Wacom’s Inkling is a whole new type of gadget—a drawing tablet minus the tablet. Its purpose is to let you write or sketch on plain paper with an ordinary pen, and still get perfect digital copies of your work. Up until this point, Wacom has manufactured its traditional Intuos tablets, which require you to keep your eyes trained on your monitor, and its Cintiq monitors which let you draw directly on your software work surface. Tablets are far cheaper but require some tricky hand-eye coordination, and the Cintiq line is priced out of reach for most people. Either way, Wacom has made a name for itself with digital artists because of its input devices’ sensitivity and responsiveness, and have become the de facto tools of the trade.

The case also holds four spare refills and a mini USB cable

The case also holds four spare refills and a mini USB cable

Now the company is trying something new. The Inkling is designed to track a pen and recreate its movements on a computer. The unit consists of a cigarette-lighter-sized receiver that clips onto the top of your paper and a ball-point pen “stylus” much larger than most pens. The receiver tracks the stylus using infrared and ultrasonic sensors.

Features
The Inkling is designed to be portable and self-contained, unlike tablets that function as input devices for your PC. The pen and receiver come with a very clever carry case that doubles as a charging station for both units. The case isn’t much larger or heavier than a schoolchild’s pencil box and also has room for a short mini-USB cable and four spare refills. You can throw it in any bag and use the Inkling with any pad, notebook or loose sheet of paper.

The receiver’s clip covers a microswitch that creates a new document every time you attach it to anything. You’ll need to tap its power button to turn it on, and the only other button it has is for creating new layers. As you draw, an LED indicates whether or not the receiver is picking up signals. The pen is thicker than most regular pens but has a matte rubber coating for grip. It’s quite top-heavy and you can’t hold it too close to the base, which makes it slightly awkward, but not impossible to get used to. No pairing is necessary between the pen and receiver; simply touching the nib to a paper is enough to turn it on.

A PR handout photo of the Inkling in action

A PR handout photo of the Inkling in action

Our test unit came with two identical black refills. We were hoping for a few different sizes or types, but even Wacom’s refill packs are all 1 mm “M” sized, and black. These aren't proprietary to the Inkling though; you'll be able to buy other colours at most stationary or art supply stores. You’ll also have to be careful how you hold the pen and paper. Direct line of sight is needed between the pen and receiver, so fingers, rulers and other stationery can’t get in the way. Direct sunlight can also affect accuracy.

Usability
You can only use the included ball-point pen, which probably isn’t any artist’s first choice of implement. Wacom describes the Inkling as suitable for rough concept illustrations, doodles and brainstorming sessions, not intricate artwork or detailed diagrams. There’s also no official mention of handwritten notes. In usage, we discovered why: the Inkling’s sensor just isn’t precise enough for more than very basic sketching.

You can’t see what’s going on live on your computer screen. After you’re done drawing, you have to plug the receiver into your PC to retrieve images, which is a cumbersome process and doesn't allow for quick revisions. The receiver has 2GB of storage, which is more than enough for hundreds of captured images. Some of the space is used by a PDF manual and installation files for the required PC and Mac software, which you can move to your hard drive if you need to.

Wacom’s software is shockingly bad. The interface of the Inkling Sketch Manager for Windows, which we used, was crude and difficult to understand; somewhat reminiscent of the extremely amateurish utilities that proliferated in the Windows 95 era. Once you navigate to the Inkling receiver’s folder, you’ll see thumbnails of your sketches. You can watch animations of your drawing process, layer by layer. It’s fascinating and potentially a useful tool, but you can’t export these animations for later use.

Wacom's software is crude and difficult to use

Wacom's software is crude and difficult to use

Though you get only black ink with the Inkling, the software renders everything in blue by default. Layers are preserved perfectly, but the Inkling’s other shortcomings are instantly apparent. Drawings just aren’t very well reproduced. That’s especially true if you go over the same lines often—you’ll see multiple, slightly offset lines. Shaded patches don’t stay within their boundaries, corners don’t meet up and curves are jaggy. Worst of all, there’s almost no evidence of the Inkling’s promised pressure sensitivity. We were later able to discern only two or three different stroke weights when we pressed the pen so hard that our paper nearly tore. Subtle shading turned out to be completely impossible.

The Sketch Manager will let you save your drawings as BMP, PNG, SVG, PDF or JPG, but you can’t export individual layers as files. Depending on what software you have installed, you’ll see options to export sketches to Photoshop, Illustrator and Sketchbook. While each layer appears rasterised in Photoshop, Illustrator turns your pen strokes into compound paths. Depending on your requirements and style of work, you might prefer to just scan the papers you’ve drawn on.

Handwriting is too light to be useful and there's no OCR functionality

Handwriting is too light to be useful and there's no OCR functionality

There’s no character recognition functionality and no direct hooks into popular OCR software. The device’s potential for managing handwritten notes is therefore quite lost.

There’s another interesting feature that Wacom has relegated to a tiny footnote in the PDF manual: when plugged in to your PC, the receiver picks up the pen as if it was an input device. You’ll need a longer USB cord and a large flat surface to make any use of this functionality. It’s nowhere near as accurate as a proper tablet and stylus, but it does let you use software such as Photoshop as if you were directly manipulating the tools.

Verdict and Price in India
The Inkling is a new category of device. Unlike traditional tablets, you can’t see what you’re drawing on screen as you draw it, but you can use the Inkling anywhere at any time with just an ordinary sheet of paper. Our biggest disappointments are things that could be corrected in a future version or possibly even a software update—a variety of nibs, OCR functionality, totally revamped software, live wireless PC connectivity, better pressure sensing and vastly improved accuracy would make for an excellent version 2.0.

Comparison of a simple doodle (right) with the Inkling's interpretation of it (left).

Comparison of a simple doodle (right) with the Inkling's interpretation of it (left).

As Wacom itself says, the Inkling is meant for rough sketches and concept outlines. You should know that it isn’t an alternative to traditional tablets, and in fact you’ll probably need a tablet and stylus to refine or trace over your Inkling drawings. At Rs 14,999, this makes it a very expensive toy. The only real use case we can imagine for it is an artist or designer who absolutely must draw with pen on paper, but who needs to digitise his or her work quicker than scanning each page afterwards would allow. Whether that’s worth the price of admission will depend on you.

Publish date: March 4, 2013 11:44 am| Modified date: December 19, 2013 9:18 am

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