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Wacom turns a new page in digital notetaking (hands-on)

At the IFA show in Germany, Wacom rolled up some product updates and launched a hybrid ballpoint/ electronic-folio system for notetaking on real paper.

The Intuos line of consumer graphics tablets differs primarily by software bundle (and price).


Wacom dove into IFA, the huge international consumer electronics show in Germany, with a bunch of updates to its existing product line, plus a new digital notetaking solution, Bamboo Spark. Updates include a new version of its Bamboo Fineline all-purpose iPad stylus, a redesigned version of its consumer-focused Intuos graphic tablets and updated versions of its passive Bamboo Solo and Duo navigation styluses for touchscreen devices.

The Intuos Pen and Touch series is a pressure-sensitive graphics stylus and multitouch-capable computer-attached tablet bundle. The new version has two big buttons in the corners and a grid, which makes it look a lot funkier.

However, the biggest change is that it's split into three products, some of which come in small and medium. It now comes in four task-oriented bundles -- Draw, Art, Photo and Comic -- which seem to differ only by the included software. To wit:

Software Sizes Price
Draw ArtRage Lite small, medium $70, £55; $150
Art Corel Painter Essentials small, medium $100, £75; $200, £150
Photo Corel PaintShop Pro, AfterShot Pro (Windows);
Macphun Creative Kit, Corel AfterShot Pro (Mac)
small $100, £75
Comic Clip Studio Paint Pro, Anime Studio small, medium $100, £75; $200, £150

The Bamboo Fineline 2 has a slightly different design than its predecessor, with a textured portion around the grip. But the battery is rated for 20 hours -- down from 26! -- and it will come in more subtle black, gold, blue and gray compared to last year's rather overbright blue, magenta, orange, and silver as well as gray. The price stays the same at $50, £40.

With the Bamboo Spark, what you write on the paper appears on your iDevice.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But the Bamboo Spark makes the most notable debut, entering the crowded and confusing field of digital notetaking solutions. It consists of an electronic folio with a pocket for your iPhone or iPad , a place for a physical notepad, and a ballpoint pen that talks to the folio. There's a power switch on the bottom of the folio and a button right in the middle that initiates a Bluetooth connection with your mobile device. The package will set you back $160, £120.

The Spark seems to be an amalgam of preceding solutions, but still doesn't seem to hit the right combination of usability and features. You write notes on any paper in the folio, and the pen strokes get transmitted to the folio, which automatically syncs with the connected device and Wacom's Cloud. Basically, as you write or sketch it transmits a picture of the page.

It captures the strokes using the same Electro-Magnetic Resonance technology that it uses in its styluses. The sensor board in the folio tracks the pen's movement via the low-energy magnetic field it produces. How does the pen produce this field? It uses special ink. That means refills have to come from Wacom.

According to the company, each refill should last about 3 months, and it comes with 2 plus the one in the pen. It also says the folio can run for up to 8 hours of continuous use on a charge.

On one hand, it's less useful than Livescribe's feature-packed but expensive and complicated system, which requires that you use its custom notebooks and big, clunky ballpoint pen. But Livescribe can perform handwriting recognition and record audio, which makes the notes far more useful. (You can export Spark pages to Evernote.)

On the other hand, the Spark is a far more comfortable design for longer notetaking sessions than using a stylus and writing directly into an app on an iPad . I've yet to find a stylus that doesn't make me cramp my hand to keep it from skidding around the screen or have to write really big to have any control.

The other issue with Spark-type connected styluses is that no connection is as immediate as using a physical notebook; if I'm going to have to go through a setup process, I'd rather use an external keyboard and type notes directly as words. (Yes, I know the research says handwritten notes promote better retention. Not for me.)

While trying the Spark it didn't always sync as quickly as I expected and the folio didn't reconnect to the device as fast I expected. Plus, I dislike ballpoint pens -- I'm a gel girl.