Technology Review
a month with a modbook

mac modbook, preface

Over the next month I'd like to report on the use of a "Modbook". The Mac Modbook is a third party mashup of a Wacom tablet and a small 13 inch MacBook. It's a single unit that lets you draw directly on screen. I'm interested primarily in the Modbook as a field tool for any discipline that requires field sketching: drawing and design, of course, but architecture and botany, too. Unfortunately, I still don't have software that responds to pressure sensitive pen strokes (ie, Photoshop, Flash); I do have Ink, though; so while I wait for something useful, I can get some unpleasantries out of the way.

I'm thrilled
there's no duct tape to be seen on this third party product.
First, if using a pressure sensitive pen to input naturalistic, antialiased brushstrokes into a drawing application doesn't excite the heck out of you, you may prefer a Tablet PC for mathematics written, and even recorded, on a Connect whiteboard. Or, you might just need a visual demonstration of what naturalistic antialiased brushstrokes are, and a little practice time to familiarize yourself with the tool. I'm up for the latter, but need to get software first.

Second, the Modbook doesn't have a keyboard. There's a little screen utility that comes with it that lets you "type" on a screen keyboard using the pen. For many purposes, that's probably good enough. For most drawing uses, though, designers use the pen in one hand and hit keyboard shortcuts with the other. They might hold the shift key while drawing to constrain the angle and "straightness" of a line; or hit "x" to toggle between colors, "B" for a brush, or "Command-z" to un-do. Having to pause and pull down a menu really breaks your rhythm and the toggle on the pen doesn't allow the wealth of programmable strokes that's needed.

Macs ship with Ink, software that recognizes hand printed input and converts it to machine readable text. It's a clever idea. My experience so far using it on the Modbook is that no one should rely on it except in extreme circumstances. I'm good at hand printing, do it regularly, and have experience with a Wacom pen. I found the input to be tedious at best, intrusive and annoying in the long run. If you have a Mac, chances are you can launch the application and try it with your mouse- you'll get a sense of the software's capabilities and its worth. Open the Ink control panel from your system preferences.

Finally, there's also a bit of a problem with "offset". By that I mean where the cursor is in relation to where you see the tip of the pen. I don't experience any offset at all with my standard tablet; but with my regular tool, I never see the pen tip- only the cursor it's piloting. With the Modbook, the cursor is about an eighth of an inch below the pen tip. That's "below" as in deeper into the picture plain. And with a brisk stroke, somewhat behind the pen, too. When you start using the Modbook, you "calibrate" the pen; meaning, you use the pen utility to tell the computer where you see the tip in relation to where you see the cursor. The Modbook software has you click the center of a cross in the upper left corner, then the center of a cross in the lower right and it figures out just where your eyeball is. I would prefer the cursor always be directly underneath my pen with no "computer enhanced" sense of parallax; my own sensibilities take care of that, regardless of my viewing angle. Much better than the computer, I might add.

Bottom line- I'm thrilled there's no duct tape to be seen on this third party product. Any and all problems may be inconsequential after a bit of using this thing for what it was designed for. More on that as software allows...

modbook 01

Calculus notes.

I've managed to get Photoshop installed, and have a good bit of experimenting ahead of me. At a quieter moment I'll spend some time building the more complex brushes that I'd like to use, but for now, I want to start building my eye-hand coordination. Most people that hear about computers with tablets get psyched to find out about note taking and math notation. To them, I have to say yes; you can do that with the Modbook. But just like a paper tablet- this tablet has no idea what the notes mean or what the notation represents. This image is my first use of the tablet with Photoshop. It looks pretty much just like my high school calculus notes. Mostly doodling in the margins.

