First Look: ModBook

Ever since the Newton came—and went—in the 1990s, a small but vocal group of Mac users have clamored for a tablet Mac. At least to this point, Apple has shown no interest in getting into the tablet business. So it’s up to third parties to come up with a product that may finally determine the level of demand for a Mac tablet computer.

Axiotron and Other World Computing have teamed up to offer the first Mac tablet computer—which they’ve dubbed the ModBook. This pen-sensitive Mac comes without a keyboard or mouse; instead, special hardware and software allow you to control the tablet via a stylus. The ModBook won’t ship until April, but I got my hands on an early engineering sample, and, after using the tablet for a few days, I can share what I’ve learned.

My observations are based on a pre-production model—many electronic, software, and cosmetic changes can and will be made before the ModBook’s April release. However, the specs listed below are as they’ll be in the shipping version.

What it is

Simply put, the ModBook is a stock Apple MacBook that’s been given a radical makeover by Axiotron (and sold exclusively by OWC). As such, the guts of the system are basically the same as the MacBook. Each ModBook is built to order, so you’re buying a complete system. In other words, you won’t be able to buy a kit to make over your own MacBook into a tablet, and OWC won’t modify your current laptop into ModBook form.

For $2,279, you get a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor, GMA 950 graphics, 512MB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a 60GB 5400-rpm hard drive, a Combo Drive, Apple Remote, and AirPort and Bluetooth. A ModBook with a 2GHZ processor, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, a DVD-burning SuperDrive, and built-in WAAS-enabled GPS receiver bumps the price to $2,579. And $2,849 gets you the same 2GHz system, but with 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. (There’s also an introductory special for those who pre-reserve by February 1, 2007.) All systems include a one-year OWC warranty; you can purchase two additional years for $349 for the base model, and for the same $249 price as AppleCare for the other configurations. And you’ll be able to customize your ModBook just as you would when ordering a MacBook from Apple.

Considering that MacBooks equipped with 1.83GHz and 2GHz processors sell or $1,099 and $1,299 respectively, what does that extra grand or so get you? A completely remodeled computer that goes from this…

Macbook

…to this:

modbook

Axiotron removes the top of the MacBook—including the display—and replaces it with a bezel made of an aircraft-grade magnesium alloy (it has a silver, MacBook Pro look to it). In place of the MacBook’s LCD screen goes a new display with the same 13.3-inch size and 1,280-by-800 pixel resolution as the original. But there are several key differences between the displays. The Axiotron ForceGlass covering the ModBook’s display is chemically strengthened and etched to improve longevity, scratch resistance, writing sensation, and reflection problems. The new screen has a 500-to-1 contrast ratio versus 400-to-1 on the MacBook, and it features a wider viewing angle than the MacBook.

Even with this rejiggering, the ModBook weighs in at 5.2 pounds—the same as the MacBook. The tablet is about .08 inches thicker than its laptop counterpart. Since the bottom half of the ModBook is a MacBook, the ports are the same. The ModBook has a MagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet port, Mini-DVI output connector, one FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, combined optical digital audio input/audio line in, combined optical digital audio output/headphone out, built-in speakers, and a security slot.

Even though there’s no cover for the screen, it seems sturdy and strong, but you’ll probably want to get a sleeve for it. On the preproduction model I used, I couldn’t rotate the image on the ModBook’s display from landscape to portrait mode—Apple’s built-in hardware supports screen rotation for external displays, but not internal ones. But Axiotron is working on a software patch that should remedy the situation by the time the ModBook ships.

What lies beneath

As notable as the revamped display may be, the magic happens underneath where Axiotron has mounted a Wacom Penabled Technology sensor. The sensor has a resolution 20 times that of the display with positioning updated 133 times per second; it features 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. (In contrast, Wacom’s high-end Cintiq tablets have 1,024 levels of sensitivity and up to 1,600-by-1,200 pixels of resolution in a 21-inch display). It’s this sensor that really makes the ModBook a tablet Mac.

