Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch Review

I started my quest for the ultimate input device more than a decade ago when I had a bout of tendonitis as a result of spending too much time on the computer, using the wrong techniques with the wrong hardware..

One of the results of all this was of course MacBreakZ, our “Personal Ergonomic Assistant” for the Macintosh.

Another was a constant stream of high-tech gadgets making their way through “Frank’s Ergonomic Testing Lab”.

Unlike many other people, I have always had a soft spot for track pads rather than mice. A track pad doesn’t need shifting around endlessly, it can do without buttons (which is nice for those fingers) and it’s super fast to just move the pointer around quickly in between bouts of typing. On the downside, they are imprecise and absolutely, categorically no good for anything to do with graphics or where you need pixel accurate positioning.

A lot of track pads are plain rubbish, especially those dreadful things on many cheap “netbooks”, so it’s no wonder they have a bad reputation. There are also some quite astonishingly good trackpads around, my all-time favourite easily being the Fingerworks iGesture Pad, which is a direct ancestor of the iPhone multi touch interface (Apple bought FingerWorks). They are no longer available, but seem to be sold at something of a premium for $999 these days! If you are interested, I’ll sell you mine at that price!

Anybody who wants to do anything graphical will of course want a digital tablet and over the years I have owned a ridiculous number of different models, most obviously from Wacom. The problem with tablets is easily described.. they rock at doing graphical stuff, but suck at anything else. The reason for this is that you need to put the pen down (or on its stand) each time you use the keyboard turning everyday tasks into an ordeal.

I always use the tablet for a few weeks and then it disappears rapidly into its box never to be opened again.. still next time will be different won’t it?

Sadly the same is also true for track pads. They usually stay next to my keyboard for at least a year, then get shoved back into their box when I start doing a lot of pixel-perfect stuff again.

Why not have both? A pen for pixel perfect work and a touch pad for quick clicks? Besides the space problem on your desk there is no reason why this shouldn’t work.. which is precisely why when Wacom announced their new Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet, I had to have one.


The Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Small Tablet combines a jumbo sized track pad that allows you to move the pointer with your fingertips with a “small” tablet that takes pressure sensitive pen input and throws in a few function keys and multi-touch gestures for good measure. In essence it’s a FingerWorks iGesture Pad with pen input. What could be better?

My first worry was that the drivers wouldn’t work properly. This is pretty much a Wacom trademark: great products, awful drivers, lots of crashes. Luckily so far everything seems to work just fine (as long as you don’t count the Bamboo Scribble handwriting recognition software that comes with the tablet, use Mac OS X’s “Ink” if you must).

As a long time Intuos user, I’m used to paying a lot of money for a tablet, but to also get great results. The Bamboo model range is much more accessible and well.. not of the same quality. The pen tracking is fine, the pressure sensitivity is okay, but it’s all a lot cheaper than the Intuos range.

The track pad is indeed large and works reasonably well, but bears no comparison with either FingerWorks’ or Apple’s efforts. On the FingerWorks track pad, you can roll your fingertip to make the pointer move just a little. On the Bamboo this does exactly nothing. You need to move the whole finger or nothing at all. In other words, as a trackpad it’s at the imprecise end of the spectrum, which would be a fatal flaw if it wasn’t for the fact that you also have the pen for precisely those kinds of tasks!

If you look at the entire package and factor in the sub-$100 price tag, it’s a great little input device. It is a tablet and offers all of the advantages of a tablet and it is also a track pad and offers most of the advantages of that type of device as well. Combined, you get a device that is fine for run of the mill pointing and clicking tasks, but also let’s you draw and supports tasks that require more precision.

You are left with a perfectly adequate (in fact more than adequate) input device for a wide range of tasks, but you can’t help thinking that there are better track pads and there are better tablets out there. It’s a bit like a washer/dryer, it doesn’t wash as well as a proper washing machine and doesn’t dry as well as a proper dryer, but cost less and takes up less space than having two separate devices 🙂

In future, Wacom will probably add multi-touch to its premium Intuos range and then we might very well get the best of both worlds at the kind of price that this entails. For now the the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet is the only game in town.

I had expected Apple to leverage the FingerWorks iGesture technology that it acquired to greater effect on the desktop. If it worked fine a decade ago, why not offer a separate track pad for the Mac? We keep hearing about the combined pen and touch input for the fabled Apple Tablet, so I had kind-of-expected Apple to release something more exiting than the Apple Magic Mouse, which is basically a multi-touch trackpad on top of a mouse, but without the ability of moving the cursor with your fingertips.

In my view, it’s a strange decision because multi-touch on top of a mouse doesn’t really give you very much. Especially when your keyboard and its vast number of shortcuts is only inches away. After all if you want to navigate forwards and backwards the cursor keys on your keyboard do a perfectly good job. The pinching gesture and scrubbing gestures might be more interesting, but all this would be so much more intuitive on a track pad.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of Steve Jobs liking mice.. and not track pads.

Anyway, I ordered mine today for my “testing lab”, so I’ll be put right soon 🙂