Even though the image is juvenile and was intended to be a goof, I have a few quick observations from the session. The modbook doesn't seem to have the horse power to keep the cursor right under a fast moving pen. There's just enough delay in the stroke that it feels like using a ball point pen that has the ball attached on a short rubberband. This note page was generated using the brush tool in Photoshop with a few random, complex brush settings applied that may make the cursor a bit slower to respond. The computer needs to do quite a bit of processing to determine what my complex stroke will look like as the pen moves and pressure changes. The pen and tablet respond to pressure; something a TabletPC is incapable of. Also, I really miss the keyboard. Undo, select all, deselect, swap colors- all are instinctive and exist as short muscle impulses in my left hand. As I mentioned before, the modbook is a solid one piece unit, with the "monitor" sitting where the keyboard once was.

Calculus notes.

This morning was so nice that I thought that it would be a good time to try sketching outside. I headed over to Stone Valley and made a short stop on the ridge top for a sketch. Even though the tablet feels heavy when standing in the office, out in the field it didn't seem different than the box of pastels or board that I normally hold. My biggest shock came from something regular laptop users are probably used to: direct sunlight makes the drawing surface almost unreadable. Like drawing with two pairs of sunglasses on. I opened the power settings and made sure the battery was set for performance rather than longevity. It was great to see that after twenty minutes, I still had enough power to try something in the shade over in Stone Valley.

With the ridgetop sketch and then this quick one, I noticed that my strokes are fairly coarse. And I haven't yet really taken advantage of the fact that I'm on a computer and in Photoshop. This has so far been a matter of just replicating a normal, charcoal sketching experience without the smearing. I have to add that it's as enjoyable being out sketching on the Modbook as it always has been sketching with a sketchpad and pencil.

Calculus notes.

The drawings that I'm posting would never go public as "drawings" but as investigative benchmarks they'll serve nicely. I'll continue with updates like this. At the end of June I'll try to piece together a usable report. Keep in mind that there's a lot going on- I'm not just trying a gadget. I'd like to become effective with the tool, and not only make use of its rendering capabilities but push some of the digital aspects, too; whatever that means. I've always been interested in what computer art looks like. We know what a pastel looks like and a water color- pastels are particularly effective at looking like pastels, but can also look like water colors. What are the characteristics of immediate tablet-artist interactions? What nature of illustration would lead me to grab the Modbook over silverpoint, or pastel, or collage? What scale is best? Should I attach a keyboard or let the no-keyboard status effect the way I work?

Possibly ten years using a Wacom tablet will give me a unique perspective on this thing's use. So far, the problems seem minor, and the potential unlimited.

modbook 02

Campus tree.

My first use of color was a mess. I mentioned the difficulty I had seeing the screen while sketching outside- for grayscale sketching, seeing the cursor and judging values is difficult. For judging colors, though, it's nearly impossible. I had to rely heavily on my memory of past uses of the color picker. This was done at 50% in the screen window- the size it will appear if you load the larger version. Not very satisfying, and far less so once I see the thing on my regular machine. I did manage to get a general sense of what I wanted, and for the first time separated elements with layers. I did this standing, and hurried- but that's no excuse. Just remember what I said about this stuff being a technical benchmark.

To be a valid benchmark, though, I need to try to set up otherwise ideal circumstances and see how effective my work can be relying on this Modbook. I'll go do that now...

And some unrelated observations...

• The screen is far too small. When I installed Creative Suite 3, I was given a warning dialog that said my monitor resolution was far below recommended sizes and I should upgrade before continuing with the CS3 install. I have ample real estate on my regular machine- two 19" cinemas- and I use it all. The smallness of the Modbook makes me think in terms of notecards and vest pocket sketchpads. That leads to pigeon holing the thing as a preliminary sketch tool rather than something for finished work. I'll have to experiment with the scale that I work at. Possibly zooming in and panning will be a better work flow, though I normally do that with the keyboard while drawing..

• A number of times I've found myself unable to hit the menu bar with the cursor while in Photoshop. It's possible to expand the "throw" of the cursor in the Tablet control panel available in the System Preference pane. To calibrate, imagine that the cross hair is where the cursor will be in relation to the pen tip's position when you click it: at the upper left corner, click five or so pixels below the cross hair. At the bottom right, five or so pixels above.

modbook 03

Pastel of apricots.

