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TUAW reviews the Axiotron ModBook


Axiotron's ModBook has been making a stir for a while, so we're pleased to have the opportunity to take it for a spin. In case you haven't seen it before, it's a MacBook that's been modified into a slate-style tablet computer, and it's stiff competition for any tablet PC (for many reasons, not the least of which is... it's a Mac). Photographer Peter Boysen worked with us (video after the jump) to put it through its paces as we considered the needs of the artists and designers who are Axiotron's primary demographic.

Read on for the rest of our review, and a video bonus.

For any type of work you would usually switch to a Wacom tablet for, the ModBook is a refreshing change from the standard pen and tablet. It's a true Wacom pen and screen surface, so it's very responsive and pressure sensitive. It's in the same price range as a Wacom Cintiq, but it's portable and is a full Mac in and of itself. The processing power -- which is (obviously) correlated with the speed of the MacBook from whence it came -- varies with the model you get, but is enough to handle most tasks.

We played with using Leopard Screen Sharing to do some memory-intensive Photoshop work remotely on a more capable system, with the ModBook serving as a sort of Cintiq-in-your-lap, but the cursor didn't always behave with the precision necessary for such work. Working directly on the ModBook, however, was accurate and enjoyable. And, graphic arts aside, it also happens to make a mean portable DVD player and movie viewer.

The ModBook is about the same thickness as the original MacBook. When they remove the MacBook's screen and replace it with the Penabled® Wacom surface, they maintain all of the original ports and the iSight, and they even throw in a GPS receiver. Geotagging aside, I still haven't figured out a truly useful application for that, but that's likely a lack of creativity on my part. It just seems a little large and unwieldy to replace a Garmin.

I wouldn't call it lightweight -- the GPS and magnesium alloy top-casing probably account for the extra half pound over the weight of a MacBook -- but it's certainly lighter and easier to carry than a 17" MacBook Pro and a Wacom tablet. You'll probably miss the extra power (and screen size) of the MBP, though. In other comparisons with the MacBook, the ModBook comes through the transformation pretty well. The heft does offer a certain reassurance as to its durability. And a fully charged battery on our test unit got about 3 hours of DVD play, which is less than an average MacBook benchmark but still workable.

The ModBook is, in my opinion, an auxillary computer. A built-in SuperDrive (in the top-level version) and non-recessed ports put it on a different level of expandability than the MacBook Air, but I still view it in a similar way: a portable companion to a design workstation. However, with the USB ports from the original MacBook still intact and the VESA locking points on the metal front of the ModBook, it can easily be transformed into a workstation with a keyboard and mouse. As good as you may be with a pen (admittedly, I'm not that skilled), it seems to me that anyone who's adept at Photoshop or Illustrator will probably miss their shortcut keys as much as I did. Keystrokes and applications can be added to a popup menu which can be assigned to any of the pen's buttons, but it still takes more work than hitting a key combination. Anyway, I couldn't possibly add every one of the shortcuts my muscles have memorized; the popup would go off the screen.

The ModBook has a Penabled® Wacom interface with 512 levels of sensitivity. As with any Wacom tablet, it allows you to have your hand resting right on the screen and only takes input from the pen itself, which is vital for doing any drawing or brushing. Keep in mind that Wacom's Intuos tablet has 1,024 levels of sensitivity and costs a third of the price (the ModBook starts at $2,279), so you have to really want to draw directly on your screen (note that the ModBook's sensitivity is double that of a typical tablet PC). Of course, then you have to consider portability; the Cintiq, a monitor you can draw on, will run you about the same price as a ModBook, but just try to take it to the coffeehouse.

We did run into one issue repeatedly: when waking from Sleep Mode, the cursor usually became unresponsive to the pen. Fixing the problem is a matter of holding the upper left button (Mod Button) until the LEDs shut off, and then (somewhat awkwardly) maneuvering the now-misaligned cursor to the "Pen Reset" icon on the Dock. That did the trick every time, but still an annoyance. In our short time testing the ModBook we didn't look too hard for a long-term solution for this, so one may exist.

Overall, we had fun with the ModBook. Its tablet functions are agile enough, at least for my own artistic endeavors, and it's powerful enough to handle a majority of graphics-related tasks. Plus -- and we consider it a major upside -- it's a Mac. Whether the convenience and portability is enough to justify the price jump from a good Wacom tablet... well, we'll leave that up to you. If you want to read further, there's more info at Axiotron's site (including numerous links to other reviews) and from Other World Computing (where it's available for purchase).

Gallery: Axiotron ModBook | 6 Photos

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