The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

The Coolest Mistake

The new ModBook, from Axiotron and OWC, finally realizes a dream long held by Mac lovers: the tablet Mac. But seeing this Franken-computer in action only makes me realize that it's a product that's doomed to failure.

As cool as the idea of a tablet computer seems — and make no mistake, these ModBooks do look pretty cool — all I can think about when I see them demoed is how incredibly inconvenient they'd be to use for most regular work — for most anything I use my laptop for. What do I use my laptop for? Email, billing, troubleshooting, surfing, writing. Almost everything I generally do on my laptop requires text input, for which a WACOM is poorly suited. What do I not do on my laptop? Draw! Let's face it, the WACOM is a drawing tool, and I just don't think most people use a laptop for drawing. And I don't think they want to either.

The ModBook: Best Bad Idea Ever
(click image for larger view)

Graphics people tend to use desktop systems as their main rigs. There are a lot of reasons for this: they need a faster computer; they need a larger viewing surface; and, perhaps most importantly, they just don't want to draw or design on-the-go. Ever try to draw something in your sketchbook in the car? Or on the train? On a plane? It sucks. Drawing is not a portable activity.

So, the scenario goes, you buy this ModBook, and not only do you have to draw on this small screen, on this underpowered machine, but you also have to handwrite your emails, your terminal scripts, and your blog entries. The ModBook cripples both the functionality of a portable computer and that of a drawing tablet. It flies in the face of both these products' very reason for being. And it costs a bundle to boot.

I'm not sure what the intended market is for these machines. But I can say with almost 100% certainty that they will fail, because I don't think that market is very large, if it exists at all. The ModBook adds either a layer of complexity or a lack of functionality to everything you might want to use a tablet or a laptop for in the first place. I predict that graphics users will find it underwhelming, and regular users will find it frustrating. Who does that leave? Um... People with a lot of expendable income for electronic toys they'll never seriously use. A novelty market at best.

It's almost too bad the ModBook was released alongside the iPhone. The iPhone shows us real and good reasons to use a touch-screen interface on a portable device, and some really brilliant and innovative ways to implement this. It totally shows the ModBook up. Compare the two, and the ModBook comes up looking like a product without a purpose.

Apple was right when they said that no one would want a tablet computer. Seeing the ModBook only drives the point home. With a vengeance.

Why did we want that again? I forget.

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11:04 PM

Seeing it in person made me want to get one. The whole MacWorldExpo thing made me want to spend money. I liked the engineering that went into the ModBook, but then I remembered I hate tablets of all kind. blech. Stupid wacom pens.... I think artists may like them. The ones I work with do everything with a Wacom, control the OS, all input possible.... but I use a keyboard. Oh well. someone will want one...    

11:44 PM

Yeah, I'm a keyboard guy too. I have a WACOM I love, but just for drawing. I can't use it for all input. It's annoying.

I really don't think the ModBooks will be hot items. They're really neat and all, but not practical for anything I can think of. Maybe I'm missing something. But I doubt it.



2:31 PM

Oh, and the real problem is text input, which, on the ModBook, you have to do with the stylus. Yuck!


10:16 AM

These units are supposed to be as a support machine and not as a replacement machine, therefore most artist will use it only for drawing. I'm getting one myself and as an artist I know I'm going to get alot of use out of this.

I've read alot of reviews where people complain about there being no keyboard. If I need a keyboard then I'll attach one. It's not rocket science.    

6:14 PM

I'm a childrens' book illustrator and Art Director, and I can tell you I've been dreaming of a tablet Mac for years now. I carry an 8-1/2 x 11" sketchbook everywhere I go. I even sketch while watching TV commercials, or sporting events. This Modbook will allow me to do all the same things I do on my sketchbook, PLUS all the things I do on my desktop.

It's true that if I'm working at home I will most likely use my desktop, which is in fact faster and has a bigger screen, as someone described above. It's also true that I use keyboard shortcuts to speed things up within art and design applications. But being able to take my entire digital art studio on the road and along with it the production speed that traditional mediums lack more than makes up for not having a keyboard or carrying a small portable keyboard along with it if I absolutely find it necessary.

Taking my studio on the road, whether that means (1) paiting a landscape on location, (2) teaching classes away from my home or studio, or (3) for presenting or working at a clients facility, is invaluable to me and my business. And I can tell you it is for many other artists I know.

I think you highly underestimate the use other industries have for a tool like this.    

6:25 PM

Hey, I'm not saying it's not a cool and potentially useful tool. I'm saying it's useful to such a small segment of the PC market that it will be a commercial flop. Let's face it: the number of people who are interested in using a computer for all the things you say you'll use the ModBook for, and who can actually justify the high sticker price, is pretty tiny. Just because you'll use it doesn't mean many others will. So, I predict commercial failure for the product. I'd love to be proven wrong.    

