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GPF, Hardware, Technology, Webcomics

Introducing Hermes

January 2nd, 2008 by Jeff | 4 Core Dumps

Hermes, the Tablet PC

Sorry for the quality of the picture. This was taken with my cell phone’s camera, which isn’t the best in quality but all I had available at the time. (I also should have cleaned the screen before taking this. Oopsie.)

As mentioned in Monday’s GPF News post, I’m looking at a number of ways to take GPF completely digital as a way to speed up my process while not taking time away from my family. The history and reasoning behind this transition is pretty well outlined in the News post, so I won’t replicate it here; make sure you read that post to get the gory details. However, I haven’t really discussed the primary tool to implement those changes, which I felt would be more appropriate to talk about here than in the “official” GPF News.

I’d like you to meet Hermes. Hermes, say hello to the nice people. Hermes is a Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet PC. (For those old timers who may be confused by seeing the name “Lenovo” attached to IBM‘s old flagship ThinkPad notebook PC brand, IBM spun off its PC business in 2005 to Chinese company Lenovo, who had already done most of the manufacturing for IBM’s PCs for several years.)

As mentioned in the above linked News post and in the publicly accessible Behind-the-Scenes page, GPF has been a half-analog, half-digital process since pretty much the beginning. What I’ve apparently failed to mention in (or perhaps it would be better to say that I’ve failed to update) either the public Behind-the-Scenes page or its expanded Keenspot PREMIUM-exclusive counterpart is that I’ve been using a Wacom Intuos3 tablet for several years now. Wacom is probably the best known manufacturer of digital tablets which are used by digital artists, 3D modelers, and CAD architects the world over. Digital tablets are much more intuitive for artists to work with than most other pointing devices (mice, pointing sticks, trackballs, etc.), usually giving you a pen or stylus to manipulate the cursor on the screen. I’ve spoken to many digital artists over the years who swear by their Wacoms who eventually convinced me to splurge and give it a try. The Intuos is their mid-range line for advanced amateurs and frugal professionals; many of the artists at my day job use Intuoses (Intui?). My Intuos has gone a long way in improving the GPF development process, and it’s only with great reluctance that I fall back to the mouse or other pointing device for really high-precision details.

That said, the combination of a tablet and a laptop is a bit… cumbersome. Usually when I do the digital half of a strip, I’m sitting on the couch in the living room with Apollo, our previous “alpha” ThinkPad, in my lap and the Intuos hovering in my hand above the keyboard. This works well enough as long as I don’t need to type anything, but leads to some awkward flipping of the tablet up and down when I have to change certain settings or use a different pointing device. It also leads to some uncomfortable right hand positions as I try to balance the tablet above the keyboard without accidentally hitting keys. But perhaps the most fundamental problem is the disconnect between what the hand does and where the eyes are looking. Many of us have been trained for years to move a mouse with one hand while looking at the moving cursor on the screen. This becomes a little more awkward for an artist who is used to looking at the art beneath the pencil/pen/brush in their fingers. I minimize this somewhat by having the tablet so close to the LCD of the laptop, but it’s still not as intuitive as I would like. If only I could actually draw on the screen….

Wacom has a line of LCD displays with tablet capabilities called the Cintiq. I’ve wistfully mused about one for some time, but didn’t really covet one until I played with on at SIGGRAPH 2007. The large, crisp, bright display combined with the ability to draw directly on the screen was intoxicating, and I had to admit that I began to rationalize the high price tag just to get my hands on one. After all, I haven’t been to a con in a couple years now, so the GPF checking account has reached all-time highs with much more coming in than going out. But the Cintiq would be wholly impractical in my situation, where my digital art is technically a secondary source of income and the return on investment would be minimal. It would also be impractical from a physical standpoint; having seen one now in person, it’s completely unrealistic to sit on the couch with my son playing in the floor while having this massive 20″+, 16+ lb glowing brick in my lap. I’d have to move the digital work to a dedicated location, further isolating me from my family while working on the strip. If only I could have the draw-on-screen power of the Cintiq in a portable form….

It was about then that my wife called my attention to the latest employee purchase options at her work. Whereas I was laid off from IBM back in 2003, she’s still an IBMer and still has access to their employee purchase program. Since Lenovo now produces IBM’s old line of PCs, the two companies undoubtedly have a deal that allows the old IBM employee purchase program to access Lenovo machines at significant discount. And sure enough, Lenovo has recently added a line of Tablet PCs to the ThinkPad brand.

