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"Wow, this is awesome!" That seems to be the informal, immediate response to the Wacom PL-400, a flat-panel, pressure-sensitive graphic input pad that doubles as a 13.3-inch computer screen. And that's before anyone even opened Photoshop or Freehand or Painter to begin to put this tool through its paces. What moves the PL-400 beyond the category of design fetish is the immediacy of the interface. The path from hand to mouse and mouse to screen has disappeared. So has the more traditional slate gray blank input tablet. Using the Ultrapen, a cordless stylus with 256 levels of pressure-sensitive control, users can see the graphics they create on the same screen. The interface is direct -- from hand to screen.

In terms of user interface, it is back to the basics. Now mouse movements can be replaced with the dexterity of the pen to create watercolor effects, light washes that build up layer by layer, rough layouts and sketches for icons and logos. According to Steve Debrun, former creative director at Rupert Murdoch's Australian Net properties, and currently a San Francisco-based hired gun, the PL-400 offers "incredibly fine control. Sketching on the computer is a whole new world," he raves. "For those who spent years learning to draw in art school, this will take them back to a more painterly, more physical experience." The PL-400 may become the first tool a computer artist reaches for. Unfortunately, you may have to reach deep into your bank account, too; technology like this doesn't come cheap. Currently the PL-400 carries a street price of $2,600. Check it out

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