The ModBook includes a pen (stylus) that is powered by the tablet’s digitizer board—it doesn’t require a battery of its own, and only “activates” when you bring it within an inch or so of the display. The pen has two programmable side buttons and an “eraser” on the back, and the bottom left of the ModBook has a slot for holding the pen when not in use. Placing the pen in the slot turns the digitizer board off to prolong battery life (although it doesn’t put the ModBook to sleep). Other Wacom pens should work with the ModBook, provided they’re using the same technology as the ModBook stylus. (Not all Wacom pens do.)

Also under the hood and out of sight is the ModBook Controller Board, which is like the motherboard for the ModBook section of the computer. It uses USB 2.0 as its internal system bus and as its interface with the MacBook itself. It controls power management and ties together the ModBook’s components with the functions of the underlying MacBook.

Front and center

During the mod process, Axiotron doesn’t discard the MacBook’s built-in iSight camera when removing the top of the MacBook. Instead, the company integrates it into the design by installing it in the same center-mounted location as Apple does. The front of the ModBook features two buttons at the far left—the ModKey, which will reset the ModBook Controller Board without the need to restart the computer, and the power key, which works like the power button on the MacBook.

Next to those buttons, you’ll find three color status indicator lights: a green light on top for the digitizer board brightens when it detects the pen; the middle (blue now, though it may be yellow on the final version) shows that the ModBook Controller Board is working; and the bottom red light shows the status of the GPS module.

That’s right—some ModBooks models will include an internal Global Positioning System (GPS) module. A menu item displays longitude and latitude. Because the ModBook’s internal module uses standard protocols, it will also work with software such as RouteBuddy ($100) and MacGPSPro ($50). And Axiotron told me it should also work with any Windows GPS software running on ModBooks that use Apple’s Boot Camp to install Windows. Because of the GPS module, and the fact that the ModBook’s metal case blocks wireless signals, the top of the case has two areas in matching MacBook plastic, underneath which Axiotron places an array of antennae for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and—on models that include the module—GPS.

Using it

As the owner of a white MacBook Core Duo/2GHz, my few days with the ModBook felt strangely familiar and also just strange. The simple act of carrying it around, cradled in my arm like a baby, felt quite different from walking around with my MacBook resting on my palm. Yet at the same time, the ModBook’s weight and size felt right in my hands. The tablet definitely got pretty warm with use, but no more so than my regular laptop.

I’m not a tablet PC user (they’re PCs, after all), so I can’t directly compare the ModBook to the Windows-based products out there. But I can share my experiences as a user of the product on which the ModBook is built. (To see a video of me using the ModBook, click here.)

A new twist on typing

One way to input text in the ModBook is to use the Ink handwriting recognition technology built into OS X—here’s the Ink preferences pane.

The most obvious difference between the ModBook and a standard MacBook is the way you input information into the computer. There’s no physical keyboard; unlike with some tablet PCs, the screen does not flip over to reveal a keyboard. So all typing, navigation, and other input must be done using the pen. The screen isn’t touch sensitive, so you can rest your hand on it while using the pen without affecting anything, but that also means the ModBook is useless without the pen. (Replacement pens will be available, though pricing hasn’t been set yet.)

Of course, at its core, this tablet remains a MacBook. So if you want a keyboard and mouse, you can plug your input devices into one of the USB ports on the side or use the ModBook’s built-in Bluetooth technology to connect wireless input devices. I can easily envision a setup where the ModBook acts almost like an all-in-one iMac at home or at work, with only a keyboard and mouse on the desk next to a mounted ModBook, and then becomes a free roaming tablet for road trips.

But how does data input work if you turn to the stylus? There are two ways: handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard.

The ModBook’s Write Anywhere feature lets you start writing on the screen—when you pause, whatever you input gets sent to the active application.

