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

Devilish details undermine the $2,279 price tag

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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.

Ink can be a frustrating way to take notes.

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 $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.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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