14 October, 2015

A graphics tablet upgrade

Once upon a time...

A very long time ago, I bought a second-hand Genius tablet, a NewSketch 1212HRIII. It was a fantastic size at 12 inches square. There was plenty of room to write large if I so needed. The resolution wasn't particularly detailed, though it was okay for the time. While it worked fine, it needed a serial connection. Also, there's no pressure sensitivity with a tablet that old. Well, the computer I was using for the tablet died, so I had to either find a replacement powersupply for the computer (assuming the motherboard hasn't died), find another computer that has a serial port, or find a new tablet to replace the 1212HRIII. In addition, there was the added problem of finding a driver that would actually work, as the driver for the 1212 barely worked with XP.

So, I bought a new tablet. I browsed a local online computer supply store, and picked a likely candidate to suit my budget. I also compared some of the reviews I could find, what few there were. In the end, I chose the Genius MousePen i608X. The reviews I saw on the site all said 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, 2,560 LPI and some software that was free for a month but would cost you several hundred dollars if you wished to use it after the initial month. Well, I got a little surprise when the tablet arrived.

Huh? It got an upgrade?

This tablet is also called the i608X, but supports 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity. It has 5,120 LPI and a stated resolution of 0.25 mm. It has no trial software on the CDROM (so, no Corel Paint), though it does come with a freeware paint application in addition to the drivers and manual. I took the suggestion of the various reviewers and headed off to the Geniusnet.com website to download their later drivers, as I wasn't sure what age the drivers on the CDROM were. You may have to google for "geniusnet.com i608X download" like I did. I installed those, rebooted, plugged the tablet in, and watched Vista while it churned a bit discovering new devices. Woo hoo! I now have a new 6" x 8" tablet.

Thankfully, because this tablet is smaller, it fits on my desk much better than the 1212. It's also USB, so it works with anything that's got USB ports and the right drivers. About the only problem I'm likely to strike is battery life in the pen, as it's not batteryless. I think I can live with that, I have plenty of rechargeable batteries. And because of the pressure sensitivity, I've learned a few new tricks with drawing that I didn't know before. Frankly I'm no artist, so learning how to use this properly is going to be quite some process, but I didn't seriously need the extra "features" that most more expensive tablets have, such as tilt, or even Eraser. It'd be nice, but at least for me, tilt would only get in the way. While an erase function would be nice, I can usually select the eraser from the palette in GIMP anyhow.

Ah yes, the pressure support

It's there, somewhat. Some programs support it properly, some others are a bit flakey with it. For example, Krita (a KDE drawing app) supports pressure input fine from the tablet, but the application I use most (GIMP) doesn't always register that I'm inputting from the tablet, and ignores it, at least with the default kernel module. Under Windows, pressure sensitivity at least works in the GIMP, but under Linux I'm not as lucky, even though I'm using the same version of GIMP in each case. I've noticed that Paint.NET doesn't support pressure sensitivity whatsoever, at least in the last version I have. I can't upgrade it any further as the author now wants a minimum of Windows 7 for the application.

So, does this require a DKMS module to support things properly?

In a word, probably. I upgraded to Ubuntu 15.04 just so I could get proper pressure sensitivity in GIMP. I got partial support, but not everything was working right under the normal Linux kernel. So, I headed off to github, and grabbed the digimend tablet support deb. I installed that, removed the original hid-kye module, unplugged and plugged the tablet back in and restarted Xorg. After that, everything appears to work properly, and the best news? I even got the tablets mouse to work. Pressure support now works well with GIMP, at least under Linux.

So will we see any new cool pictures?

Because I'm so new to computer art, and to art in general, I don't know most of the techniques to use. I think I have quite a long process ahead of me. I think I'll like this. Incidentally, this picture was drawn with my original tablet.

Would you recommend this tablet?

Hey, what is this, twenty questions? Um, right. First off, this tablet is most certainly a budget tablet. It's not a tablet for people who have lots of experience with tilt, pressure and different brushes under commercial graphics programs. It's not a tablet I'd recommend to a professional artist, unless you're really needing to pinch your pennies. It's a small tablet (though not absolutely 4"x5" tiny, thankfully) for people who are starting to learn about computer art. It doesn't take a lot of room on the desk. It's under a hundred dollars, at least in our currency. It doesn't have an eraser, but it does come with two spare hard nibs, a nib extractor and a CDROM with some drivers, the manual and Paint.NET. If you buy this tablet, do yourself a favour and grab the drivers from the manufacturer's website (in my case, geniusnet.com) if you're using this tablet under Windows. If you're using this under a Debian-based Linux, head to Digimend's site for some updated drivers until the Linux kernel support catches up with this revision of the tablet.

I think I got lucky, as this particular tablet supports twice the number of pressure levels than its predecessor, and slices, dic... wait, that's the knife set. It also seems to have a higher resolution. It remains to be seen how long the nibs last, or how long each AAA (or LR3) battery lasts in the stylus and the mouse. I'm hoping I can buy more nibs another time.

There's no fancy Wacom-like dials. The stylus needs a battery, so that changes its weight as a result. It's a bit heavier than a good quality Parker pen as a result. The nib doesn't appear to have any "give" or provide any obvious feedback, so learning just how hard to press for a certain effect is an exercise in training and experimentation. Most artists would probably be well aware of this anyhow. The mouse is of dubious value unless your desk really is running out of real estate. I wouldn't try to game with the mouse for example, I already bought a Logitech m950t for gaming. You could possibly save yourself one battery and use your existing mouse on the tablet as a mousepad, but that gets complicated when trying to share space with the stylus.

Hey, you missed out the hotkeys

Ahhhh yes. I did too. Surrounding the working area of the tablet are a number of gray squares, and the ones in the top line are tied to common application functions. The ones down each side are blank and can be assigned to anything supported by the application, at least under Windows. However, you can elect to use the entire tablet area, and forgo the hotkeys.

Wait, what about Linux?

Gee, you really are quick today, aren't you. I haven't figured out how to get the "keyboard" working on the tablet, as the Linux driver simply uses the whole tablet as the working area, which includes the areas set aside from the working area normally under Windows. You can of course reduce the working area in xorg settings, but this doesn't then open the excluded area up for further input as hotkeys. If you're after the normal shortcuts available under Windows, I don't know how to do it under Linux. Those appear to work well enough under Windows, but the various buttons can only be set to whatever the application supports. If you want a custom key or program to trigger, I think you're out of luck. Consider it one of the slight penalties for choosing a budget tablet.

Now I've got the "right" drivers, input from the tablet is smooth, especially in Krita. Krita has an advantage over GIMP in that the size of the brush indicates just how hard you're pressing, a smaller circle for light pressure, and a larger circle for heavier pressure. The GIMP merely shows the selected brush size. As for other programs that support pressure input, I've only tried Pencil2D, which worked quite well.

Naturally, the more work I put into learning the basics of drawing with a tablet, the better I'll get. Anything's got to be better than the cartoon I made.