March 26, 2009

New Wacom Intuos4 rocks!

If you have the slightest interest in computer drawing tablets, you need to see this thing.

Back in college, probably 15 years ago (dang…), I somehow persuaded my parents to let me buy a Wacom tablet for my Mac. The device blew my mind, and I remember spending the whole day at the dining room table, drawing & painting in Photoshop and Painter. I knew it was a transformative tool.

I felt echoes of that sensation playing with Wacom’s new Intuos4 tablet. The new device shows the results of some close collaboration between Wacom & Adobe during its development.

Until now I’ve never really been satisfied with the feel of the contact between the tablet surface & pen nib, as it’s always felt to me more like plastic-on-plastic than pen on paper. The new surface, however, feels great. My wife tried it and immediately said, “Oh, it feels just like a Sharpie.”

The Intuos4 introduces a clever, iPod-style TouchRing. A button in the center lets you cycle the behavior of the ring, letting it change brush size, rotate the canvas, move up/down through the layers stack, and more (screenshot). Being recessed, the ring is much less likely than the previous TouchStrips to get activated accidentally as you drag your hand past it.

The tablet also supports a very cool on-screen “pie menu” that supports quickly switching tools & running commands. Pressing a key on the tablet invokes the menu contextually, under your cursor, and you can configure the commands associated with it (screenshot). It’s similar to the “tooldial” from Logitech’s deceased NuLOOQ device. Frankly I’ve always been bummed that Adobe apps haven’t offered this kind of menu, so it’s great seeing Wacom step up to the plate.

The tablet design team flew down from Portland a number of times during development to consult with Adobe teams. As we don’t design hardware, it was fun to play with the various plastic mockups to evaluate feel & functionality. Wacom’s Joel Bryant writes,

We worked with Adobe to understand what features we could add that most complemented the direction you were going with CS4 and get validation on some of the ideas that we had such as the ExpressKey Displays. One direction that was totally changed based upon Adobe feedback was using the Touch Ring vs. the existing Touch Strip design (customer research had them with even preference). From the Adobe perspective, the Touch Ring fit much better with the CS4 Rotate Canvas feature especially. So we actually made that change directly based on Adobe feedback.

Also, the defaults for the different ExpressKey and Touch Ring modes were based directly on Adobe feedback and we worked collboratively with Jerry Harris to get the right code into Photoshop to support it. We actually went back and forth with the Adobe team a few times with prototypes to validate that the overall Intuos4 design did indeed have synergy with the CS4 design.

I don’t want to gush all day, so I’ll wrap by saying congrats to the Intuos team on an excellent release. PC Magazine has posted a detailed overview, so check it out if you want a deeper dive.

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