As more of us get into digital photography and graphics, we're discovering what professional artists already know: the mouse is a clumsy drawing tool. Wacom aims its new Graphire3 tablet at the average hobbyist, bundling a pen, a tablet, and a wireless mouse, along with some neat software. If you're doing a lot of graphics work, the Graphire3's steep $200 price is worth it; otherwise, stick with a mouse.
The Graphire3 we tested was the 6x8-inch model in Sapphire Blue (other sizes and colors are available). The slender, 0.71-inch-thick tablet's outside measurements are 11 by 10 inches; the active area, where you use the pen, is 8.22 by 5.94 inches. The tablet also offers the unique Photo Frame feature--a plastic cover under which you can place images for tracing or for decoration. In addition to the hardware, the package includes an installation disc and the bundled software on a CD.
Not counting the hassle-free registration, installing the Graphire3 via its USB cable took just four clicks and less than two minutes. The tablet gets it power through the USB cable, and the mouse and pen don't need batteries. You can even start using the pen tablet during installation.
Of the pointing devices provided with the tablet, the pen is the most notable. Its curved shape is comfortable to hold, and it has a functioning electronic eraser and a programmable, dual-function, rocking side switch; ours functioned as a right mouse button and a double left-click. When using the pen, the active area of the tablet maps to the computer screen; placing the pen anywhere on the active area takes your cursor to the corresponding onscreen location. The less-exciting mouse is a standard, two-button wireless device with a scroll wheel.
The Graphire3's software bundle is fantastic, in theory. Both Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Procreate Painter Classic accommodate the pen's pressure sensitivity: the harder you press, the darker and thicker the result. However, although Wacom's tutorial says that installation automatically enables this feature, we had to set up the feature manually for Elements. According to Wacom tech support, there's no way to do this for Painter Classic, so we went without pressure sensitivity in this app.
When we pitted the mouse and the pen against each other, the results were predictable. We used Elements to erase a photo's background. We used Painter to trace an image placed beneath the Graphire3's Photo Frame. The pen erased and traced faster, and it produced considerably better tracing results than the mouse. However, because the pen is activated within 5mm of the tablet surface, using it as a mouse is tricky. If we drew the pen across the surface of the tablet, it tended to alter open files or drag items around the desktop. Holding the tip close above the tablet made mousing steadier but felt very awkward. Changing the sensitivity of the pen helped slightly.
Wacom includes a one-year warranty with the Graphire3. Phone support is unlimited and free but not toll-free; lines are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday PT. Support staff answered our e-mail swiftly and courteously, although their advice missed the mark a few times. The installation disc includes an electronic manual, a quick tutorial, and some tips and tricks.