Technology Review
the Axiotron Modbook

what it is

Side ports on a modbook.   Rotated Modbook desktop.

The Axiotron Modbook is a Tablet Mac constructed on either a 2.1 GHz or a 2.4 GHz Apple MacBook. The version discussed here is the 2.1GHz model. Axiotron has sandwiched a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet between the display and computer, then framed the combined single-piece unit with plated magnesium. They have created an agile and responsive tool that goes beyond just competing with Tablet PCs. The specifications of the Modbook are the same as for the MacBook it is made from, though the Modbook is a quarter pound heavier. More extensive technical specifications for the Modbook are available on the Axiotron Web site.

Axiotron is a privately held hardware manufacturing company, enrolled in Apple's Premier Developer program.

Field sketch of botanical specimen. Pastel of apricots. Sketch of me in a mirror.

why it is important

There have been Tablet PCs running Windows for a number of years, yet the Axiotron Modbook now running OS 10.5 is the first Tablet Mac. In combination with Wacom Intuos, this modified MacBook adds 512 levels of pressure sensitivity and anti-aliasing to marks made with the pen directly on screen in both graphic applications like Photoshop and text applications like InkWell and iBook.

The Mac market was previously served by the Wacom Intuos Cintiq—a line of direct input, cross-platform displays that have become an industry standard. In particular, the 12-inch Cintiq 12WX is small and light enough to function as a mirrored, direct input display with a laptop. In fact, a laptop on a shoulder-strap with a cable attached Cintiq 12WX might be lighter and easier to manage than the heavier Modbook. The Cintiq 12 WX is not even a pound lighter, though, and the input screen, at 12.1" is smaller than the Modbook's 13.3". Both are 1280px by 800px.

The Modbook is a convenient, compact drawing and note taking solution, as well as an excellent, intuitive tool for animation. You can plug in an external mouse and keyboard, but the lack of physical support for an upright screen makes the externals clumsy to manage and use in most environments.

Sketched while standing at a mirror.

noteworthy positives

  • All-in-one functionality is easy and convenient to pack and use
  • Using a pen directly on the display is an immediate, responsive way to work. Slight misalignments are easily adapted to, and the environment is intuitive and engaging.
  • Rendering can be done very quickly. Input is as simple as drawing in a sketch book, but there is no need to carry different media or tools.
  • The screen drawing surface is acid-etched glass; the drawing surface feels very much like paper.
  • For anyone in the visual arts, Photoshop on a Mac is unbeatable, but handmade direct input with pressure-responsive custom brushes is a quality that redeems any negatives.
  • InkWell handwriting recognition software is accurate enough for short texting needs, though it can not convert or understand math notation.
  • The screen will not respond to fingers or other implements.
Handwriting in inkbook. Inkbook handwriting conversion.
Graphical notation in Apple's Ink-available from System Preferences if you use any pen input. Handwriting in InkBook—an application that uses Apple's Inkwell technology. By holding down the space bar, you can see how the handwriting is being interpreted.

noteworthy negatives

  • It is difficult to prop up the Modbook so it can be used with an external mouse and keyboard
  • The unit is not drop rated from any height, which may be a hazard with a heavy hand-held unit
  • The display's contrast ratio, listed as 500:1, must be measured under ideal conditions. In normal field use, the screen is difficult to read. In sun or difuse shade, screen colors and contrast may be close to impossible to judge
  • The screen is always exposed, and in use often nearly horizontal. This collects crumbs and coffee drips
  • Most cascading software menus pop out to the right of any link you have held to access them. For right handed users, that means your hand covers what you want to see
  • Though the screen keyboard is resizable, it needs to always be on top of other windows and often gets in the way, particularly when using keyboard commands in an already crowded Photoshop work space
  • The depth offset—the pen tip is the thickness of the screen glass above the cursor—is handled fairly well by the Modbook software, but it makes precision a bit difficult
  • The working area feels small—it is 1280 by 800 in a 13.3 inch display; this is an excellent ancillary, not primary, machine.
  • Applications like Word and Dreamweaver do not accept direct text input from the pen. To create text, you either type on the screen's keyboard or handwrite text in Inkwell or InkBook first.
  • The screen does not pivot like some Tablet PCs, though it is both easy and convenient to turn the Modbook to the angle you need. Unfortunately, the keyboard and Ink programs do not adapt their standard horizontal orientation for text input.
  • There are no external scroll buttons or other controls that come on some tablet solutions, a minor setback, but important if you prefer scrolling long documents with a button.
  • The screen will not respond to fingers or other implements.
Dame's rocket.


The Modbook is an expensive investment for an individual. As a classroom tool, though, it can give unparalleled portable access to drawing software while providing computing power for sharing and discussion. A class could sketch in the field with intuitive tools, then upload and discuss work when wireless access is available.

The tent on Old Main lawn.


Axiotron Modbook tech specs
A complete set of technical specifications at the Axiotron site

Axiotron Forums
This goes directly to the forums and database.

Mage Software
Mage Software is the company that sells iBook, the handwriting recognition software that works with Mac InkWell. Handwriting remains handwritten, but text can be searched, copied to other applications, and exported as text files.

Wacom Cintiq
Product overview page for the Wacom direct on screen solution.

Philips CliniScape
Called a mobile clinical assistant, the CliniScape runs Windows, has the needed high screen contrast, is under four pounds, and may be a better solution for medical applications.

Apple's patent for touch-sensitive input devices
From Google patent search, this is from 2005. This surfaces regularly in blogs claiming the imminent arrival of an iTablet.

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