Talking about drawing has always been difficult for me; I have trouble describing the process, the thoughts and sensations, what I see. With this computer image, when I had almost reached this stage in the drawing, I stepped back a bit to look. I had made a "brush" in Photoshop that let me render a stroke that looked close to my own pastel stroke. That brush was represented by a small black spot that was still sitting on one of the rendered apricots. I bent over and tried to blow it off the surface. It was easy to become lost in this process.

For this image, I took the time to create a brush and to build a background that was more satisfying than a square of light- it looks a bit like the Canson paper that I usually use. I worked at about 67 percent, which appeared to me about the same size as the linked larger version of this thumbnail. It felt very familiar. When I work in pastel, I don't really know what I look at. Mostly I look at the subject. When I look at the image, I don't focus so much on the point where my pastel is hitting the paper but at a point, well, on some imaginary plain in my minds eye. Using the computer and steering a cursor directly on screen let me do that. And satisfyingly so.

Sketch of me in a mirror.

So I'm thinking, if you draw, you'll be able to do this. If you don't draw, it has immediacy and the direct access to the computer drawing tools, but the true worth (at least as I'm seeing it) may not be realized. I'd be interested in hearing other reactions. Certainly, a designer could use a modbook for layout. The size, though, is very limiting: I think the screen is 1280X800. Designers may benefit more from the Cintiq- a combination tablet-monitor from Wacom that comes in larger sizes. It also comes in a twelve inch- so conceivably you could use the twelve with a laptop and have access to a real keyboard. I have to add that a missing keyboard, in the heat of working, was easy enough to adapt to.

I also tried a pencil sketch while looking in the mirror. Sorry, I know it's scary; I see it every day. Like the apricots, this drawing completely absorbed me. I didn't even realize how heavy the modbook was becoming until I sat the thing down and tried to straighten my arm. Maybe by tomorrow.

modbook 04

Some disconnected notes:

• Some users may be put off by drawing on a slick surface. The screen is a slightly frosted piece of glass- frosted enough to diminish the spread of fingerprints and goo but not enough to soften the image or provide much real "tooth." The work-around some use with a standard tablet is to place a piece of paper on it. Obviously, the same thing wouldn't work here. I'd suggest diving in and getting used to it. Won't take very long.

• I'm growing more accustomed to the miniature on-screen keyboard provided by the Modbook software. I'm getting faster, and I've discovered that quite a few of the two-key shortcuts that I thought were off-limits are actually usable: the command and option keys both stay down when first clicked and allow a second key to be clicked. That means when I usually hit command-j to float a selection to a new layer, I can hit the command key then the j key for the same effect. Sweet epiphany!

• Currently there's a small but growing on-line community in the Axiotron Forum. There are 41 posts under "Arts", 38 under "Healthcare" and none under "Architecture and Design."

• There are a number of Psychologists interested in modbook notetaking. Some have mentioned iDictate. Though still imperfect, they claim it's much better than iListen, ViaVoice and MacSpeech. I believe iDictate is a PC app, and they may be referring to Dictate. Obviously there's some name ambiguity that needs to be sorted out later. These aspects of the tablet's use are not really something my background would lend any insight to.

• Architecture and design may be somewhat confounded by the difficulty of making straight, precise strokes. I've tried a padded ruler and the cursor offset makes it very difficult to get good results.

• The pen buttons can be programmed to a limited degree. I've added the side button's upper end as a "modifier" then chose the "Shift" key. When I start a stroke then click the button, it's like holding the shift key down and strokes are constrained to horizontal or vertical. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to use the shift functionality of connecting click points with straight strokes. There's a problem invoking the shift key with the side button before the pen makes a click.

• Programming the pen, like building surfaces and brushes in a graphics app are important points of exploration. Neither are limited to just the modbook, but are important to standard tablet users as well.

modbook 05

The TLT Talk.

