the tablet was angled too high so it was uncomfortable for use over long periods of time. These last impressions are very subjective, however, and they might not bother you at all.

The Wacom ArtPad II

Ergonomically speaking, the ArtPad II is the perfect digitizer tablet: the tablet itself is very flat and thin (rising no more than a centimeter off my desk) and its textured "active area" gives just the right amount of friction against the pen when I'm drawing. The pen itself is blissfully free of a power cord (it doesn't even need batteries -- somehow, the folks at Wacom figured out how to have the board detect the pen without current running through it). It comes with a 12 volt adapter -- if it had come with an adaptor like the ACECAT II (the kind that plugs into your keyboard port) I would dub it "the perfect in digitizer design." As it is, I'll have to settle for "a nearly perfect design that makes it quite pleasant to use."

The ArtPad II pen has 4 "buttons" -- the tip (which functions as button 1 on a mouse), two on the barrel (only one of which works under Pen for OS/2), and an eraser which has no functionality (it mimics the tip).

The ArtPad II does not come with native OS/2 drivers -- you must use Pen for OS/2 to use this digitizer pad. It will, however, coexist peacefully with another mouse or trackball (Pen for OS/2 does not replace mouse.sys in your config.sys file; you can use both drivers simultaneously so long as there are no port or IRQ conflicts). Also, you can use drivers designed for Pen for OS/2 that will allow the ArtPad to be pressure sensitive (up to 256 levels). This will only work in applications that recognize this function, however. ColorWorks is a pen-enabled application, so it may work there.

I missed the ACECAT II's superior utilities when using the ArtPad II, and I found the pen for the ArtPad was a little more sensitive than I would have liked -- for the first week I was accidentally opening folders while I was dragging my pointer across the screen. I got used to it after a while (though I'm still looking for a way to disable the handwriting recognition portion of Pen for OS/2 -- any suggestions, anyone?).

The biggest frustration with using the ArtPad II was its button support. When I first installed Pen for OS/2, I discovered to my surprise that my pointer was listed as having only one button. I thought they were talking about the tip of the digitizer pen, since it mimics button 1 on a mouse, but it really meant the button on the pen's barrel. Unfortunately, there are two buttons on the side of the pen barrel, and I've never been able to get the second to work.

Next, actually using the button on the side of the pen is a bit of a trick; you have to press on the side button, then press on the tip, then either perform your drag/drop operation or release both simultaneously to bring up an object menu. This is not something that gets explained in the documentation -- it took me quite a few days to figure it out.

Again, the ArtPad II works just fine in a seamless Win-OS/2 session, but (again) it suffers the same fate of the ACECAT II if used in a full-screen session. If you need to work in one, have a backup mouse or trackball lined up.

Final Evaluations

The ACECAT II and ArtPad II have different strengths. The ACECAT II has much better driver and software support, being compatible with Pen for OS/2 but also coming with its own native drivers that give you extensive control over the device tablet, pen and puck mappings. On the other hand, it's a bit more physically awkward to use than the Wacom ArtPad II which has an elegant and less constraining design. Still, some of the features that make the ArtPad II compelling (like the eraser) don't work under OS/2, and the "extra" features of Pen for OS/2 can make using the ArtPad II a little aggravating at times.

In my view, the Wacom ArtPad II slightly edges out the ACECAT II when it comes down to day-to-day, extensive use because I find it more comfortable and easier on my wrist. On the other hand, I can think of situations when the ACECAT would be preferable, since its software lets you use all the tablet's features to their fullest, and it's a good $40 - $60 (US dollars) cheaper depending on where you go to buy it.

If comfort is the most important feature you're looking for, go with the ArtPad II. If you're interested in something a little cheaper with full functionality, go with the ACECAT II. Best Case Scenario: Wacom and ACECAD merge, combing the hardware of the one and the software of the other.


 * ACECAT II
by ACECAD
MSRP: ~US$69

 * ArtPad II
by Wacom
MSRP: ~US$160


Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.

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