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November 1999

ACECAT III Pen Tablet from ACECAD, Inc.

Isaac Leung - isaacl@ece.ubc.ca


The list of pen tablet manufacturers is pretty short, and when you put in OS/2 support as a requirement, the list is even shorter. The list at the OS/2 Warp Device Driver Repository - http://service.software.ibm.com/os2ddpak/ only lists 6. One is IBM itself, which apparently refer to some special Thinkpads. I've never heard of Appoint,  Calcomp & Summagraphics - http://www.calcom.com appear to have merged. The OS/2 drivers on their site date from 1995, so it's probably safe to say that OS/2 is not currently supported! The same goes for Wacom, probably the most well known of the lot. Even then, support for previous tablets are provided through Pen OS/2. Last but not least is ACECAD, Inc. - http://www.acecad.com/ which spins its own drivers for OS/2 and has the latest drivers dated 1998 which work across the currently sold tablets. The ACECAD tablets also work with Pen OS/2.

A pen tablet was not on my List of Things to Get for my OS/2 system. However, I chanced upon a post in the newsgroups that mentioned ACECAD had good, cheap pen tablets that were OS/2 compatible. At $60US, I decided to purchase one on a whim. (I had a lucky week on the stock market).

ACECAD, Inc. Impressions

ACECAD (North America at least) seems to have only 3 products to sell for PC and Mac. The smallest and cheapest is the ACECAT III, which is a 5x5" tablet with pen. I called up ACECAD on the phone to order one, and my first impression was that they were very helpful. They even arranged to find cheap shipping up here to Canada. Whoever was on the phone was very pleasant and called me back to verify my order after they settled the shipping arrangements. Afterwards, they also e-mailed me details of my order.

ACECAD's Home Page is relatively simple and easy to navigate. It now loudly proclaims OS/2 Warp compatibility. Nice! I wish other manufacturers weren't as shy about it! In addition to the usual technical support links, the site also supports a User's Forum forum. It's just a message board where people post their problems, comments and advice. It appears to be monitored by ACECAD technical support as well, who respond fairly promptly.

The Test System

Just for reference purposes, this is my test system:


The ACECAT III came shipped to me in a plain, brown cardboard box. It looks like it was designed specifically to hold the ACECAT III, but if you want a flashy box and cool graphics, this isn't it. (This is probably because of the "special" priced tablet. I should think the retail boxes are better. But for the extra $40, I'll stick with plain, thank you).
The following goodies made it in the box:
The manual is very thorough, covering testing and installation in all flavours of Windows, DOS and OS/2. If the easy installation isn't challenging enough, it provides complete details on how to manually modify your CONFIG.SYS and other system files. It even has the details on command and data format to communicate with the tablet. Speaking as an engineer, this was a refreshing change from the "fluffy" manuals I usually get!


The ACECAT III comes with a special connector that needs to plug into both a serial port and the 5-pin DIN keyboard port (your keyboard will plug into the ACECAT adapter so that they share the same line). Ooops. My original mouse was a plain serial mouse which already took up the port. I tried hacking around my hardware to get a second serial port going, but then found out I ran out of COM port assignments, since the ACECAT III requires either COM1 or COM2. (I'm sure the more clever people would figure out how to move their modem to COM3 or COM4). I gave up and blew $18CDN on a new Logitech PS/2 scrollmouse. I wanted the scroller anyway. ("Fortunately" I had also recently smoked my old ASUS board, which did not have a PS/2 port and got a replacement FIC board which did). The 2 PS/2 to DIN adapters remained unused in my setup.

Prior to running the install, the manual recommends that you run a short test program. Unfortunately, this program will only work in "true" DOS mode. A DOS window does not suffice, so I had to re-boot to a command prompt in Win95. The upside is that the test program is almost totally unnecessary, unless you suspect you have a faulty tablet. Everything else afterwards was almost brain dead, because the driver install consisted of shoving in the floppy disk, running OS2SETUP.CMD and following the prompts.

The installation program modifies your CONFIG.SYS and puts a little control panel on your desktop to configure the ACECAT III. Upon reboot, I found the mouse and ACECAT III working seamlessly. I can simply pick up whichever pointing device I choose and use it immediately.

As you can see, the control panel is very complete. The pen itself is configured as a 3-button pointer (there are 2 buttons on the barrel, and the tip itself is a button as well). Each one can be individually assigned the same or different functions. You define any combination of Button 1, 2, or 3, Single click or Double click. I found this feature quite handy, as it was difficult for me to perform an actual double-click with any of the pen buttons. (Maybe I'm just clumsy).