I wondered how the modbook would work "under pressure"- like as a court reporting tool or as a visual note taker. I took the modbook to the TLT Talk hoping to generate a few images on the fly- moments captured that could illustrate a post or stand alone as editorial drawings. The modbook was okay; I didn't use it very well, though. I've already seen that lighting can have an impact on the ease and effectiveness of drawing; lighting conditions at an event are a pretty big gamble. The lights were a bit bright in 141 Computer Building, leaving my screen dark with lots of image hiding glare. I think that if I needed to rely on it, though, I could get enough information in similar situations to produce something usable. Especially if I had time for touchups after returning to my office.

Even though I would call the drawing an embarrassing failure, the experience was a good one. I don't draw in front of people, don't like being watched, and am painfully out of practice drawing from life. With a bit more personal effort improving my performance in each of these, I think I may be able to show the modbook to be a useful, portable, and powerful tool.

I'll work on the drawing from life thing. This is too embarrassing.

modbook 06

This thing is perfect for grab and go sketching. On a Saturday morning if I decided to run out to Barnes and Noble for coffee and some quick on paper sketching, I'd need to grab my sketch book, some tools: either pens, pencils, brushes, or, to be ready for anything, a complete bag of tools. I'd be concerned about the space my set up would take as well as the mess the dust, ink or water might make. With the modbook, I grabbed one article; and to be fair, it needed to be charged, but there was no other rooting around and packing. Once I sat to sketch, I was compact and mobile. If I wanted to change my point of view I could do so easily, without packing up pencils, pens, inks, or what ever. Could students use it to sketch plants in the field? or fossils on location? or the position and location of artifacts at an archaeology dig? All without carrying and fretting over the complete drawing set.

Bookstore line up.

In my last modbook post I mentioned needing more rapid, plein aire practice. This session was just that; practice. I hit quite a few clunkers, but I'm moving forward. My pencil skills in this type of work are greatly lacking, so I don't think any of the clunkers were caused by the instrument. This first sketch took just a couple of minutes- visual notes, actually. I'm okay with it and think that this much information could be built into something useful. It was easy, and my impact on my surroundings was minimal.

Coffee patron.

I noticed another old guy who seemed to be sketching, and thought it would be interesting to spend a little bit more time on a drawing of him. Again, I'm happy with the modbook's performance. I've noticed that I have to use more pressure than I should to start a stroke, and faint, soft strokes aren't getting picked up. There are settings for "Tip softness" in the tablet control panel that I thought I'd set correctly. I need to see what I'm doing wrong. The modbook only (only?) has 500 or so levels of pressure whereas my regular desktop tool has 1000. Maybe the pressure setting is a result of that difference? Not a big deal- just something to learn about and adapt to if necessary.

Oddly, one benefit of this rig that I haven't really taken a big advantage of is the varied capabilities of Photoshop. As I'm drawing, there's a purist of some sort in me that says I have to treat these tools like their analog equivalents. That means no opacity controls, no filling, no pasting, nothing that I couldn't do with paper. What an idiot I am. I guess the equivalent for others might be picking up and repositioning the pen at document edges as if it was a mouse. Even though I want to be cavalier and insist that my experience with wacom tablets makes me immune to vestigial input behaviors- I'm not. I need practice and pushing as much as anyone. Using a font on the sign was a complete afterthought. It didn't even occur to me when I sketched at the TLT Talk.

Incidentally, I mentioned making sure I had a full battery. My other experiments with a Titanium and external Wacom tablet would end after ten to fifteen minutes when I ran out of juice. After this session, I was still at 58% power, and I haven't had any issues with insufficient power.


Dame's rocket.

Starting in mid May, dame's rocket blooms throughout the county. Its white, pink and violet blooms form vast seas of color. I've always loved the way it looks. It's considered an invasive species, and some states request that hikers pull up the plant, roots and all if they come upon it in the woods.

