Modbook tablet has promise, but limited appeal

Axiotron's Modbook is a really cool portable computer that I would likely never buy.

I say that having spent two weeks with the Modbook, which is basically an Apple MacBook that's been converted into a tablet PC for designers or those who need a slate-style tablet in the field. Real estate agents, insurance adjusters, college students, health care professionals and even mariners could conceivably cart one of these Modbooks out and about with them. (It also has optional GPS capabilities.) But I'm not sure Mac users accustomed to Apple's hardware will be ready for the compromises inherent in the Modbook.

Microsoft's Bill Gates has been touting tablet PCs as the next big thing in computing for years. In fact, back in 2002, he predicted that within five years, tablet PCs would be what most people were using. But the market for the devices has remained relatively small, even as the popularity of laptops and other portable computers has risen sharply. And while the Modbook now gives Mac users a chance to try out their own OS X-based tablet, I don't think the overall trend is going to change anytime soon.

I've personally always thought of tablet PCs as being somewhat unwieldy. Having spent some time with the Modbook, I haven't changed my mind ? though I'm willing to admit that for the right user, this could be a handy device.

The hardware

The Modbook concept was first unveiled at Macworld 2007, but it suffered a series of delays reaching the market and only began shipping early this year. Apple has authorized Axiotron to make the modifications necessary, a partnership that means Modbooks reflect the latest hardware available in the MacBook. (Apple itself has never announced plans to build a tablet Mac, though fans of the company's hardware keep hoping.)

The Modbook starts off life as a stock MacBook running Mac OS X 10. 5 Leopard. The one loaned to Computerworld from Axiotron is a 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook with a 120GB hard drive and a 13-in. LCD offering 1280-by-800 pixel resolution -- in other words, a MacBook you can pick up at any Apple Store, although Axiotron stuffed this one with 4GB of RAM.

All of the original ports and wireless options available on the MacBook remain, as does an iSight camera. That means it still has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can use the Modbook with a wireless keyboard and mouse -- though that would defeat the tablet's purpose of needing no peripheral input devices.

The interior frame has been strengthened with aircraft-grade magnesium alloy, and the exterior case modified with triple-plated magnesium. The overall feel is that of a MacBook that has been ruggedized to the extreme. It might be easier to drop because of its heft, but the Modbook feels like it would resist damage more than a MacBook if you did drop it.

A touchy display

If you were to take the LCD off a new MacBook, flip it around so that the screen faces up and glue the two pieces together, you'd have a rough idea what the Modbook looks like. Axiotron replaces the LCD screen with its own after-market version that is built with the Wacom Penabled tablet technology, including a penlike stylus for moving the cursor around.

The 500:1 contrast screen is supposed to be marginally brighter than a stock screen. The ForceGlass display is coated with an antireflective coating and is acid-treated to provide what Axiotron calls an "etched paper-like surface." What that means is that the screen looks like the flat, nonreflective laptop screens used by Apple until it introduced glossy screens two years ago. Your mileage may vary -- I found it somewhat dim in bright light, and the angle of viewing wasn't always good, depending on how I was holding the Modbook.

Although the screen is pen-sensitive, it's not touch-sensitive, meaning you're not going to be able to interact with the Modbook as you would using the touch screen on an iPhone. No two-finger swipes here. To do anything with the Modbook, you have to use the stylus, which slides neatly into a slot at the base of the device to keep it handy. The power button has been relocated from its traditional place on the MacBook to the upper left-hand corner of the Modbook, next to a second button that turns the GPS on and off. Three blue LED lights indicate that the power is on; one of them glows orange when the GPS is enabled.

The pen offers 512 levels of pressure sensitivity, which should be a boon for creative types looking to do digital artwork, and moves the on-screen cursor pretty much as a mouse would. The pen can be used to drag and drop icons, launch programs, make menu selections and draw designs using third-party applications like Adobe Photoshop and CorelDraw. For handwriting recognition, the Modbook relies on Apple's built-in Ink application; "typing" is done with a virtual keyboard that floats in a translucent window on the screen.

Writing and typing

However, this is not a portable you should plan to use to write your own version of War and Peace. I found Ink to be more an exercise in frustration than a truly useful writing tool. My handwriting is not good, but it's not wholly illegible either. However, when writing the word Computerworld , it took four tries before Ink got it right.

