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23rd September 2005
Wacom Graphire Bluetooth graphics tablet pen and mouse review
by Ian Burley

Wacom's Graphire Bluetooth offers the lure of wireless graphic tablet use plus the utility of a matching mouse for your PC or Mac. We find out if this is the best Wacom Graphire pen input package yet.

Look, a tablet, mouse and pen but no wires! Almost

Wacom is the undisputed leader in pressure-sensitive pen-enabled input devices and it offers a wide range to choose from in fact its range is so diverse that it's not always obvious which is the best for one's own needs. You can choose from PenPartner, Volito, Graphire and Intuos lines. Wacom also supply pen input systems for laptops and tablet computers with touch-sensitive screens and, to round off, Wacom also offers pen-enabled Cintiq LCD monitors

In this review we look at a mid-range pen, mouse and graphics tablet combo, the Graphire Bluetooth. The Graphire family has now reached generation four and includes four models, plus the Bluetooth model that predates the others by about six months. The Graphire Bluetooth is now the only one version to come with a mouse in addition to a pen. It has a pen-sensitive area covering DIN A5, or roughly 6x8 inches, so it's as large as the largest (XL) Graphire 4 alternatives.

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Battery-less pens
Key to Wacom's technology advantage is the fact that its pens don't require batteries and its touch sensitivity isn't vulnerable to physical wear and tear of the tablet surface. Graphire pens are pressure-sensitive to 512 levels and a wide range of software applications are compatible with Wacom's 'Penabled' functionality.

Distinguishing features
The two distinguishing features of the Graphire Bluetooth are its standard wireless mouse and wireless Bluetooth connectivity with the host PC or Mac. However, in certain ways, both these features exhibit flaws that you need to consider before making a decision to buy the Graphire Bluetooth.

First of all, the Graphire Bluetooth isn't exactly wireless as it requires a power lead to charge up its internal lithium polymer battery. Once fully charged, this should provide around 25 hours continuous wireless use before needing to be re-tethered for charging once more. Conventional Wacom tablets use current from their wired USB connection, which is absent on the Graphire Bluetooth, so you don't even have the fall-back option of using USB.

If you really don't like wires on your desk or if you travel a lot and wish to use a graphics tablet without wires with your laptop, for example, then the Graphire Bluetooth must certainly appeal. But sooner or later you will need to hook up that power lead or you will be left with a dead tablet.

The latest Graphire mouse is an improvement over the earlier ones, but not a patch on a great mouse like the Logitech MouseMan Optical

Acquired taste
Secondly, the Graphire Bluetooth mouse is, at best, an acquired taste. It's not actually a Bluetooth mouse; so you can't use the mouse on its own without the tablet as it uses the same inductive detection and positioning system as the pen. The tablet recognises the mouse specifically and switches from the absolute positioning pen mode to pointer-dragging mouse mode automatically.

Like the pen, the mouse requires no batteries, but unlike the pen, it is not pressure-sensitive. The mouse is a compact design with a conventional two button layout and a scroll wheel. It's also symmetrical, which is good news for left-handers. Underneath, instead of the usual tracking ball or illuminated optical sensor, there is just a pad of fabric, rather like the non-hooked side of a Velcro fastening. It provides a soft surface upon which the mouse can move around on top of the tablet.

Previous Graphire mouse models had been criticised for an unpleasantly hard feel when pushed around the tablet area and the new fabric base certainly helps, but I never once felt that the Graphire Bluetooth mouse was a patch on my Logitech MouseMan Optical. The Graphire mouse felt cumbersome and heavy in its movement and without precision. And to make matters worse, a standard optical mouse won't work on the surface of the tablet because it is transparent.

Excellent pen action
But at least the core qualities of a Wacom device remain in the Graphire Bluetooth, namely its excellent pen action. If you are a seasoned Wacom pen tablet user, you will have few complaints about the Graphire Bluetooth pen and tablet. Admittedly the more expensive Intuos tablets have funkier pens and a more refined tablet surface, but these are subtle refinements to what the Graphire Bluetooth already delivers.

The clear plastic top can be removed to place a photo underneath

Turn your tablet in to a photo frame
A nice feature is the ability to detach the transparent top of the tablet to place a photo or other paper item underneath, either to trace or simply to customise the look of your tablet. If you are wondering if this solves the optical mouse problem previously mentioned, it doesn't.

Other nice Graphire Bluetooth touches include a neat space modelled into the back of the tablet for securely stowing the pen and a pair of programmable buttons, or ExpressKeys. The pen also comes with a small transparent plastic stand.

Installation is straightforward and though configuring a Bluetooth wireless connection is more complicated than a conventional all wired USB setup, if you can do one, as long as you follow the instructions, you should be able to do the other.

Software bundles
In Europe it appears that the only software bundled with the Graphire Bluetooth is Corel Painter Essentials 2, while in the US you get that plus Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 and nik Color Efex Pro 2 photo filter effects plug ins. It's been said before why doesn't Wacom offer cheaper prices without bundled software that many of us don't actually need?

On the next page of this article we have over a dozen views of the Graphire Bluetooth hardware from a variety of angles, followed by our review conclusions and ratings and, finally full specifications and a side-by-side comparison with the other Graphire models.

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