Dame's rocket is often mistaken for a similar perennial called Phlox. Phlox blooms about the same time, has the same color range but is labeled a "flower" rather than "weed". The easiest way to tell the two apart is to count the petals on the flower: dame's rocket has four, phlox five. Phlox also has five letters. Now you won't forget.

From eight or ten feet away, I can't see if the flowers have four petals or five. I have to get closer to see if it's ugly or not.

The watercolor was done as a modbook experiment, but that aspect of it is only incidental. I think the tool served my purpose adequately.

modbook 07

Photo of the Modbook desktop.

A few things to follow up my last all-text post: The actual on screen keyboard for the Modbook is 4.12 inches wide. The photo gives a good sense of it. I zipped an "actual size" version of the photo if you want a closer look. Or want to try tapping it with a pencil or something. Keep in mind that you can turn the keyboard off and on as needed, or leave it out-which is what I do. Clicking on it does not make Photoshop lose focus.

Also, carrying this thing across campus in a shoulder bag, which is necessary to protect the always exposed screen, I really noticed the weight. I placed just the modbook on a scale at the market and it weighs 5.23 pounds. Not much to lift, not much to carry for short distances; but on a long hike, a backpack or wheels might help. I've heard that students complain about the weight of laptops when going to and from class. I think something would have to be developed to ease transport for field exercises with the Modbook.

Palmer interior stair case.

One feature that I remember from a brief encounter with a Toshiba Tablet PC was the ability to rotate the orientation of the desk top. You can't do that with the Modbook; though for drawing, that's no inconvenience. This image was drawn at 25% of full size, and I held the laptop so it was oriented vertically. Possibly being able to click an arrow on the keyboard to rotate it 90 degrees would be appreciated by some. Again, I didn't feel inconvenienced.

modbook 08

Stop the presses; I found out why half of the people on the Modbook Forum are physicians and scientists- and I'm impressed.

I realized that most of what I found useful in the Modbook was dependant on the Adobe applications and I decided to try the other standard apps. I opened Word, and after a few minutes of looking and some searching on draw and pencil, I realized that there were no drawing or, in fact, no marking tools at all.

Oddly, I couldn't find marking tools in the Mac toolset either. What ever happened to MacPaint? Nothing in iMovie, iPhoto, or TextEdit. Possily there's something available in Photobooth, but I didn't think a group of scientist would use a kluge from Photobooth. That left Inkwell.

I turned on Inkwell in the system preferences (it's detected and made available there if you have any pen installed) and there was my epiphany. You can choose to view the Inkwell window, which is large and not as jumpy as the little yellow stickies that seem to come and go on the computer's whim. This window stays open and where you put it so that text recognition actually works. Not perfectly, but it could actually fill a need. Then, I saw a button in the window's lower left corner.

It looks kind of like this:Letter A and star.Pretty cool, huh? I couldn't figure out where text from the little yellow stickies went- there's no save button available, onlyClear. andSend.It turns out that send places the contents of the Inkwell window where ever you have an application with an active Insertion bar.

You can toggle between drawing and text modes.

So lets say I'm working with an engineer who is describing a process. I could put this conceptualization into a Word doc or an email:

Silicon bombarded by ions

We can easily discuss it, share it. The work-flow is incredibly easy, and I can see this as the biggest selling point.

Let's face it- people who want a computer to sketch on might form a sizable fan base, but engineers who need to make visual notations are the money group. It's a fantastic addition to anyone's toolbox, and I can see our instructional designers presenting this as a solution to mathematicians, scientists, physicians, and engineers.

And don't forget all those people in the College of Visual Arts.

Inkbook on the desktop.

The only downside to the Ink window is that it can only be as big as the desktop and doesn't scroll. However, there's one more little application called InkBook. It's a spiral bound stack of Inkwell pages that you can save as a Rich Text document. Strokes seem a bit different here, but I'll spend some time figuring it out. Maybe there are bugs that I don't know about.