No doubt with Ink, practice makes better, if not perfect. But the handwriting-recognition software doesn't work well enough that I'd want to rely on it all the time. The alternative is the Quickclicks virtual keyboard. Using the pen to tap out messages letter by letter with the Quickclicks keyboard is a fine way to fire off a short e-mail or two, or to take notes while cradling the Modbook in your arm. But if you're going to be doing a lot of writing or tapping, this method gets tiresome quickly.

That may be why Axiotron doesn't pitch its device as a writing tablet. It's designed more for graphical design use. Given the screen sensitivity, pressing down harder on the pen makes for a more solid line when using something like Photoshop or CorelDraw. (The "nub" of the stylus acts as an eraser, and works well.) Using Photoshop is a snap. And having used one of the Wacom tablets for drawing several years ago when they first came out, I can say that drawing on the Modbook is better.

Before, people who used a stylus to draw digitally had to plug in a tablet to their computer and draw on the tablet while watching what they were doing on-screen, requiring more hand-eye coordination. The Modbook makes things a lot easier -- with the stylus/pen in your hand, you touch the tip of the pen to the screen and "draw" on the screen. It's like drawing with a crayon on a piece of paper, only digital. Although there is a slight lag between where you move the pointer and how quickly the cursor moves on-screen, it's not a big problem.

For more traditional laptop tasks, the Modbook does fine. Remember, it is running Mac OS X, after all. Surfing the Web, launching applications and using iChat for Web-based chats work as expected. If you're texting someone in a chat window, the virtual keyboard works fine. And the embedded iSight camera could be a selling point for those who might be using the Modbook in the field.

I suggested to my partner, a real estate agent, that the Modbook might be useful when evaluating properties. He could easily snap pictures with the iSight and then e-mail them from field -- as long as there was a Wi-Fi connection nearby. However, he pooh-poohed it. Pictures can be sent from his cell phone, he said, and the Modbook's weight would be a hindrance.

Too mod?

As unique as the Modbook is, it isn't without issues, some of which might be showstoppers. A few times when I turned it on, the cursor froze on the screen once OS X was up and running; I had to reboot the machine.

The opacity of the Quickclicks keyboard can be changed so that it brightens on-screen when the cursor is nearby -- making it easier to tap virtual keys -- and then dims when the cursor moves away, so you can better see other windows. The keyboard can also be minimized so that it moves to the Dock, keeping it out of the way until needed. Somehow while using the Modbook, I managed to lose the virtual keyboard a few times. I don't know if I accidentally turned the opacity all the way down, but clicking the menu bar icon for the keyboard brought it back on-screen.

I also found that the screen seemed dimmer than I'm used to with Macs, although, to be fair, anything pales in comparison to the MacBook Air I now use regularly. The dimmer screen could be an issue for users working with a Modbook outside in direct sunlight.

My biggest concern -- aside from the handwriting-recognition issues mentioned above -- is the Modbook's weight. I've gotten used to my 3-lb. MacBook Air since I bought it two months ago, and this thing felt like a lead brick when I first picked it up. It's actually not; it only weighs about a half-pound more than a MacBook, putting it at about 5.2 lb. But given the small form factor, the Modbook feels heavier than it is. If you're going to be carrying it around all day, start pumping iron now; your biceps will thank you.

In an Ars Technica interview during Macworld 2008, Axiotron CEO Andreas Haas was asked whether the company would ever make a Modbook based on the then recently introduced MacBook Air. Haas, who once worked at Apple, said Axiotron is looking into it. If at all possible, I'd recommend they try.

Although the Modbook is undoubtedly a cool concept, the reality for day-to-day use makes it a device aimed at a few narrow niche markets. This, I suspect, is why Apple hasn't come up with its own tablet, despite rumors for years that just such a device is around the corner. And clearly, handwriting technology still has a way to go before becoming truly useful.

However, if you need a slate-style tablet that allows you to write or draw on the screen, the Modbook is about your only choice in the Apple universe. It appears to be well built, offers a unique feature set, comes with a one-year warranty and is based around Apple's solid operating system. Prices start at US$2,279, which is almost $1,000 more than a similar MacBook would cost.

You can also customize the Modbook with more memory and a bigger hard drive -- and you can even have Axiotron replace the optical drive with a second hard drive. Maxing out the configuration with those add-ons pushes the price just north of $3,000.

For that price, you could buy two MacBooks and a Garmin GPS. Ouch.

This story, "Modbook tablet has promise, but limited appeal" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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