Friday, January 26, 2007

Dots Series

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First Look: ModBook

Third-party modifications turn MacBook into a tablet computer
By Jonathan Seff

Ever since the Newton came—and went—in the 1990s, a small but vocal group of Mac users have clamored for a tablet Mac. At least to this point, Apple has shown no interest in getting into the tablet business. So it’s up to third parties to come up with a product that may finally determine the level of demand for a Mac tablet computer.

Axiotron and Other World Computing have teamed up to offer the first Mac tablet computer—which they’ve dubbed the ModBook. This pen-sensitive Mac comes without a keyboard or mouse; instead, special hardware and software allow you to control the tablet via a stylus. The ModBook won’t ship until April, but I got my hands on an early engineering sample, and, after using the tablet for a few days, I can share what I’ve learned.

My observations are based on a pre-production model—many electronic, software, and cosmetic changes can and will be made before the ModBook’s April release. However, the specs listed below are as they’ll be in the shipping version.
What it is

Simply put, the ModBook is a stock Apple MacBook that’s been given a radical makeover by Axiotron (and sold exclusively by OWC). As such, the guts of the system are basically the same as the MacBook. Each ModBook is built to order, so you’re buying a complete system. In other words, you won’t be able to buy a kit to make over your own MacBook into a tablet, and OWC won’t modify your current laptop into ModBook form.

For $2,279, you get a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor, GMA 950 graphics, 512MB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a 60GB 5400-rpm hard drive, a Combo Drive, Apple Remote, and AirPort and Bluetooth. A ModBook with a 2GHZ processor, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, a DVD-burning SuperDrive, and built-in WAAS-enabled GPS receiver bumps the price to $2,579. And $2,849 gets you the same 2GHz system, but with 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. (There’s also an introductory special for those who pre-reserve by February 1, 2007.) All systems include a one-year OWC warranty; you can purchase two additional years for $349 for the base model, and for the same $249 price as AppleCare for the other configurations. And you’ll be able to customize your ModBook just as you would when ordering a MacBook from Apple.

Considering that MacBooks equipped with 1.83GHz and 2GHz processors sell or $1,099 and $1,299 respectively, what does that extra grand or so get you? A completely remodeled computer that goes from this…

Axiotron removes the top of the MacBook—including the display—and replaces it with a bezel made of an aircraft-grade magnesium alloy (it has a silver, MacBook Pro look to it). In place of the MacBook’s LCD screen goes a new display with the same 13.3-inch size and 1,280-by-800 pixel resolution as the original. But there are several key differences between the displays. The Axiotron ForceGlass covering the ModBook’s display is chemically strengthened and etched to improve longevity, scratch resistance, writing sensation, and reflection problems. The new screen has a 500-to-1 contrast ratio versus 400-to-1 on the MacBook, and it features a wider viewing angle than the MacBook.

Even with this rejiggering, the ModBook weighs in at 5.2 pounds—the same as the MacBook. The tablet is about .08 inches thicker than its laptop counterpart. Since the bottom half of the ModBook is a MacBook, the ports are the same. The ModBook has a MagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet port, Mini-DVI output connector, one FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, combined optical digital audio input/audio line in, combined optical digital audio output/headphone out, built-in speakers, and a security slot.

Even though there’s no cover for the screen, it seems sturdy and strong, but you’ll probably want to get a sleeve for it. On the preproduction model I used, I couldn’t rotate the image on the ModBook’s display from landscape to portrait mode—Apple’s built-in hardware supports screen rotation for external displays, but not internal ones. But Axiotron is working on a software patch that should remedy the situation by the time the ModBook ships.
What lies beneath

As notable as the revamped display may be, the magic happens underneath where Axiotron has mounted a Wacom Penabled Technology sensor. The sensor has a resolution 20 times that of the display with positioning updated 133 times per second; it features 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. (In contrast, Wacom’s high-end Cintiq tablets have 1,024 levels of sensitivity and up to 1,600-by-1,200 pixels of resolution in a 21-inch display). It’s this sensor that really makes the ModBook a tablet Mac.

The ModBook includes a pen (stylus) that is powered by the tablet’s digitizer board—it doesn’t require a battery of its own, and only “activates” when you bring it within an inch or so of the display. The pen has two programmable side buttons and an “eraser” on the back, and the bottom left of the ModBook has a slot for holding the pen when not in use. Placing the pen in the slot turns the digitizer board off to prolong battery life (although it doesn’t put the ModBook to sleep). Other Wacom pens should work with the ModBook, provided they’re using the same technology as the ModBook stylus. (Not all Wacom pens do.)

Also under the hood and out of sight is the ModBook Controller Board, which is like the motherboard for the ModBook section of the computer. It uses USB 2.0 as its internal system bus and as its interface with the MacBook itself. It controls power management and ties together the ModBook’s components with the functions of the underlying MacBook.
Front and center

During the mod process, Axiotron doesn’t discard the MacBook’s built-in iSight camera when removing the top of the MacBook. Instead, the company integrates it into the design by installing it in the same center-mounted location as Apple does. The front of the ModBook features two buttons at the far left—the ModKey, which will reset the ModBook Controller Board without the need to restart the computer, and the power key, which works like the power button on the MacBook.

Next to those buttons, you’ll find three color status indicator lights: a green light on top for the digitizer board brightens when it detects the pen; the middle (blue now, though it may be yellow on the final version) shows that the ModBook Controller Board is working; and the bottom red light shows the status of the GPS module.

That’s right—some ModBooks models will include an internal Global Positioning System (GPS) module. A menu item displays longitude and latitude. Because the ModBook’s internal module uses standard protocols, it will also work with software such as RouteBuddy ($100) and MacGPSPro ($50). And Axiotron told me it should also work with any Windows GPS software running on ModBooks that use Apple’s Boot Camp to install Windows. Because of the GPS module, and the fact that the ModBook’s metal case blocks wireless signals, the top of the case has two areas in matching MacBook plastic, underneath which Axiotron places an array of antennae for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and—on models that include the module—GPS.