These drawn images were done in Ink then sent to the Word doc I was entering the text of this post into. If you want to see the doc, it's available as a download. I haven't examined the file size or format used as yet.

modbook 09

Some loosely connected notes:

• For note taking, quick insertable images, and other marks, I found the Ink window and inkBook to be different. For me, the brush works better than the pencil in inkBook, but input is erratic with both: incomplete strokes, many failures to record the stroke. The Ink window is far more fluid and responsive- and if inkBook is open at the same time, I can send the note or image from the Ink window to a page in inkBook.

• After a quick search, I just found an explanation for the differences in stroke feel between Ink and inkBook: inkBook is a third party creation by Mage Software and comes installed on the Modbook. This modbook has version 1.3.4; I can only find 1.3.3 on the web, and a 2.0 beta. The software has received some great press and has features that I knew nothing about.

Square fish.

I think inkBook will require some separate investigation. I never took notes in school, but include here my notes from the Steve Krug talk at WC08.

• At the conference I have a number of things running and have noticed sporadic failure of the keyboard. I look directly at the keyboard while "texting" and when I check what I've typed, there are instances of three and four characters in a row that are wrong; that isn't wrong as in hitting the key nl r ' to the one I want, but like the word "next" I just typed, I get completely wrong input. Possibly pen tilt is an issue? Slow processing?

• Generally, I appreciate the keyboard always being on top and not stealing focus. I have, though, had it inadvertently right overtop of a dialog that needs my input. I thought I had shut down, and when I pulled out the Modbook again, it was still running with the keyboard overtop of two VPN warnings.

• Ink and inkBook prefs revert on their own. It's a minor annoyance, but makes demos to colleagues somewhat less than stellar. I've trailed yellow stickies several times now.

• As a late note, I really need to add that the documentation that came with the Modbook is almost useless.

modbook 10

Some disconnected notes:

• I've discovered that the little on-screen keyboard can be scaled to any size. I like it small- it's consistently on top, I like it visible/available, and usually just leave an edge sticking out from a side of the work area. Small is just more convenient. It will come and go with pen button clicks, but I have those programmed for other things.

• The screen glass stays mysteriously clean. Through WC08 it was often in and out of a bag, held with my greasy fingers overlapping it, and otherwise abused. I didn't need to wipe it once. There's a glare proof coating on the underside and a slight roughening of the upper surface so it feels more like paper when you drag the pen across it.

• Someone asked if I could draw overtop of presentations. I can't say whether or not the modbook would make a good presentation environment; like any small laptop, I guess. I did find, install, and try Pointer from GenevaLogic. It works, but my first experience was me looking for the hidden "tool dock" that I had to approach just right to get my offset cursor to invoke it. That can be remedied with minor calibration. There was a real problem, though, when I chose a square mark that seemed to interfere with the desktop and mac system sensing my pen. I couldn't quit because the command buttons and dialogs got covered by red squares. The highlighter and pen didn't have the problem. The Pointer software may be worth a look- there's a 30 day trial.

iSight camera shot.

• Since I discovered inkBook and the note taking potential of the Modbook, I realized that's probably the most sellable aspect of the thing and made it much of my focus. If you saw the notes I took at Steven Krug's 47 minute keynote, you'd understand that I'm not much of a note taker, and haven't been giving the Modbook a fair test. Others, like Roxanne for instance, will have better insight into those aspects of the Modbooks performance. I'll just note that it seems to do as well as I'd ever need and from here on I'll continue looking at its potential as a rendering toolset.

What was it that Krug said again? Buy my book?

modbook 11

Old Main in scratchboard.

Years ago, I did an illustration for a great designer at the Alumni Association. She wanted a picture of the campus around Old Main as a center piece for the Alumni web site, but she wanted it to look hand made. As far from "computery" as I could be. I came up with a technique in which I did a coarse line drawing, then xeroxed it onto acetate. That gave me multiple copies to play with, a resilient surface to scratch then re-ink, and the ability to lay it overtop of watercolors of different hues and tones to see how it would look. I went on to do three or four other campus scenes the same way.

