My New Modbook

Modbook

Update: Some of the information in this article, particularly the known bugs and some of the specs, is outdated. There is more current info in my other blog post Is It Time to Buy a Modbook?

Update 2: My most recent thoughts about the Modbook are here.

I recently bought a Modbook. Since a lot of you readers are digital painters, I have decided to post my review here. Here is everything you need to know, and probably more than you want to know, about this device.




What is a Modbook?

It is a tablet computer made from a MacBook. It was created by a company called Axiotron and is currently being sold by the online reseller Other World Computing (and in Canada by Carbon Computing).

This is what it looks like:

Modbook Modbook1 1 Modbook

It is a slate-style computer; the bottom half is taken from the MacBook and remains completely intact. The top half, replacing the keyboard and screen, contains a new display and a Wacom digitizer.

The result? A Cintiq-like interface that allows you to draw directly on the screen in a form that is as portable as a laptop.

Features

    Hardware:

    The Modbook comes with the same basic specs and options that the MacBook does on Apple’s site. All the ports on the side are identical to the MacBook’s. The size and weight are only slightly thicker and heavier than a MacBook – not enough to really notice, in my opinion.

    Modbook Modbook Modbook

    In addition, OWC offers bigger and faster hard drives; you can get up to 320 GB of space (only 250 GB is available from Apple), or you can replace the CD/DVD drive with a second drive.

    The tablet has 512 levels of pressure sensitivity and is covered by chemically-strengthened glass. It is surrounded by a magnesium alloy frame.

    All Modbooks also come with a built-in GPS. The warranty, with an option of either one or three years, comes from OWC, not Apple.

    My particular Modbook has the following specs, which you should take into account while reading my observations and reviews:

      2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor

      320 GB Hard Drive

      4 GB RAM

      CD/DVD-RW Superdrive

    In the box:

    • Modbook (w/pen in its holder)
    • Axiotron disks (for reinstalling the OS with the extra Axiotron software)
    • MacBook disks (the standard OS disks included with all MacBooks)
    • Modbook Quick-Start Guide
    • MacBook instruction booklet
    • Power adapter and cords
    • Extra pen and nibs
    • Apple remote (now $19 extra)
    • Apple stickers!

    Modbook Modbook Modbook Modbook Modbook Modbook

    A very enthusiastic un-boxing by another Modbook owner:

    Software:

    The Modbook comes with the same stuff as a MacBook – it runs on Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard; it comes with all the iLife applications; and all software that is compatible with a MacBook will run on a Modbook just fine.

    There are only a few additions on the Modbook: the tablet driver, a GPS utility, and Axiotron’s QuickClicks – an on-screen keyboard. My unit also came with a demo version of a note-taking application called inkBook.

Modbook vs. the Wacom Cintiq 12WX

Cintiq12wx 1 Cintiq12wx 3

The Wacom Cintiq 12WX made a big splash when it was introduced. It was touted as a more portable solution for digital artists who want an on-screen drawing experience.

The Modbook is different than the Cintiq 12WX in that it is a whole computer in and of itself. To use the Cintiq, you must have a computer to plug it into.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but portability was the main reason I wanted to purchase a Modbook. To carry a Cintiq, I would need both a laptop and the tablet, plus all the cables and breakout boxes in between. The Modbook is all-in-one; you don’t even need to plug it into the wall, as it can operate on battery power.


Thoughts and Review

Construction

Modbook Modbook Modbook

The Modbook seems very solid and well-constructed. It is made of very good materials; the magnesium alloy frame is very sturdy – no fear of dents, bends, or scratches here. The glass covering the digitizer is awesome. It looks matte, not glossy, and is really good at resisting scratches. It is also very strong, and I can press down on the pen pretty hard without any fear of damaging it, and it does not “give” at all when you press it like typical laptop screens.

The only complaint I have with the hardware is the power and reset buttons in the top left corner. They are slightly cheap and plasticy, and wiggle a little in their slots. They don’t seem to fit with the way the rest of the unit is built.

