Review: Modbook Mac-based tablet shows promise, but limited appeal

Devilish details undermine the $2,279 price tag

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 Modbook starts off life as a stock MacBook.

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.

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