The handwriting capability draws upon the handwriting recognition technology built into OS X: Inkwell. It works in two ways. You can bring up a window in which you write using the pen (either by choosing Show Ink Window from Ink’s menu-bar item or selecting Show Ink Window in the Ink preference pane). After you’re done writing, you can wait for your scribbles to be translated, correct anything that didn’t translate properly, and click on Send to transfer it over to the active application. I found this method easier than the other approach, the Write Anywhere feature (activated in the menu-bar item or with the Allow Me To Ink In Any Application option in the Ink preferences). Write Anywhere lets you start writing on the screen; when it senses a pause, it sends the input to whatever app you’re in. Write Anywhere doesn’t confine you to writing in a specific window, but it doesn’t give you the same ability to fix up your text before transferring it to the active application.

To make things easier, the Gestures tab of Ink’s preferences gives you shortcuts for Cut, Copy, Paste, Tab, Space, Return, Delete, and other commands. These gestures are odd squiggles, but tapping on one displays an animation of drawing it out so at least you can see how a gesture works.

In the Ink preferences pane, a Gestures tab shows you how to make commands with the built-in handwriting recognition technology.

You can also input text through an on-screen keyboard such as OS X’s built-in Keyboard Viewer. Although tapping out sentences one letter at a time is more cell phone than computer, I achieved more accurate typing than I did with the ModBook’s handwriting recognition, which made for faster overall input. And there are third-party virtual keyboards that make data entry even easier. AssistiveWare’s $59 TouchStrokes and $299 KeyStrokes were both loaded on my test unit, and they offer many improvements over Keyboard Viewer (notably, customization and word prediction). It isn’t clear yet whether either of these apps will ship on the ModBook, but Axiotron told me it does plan to bundle some software with the final product, so a better virtual keyboard isn’t out of the question.

Having external input devices may be a useful crutch for users acclimating themselves to a ModBook. Keeping in mind the fact that my unit isn’t ready to ship yet, I had a hard time accurately typing in the short time I had to play with the ModBook. I’m sure with more practice, I’d get better, but it’s a major transition. Using it reminded me a bit of Palm OS-based PDAs, with their handwriting recognition and virtual keyboard.

Where it shines

After a few days using a ModBook, the idea of writing lengthy e-mails or Word documents is still daunting. In time, I could see myself getting used to such a device, but it’s worth pointing out that extensive text-entry isn’t what the ModBook is intended for. Rather, this is a device aimed squarely at creative pursuits.

Using the pen in Photoshop and other graphics apps was much more pleasurable than scribbling down words into a text editor. Anyone who uses a graphics tablet with such apps should have little trouble adapting to the ModBook. And that’s really who’ll enjoy this product the most—this is definitely not a Mac for everyone.

Watching a DVD was a joy. With the screen taking up most of the front surface, it was like watching on a portable, detached LCD display. I was able to balance the ModBook on my desk and sit back and watch. That’s not an ideal setup, obviously, but it’s worth noting that Axiotron has built several mounting points into the shell for use with future add-ons. (At Macworld Expo, display units were attached to a VESA-compatible Kiosk Mount. Axiotron is also working on a Desktop Mount with a quick release to install on a VESA arm and a Travel Mount with a fold-out stand to prop up the ModBook on a desk or mount it to the back of a seat; a Tabletop Easel similar to Cintiq stands is in the planning stages.)

For DVD watching, the screen was bright and crisp. Because the speakers no longer have to bounce their output off the MacBook’s screen, I found the sound to be quite good. The viewing angle when moving my head side to side was also good, but I wasn’t as impressed with the vertical viewing angle’s color and contrast shifts.

The last word

The ModBook is not designed for the masses, but that’s precisely why Apple hasn’t made a tablet Mac. Because each ModBook is assembled when ordered, Axiotron can provide a product we’re not likely to see from anywhere else. And those who buy one with its strengths and limitations in mind will have the unique experience of running OS X on a Mac like nothing ever made by Apple.

[ Jonathan Seff is senior news editor for Macworld . ]

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