Wacom Bamboo Pen Review – The ultimate mouse alternative for RSI sufferers

After searching for almost 10 years for an ergonomic mouse that finally solves my RSI problems, I found this  Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet almost by chance. Strangely, they don’t promote their product as a mouse alternative or as a solution to RSI issues; instead, it seems their target market is graphic designers.

As I mentioned earlier in my Contour Rollermouse Free2 review, there are three main things to worry about when you are dealing with mousing RSI:

  • Mouse shoulder, caused by moving the mouse around the mousepad and especially by alternating back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse.
  • Carpal Tunnel, caused by swelling in the wrist from repeated clicking.
  • Tendinitis, caused by micro tears in the tendons of the forearm, also from repeated clicking.

The Wacom Bamboo Pen addresses all of these issues, even if they didn’t mean to.

What is the Wacom Bamboo Pen?

The Bamboo is the entry-level pen tablet in Wacom’s extensive line of tablet products.  It is considered on the small size, with a usable area of about 6″ x 4″, but if you are not a graphic designer the small size is actually a plus (more on that in a minute).

It comes with a plastic pen with two buttons, both designed to be activated by the thumb in a rocker style motion.   The pen feels a little flimsy, but it has held up well over the last year. Considering the price point, it is definitely good enough.

Other than the included USB cable, there’s really not much more to it.

Impressions

The most important observation that I can make is that over the past year of using this tablet (occasionally alternating  with the Contour Rollermouse Free2), I am no longer in pain all the time from my forearm tendinosis.  This is a small miracle in itself because I literally can’t remember the last time I didn’t have tingling or aching hands.

The writing surface is smooth, but not slick, and moving the pen across the pad really does feel a lot like pen on paper.

The Wacom website lists this tablet as having a lower resolution than their “professional” line of tablets, but if so I can’t really tell a big difference.  In fact, in order to reduce hand movement even further, I use the included software to reduce the size of the active writing area. On a medium-sized 21 inch monitor, I’m controlling the cursor using a roughly 1.5″ x 1 .5″ area in the middle of the tablet. This setup requires absolutely no arm movement whatsoever; I can reach each corner of the screen just by moving the pen in my hand.

I would note, however, that when you reduce the tracking area to such a small square, it becomes almost unusable for handwriting  recognition. There just isn’t enough resolution available.

You can left click by tapping the pen on the pad or by pressing the lower thumb button on the pen, and the other button serves as a right-click. This setup works well, but sometimes I wish the buttons were just slightly closer to the tip of the pen, as sometimes the right-click feels like bit of a reach for my thumb.

If you are using Windows Vista, there is a Tablet PC option that is activated by default they can be annoying. If you press and hold the pen to the tablet, the cursor will pause and activate a right-click. This is beyond frustrating when you’re trying to select text in a paragraph. Thankfully, this can be turned off in the “Pen and Input Devices” control panel.

It is easy to learn. It took me a few days to become just about as productive as using a mouse.

It is also quite portable, since it is light, thin, and has no moving parts except the button on the pen.

What about handwriting recognition?

Handwriting recognition, included in Windows for free in XP, Vista, and 7, is the only reliable alternative for getting text into your computer besides Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

I found handwriting recognition to be surprisingly useful. Believe it or not, during a several months episode of tendinitis, I used it exclusively for programming (It only really works for programming in single letter mode, where you are given a series of boxes and you print one letter per box).

I have pretty horrible handwriting, and I found it to be about 80% accurate when printing and about 90% accurate when using cursive. Too bad I haven’t written in cursive since grade school.  In single letter mode, I found it to be about 95% accurate, but speed suffered quite a bit (I can write about two letters per second in single letter mode).

Conclusion

The Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet, along with the Contour RollerMouse Free2 and Dragon NaturallySpeaking are now among my main input devices.  For those with RSI, tendinitis, tendinosis, or carpal tunnel it’s a lifesaver.  About the only bad thing I can say about it is that I wish they had included the tablet shortcut buttons on the  pen version like they are on the pen and touch version.

Wacom Alternatives

Frankly, there aren’t many alternatives to the Wacom line.  If you don’t like the bamboo, you can move up to the Wacom Intuos Line, or even the Cintiq Line which is a monitor/tablet combination. Below are a couple of brands, but if you take a look at the reviews, they’re not great.

Summary

Pros

  • Great for RSI sufferers
  • Small, thin, and light
  • Sturdy construction
  • Accurate
  • Easy learning curve
  • Handwriting recognition

Cons

  • Missing the shortcut buttons found on the more expensive version
Others