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If it looks like a pen and moves like a pen, it must be a mouse

Everyone knows that Cross makes pens. Recently, Cross entered the computing world when it introduced three new product lines: the DigitalWriter line of styluses for pen-based computers; the CrossPad, a revolutionary paper and digital writing pad; and the iPen, a digital tablet that serves as an annotation tool or drawing tablet.

The iPen includes a tablet and a cordless stylus that runs on one AAAA battery. The tablet contains a 5" * 7" pad and attaches to your computer via a standard serial port. The stylus and tablet have an executive look--the stylus is black and gold and looks like a real pen, and the tablet has a black frame around a gray pad. The product has an interesting problem: The stylus looks so much like a real pen that I kept picking it up and trying to write with it.

The iPen package includes drivers and additional software for Windows NT and Windows 95 environments. I had trouble getting the NT iPen driver to work until I logged on as the local machine administrator and then installed it (even though my domain user is a local administrator). I suggest that Cross fix this problem or document the requirement. After I installed the driver, I waved the stylus over the tablet pad, and the onscreen cursor faithfully followed the pen's movement.

The stylus communicates with the tablet via radio frequency (RF) transmission, and the tablet relays the positioning information to the computer. To left-click an object or menu option, you press the stylus tip to the pad. The tip has a slight give to it (as if it's spring loaded), which provides natural tactile feedback. This tip design is superior to designs that force you to tap the stylus tip on the pad. Left-clicking feels natural, but right-clicking is a struggle. To right-click an object, you press a button on the side of the stylus and then press the tip to the pad. Right-clicking sounds easy, but I had to practice the technique to perfect it.

One feature I like is iPen's ability to coexist with other pointing devices. You can run a mouse and the iPen on a desktop system, or your can run the iPen on a laptop and use the integrated pointing system (e.g., stick or touch pad). When I tested the iPen, I disconnected my mouse and used only the iPen. Overall, I found the iPen to be an excellent replacement for a conventional mouse.

I dislike two of the iPen's features: its sleep mode and its inability to turn off a screen saver. The sleep mode activates when you don't use the stylus for 3 minutes; the stylus turns off to conserve battery power. Conserving power is a good idea, but to reactivate the stylus, you must tap the stylus on the pad. I found the sleep and wake cycle annoying. The second iPen feature I dislike is subtle. NT does not consider the iPen a mouse. Therefore, NT can't detect stylus movement to terminate a running screen saver. Consider this: You come back to your desk after a meeting and your screen saver is running. You pick up the stylus--nothing happens. You tap the stylus to reactivate it--nothing happens. Then you remember the iPen doesn't affect the screen saver so you press Shift to end the screen saver. Annoying.

Cross includes software that lets you use the iPen for annotation. One program is Cross All-Write. Cross All-Write configures a printer definition on your system. When you print to the configured printer, the Cross All-Write program launches and opens the document you printed. You can then draw on, mark up, highlight, or make comments on the document. When you finish, you save the document in a self-viewable file and forward the file to someone. Pretty cool.

Less cool is the Word 97 extension. This extension lets you use the iPen to annotate live Word documents. The problem is that only those people who have the Word 97 extension installed can view the annotations. The extension slows Word's start-up, which is already slow enough for my taste. I don't recommend using the extension.

The iPen is a mix of good and bad. If Cross improves the iPen's software, the company will have an outstanding product. For now, the good features only slightly outweigh the bad.

Contact: Cross Pen Computing Group * 800-510-9660
Price: $99.95
System Requirements: Windows NT or Windows 95, 486DX4/100 or higher processor, 20MB hard disk space, 16MB RAM (32MB recommended), Mouse, One available 9-pin COM port
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