The Tablet PC is an interesting concept, but one I wasn’t very enamored with when I first heard of it. The concept is to apply the idea of a “notebook” further to the “notebook PC” by introducing the ability to write directly onto the computer’s screen. Handwriting recognition software would translate the user’s hand written notes into traditional computer text, making note taking more intuitive for less tech-savvy individuals. The concept, however, has been pretty slow to take off. In some places, the PDA (admittedly a dying breed of technology) continues to be more portable and better at converting handwriting to text. In others, the laptop is so deeply entrenched that the target users have already made the move to typing over writing and returning to a stylus would be a step backward. (How many words per minute can you type versus write by hand?) But there are two places where Tablet PCs have really taken off: replacing the traditional clipboard charts in hospitals and… digital artists on the go.

Let me start off by saying that I’m really impressed by this little guy. The transition from using a mouse to using the Intuos was rough at first, despite the fact that the tablet is more intuitive to an artist. You get used to doing things a certain way and relearning things always introduces a few speed bumps. The transition from the Wacom to the ThinkPad, however, was a lot smoother and I barely noticed the difference in speed. In fact, text entry has been the biggest speed bump so far. Using the on-screen keyboard is a bit clunky and is probably the biggest bottleneck in terms of physical speed. However, since Hermes has more memory and a faster processor than Apollo, any slowdowns from removing the keyboard from the equation are probably negated by the beefier hardware. I did have one problem with losing the touch strips on the Intuos which are usually mapped for zooming; I never realized just how much I used those until I lost them. However, I was able to remap a couple hardware buttons on Hermes’ screen to emulate the mouse wheel (which also does zoom in Paint Shop Pro), eliminating this problem.

The real Achilles heel in this transition, however, is my software. I’m still using my old decrepit copy of Paint Shop Pro 7 that I’ve been using for years now. I’ve been disappointed in both the increasing price of the software and the constant upheaval Jasc (the original developer) caused with each revision of in the interface, so I never bothered to upgrade. Then Jasc was bought out by Corel, and constant complains from our Corel Draw users here at work have convinced me to steer clear of upgrading my beloved PSP from here on out. I’m still too cheap to justify the ridiculous price tag for Adobe Photoshop, which I’m unwilling to switch to anyhow because I don’t really want to relearn a whole new interface. (I always felt that PSP’s interface, at least in versions 4 through 7, was much simpler and easier to use.) And while my long term goal has been to switch to completely free alternatives like the GIMP and/or Inkscape, that’s yet another completely different way of doing things that I’d have to unlearn and relearn, and the reason I’ve never made that transition is that my time is better spent now making comics than learning new software.

Mind you, overall PSP has worked extremely well with the tablet. It’s not an OS/application problem, as Hermes runs Windows XP, just like Apollo did. The problem comes in with one tiny yet critical aspect of the PSP interface and the apparent lack of precision in the tablet stylus. There’s one control on the PSP palette toolbar that controls switching between flat colors, gradients, and patterned fills. The only way to switch between options is to left-click a little black arrow in the tool, which brings up a tiny context menu with the options. Once you’ve chosen a general option, you can left- or right-click the rest of the control to bring up the option dialog (to switch from, say, linear to circular gradients). The problem is, I can’t for the life of me get the stylus to register a click on this tiny little arrow. I’ve literally tried repeatedly to get this click to work to no avail. There is no keyboard shortcut for this action, which in a way makes sense given the nature of the tool, but is completely frustrating because I could easily remap a hardware button to do this if such a shortcut existed. So for now my only option is to stop what I’m doing, flip the screen back around to traditional laptop orientation, use the TrackPoint to click the arrow and choose what option I want, flip the screen back around to tablet mode, and usually rotate the screen around again so it’s back to the orientation I originally wanted. This is brings my process to screeching halt, completely interrupting my work flow and is annoyingly disruptive. The problem might be easily solved by switching to a different image editing program, but that’s an issue I’ve already addressed.

All that said, I’m really loving this new little toy. It has done incredibly well so far, even though all I’ve done is use it in my traditional analog/digital production flow. The real challenge will be when I start making all-digital strips, which I plan to do with the next story, i.e. once To Thine Own Self… is completed.

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