Our computers have become indispensable creation tools, but let's face it: The decades-old keyboard-and-mouse combo aren't the best way to edit video, draw or play music. That's where the Sensel Morph comes in. It's a pressure-sensitive touchpad that lets you swap in multiple overlays and instantly switch gears between video editing, painting, music creation, gaming, coding and other tasks.
There are already a number of media controllers out there, and I've tested a couple, including the Palette Gear and the Loupedeck. But after using the Sensel Morph for a couple of days, I have to say that it really stands out from the pack. It's the most clever and versatile device I've tested, and though it's a bit expensive at $299, plus more for extra overlays, it's worth it for artists, musicians and editors, especially if you wear more than one of those hats.
Versatile enough for lots of different artistic tasks
Lightweight and physically tough
Overlays have a nice feel
A bit expensive and niche
Battery life is not great in Bluetooth mode
The Sensel Morph is a pressure sensitive touchpad with silicone rubber overlays that gives musicians, graphic artists, video editors and others much better control of their work. The design and wide variety of overlays makes it much more useful than rival products like the Palette Gear and Loupedeck. It’s lightweight, yet well-built and nice to use and has incredible pressure sensitivity, making it great as a Wacom-type drawing tablet. While it’s a bit expensive and has limited battery life in wireless mode, it’s the most useful control surface I’ve tried so far.
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The Sensel Morph started on Kickstarter and picked up nearly $450,000 from backers. Unlike many other crowdfunding companies, though, Sensel is serious and appears to have fulfilled all the orders to date. It's easy to see why: The Morph looks a lot more professional than the average crowdfunded product. A lot of thought has gone into it, in terms of the industrial design and the software behind it.
It has no dials, sliders or buttons like the aforementioned Loupedeck and Palette Gear. Rather, it's just a base unit that resembles a large trackpad, along with interchangeable overlays. Built from aluminum with a durable plastic pressure-sensing base, it's about the size of an iPad Mini and weighs 400 grams, or 0.88 pounds. Yet it feels reassuringly solid and rugged enough to work with on the road.
At the top right, there's an LED that changes color to show power, Bluetooth connections and other settings. Just below the metal header is a strip of 24 LEDs that light up in white when you remove and add an overlay. They also light up next to the piano key or drum you're striking on those corresponding overlays.
Because the Morph works via pressure, rather than conductivity like a smartphone, it can detect paintbrushes and any other objects, not just your finger. It supports 16 contact points, has a 6,500 DPI resolution and can detect forces between 5 and 5,000 grams (0.2 ounces and 11 pounds) with an incredible 32,000 levels.
The overlays are made from a silicone rubber material, with a silicone top surface that feels nicely soft to the touch. (They're very easy to clean, too.) Installing them couldn't be easier, as you just place them on the plastic pad and they lock into place magnetically. (The magnet placements also tell the system which overlay you're using). Most of the "buttons" are just molded, inert silicone, though the keyboard keys do move a bit.
To set up the Sensel Morph, you just plug the USB cable into your PC or Mac, or connect it via Bluetooth to your Android or iOS device. Once installed, certain apps like Adobe Premiere will instantly recognize it without a hassle.
On a PC or Mac, you'll also want to install the Sensel app so that you can tweak any settings. You can create as many custom templates as you want for each overlay, then load them via the Sensel app.
Compared to other devices like the Palette Gear and the Loupedeck, it was both easier to set up and more useful right out of the box, requiring very little customization. By contrast, it took me a couple of tries and some considerable work afterward to get the other products working.
If you do want to tweak things, though, that's also not too hard. You just drop the overlay onto the trackpad, open the Sensel app and click on the overlay when it pops up. From there, you can map each Sensel key to whichever app command you want.
I edited commercials in a past life, so to start with, I checked out the video-editing overlay. As I mentioned, the Morph doesn't have physical buttons, but the overlay controls are very responsive, so you need a light touch. Once you're used to that, it's easy to scrub through clips and edits to find the exact frame you need. It contains nearly every function I use, including scrubbing, tool selection and editing-mode selection.
I'm pretty efficient on Adobe Premiere with a mouse and keyboard. What I hate, though, is editing on a laptop with just the trackpad and no mouse -- clicking and dragging clips or scrolling through footage is just too painful. So I could see myself using the Morph instead of a mouse, especially when I'm on the road, to make editing on the go easier.
A musician I'm not, but it seems just as easy to use the Sensel Morph with the piano, music production or drum overlays, and the software includes a music-production app called Arturia Analog Lite. The extremely fine pressure sensitivity is a godsend for piano or keyboard players, as you can control things like pitch or dynamics to a tee. As mentioned, it's pretty tough, so you can really beat on it with drumsticks, as Sensel's video (below) clearly shows.
The Sensel Morph shines for graphic artists and painters. It transforms instantly into a Wacom-like stylus, and with a few tweaks to Photoshop, you can use a physical paintbrush directly on the base unit. As it detects shapes and pressure, when you turn the brush sideways or press harder, it creates strokes that match what you've done. However, artists might have to tweak the settings to get the pressure and sensitivity just the way they want.
You can also put a piece of paper on it and draw with a pen or pencil, knowing that your scribbles will be recorded digitally. It works pretty well, but you won't get the same kind of precision you do with a professional stylus.
Gamers get an overlay with a standard controller setup and touchpad in the middle. It's a bit awkward but could be nice if you really, really hate gaming with a keyboard. I tested it with games like Witcher 3 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. It behaves a standard USB Windows controller, so your best bet is to go into Big Picture mode in Steam and set the key mapping the way you want. Most games should work with it after you do that.
It's not as good as a real controller, of course -- there's no tactile feedback, and it takes a bit of practice to figure out the right pressure. But it's certainly easier than trying to remember which keyboard command does what. It also comes with some extensions that could help out game designers.
There are other overlays for designers and developers, including an innovator's overlay that lets you design your own Morph interface, and makers can even connect it to an Arduino board with the included cable.
For writers, there's a choice of several keyboards (complete with a mini-touchpad), including a Dvorak model, should you fancy trying that out. Unlike the other overlays, the silicone keypads have a bit of movement and even a slight haptic "click." While the layouts are cramped, they would come in very handy on the road with a mobile device -- I could even type up articles on a smartphone.
I had a lot of fun with Sensel's Morph. It's a highly unusual product but brilliantly executed. It's incredibly well-designed for a Kickstarter product. The potential uses for it are so deep that I could only really scratch the surface during my testing.
It isn't perfect. Battery life in Bluetooth mode isn't great, and it takes a while to get used to the touch sensitivity. The price is also an issue -- for $300 with a single overlay and $35 for additional ones, it's not exactly an impulse buy. It's also hard to say whether Sensel can translate the great design into great sales and corporate stability, given that there's not a huge market for this kind of thing.
But I've been using it a lot and even learned it well enough to edit the video that accompanies this article. It's a lightweight, solid device, so I could see myself taking it on the road rather than bringing a mouse. Considering the solid design, and how seamless it was to set up and use, I can't help but think that the company behind it is serious and competent.
Because it's aimed at artists, the price is probably doable for a lot of folks who make their living editing, painting or cutting video. Still, it would be nice if Sensel could cut the price at least $50. All told, though, the Morph is a very cool, versatile and useful product, especially if you dabble in more than one creative endeavor.