Modbook

Drawing Experience

Because there is glass covering the board, there is a slight gap in between your pen and the drawing. It takes some getting used to, and you probably have to try a few times before you get the pen calibrated right. However, it’s a whole lot more fun than getting used to a regular tablet, with the disconnect of looking at a monitor and drawing on your desk.

You also have to play with the “firmness” of the pen to get the pressure sensitivity to work to your liking. If you have to push the pen down really hard to get a stroke down, this is where you fix it.

As far as software, I’ve tested Photoshop CS3, Illustrator CS3, Sketchbook Pro 2009, and ArtRage 2.5. I haven’t had a chance to make a full-size, in-depth illustration on the Modbook yet, but they all seem to work well and at good speeds. Photoshop took a little getting used to without having a keyboard. However, after a short while I had adjusted and learned a different flow of working that suited me well. Most of the keyboard actions can also be accessed easily through menus and palettes – I just had to find them. The small screen size is also a hindrance, but not a super big deal. It just meant a little more scrolling and zooming.

By far, my favorite drawing software to use on the Modbook is Sketchbook Pro ($200). I never really thought much of it before, but after using it on a tablet computer, I can see its appeal. It is built from the ground up to be used on a tablet, and the menus and options are much easier to access with only a pen. The tools are nice and it runs smoothly. I can’t make full illustrations in it with my style, but it will probably turn into my main sketching program. ArtRage ($25, free version also available) is a good cheaper alternative; it was also made to use with a tablet, but the tools and media simulation are a little more primitive. It’s very good for the price, though

Sketchbookpro

Interface

Navigating through windows and different applications is a breeze with the tablet. Clicking, double-clicking, and scrolling comes naturally. I would suggest using one of the pen buttons as a right-click, though. It is a pain if you don’t.

I installed a program called Smart Scroll, which lets you scroll through windows in a way similar to iPhone scrolling. It’s not necessary, but fun to play with, and it works really well on the Modbook.

One problem to note is that it is hard, if not impossible, to touch the extreme edges of the screen with the pen. That means you can’t automatically show/hide the Dock or use the corners for OS X’s Exposé. I use this feature a lot, but I was able to get the functionality back by putting Exposé in the Dock.

QuickClicks and Handwriting Recognition

The on-screen keyboard created by Axiotron works well. You can resize it, and it comes with multiple layouts, including one for common shortcuts like Copy, Paste, Save, and Undo. You can’t customize it, which is a bummer. If you don’t want it on your screen all the time, you can hide it, or set the transparency to lower automatically when not in use.

Modbook

Handwriting recognition is run by Apple’s Inkwell. You have to print (no cursive) very neatly to get it to work well, and even then your text is filled with unwanted caps and spaces. Once you’ve practiced with it for a while, you can get a good amount of accuracy, but it is still tedious for long amounts of text.

Battery Life

Modbook

I haven’t made specific tests, but I generally get about 2-3 hours of sketching time with the Modbook’s battery. Obviously, if you’re not running heavy programs like Photoshop, you will get better results. In sleep mode, the Modbook seems to drain power more quickly than the typical MacBook. I think this is due to the digitizer, which remains on while the computer is sleeping. If I leave the computer in sleep mode overnight, the battery is drained by about 20% the next morning.

GPS

This is not a big feature for artists, but I was interested in seeing what it could do. Not much, I’m afraid.

To get the GPS to work, you have to have a clear view of the sky to get a good reading. This is a bit of an annoyance because the Modbook’s screen doesn’t show up well in direct sunlight.

The Modbook comes with a GPS utility, but it is good for little more than finding your latitude and longitude. To use it for anything more than that, you will have to get some other software. I’m not too familiar with GPS software or technology, but a quick search will yield some choices. There doesn’t seem to be too many options for Mac users. The most popular seems to be RouteBuddy ($100). I downloaded it, and it read my GPS module just fine, but the demo was pretty limited and I couldn’t really do much with it to test it out other features.

