Monday, September 12, 2011

Wacom Inkling digital sketch pen hands-on (video)

Wacom's new digital pen can't help but stand out from the competition. It's a specialized device that makes no apologies for catering to graphics enthusiasts at the expense of casual note-takers. Moreover, it does something pretty amazing: instead of just turning your sketches into simple bitmaps, it can also export them as vector-based images with multiple layers, which means they can be directly used as the basis for more complex and final art. The Inkling will cost £150 ($230 converted) when it reaches European stores in October, but in the meantime we've got some early hands-on impressions right after the break.

The Inkling comes in a funky travel case that doubles-up as a USB charger for both the pen and its accompanying receiver. It also has slots for spare standard-sized ball-point nibs, which looked great all lined up like little soldiers of creativity. Unfortunately, the interior plastic felt cheap in some places, particularly around the hooks for the USB cable. This lent the case an air of "good from far; far from good" and we think Wacom missed an opportunity to come up with something more special.

The pen is released with a nice push-to-pop motion and, once freed, it seemed thin and light enough for comfortable use -- although we only had time to draw a few scribbles with it. It's still significantly thicker than a plain ball-point pen because it contains IR and ultrasonic components needed to communicate its precise movements to the receiver.

The receiver is small, light and easy to forget about when it's attached to the top, bottom, side or corner of your notebook -- you can clip it wherever it feels most out of the way, so long as it has line-of-sight to the pen at all times. It has two buttons: one to power on (which we can just imagine forgetting to press) and one to start a new layer, allowing you to separate out different stages of your drawing for when you come to work with its digital doppelganger.

There's a dedicated LED that flashes green every time you draw something, reassuring you that your masterpiece is being received loud and clear. This connection will be easily broken if your hands get in the way -- for example if you use a ruler without being careful -- or if you try to use the receiver on anything bigger than A4/Letter-sized paper. Finally, the clamp only opens wide enough to grip onto up to about 10 sheets of notebook paper, so don't even think about clipping it onto a drawing board.

You need to use Wacom's own software to translate the raw files on the receiver into something usable on your PC. If you created separate layers while sketching, each one is displayed as a separate page in the software, which can be exported or treated (e.g. colored) on its own. Alternatively, you can export the whole lot, either as a bitmap with a default resolution of 600dpi, or as a vector. If you want to export the whole sketch but still keep each layer separate in your final graphics page, then you needed to be using Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketchbook Pro or Sketchbook Designer. Photoshop Elements, CoralDraw and other titles won't import multi-layer files from Wacom's software.

Stay tuned for our full review of the Inkling (from a member of the Engadget team who can actually draw) when it finally becomes available in the next few weeks.
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