by Greg Ross
The eZonics ePen is easily one of the most unique human interface devices I have ever come across. It looks like a pen, feels like a pen, and is about as heavy as a pen … but you use it with your computer. It is a great choice for students, artists/photoshoppers, and the average user. It is more ergonomic, more functional, and allows you to do what normally would require a Tablet PC or a Graphics Pad, for only around $35. So let us take a look at this device, and examine its advantages and disadvantages when compared to a standard mouse.
Reasons for Buying
A few months ago, I was starting to wish that I had some Tablet PC functionally to take notes for my classes. So I came across this device at Academic Supertorefor $35 (everyone is eligible to get it at that price), and decided to take the plunge. After all, it was muchcheaper than purchasing a whole new Tablet PC.
The package came quickly and without hassle after confirming the order and my credit card information with Academic Superstore. Inside the box was the pen itself, a driver CD, a pen-holder, and a nice (but cheap) mouse pad to use with the pen.
Build & Design
As noted earlier, this mouse is easily the most interesting interface device I have ever used. As shown in the pictures above, the pen is a little thick compared to a normal pen or pencil but I have no problems holding the device. It is fairly light as well, and using it to write with your PC feels very natural compared to writing on a normal piece of paper.
The pen itself is made of medium-quality plastic, and while it is not the most solid of builds it is about on-par for a device/mouse that is only $35. It will not last forever but I could see this working for a few years before you might break it.
Despite its appearance, the pen is nothing more than a fancy-shaped optical mouse. It runs at 800dpi just like a standard mouse, and you can left and right click with the pen as well. Left clicking is done by pressing down on the surface you are writing on, and right clicking is done by pressing gently in on the pen’s single button as shown below. That same button also functions as a scroll wheel by pressing up/down on it, and can continually scroll as long as you hold the button in position. Compared to a normal mouse, in which you would have to continually turn the wheel, it is a welcome change. However, clicking takes just a little longer … but it did not seriously impact my computing experience whatsoever.
There are two main issues with the mouse as far as standard functionality goes. I’m a fan of the middle mouse click, and I’m also a little bit of a gamer on the side. This mouse does not do either of those very well. There is no way to simulate a middle click, and while left clicking is easy enough … it is a little slower when compared to just pressing a button. During normal use the left click is fast enough, and double clicking is not a serious problem either (I did have to practice to speed up my double clicking speed and you can also adjust the driver setting). But if you need to do a lot of quick sharp-shooting, it is a little iffy’. It works, but a regular mouse would work better.
The optical pen has one advantage that a mouse will never really have: Its directional optical light allows you to operate the device a few millimeters off of your working surface. If care is taken, and you do not press to hard during your clicking, this effectively can make your laptop palm rests a nice little mouse area if necessary. You can drag the mouse along the surface if you want to (which carries the slightest risk of accidentally left-clicking), but it feels more natural to let it hover just a little bit.
This freedom does have its limitations. It only works a few millimeters off of the surface, and you cannot tilt the pen too much in either direction. Otherwise, the pen will either register screwed up movements or not work at all. That being said, the allowable range of tilt is good enough and working positions for the mouse are acceptable. The only real time in which I had severe problems controlling the mouse was when I had it tilted in an unnaturally forward leaning hand position.
The ePen is also recognized without the need for additional drivers in Windows, but you can opt to install eZonics drivers that allow for handwriting correction and a few other tweaks. The most effective tweak, however, is the speed control built into the proprietary driver. When plugging in the mouse, it works just like a regular mouse … cursor movements are relatively fast. While that is great for general usage, when fine details and paint strokes or handwriting is required, you are going to want to turn down the speed. Using a standard mouse, that is a pain in the butt. But with the ePen driver, you can hit F9 to toggle between fast and slow modes of operation. In slow motion, it is very easily to write with and its highly controlled motions are a great asset to artists.
I would highly recommend installing and using the ePen driver and application. During the installation process, you can tweak how the driver will interpret the motions of your hand in order to adjust for slanted writing and control. During the installation process for the ePen, you can adjust the angles as illustrated below. In my case, and with the way that I hold the ePen, I needed to adjust the driver to compensate and tilt my movements by about 7 degrees … which is not too bad for my sloppy writing. Be aware though that my handwriting was done in speed mode, which explains why it looks bad.
Install Driver –Step 1 (view large image)
Install Driver – Step 2 (view large image)
After the main installation is done, and the ePen programs are installed, you can opt to check out the training programs and the like to optimize your experience with the mouse. These training programs are actually quite useful, if childish, but really help you to get used to the ePen. I found general usage of the ePen was a little better after a few minutes of training, and even playing games with the mouse became bearable after a while … but it takes practice.
So, let us cover the major bases for possible ePen applications:
I would only game with this mouse if it were the only device I had available to avoid the touchpad. This device is not marketed to gamers for a reason, and when compared to a standard mouse there are some disadvantages … and a few perks. Sharp-shooting for accuracy is a little more natural with the pen, but shooting for speed is a little tricky. You might race around all day on a track with this pen without too much trouble, but a mouse will beat the pen any day when there is fact paced activity required. You can do it well enough, but I feel better with a normal mouse in my hands for applications like this.
Drawing in applications like Paint or Photoshop is really where the ePen becomes most useful. At 800dpi and with the ePen speed control built into the driver, you can quickly and easily create to your heart’s content. Also, the ePen has a pressure sensitive tip with 512 distinct levels of pressure. While I am not an artist, this would allow me to control my brushes with more accuracy in slow mode and also control the paint-strokes more with the pressure tip. I do not know how this would compare to say a Tablet PC or Wacom Graphics Pad, but for $35 it seems to be a useable choice for those on a severe budget or just getting started like I am. I am not a great artist in any PC application, so I am not going to embarrass myself by posting a sample of my work … but the ePen made drawing a little easier to do.
Remember the fast/slow mode? Yup, that is what this is really good for as illustrated in the above pictures. Using Microsoft Office’s built in handwriting recognition software, this pen allows you to make notes and write emails on the fly. However, I find it more effective to use a keyboard for that as no handwriting recognition software has a chance with my scribbles! But, you can also configure MS Office to just record the handwriting strokes directly onto the page…which is what I prefer. Using it in that mode is not as fast as a keyboard, but for those of us who prefer paper over a keyboard for class-notes this is a very effective middle ground that allows us to digitally record our notes with ease. This definitely beats out all the other digital paper options out there as well, as you do not need to continuously purchase new digital paper.
As you can see from the illustration above, the ePen does result in nicer handwriting from me in OneNote 2007. All three of my ePen writings were much better than my attempts with a mouse (the last horrid scribble at the bottom).
Again, the ePen only offers average functionality as a mouse but it feels more natural to use and that is what I appreciate about this mouse. I work as a student and a software engineer, and having a mouse that is also specifically designed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome is another plus. In fact, it is specifically marketed as more ergonomic, and can rightfully be called that based off of my experience.
The eZonics ePen really does make a difference in many different modes. The training programs help you to optimize the settings and help you practice to make the ePen experience much better. With a little practice you could find you prefer this mouse over a traditional one … though I would recommend gamers stay away. For gaming, the mouse functions well enough but mice would just feel better for most games. But between the 512 levels of pressure, the fast/slow mode control available with just a press of a button, and the ease of clicking and writing despite the fact the ePen is not a mouse or tablet pen make this optical pen a sure winner for $35 for general applications, note taking, and drawing.
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