You can also get the GPS to work with Google Earth through a utility called gps2gex. It takes a little more effort than a one-click install to get it working, but not too complicated. Once you have it running, you can track your location, even while you are moving. Mine wasn’t dead-on accurate because I kept having trouble getting a strong signal. I also didn’t see any way to use this feature for practical navigation, like turn-by-turn directions. The most useful application for Modbook’s GPS, I think, is geo-tagging photos or other similar uses.

Common Complaints

There are a lot of reviews out there for the Modbook. Most of them bring up the same issues. Here’s my thoughts about them after using it for a few days:

  • No Keyboard

    Yes, there is no keyboard. Almost every other review I’ve read for the Modbook has had issue with this, which confuses me because this is a TABLET computer. Although, I will admit that typing large amounts of text using the on-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition is a pain. The good news is that if you really need a keyboard, all you have to do is plug on into the USB (no wireless Bluetooth at the moment, but I’ll get to that later.)

    How about a convertible tablet? I personally think that would make the product ugly, awkward, and less durable with all the moving parts. Plus, I would mainly want a keyboard to be able to access all my keyboard shortcuts, and it would probably be too hard to draw and use a keyboard simultaneously on a convertible tablet anyway.

  • Limited Hardware

    The Modbook is based on the MacBook, not the more powerful MacBook Pro. Also, although the form is reminiscent of Wacom’s Cintiq tablet, a Modbook is more like a combination of a MacBook and a Graphire or Bamboo tablet. It only has 512 levels of pressure sensitivity (versus 1024 on a Cintiq) and there is no pen-tilt support. The driver is also very limited.

    Based on my personal experience over the past few days, the Modbook seems to run just fine for heavy applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, and Sketchbook Pro. I’m completely happy with the MacBook hardware, especially considering that using a MacBook Pro would have driven the Modbook’s price up considerably.

    As far as the pressure-sensitivity, it’s really hard to notice any difference between 512 and 1024 levels unless you’re really picky. In fact, I barely noticed a difference a few years ago when I moved from an old Graphire (256 levels) to my current Intuos (1024 levels). The 512 levels on the Modbook is sufficient, and is actually more than you’ll find on most other tablet PC’s.

    If I had one complaint about the tablet, it’s the driver. It will let you set the pressure-sensitivity and the functions of the two pen buttons, and that’s about it. I have really hated not being able to customize the pen for different applications, which would have been especially handy on the Modbook seeing as there is no keyboard.

  • Weight and Heat

    The Modbook is heftier than other tablet PC’s at about 5.5 lbs. You can’t hold this in your arm for long periods of time like a clipboard. That being said, it is not a lot heavier than a normal MacBook, and it is very durable. The weight is also due to extra features you don’t get in other tablet PC’s, such as the optical drive, which I think is a fair sacrifice.

    The bottom of the Modbook also gets pretty warm if you use it for long periods of time. Again, this is also similar to the MacBook, or any other laptop for that matter. Just be prepared to wear long pants if you use this on your lap a lot.

    Modbook

  • Price

    The Modbook will run you about $2300-$3000, which is about $1500 more than you’d pay for a MacBook, so you’re paying a big premium to get the tablet interface.

    To break it down even more:

      A Modbook with these specs…

        2.4 GHz Processor

        320GB Hard Drive

        4GB RAM

        SuperDrive

        Total: $2779

      …would be about the same as purchasing these…

        Apple MacBook, 2.4 GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB HD = $1499

        Hard Drive upgrade from OWC to 320GB = $139.99

        Wacom Bamboo Fun Medium tablet = $199

        GPS module = $100

        Total: $1937.99

    …so that extra $841.01 can be attributed to the cool convenience of a tablet-screen interface, the extra portability, and the labor it takes to put it all together.

    If you’re not intending on using the Modbook extensively, this might be a little steep, but if you are an artist who paints digitally all the time, it’s a good and fair price. I think the statement made by Gizmodo got it right:

    The people who are in the market for a ModBook are people who want to draw and make art with a laptop, but have another computer for their normal email and internet browsing. If you’re one of these people, the ModBook is a definite buy. For others who just want a touchscreen MacBook so they can do art sometimes, but rely on a keyboard most of the time and want a regular laptop more often than not, the ModBook isn’t quite right, and we recommend a standard Wacom tablet instead.

