My last post was ostensibly about my new SpaceMouse, but within half an hour I had not less than five different people ask about my stylus. What the what? Stylus? For CAD? In short: yes, I use a stylus for CAD. And everything else, actually. I don’t even own a decent mouse anymore.
In 2006 I gave up using a mouse in favor of a stylus and a SpacePilot. At the time I was driving CATIA all day long, and yet with the SpacePilot in my left hand and a stylus in my right, suddenly my wrist problems went away entirely, and they’ve never come back.
That’s nearly ten years of mouseless-ness, and I feel fine.
Bend your elbows and hold your hands out in front of you. Relax. Now, if your palms are facing the floor, you are either a kangaroo, or you have deeply misunderstood what I mean by “relax”.
In fact, go ahead and turn your hands so that your palms face the floor. Comfy?
This simple exercise illustrates why, if you Google “ergonomic mouse,” you’ll find a whole bunch of contraptions that try to allow you to use a mouse with your palm to face inward, its natural resting position.
Let’s try another exercise. If I hand you a pencil and ask you to write “I like big butts” on a napkin, you’ll probably look at me with a squinty single-eyebrow-raised suspicion, then hesitantly reach down and scrawl something witty, or at least less offensive. But for the general awkwardness of the situation, the mechanics of the operation would be fluid, natural, and effortless. For some dextrous individuals, it might even be graceful.
Now, for comparison, imagine I’ve attached a pencil to the tip of a computer mouse and asked you to write something equally inane. Still graceful?
Maybe you don’t find yourself handwriting bawdy messages in SolidWorks as frequently as I do, but the broader point is valid: pencils are shaped like pencils because that shape maximizes the fluid dexterity of the shoulder/elbow/hand/finger machine. Speed and precision are second nature with a stylus.
I don’t hate the computer mouse. It’s fine for short stints and has some really nice advantages in that it works on any surface, sits still on the table, and doesn’t have that penchant for disappearing that pens so often do. But when it comes to speed, precision, and comfort, a stylus is far superior.
I’m an industrial designer. I show up at a client meeting for a brainstorming session, and people are filing into the conference room. Well-dressed people around the table start pulling out moleskins, whiteboard markers, sticky notes, pens, and pencils. I pull out a sheet of butcher paper, a bowl of water, and start arranging tempera cakes in rainbow order across the top. “Um. What’s that?” “My finger paints.” “Oh.” Things go downhill from there.
Here’s a fact: finger painting, fun as it is, is not a generally accepted professional practice for industrial designers. And yet some people have a persistent belief that an iPad sans-stylus should be a perfectly acceptable drawing medium. That is absurd. Humans have been using sticks to draw things for thousands of years. If finger painting were better, why would we bother?
I do not finger paint in meetings, physically nor digitally. I sketch with tools.
Style me Stylus
So I use a stylus. And yes, I use it for CAD, MODO, Photoshop, web browsing, and everything else. For some reason when I tell CAD users that I use a Wacom tablet, they’re like “what? For CAD? How?” I’m not sure how to answer that question. It’s not any different from a mouse, really. You have a pen, and you touch it to things you want to click. The future!
Seriously, though, it’s just a three button mouse.
With these three buttons I can do anything any other three button mouse can do. The only exception is scrolling, which can be done using the touch wheel on the tablet itself.
Important: nib choice matters. The little plastic tip of a Wacom stylus is replaceable, and different kinds of nibs are available depending on user preference. I highly recommend replacing the default plastic nib with a hard felt nib (Amazon). This one small change can make a world of difference. The plastic nib is too slippery, and allows the pen to slide too easily across the surface. The felt nibs grip the surface a bit more, giving you much greater control and accuracy, and greatly decreasing accidental-drag problems.
By the way, if my gear looks a little battle worn, that’s only because I’ve been using it all day every day for eight years. I even travel with it in my backpack. Given the amount of abuse I’ve put it through, it’s in pretty great shape.
As with a mouse, I keep my right hand on the stylus and my left hand on either the SpaceMouse or keyboard as appropriate for a given application. I don’t typically use the extra buttons on the tablet, but I have friends who swear by them. The only feature of the tablet I use with any regularity is the scroll wheel.