Tree in scratchboard.

Flash forward a little over a dozen years and I'm trying scratchboard again. I love scratchboard, I love the coarseness and character that I can get. And it still looks pretty far from "computery".

This time, of course, I'm working completely on the Modbook. I opened Flash to try sketching- the application seems to be made for rendering- and in very short order came up with this tree. If the ants weren't all over me, I'd have done more, but I don't think I would have polished it at all. The coarseness here is perfect, and I could see the set up and style being used for icons and illustrations across an entire site or an entire book.

The Modbook disappeared during this sketch. Like any good tool.

modbook 12

Some loosely connected notes:

• There is a learning curve for both Ink (Mac software) and inkBook (third party software). In inkBook, editing drawings is difficult- the eraser often moves objects or deletes entire sections. It's difficult being precise. The drawing board smooths strokes, occasionally changing them (shifting, merging, connecting, extending) in ways that I don't intend. I've found very little documentation for inkBook, though Ink has a fair help window.

• Ink is far more consistent and predictable for quick sketches than inkBook. The text recognition feature, which I prefer not to use, is actually good, too. Editing the converted text is beyond my abilities. There are a number of "gestures" that you draw to accomplish things like "copy" "paste" or "delete" and the gestures need to be done relatively accurately. For notes, I prefer leaving the hand written characters.

• I've noticed that with both Ink and inkBook open, I frequently get erratic behavior from the pen and keyboard: the tip won't activate keys but the eraser end will. Or I'll notice that yellow stickies are opening under the keyboard and the text that I'm typing gets odd characters. Perhaps the new version of inkBook will remedy all of that. It might even be the keyboard's quirks. In all fairness I have to add that, even though I'm generally infallible, the behavior could be user error.

Side ports on a modbook.

• I have to get some outsider input into modbook's notetaking power. As a drawing and painting tool, however- using Photoshop or even Painter, Canvas, or Flash- I can recommend the modbook highly.

The Modbook is exactly the same size as a Macbook with a closed lid. Macbook bags and covers will fit. The ports are the same, too; and there's a cd/dvd slot in the opposite end.

This is a document open in Photoshop. The taper and texture of the stroke is obvious. Note, too, that the keyboard sits ontop of the Photoshop interface and allows the user to access keyed shortcuts without Photoshop losing focus.

The keyboard sits ontop of a Word document, as does the Ink window. inkBook can lose focus, however. This image shows a quick doodle into the Ink window that was then "Sent" to the open Word doc.

modbook 13

Since my natural inclination is against using the modbook as a notebook, I sent a note to Mage software, developers of inkBook, to see if they have documentation that could help me. Meanwhile, I used some time to find reviews and analysis that might be useful. In that search alone, I discovered a few useful things.

First, you can drag a multi-paged PDF file onto an open inkBook and it will open pagenated across as many inkBook pages. The text isn't text, however- it comes in as a large graphic. It looks pretty good, and you can mark it up in inkBook then "Print to PDF". You can't open a pdf using the "open" command from within inkBook, nor can you drop a PDF on the inkBook icon to open it. inkBook needs to be open and the PDF is dragged onto a page.

I noticed that the pages all pagenate correctly, but the document might not be aligned to the inkBook pages the way you want. After my first attempt I realized that I needed to drag the PDF pageover a good bit to make sure the top and right side weren't clipped. Dragging one page only adjusted that page-not the entire document. I had to adjust each page separately. The PDF that's rendered does retain inkBook marks in their correct color and location, which was very nice.

Second, I had noticed that inkBook doesn't convert my handwritten notes to text in any of the modes that I tried. That seemed unusual, since it claimed to use Apple's inkwell technology. This morning I found that inkBook actually does convert handwritten notes to text- it just keeps the handwritten record while storing the text "meaning" in the background. This could be very useful in cases where the text needs to retain it's character for meaning. To see how inkBook has done with its conversion, you hold down the space bar. InkBook displays what it thinks you wrote directly over your notation. When you export your document as TXT- it is converted to plain text with none of your drawings. Exporting as RTF saves a folder with a text document and images as separate TIFF files.