    So, if you only paint occasionally and could see yourself getting by with a laptop and regular Wacom tablet, by all means, go the cheaper route.

Known Issues

There are some known bugs with the Modbook. If any of these are really important to you, it could be a deal-breaker.

  • Bluetooth – For some reason, you can’t use the Modbook’s internal bluetooth capabilities without freezing the computer. This seems to be a problem specific to the Modbook, as this feature works fine on regular MacBooks. Axiotron suggests you keep it turned off and is still working on a fix. Fortunately, there’s a workaround – you can use an external USB adapter.

  • Screen Rotation – Unlike a lot of other tablet PC’s, the Modbook is stuck in horizontal landscape mode. Axiotron has stated that this is due to Apple disabling screen rotation on all MacBooks.

  • iChat – Like the MacBook, the internal microphone on the Modbook is placed right next to the iSight camera at the top of the screen. Unfortunately, this is also where the speakers and the fan are situated. You cannot use audio or video-conferencing without a lot of feedback. This is a shame because I use iChat all the time to talk to my grandparents. You have to workaround this by using an external mic.

    Modbook

  • “Cursor-jumping” – A few users have reported an issue where their cursor inexplicable jumps to the corner of the screen, opens menus, or keeps the computer from sleeping. As far as I can tell from user reports, this could be due to interference from other devices. Issues like these have also been reported on other tablets and Cintiq’s also. Serious problems due to hardware failure are extremely isolated. I personally haven’t experienced this issue.

Customer Experience

This is one issue that I can definitely say has affected me. I ordered my Modbook on February 1. I received it on April 28. In the worst cases, customers have waited over a YEAR before they received their Modbook.

Axiotron Owc

Now, a lot of these delays have been due to enormous amounts of backorders from 2007, when the product was first announced. Back in January 2007, Axiotron was telling customers to expect the Modbook to ship in April 2007. Because of the process of becoming an official Apple “proprietary solutions provider”, hardware updates, and other unknown issues, the Modbook didn’t start shipping until December 2007. Delays continued into the beginning of 2008 with supply shortages and Apple’s announcement of new MacBook models. There have been many frustrated customers and cancelled orders.

My biggest issue isn’t in the delays; this IS a startup company and it is a brand new product. But there is an extreme lack of communication from both Axiotron and OWC. I experienced a couple delays from when I first ordered (I was first told it would ship in a couple weeks), and each delay seemed to come with little reason, and OWC would promise new deadlines that were repeatedly broken. You could track your order status online, but up until my Modbook shipped at the end of April, my order status still read, “expect to ship on or before March 21” – no help there.

On a positive note, Modbooks ARE shipping faster nowadays. OWC moved to a bigger facility and hired more people to build the Modbooks. This might not be such a big issue as things go forward and the companies catch up with the orders, but it is something you should be aware of if you’re considering purchasing a Modbook. I haven’t seen this issue mentioned in many articles or reviews out there. In short, if you order a Modbook, expect to wait. And if you’re waiting, don’t expect to hear much from OWC or Axiotron.

Update: Please read the comment below from OWC for the current status of Modbook orders.


Links


In a nutshell…

  • The Modbook is a well-built and sturdy product.

  • Aside from minor bugs (Bluetooth, iChat, screen rotation), everything works smoothly.

  • If you’re a heavy typer, plug in a keyboard.

  • If lack of a keyboard bothers you a lot, stick with a standard Wacom tablet.

  • Artists will love the Modbook.

I definitely recommend the Modbook. If any of the issues or bugs affect you greatly, then it might not be a product for you, but if you are a digital artist and you know you would use something like this all the time, it is worth the money (and the wait). My biggest complaint is not with the product, but the delays and lack of communication from Axiotron and OWC, which will hopefully smooth out over time.