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30-year-old technology struts its stuff beside today's state-of-the-art tablet computer
The overlay for the Apple Graphics Tablet provides a top row of function buttons that you can press with the stylus to issue software commands while drawing. Switching from straight lines to empty frames to solid boxes, changing colors and saving your work can be done with a simple tap.
On the iPad's home screen, a user-configurable row of application icons stays in the Dock at the bottom of the screen, offering a similar consistency for commands. Once a specific app is launched, these icons disappear, reappearing only when the hardware Home key is pressed.
When Apple launched the iPad earlier this year, it was the culmination of fans' long wait for the company to enter the tablet computer market. There's no doubt that Apple's iPad is a revolutionary computing device that's ushering in a new era of tablet computing.
But in 1979, an earlier generation of Apple users used a different kind of Apple tablet, back when the word meant something else entirely.
The Apple Graphics Tablet was designed by Summagraphics and sold by Apple Computer Inc. for the Apple II personal microcomputer. (Summagraphics also marketed the device for other platforms as the BitPad.) To be clear, this tablet was not a stand-alone computing device like the iPad. Instead, it was an input device for creating images on the Apple II's screen, and it predated the Apple II's mouse by six years.
Apple II fan Tony Diaz had an Apple Graphics Tablet on hand at last month's KansasFest, an annual convention for diehard Apple II users. He and Computerworld's Ken Gagne, the event's marketing director, compared and contrasted Apple's original tablet with the iPad, snapping photos as they went.
The Apple Graphics Tablet (left) was released in 1979 and cost $650. It connects to any Apple II and can be used to draw images at a resolution of 280 by 192 pixels. The tablet draws power directly from the Apple II and cannot be used when disconnected.
The Apple II was originally designed to be used with televisions rather than computer monitors, but the Apple Graphics Tablet produced interference that could disrupt reception of television signals. A later model was identical to its predecessor except for one notable new feature: FCC compliance.
The Apple iPad (right) was released in 2010 in six models ranging from $499 to $829. Equipped with a 1-GHz A4 system-on-a-chip and a 16GB, 32GB or 64GB flash drive, it syncs with any Macintosh or Windows machine capable of running iTunes and can run thousands of iOS applications. Its resolution is 1024 by 768 pixels on a 9.7-in. LED-backlit glossy widescreen display.
The graphics tablet was originally packaged with an interface card, a stylus, cables, a plastic overlay, a manual and software on a 5.25-in. floppy disk.
The iPad comes with a USB cable; a power adapter; an information card that shows some iPad basics such as where the switches are; a pamphlet of legal information, including the usual warnings about stupid things not to do with your iPad; and a page of white Apple stickers. Since the iPad requires a separate computer to configure, iTunes is not provided with the iPad.
The Apple Graphics Tablet measures 15.5 by 15.5 by 1 in. and weighs six pounds — bulky compared to the svelte iPad's 9.56 by 7.47 by 0.53 in. and 1.5 pounds. There were no official products with which to decorate the graphics tablet, whereas the iPad's bezel can sport one of any number of external skins.
KansasFest attendee Loren Damewood demonstrates each device's touch interface. The graphics tablet uses a stylus tethered to the interface card. A plastic overlay segments the tablet, much like graph paper does, to assist in drawing and to label specific functions. (There are more details about the interface card and overlay on subsequent pages.)
The iPad's capacitive touch screen neither requires nor supports peripherals, but it responds to multiple points of contact through the use of multifinger gestures.
The Apple Graphics Tablet requires the included expansion card to be installed in the Apple II. The tablet and the stylus then each connect to the card.
The iPad uses a standard USB cable to connect to a Mac or Windows machine and then syncs with iTunes 9.1 or later. For Internet access, some iPad models can use AT&T's 3G cellular service; all models are equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The Apple Graphics Tablet's software boots into this welcome screen. The iPad's start-up screen can be configured to any one of several default or custom displays; the pictured rain theme is included with the iPad.
Once the software is booted and configured, the Apple Graphics Tablet can serve its primary function: graphic design. It relays to the computer remarkably accurate representations of the user's drawings. The magazine name, circuit diagram and Apple logo shown above were hand-drawn using the Apple Graphics Tablet and stylus.
The iPad removes the gulf inherent to graphics tablets, which require you to draw on one surface to make an image appear on a separate screen. With the iPad, the drawing surface and screen are one. Although its multitouch interface is naturally conducive to finger-painting, it doesn't come with an application for doing so; however, the free app Draw does the job nicely.
The Apple Graphics Tablet comes with a 123-page manual that's roughly the same dimensions as the iPad's display. Note the image in the lower-left corner of the manual — is it foreshadowing the eventual release of Mac OS X and its "big cat" mascots?
The iPad's "manual" consists of little more than a postcard-size information sheet; further instructions are available online. With touch-screen gadgets far more commonplace today than the Apple Graphics Tablet ever was, the iPad's intuitive interface requires little explanation; few users will miss the paper manual.
Thanks to Mark Frischknecht and Computerworld's Ken Mingis for the loaned hardware.
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