And yes, you’re seeing my iMac in this image, because that’s what I’m using to write this post. But I have three other PCs in the office: a giant power tower, a mobile workstation, and a compact laptop. I use my Wacom tablets on all of them. In fact, I own two Wacom tablets: one for travel, and one for office use. I’m almost literally never without one.
Intuos vs. Cintiq vs Mobile Tablet
I think most people, on seeing a Cintiq for the first time, assume that it’s superior to the cheaper Intuos tablets in every way. Why draw on a separate tablet when you can draw directly on the monitor itself?
Speaking as someone who spent several years working with Cintiq monitors, let me count the reasons:
- Parallax. The tip of the pen is never exactly pixel-for-pixel accurate because of the distance between the glass and the underlying LCD. This makes high-precision work difficult to do on a Cintiq. It’s improved a lot in recent years, but it’s still inferior to the pixel-perfect accuracy I have with a separate pointing device.
- Occlusion. With a Cintiq, your drawing hand is in front of the screen, blocking the right half of your screen from view. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually a major humbug when driving a desktop CAD application, for example. Finding an icon and getting your pen onto it is surprisingly inconvenient when your arm is always in the way.
- Ergonomics. This is the big one. Spending all day hunched over a drafting board is physically exhausting work, and a Cintiq is no different. After a few hours of use, I found my neck and shoulder were tight and sore, and this problem persisted even after many months of practice. I found myself gradually favoring the Intuos tablet out of laziness.
- Cost. As I write this, the medium-sized Intuos Pro (the one I use) is $349. The cheapest 13″ Cintiq HD starts at $999, and that’s going to be a really small space for a decent CAD experience.
Mobile tablets like the iPad Pro or Cintiq Companion 2 are really great, but limiting. As a digital sketching tool, there’s nothing better. As a CAD tool? Not so much. The only exception is Onshape, which works great on a tablet in isolation, but I still prefer the desktop experience for the daily grind.
There are several difficulties with desktop stylus solutions.
First, you need a tablet. The stylus is small, but the tablet is considerably larger than a travel mouse. That means you need a backpack with enough space to carry it. That said, it’s smaller than most laptops, so if you’ve got a laptop bag, it can almost certainly fit a tablet as well.
Second, it’s easy to lose the stylus. I’ve lost a couple of them over the years, and they can be costly to replace.
Third, there is a significant learning curve. Learning to use a stylus on a tablet while looking at a secondary monitor is definitely a pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy kind of experience at first, and it will take at least a month or two to get the hang of it. It can take as much as a year to become really fluid and accurate.
Tips for CAD Users
The biggest problems you’ll face as a CAD user with a stylus are 1) the lack of a scroll wheel, and 2) the lack of a third button by default. The latter is an easy fix, as illustrated above: just map one of the rocker buttons to middle-mouse, and viola! Three button stylus. The lack of a scroll wheel is the biggest adjustment, and one without a rock solid solution.
One solution is to use the scroll pad on the side of the tablet. This works but requires you to move your hand away from the tablet. Inconvenient but workable. As a CAD user, however, you’re probably going to find it annoying.
A second solution is to use the keyboard modifiers for zooming in CAD. I use this method a lot. In SolidWorks, for example, shift+MMB zooms toward the most recent mouse location. In Rhino it’s alt+RMB. In MODO it’s alt+ctrl+LMB. Nearly every 3D tool on the market has a keyboard modifier for zoom (except Onshape, much as I’ve begged them for it), so this is my go-to solution.
The best solution, of course, is to use a 3D mouse. Left hand on the SpaceMouse, right hand on the stylus. Perfect. I can pan, zoom, and tumble using the left hand while dragging and tapping with the right. ‘Tis a thing of beauty.
The final say is up to you. I, for one, will never go back to the Land of the Mouse. After so many years driving a stylus, using a mouse feels ham-handed. I can point, click, drag, write, sketch, and model all with speed, fluidity, and pixel-perfect accuracy.
What do you think? Do you use a stylus at work? Why or why not? Would you try it?