When you create a drawing that you want to keep as an object, the entire piece needs to be selected and "joined". In an effort to understand your marks, inkBook keeps the strokes used to create an image as separate objects. To export them as one image instead of many individual images of separate strokes, the "Join" command is under "Ink" in the menu bar.

inkBook text block.

Page navigation is difficult in inkBook. I can easily page forward but have yet to discover how to page back. Navigation is made easier by a "tab" feature that lets you add a tab to a page so that any page is accessed by navigation tabs that remain on the right hand edge of the book.

UPDATE:I received the User Guide for inkBook v.1.2.0 from Mage Software. It'll be a big help. Their support also suggested that I give the beta version for v2 a try- I am and it looks pretty good. My first effort was the paragraph in this image, which was rendered as this text on export: "WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS To BE 5 ELF EVIDENT 7 TH AT ALL mew ARE CREATED EQUAL j Tr|AT Tr|M ARE EN DOWED B4 THEIR CREATOR WITA CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS 1 nfAT AMONG THESE ARE LIFE, LIBERTY / AND AN ALMOST FANATICAL DEVOTION TO THE POPE. "

modbook 14

Festival shell from Old Main.Last year at this time I had a borrowed laptop that I was using to sketch on using my regular wacom tablet. I posted this drawing of the festival tent and wrote about battery life. I had roughly twenty minutes to make a sketch before my screen went dark and I was warned of the end of my battery's life.

The tent on Old Main lawn.

So for a comparison, I did this on the Modbook. Same spot, but I had more time. Lots more. First I went to Irvings and sat working on a small animation in Pencil. Next I left the modbook in sleep mode and walked up to Old Main, where I sat to make this sketch. After a good ninety minutes to two hours, I was warned that I was starting to run on reserve power. I had about 8% battery life remaining when I got back to the office. I'd had the screen at full brightness, was pushing Photoshop with some complex brushes and multiple layers, and had a browser going in the background so I could post to Twitter- but I forgot about the browser completely.

Incidentally, you can see that I've had about zero artistic growth in a year; but the technology is moving forward with leaps and bounds. When I did finally return to the office after very focused Modbook use, there were several moments where my hands didn't adapt quite quickly enough to the standard keyboard and slightly fatter, more substantial pen. Besides feeling strange, I went to hit a key on the keyboard with my pen tip.

Some notes collected over the last week:

• Today I tried using the Macbook simply as a computer, without making use of its obvious special features. I downloaded an MP3 lecture and tried to listen to it as I worked. There is no stand with the modbook; nothing to make the screen vertical. The screen is horizontal and therefore vulnerable to enviromental disasters like crumbs and spills. I guess the more typical laptop has its keyboard in a horizontal tray while the screen is upright.

• I downloaded and installed a small open source animation package called Pencil. It's very simple, but quite effective, and using the Modbook with it seemed very natural and was completely absorbing.

• While working in Pencil, I noticed that dropdown menus are a problem. With a drop down, it's possible that if an item has a cascade, you might not see the little arrow behind your hand and pen. The cascade itself, if you access it, is completely covered by a right handed user's hand.

• I have to say again, the modbook desktop is small. 1280X800 pixels. I normally work with a desktop that's spans two 21" Cinema displays. That means I'm accustomed to spreading out over 3840X1200 pixels. Working with Pencil- an application in which I'm doing more than just illustration, I'm extremely pinched. As a grab and go drawing tool, I love the modbook as much as the red spiral bound Aquabee books that I used to use. There's a strong "artist-tool" connection. For more involved projects, though, I need either more space or a new set of desktop space management skills. I can't imagine it as a primary machine; though conceivably I could have the monitors, tablet and keyboard at the office (or a 21" Cintiq!) and just plug in for InDesign or web work.