First Look: ModBook

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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