UltraSlate improves control of freehand drawing on computer

A good graphics tablet does two things to improve computer drawings. First, it gives
fine control over pen movements. Drawing a smooth, freehand arc with a mouse is nearly
impossible. With a graphics tablet it's easy.


Second, and more impressive, pen pressure gives a range of expressiveness to your
drawings, depending on which tool is selected. Change the width of a line by pressing
harder or softer. Use the airbrush to make a line darker or lighter. Soften a line by
applying light pressure or erase it by increasing pressure.


I tested the UltraSlate Model 10090, which measured 11 inches by 12 inches. Thickness
tapered from a quarter inch at the bottom to a half inch at the top, with an active area
measuring 6 inches by 9 inches. Easy to handle, it weighed less than two pounds.


The UltraSlate comes with all the cables and connectors you need, drivers and software
on CD-ROM, and a batteryless pen with pen holder. What it doesn't come with is volumes of
documentation. All the documentation, except the installation instructions written on the
CD-ROM container, is stored on the CD in Adobe Acrobat format.


Skeptical at first, I was impressed with the online videos and user guide. They
provided step-by-step instructions and illustrations for easy installation and use.


The tablet connects through the serial port, and a power connector plugs into the back
of the serial port connector. The tablet's Y cable plugs into the keyboard connector, and
the keyboard plugs into the other end of the cable.


When I powered my test PC, Microsoft Windows 95's Plug and Play immediately detected
the tablet. Once the drivers were installed, everything was ready to go.


The pressure-sensitive pen tip senses up to 512 levels of pressure-twice as many as on
many other tablets. Its position can be sensed up to 0.4 inches above the tablet surface,
so you could trace images in magazines and small books.


Besides the tip (Button 0), which functions the same as the left button of a mouse, the
pen has two other controls (Button 1 and Button 2) on the side.


Button 1 normally operates like the right mouse button, bringing up context-sensitive
menus. Or, by default, Button 2 can bring up a hot-key menu and convert the pen tip into
an erasure tool when you click and hold. All button functions are programmable via the
tablet's control panel.


I found it difficult to work with the UltraSlate at first. Drawing didn't present a
problem, but learning to operate the pen as a mouse took a couple of hours of practice.


My biggest challenge was double-clicking the tip like a left mouse button. You must tap
it twice in rapid succession without moving position on the tablet, which is harder than
it sounds. You can avoid this by programming one of the other buttons to simulate a double
click, but I liked the button default assignments and didn't want to change them. After a
lot of practice, I got better at double clicks.


The control panel has numerous options for configuring the UltraSlate. The Pressure tab
lets you set a minimum and maximum pressure range and define the pen tip's sensitivity.
The Buttons tab assigns one of 12 actions to each button. The Hot Key tab assigns keyboard
shortcuts or other actions to a menu list that appears when you click Button 2.


The Mapping tab provides screen-to-tablet mapping and lets a user choose which area on
the screen the tablet will affect. The Settings tab selects which side of the tablet is
"up." You can work in portrait or landscape mode.


The Info tab gives information about the driver version, the tablet and the COM port
interrupt request settings.


The UltraSlate comes in PC and Apple Macintosh versions priced at $165 for a 4- by
5-inch tablet or $340 for a 6- by 9-inch working area. I recommend buying the largest
tablet you can afford, because many objects are too large to trace on small tablets. The
6- by 9-inch version was big enough for most of my requirements and rested easily in my
lap as I worked.


William M. Frazier, a PC hobbyist, is the postmaster of Ocean Shores, Wash.


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