Wacom Intuos 3 6x8 Graphics Tablet

Why am I reviewing a graphics tablet as a game controller? Because like many people, I use LCD monitors, and lightguns won't work with them. So to get my fix of lightgun games, I need to use something else.

A mouse, trackpad or trackball really doesn't cut it, as you have to move the thing through a whole range of positions to get to where you want, it doesn't sense motion when it's not on the desk, and it has a non-linear acceleration curve.

On the other hand, a graphics tablet provides almost what a light gun does: point at any location, and the cursor goes right there; hit the tablet, and it's a trigger action; the barrel buttons (two of them) are useful for secondary weapon and reload buttons.

As a lightgun

To try it out, I set the pen to landscape pen mode, full tablet area mapped to full area of main monitor. Tip button (hitting the tablet with the pen) set to click, forward barrel button to right click and rear barrel button to middle click.

You might have to play around with the analog sensitivity to get it right for each game, and then point the pen at each corner to calibrate. For example, Laser Ghost required X sensitivity of 10% and Y sensitivity of 15% (much lower than the default 50%).

The tablet does work very well as a lightgun replacement. You can just point anywhere and hit the tablet to shoot there. Very accurate and repeatable.

The buttons on the left and right of the tablet can be mapped to other inputs, like coins and start buttons - just map them to keystrokes or modifiers in the Wacom software and assign them in MAME like you would with a keyboard.

My only niggling complaint is that 6x9 is a pretty big area, and you have to move your wrist a bit to get from one side of the screen to the other. Of course, if I had a smaller tablet I'd complain that it wasn't accurate enough. You can adjust the active area with the supplied software if being too big becomes a problem, but you can't make a small tablet bigger.

Oh yeah, and you can only use one barrel button at a time. This would be a problem if you need to hit buttons two and three simultaneously. But that's never happened to me in a lightgun game.

Mouse?

The mouse that comes with the tablet makes a pretty good FPS mouse, too: five buttons and a scroll wheel, and the most accurate tracking - far better than the best optical mouse. And it's wireless, of course.

It's lighter than most wireless mice because it doesn't have batteries (power is beamed from the tablet). It also has a kind of pad to glide on instead of the more usual Teflon feet. This all combines to give a smoother, lighter feel than a normal IR or RF wireless mouse.

You just have to remember that it only works on the tablet, and tracking is relative to the tablet, not the mouse (if you hold the mouse sideways, left and right are still horizontal movement). This can be disconcerting at first, but feels better once you get used to it.

Supplied software

The software supplied with the Intuos tablets is really good because it allows per-application assignments. I can have the tablet buttons mapped to Expos? and IM control in every application except MacMAME, where they're mapped to simple keystrokes.

The cheaper Graphire tablets don't allow per-application settings, and lack the tablet buttons.

Drawbacks

Nothing too major, but here goes:

  • The tablet requires 300mA of power from USB, so you need to plug it into a self-powered hub or directly into your computer. A bus-powered hub or the ports on a USB keyboard won't work.
  • The tablet supports the use of two pens simultaneously (to input a point and angle simultaneously, or a Bezier curve control point and end point), but a lot of software doesn't handle this properly. It often forgets which pen is in your dominant hand after you move them out of proximity, and you end up inputting garbage. This is a problem with the applications, not the tablet and Wacom software.
  • The Intuos and Graphire software conflict with each other. You cannot install both on one Mac. So if you use a PowerBook in two locations, and want to have a Graphire at work and an Intuos at home for example, it ain't gonna happen.
  • The pen eraser can't be remapped to mouse button 4 or 5.


Overall

The Wacom Intuos 3 is a great tablet, and a very good lightgun replacement for people with LCD monitors. The supplied software is excellent, too. I'd strongly recommend one if you want a graphics tablet. It's way better than any competing products, and also way better than the cheaper Wacom Graphire (the Graphire feels slippery, the active surface isn't flat, and the software doesn't allow per-application settings).

However I wouldn't recommend it if you only want it for playing games, and have no other interest in a tablet. Why? It's not cheap. It cost me about 30,000.