The driver control panel for OS/2 is almost exactly the same as the Windows version. Actually, the only missing feature is the function to change between relative (i.e. works like a mouse) and absolute positioning modes. In OS/2, you are stuck with using absolute positioning. (So, for example, pointing to the the middle of the ACECAT III will always move you pointer to the middle of the screen, regardless of where your pen is coming from or how much you've moved it).

Using the ACECAT III

The ACECAT III has a 5x5" area, which is a nice size. Not too big to chew up my valuable desk real estate, but big enough to still have fine control when drawing. Of course, if I had the room, the 12x12" model would be even better. The drawing area is covered by a thin, transparent sheet of plastic. The purpose of this is that you can slid in a picture underneath it and trace it out if desired. (This is where absolute positioning is a must)! I tested this with a 2mm thick stack of paper and it still worked reliably. The pen holder is a simple piece of plastic that you can clip on to either side or on the top edge of the tablet. It will clip the pen securely along the edge or you can stand it up if you wish. Simple, but effective.

ACECAD has a lot of arguments on its web page for its corded pen approach. Simple, lightweight, cheap, no battery and never a lost pen. I have to agree that the arguments are true, and the cord is very lightweight and flexible. I haven't noticed it getting in the way yet. But if cost were no objective, I'd prefer a slightly heftier, cordless pen. (I've used a cordless, pressure-sensitive Wacom before). In keeping with the same philosophy, the pen is not pressure sensitive either. ACECAD's justification is that pressure sensitivity is not supported by many applications. That may be true, and certainly in the OS/2 world, but the ones that do support it are some of the biggies, including Corel Draw. (Curiously enough, ACECAD did mention on the discussion board that ACECAD Taiwan sells the "Flair" line of tablets that does support pressure sensitivity). From an OS/2 point of view, it is certainly not worth the extra bucks. But if you dual boot and need to do some serious graphic work, I can assure you that pressure sensitivity is a pretty killer feature for doing artwork.

For navigating around your desktop, I could see how the ACECAT III could be very efficient. You simply point to an absolute location and press down with the pen tip to select. With one of the barrel buttons set to double-click, it's even easier. However, I still haven't accustomed to it yet, and I'm still sticking with the mouse for everyday use. For graphic work, the ACECAT III wins hands down easily, especially for bitmap graphic work. A pen is just so much more intuitive and easy to control.

I tested the ACECAT III with most of the OS/2 graphics apps that I had at my disposal. Photo>Graphics Pro, ColorWorks v2.0 and StarOffice 5.1 all worked fine, as expected. Win-OS2 full-screen presented a bit of a problem. Motion was very jerky and the cursor would only move about 2/3 of the way down the screen. Fortunately, the mouse still worked. On the other hand, seamless Win-OS2 sessions worked flawlessly. I used Corel Draw 5.0 and Photo-Paint without problems. ACECAT III is also bundled with a copy of Fauve Matisse in Gray, a Windows program. This is actually the "shareware" version of Fauve Matisse (since bought by Macromedia and "retired") which only allows grey shades. I've used Fauve Matisse before, and at the time, I was really impressed. It was the first program I'd encountered that would allow me the control, textures and techniques that was close enough to the real world things. It's still a good program, if you can put up with working in grey shades only. Fauve installs and runs just fine under Win-OS2. (I do not have the latest Win32 stuff hacked in. Plain Win-OS2 install).


ACECAT III is a good entry-level pen tablet that has excellent driver support for OS/2. Although the features are not top-of-the-line, it is more than sufficient for use in OS/2. In addition, the price reflects good value for what you get.

The driver install, features and ease of use are up to par with the WinXX drivers. The latest Wacom Graphire tablets are targeted towards a similar market, but are a little bit more expensive. Up here(in Canada), they cost about 40% more than the ACECAT III. They do, however, sport a cordless pen and a new, cool looking design, as well as pressure sensitive tip and eraser. But without OS/2 drivers, they're not terribly useful for my purposes.

Despite the drivers being a year old for the last refresh, there is no cause for concern, as 99.9% of all the features are already covered and I have yet to experience any system stability issues. There are a few minor glitches, but nothing close to being a show-stopper. The Win-OS2 full screen "bug" would be nice to fix, but since the work-around is so simple, it is not of high priority. ACECAD support appears to be quite good, but fortunately I did not have to resort to any support at all, which is even better!

Any OS/2 users who have been wanting to find a pen tablet that's inexpensive, easy to use and has good OS/2 driver support should consider an ACECAT III.

Manufacturer: ACECAD, Inc.
Suggested Retail Price: $99.95 USD
On-line Special: $59.95 USD

Author: Isaac Leung

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