In a world where so much written information is being created and transmitted in digital form, is there still room for pen and paper? Wacom seems to believe so, and its Bamboo Spark (product page here) device is its latest attempt to create a product to bridge the digital and analog divide.
Wacom is best known for its graphics tablet technology, which powers devices such as the Cintiq tablet and Intuos Pro, which are used by professional graphic artists and animators. The Bamboo Spark is the latest in a line of devices that Wacom hopes to meet note takers, educators and students – ideators who are moving quickly and want to collaborate, shape and share their work seamlessly.
To see how well the Bamboo Spark stacked up to its predecessors and gain some first impressions of the device, I interviewed Henry Wong, Wacom’s Senior Global Product Manager, and got a chance to try the Bamboo Spark for myself.
Wong says Wacom’s target market for the Bamboo Spark includes note takers and passionate hobbyists who prefer the tactile experience of writing on paper. The design of the product and the decision to incorporate a real ink pen was informed by consumer studies showing that most people prefer to write and make their ideations on paper. Wacom aims to take that idea a step further by allowing users to take their analog creations and turn them into a digital format for later use.
At a modest 8.1 by 10 inches, the Bamboo Spark folio looks like an ordinary planner or notebook. When opened, the “smart folio” reveals a pocket for storing your phone or tablet (a snap-case version for the iPad Air 2 is also available), a pen, and a sensor area with enough space to accommodate a A5-sized memo pad. Wacom provides a 30-page notepad, but in theory any piece of paper can be placed over the sensor and the system should work similarly.
The basic workflow is straightforward: using the provided pen, users can write or doodle to their heart’s content on a paper set over the sensor, which is an Electro-Magnetic Resonance (EMR) board that communicates with sensors in the pen to record the user’s writing accurately. Once they’re finished taking notes, the press of a button sends a digital version of their notes via Bluetooth to the Bamboo Spark app (available for iOS and Android) on their smart device.
Even without an active Bluetooth pairing, the Spark can store up to 100 pages of notes in its memory. The Bamboo Spark app itself is mostly for storing and converting files transferred from the deviee to JPG, PDF and WILL (Wacom Ink Layer Language) formats. They can be emailed to others or exported to the Wacom Cloud, where they can then be shared or stored through Evernote, Dropbox, or the Bamboo Paper app.
Use and Features
I was most interested in how it would feel to write with Wacom’s provided pen. The round, smooth barrel is a bit bulky, but I found it handled well, although it began to feel a little heavy after prolonged use. Because of the pen’s proprietary technology, users must rely on Wacom’s provided pen and refillable ink cartridges to work with the device.
There are currently no customization or variation options in nib width, grip, or the pen’s casing. If Wacom hopes to attract its target market by providing a tactile experience to connect analog to digital, this is a detail that cannot be overlooked, particularly as users often have individual preferences for the look and feel of the tool they are using.
The EMR technology works well, and captures fine detail in writing that can then be expanded to different sizes in the Bamboo Spark app. Wacom’s official requirements call for notepads that are about 50 pages thick, or under 5mm (less than .2 of an inch), for the system to work correctly. Any thicker, and the EMR sensor has difficulty picking up more sensitive details unless a significant amount of pressure is exerted — the Bamboo Spark app dropped a few of my pen strokes, leaving some blank spaces.
The A5 pad size is comfortable, but with only one size available and the limit on paper thickness, prodigious note takers might find themselves having to carry extra pads of paper around to keep up with their writing. On the other hand, the Bamboo Spark does not require special paper to be used. In a pinch, even a napkin can be used to jot down ideas.
For users looking for a smooth workflow, the host of apps around the Bamboo Spark and the need to shuffle files from one app to another may be awkward to navigate. For example, if you wanted to draw something on Bamboo Spark and add color, you’d have to open the image in the Bamboo Spark app, upload it to the Wacom Cloud and then open it in the Bamboo Paper app. Wong explained that the Spark is intended to serve as a gateway to Wacom’s host of other graphic devices and software. Designers will enjoy features of the app, such as a recording of pen strokes that allows users to scroll through their sketches to review individual pen strokes and export an image at any point in the process. Still, it’s hard to see why Wacom’s existing Bamboo Paper app couldn’t allow direct integration with the Spark.
By far the Bamboo Spark’s least attractive feature is its price, given the other alternative products available on the market. At $159.95, it seems a steep price to pay for a product with little in the way of customization, especially for someone who is not already an invested Wacom user.
Functionally, the Bamboo Spark successfully delivers on what it promises, but the lack of customization options and compelling software to accompany the device make the high price point difficult to justify. However, there are users who will find its portability, syncing capabilities, and tactile experience a beneficial addition to their creative and collaborative process.
Users who prize the tactile experience of longhand writing and analog sketching will likely desire more more customization options, while those looking for more efficiency in their workflow might want more stripped-down models with a focus on the software support side. If Wacom chooses to create more options for the Spark in the future, it may have broader appeal. For now, the Spark seems to straddle the line between utilitarianism and luxury.
Flip the Media was provided with the opportunity to review the Bamboo Spark in exchange for our fair and honest review of the product.