1:52 PM

I *TOTALLY* disagree with just about all the comments here.

Using a Bluetooth Apple Wireless keyboard to type on the tablet gives far more freedom than an awkward connected notebook-style keyboard.

As for drawing on the screen, it's far more natural to draw _directly_ on a screen than on an external Wacom tablet. The 13.3" screen certainly presents a far bigger surface area than the majority of external Wacom tablets.

Performance-wise, the Modbook, with 2.16 Ghz Core 2 Duo and up to 3GB RAM is the equal of at least a mid-high end iMac in fact. I have no idea where this rant about low-end performance is coming from.

In fact, the Modbook is the most powerful _pure_ tablet you can buy. I am actually thinking of running Windows XP on it since there is no equivalent PC _pure_ tablet with this high-end a configuration. The Motion computing tablets are way overpriced and are pretty far behind specs-wise.

Mice are totally inferior compared to pens. I've reversed nascent CTS by switching to pen and gained cursor interaction speed and accuracy at the same time.    

4:29 PM

Aw! Anonymous, that makes me so sad.

Seriously, to reiterate, I'm not saying the ModBook isn't wicked cool. I never said it was less natural to draw directly on the screen than on a tablet. I did compare it unfavorably to a desktop system with dedicated graphics card and the like, though I suppose it probably is comparable to a low-end iMac. But let's face it, the system that underlies the ModBook is among Apple's slowest.

But all that notwithstanding, my point — and I believe I've now said this multiple times — is not any of that, rather, my point is that it will be a poor seller because it is limited in the most typical ways people use laptops (i.e. those that require text input), and so is not suitable as a primary computer. It's a luxury item for designers with extra cash. That's a small market. And I have to say, I've heard nothing about the ModBook being a hot seller. I'd bet it's not.

That said, I am seriously thinking of switching to a WACOM for mousing, as I have a nasty case of tendinitis in my shoulder. But I've had a lot of trouble adjusting to the pen. Any tips for switching over?



12:09 PM

"it is limited in the most typical ways people use laptops (i.e. those that require text input), and so is not suitable as a primary computer"

Only because people are not bright enough to realize that it's much more ergonomic and efficient to have the keyboard separate from the display and to use a pen instead of a mouse. The small Apple Wireless Keyboard makes it feasible to carry both keyboard and tablet in the same bag. Pure tablets + wireless keyboard is (or should be) the wave of the future.

"It's a luxury item for designers with extra cash. That's a small market"

I'm a programmer, not a designer and my wrists can't take the strain of using a mouse anymore. The extra USD500-700 is well worth not experiencing CTS.

"But I've had a lot of trouble adjusting to the pen. Any tips for switching over?"

I'm not sure why a substantial number of people have problems with a pen. I took to pen computing like a duck to water.    

12:32 PM


Whether it's because people aren't bright enough, or because they just don't buy laptops so they can carry around an extra keyboard, it's still just one more reason why this item will be a poor seller, which is all I've been saying all along.

You guys need to separate out how you use a computer from how 90% of the rest of laptop users use a computer. Just because it's great for you doesn't mean everyone will flock to it. Which has been my point all along: A small market will love this product, but most people will be unimpressed by it and it will not sell well.

The problems I've had with pen tablets have been ones of accuracy and consistency. Typically, I keep the tablet on my lap, but I'm not sure this is a good place as it tends to move around a lot and keeps me somewhat distant from the keyboard. But I can't find a happy place for it on my desk. And before you say it, I know that a tablet built into the screen would largely mitigate this. But I, like probably a lot of folks, can't justify buying a ModBook. I need a desktop system, for one. And I'm not in the market for a laptop right now. Perhaps if I were, I might consider getting a ModBook — remember: I think they're really cool — but I still don't think most people would.


1:44 PM

So, I'm using a pen tablet now, and it's driving me batty. This time I've put the tablet on the desk, right in front of the keyboard, like I've seen tablet experts do. My complaints thus far:
1. I have to keep the keyboard farther from my body, and this in uncomfortable when typing.
2. I can't hold the pen when typing because the pen moves the cursor around even when it's, like, a centimeter above the tablet.
3. Therefore, reaching for, and subsequently using, the pen takes additional arm movement over the mouse: With a mouse, you move your arm to the mouse and you're mousing; with a tablet, you move your arm to the pen, then move it back to the tablet, then position it ever-so-precisely.
4. When typing I occasionally hit the scroll slider and my page inadvertently scrolls.
5. I miss the mouse's middle click, which I've programmed into the pen, but which is far less convenient to use.

And that's in the first hour. I'd love to swich to pen tablet use, but some pointers would really help me out. 'Cause, frankly, this is painful.

Anyway, I may end up writing an entire post on the matter, as it's one that's long bothered me.

Oh, and the tablet keeps moving around as I type, too. Argh!    

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