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Touch pads compared: Apple Magic Trackpad vs. Wacom Bamboo

Thinking about going mouse-free on your iMac? There's another option: before buying a Magic Trackpad, consider the Wacom Bamboo Touch.

Magical trackpads: the Wacom Bamboo isn't as pretty, but it offers nice customizations.
Magical trackpads: The Wacom Bamboo isn't as pretty, but it offers nice customizations. Sarah Tew/CNET

With the Apple Magic Trackpad creating ripples regarding the spread of touch across all Apple devices, it's important to regard a product that visited this territory last year, and perhaps even attempted it more ambitiously. The Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch, a combination multitouch trackpad and pen-based tablet that theoretically offers a killer alternative to the Apple's pad for one reason alone: its versatility.

After reviewing the Magic Trackpad this week, I realized that a Bamboo was still in a drawer in my cube, and I pulled it out to revisit. How did it compare with Apple's sleek square? And, more importantly, are there any areas where it's even better?

First off, the Bamboo is larger than the Magic Trackpad. The extra-wide Bamboo Fun Pen and Touch I have is a lot larger. It's similarly colored to Apple's tiny device, but made of a less sturdy-feeling plastic that's prone to scratching. The Bamboo Pen and Touch is a also a USB-wired device, unlike the wireless Magic Trackpad. It's also more expensive: while a $69 model offers only pen or touch input but not both, the combination pen and touch-pad combo that most users would want costs $99. The extra-large version we reviewed, the Fun, costs $199. The not exactly cheap $69 Magic Trackpad comes off as a relative bargain.

The Bamboo does have multitouch, but its gesture vocabulary is different from the Magic Trackpad's. Wacom's dedicated control panel and drivers have some similarities--pinch-to-zoom, rotate, and two-finger inertial scrolling--but three- and four-finger swipes for features like Expose and application-switching are missing.

The Pen and Touch model (some Bamboos only have pen or touch control, and not both) has both capacitive touch and pressure-sensitive pen support. Even better, four discrete buttons on the Bamboo and two more on the included pen can be customized to launch apps, or perform a myriad of operations. In pen mode, certain scribbled-gestures can also perform macro commands.

Unfortunately, the Bamboo isn't recognized by Apple's recently available Magic Trackpad software update, which means it's locked out of the same multitouch gestural vocabulary. It's still capable of being a good trackpad, but its lack of elevation can get a little ergonomically trying compared with the Magic Trackpad. The Bamboo is both Windows- and Mac-compatible, both with multitouch.

We found the Magic Trackpad to have some limitations despite being beautifully constructed and ergonomically superior to the Bamboo as a touch device. The Bamboo has an incredibly diverse customizable preferences area, and more ways to interact. In fact, it answers some of the wishes we have for the Magic Trackpad. Which one's perfect for you? Those in the market for a Magic Trackpad owe it to themselves to take a peek at the Bamboo, too, especially if they're digital artists.

Read our reviews of the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch, and of the Apple Magic Trackpad.