Obsessions: January 25th, 2010

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Maybe you’ve heard Apple is supposedly launching a tablet computer this week? Yes?

Personally, I’m kind of vibrating in my seat at the prospect of Apple doing a tablet. They’re either going to do a fantastic job or they’re going to screw it up royally. (Never any in between with Apple—they either launch you into outer space or get you halfway into orbit then send you—oopsie!—a flaming fireball, into the ocean.)

The first time I used a tablet was when I tried out a roboticist friend’s Samsung unit in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. I did a doodle, and was immediately hooked. The sensory difference was clarifying; it removed many of the barriers I have about digital work.

I have always had problems translating my work to the machine from a sketch because the machine is prone to making perfect geometry that simply doesn’t work in typographic forms. Additionally, my handmade sketches are sculptural layers of overlaid lines, which means the digitally translated and perfected line must actually be an average of those marks. In theory, it’s not hard to do, but the dislocation involved in using a Wacom table sitting next to what I’m looking at adds a layer of difficulty. The net result is that I’m looking at one thing, editing another thing in another place, and usually using bezier curves, which is like trying to trace a sculpted clay object with an unruly rubber band.

If Apple does, in fact, release a tablet machine, I’m not sure if I’m going to be overjoyed or annoyed. Their touch interfaces, while largely user-friendly and pleasant to look at, are uncomfortable to use in a situation in which one needs precise control. Adjusting an image to the pixel via pinch and drag on the iPhone feels like using giant meat fists to tat lace. My suspicion is that Apple will more than likely address mainstream functional needs first (like publishing and reading, email and the web) and the needs of their traditional audiences (us!) second. Which makes sense.

And, naturally, since I am tired of waiting for the perfect tablet, I have several backup plans to make it happen.

The Wacom Cintiq is my first option for working in place at my studio on my large machine. It’s a small monitor with a trailing cord which is hooked up to the machine, like a secondary display. I’m currently using a Wacom Intuos4 tablet as my main input, so I’m familiar witht the technology. I’ve used only Wacom tablets since 1994 (in fact, I can’t really use a mouse); tablet-and-stylus pairs have helped keep RSIs like carpal tunnel syndrome at bay. The Cintiq is a great lap-sized unit with a really high-resolution pressure-sensitive display which allows you to draw and paint with as much nuance in Photoshop or Painter as you would on paper. Apple’s Ink technology—the preference pane only shows up in System Preferences when you have a stylus device plugged in—which operates nicely, but is rarely spoken about, works wonderfully in word-processing applications used via a Cintiq. The only thing I don’t like about the unit is that it’s heavier than is comfortable to use in my lap. The small unit’s about four pounds, and the best way to use it is to prop it between your lap and the edge of the desk.

HP makes a great little stylus and tablet unit which you can use if the notion of using Windows doesn’t make you crazy. I can switch back and forth between Mac and Windows without many problems, so I don’t mind using it. This is a standard laptop whose screen pivots to lock into place on top of the keyboard, monitor facing up.

The only thing I don’t like about these units is that I suddenly have to consider buying software for both Windows and Mac—not feasible, considering I’m already running a MacBook Pro, into which I’ve easily sunk about six grand since 2008 when I bought it. I think if Apple doesn’t come through with a solution I like, my best plan of action would be to let the guys at Modbook rip the Mac Pro’s head off and rebuild it into a tablet Mac (which I dig because it makes my laptop seem more like Lee Majors or Wolverine by virtue of expensive surgery). What Modbook does falls into a subset of Mac fanboy geekery: You send them your MacBook Pro, they rebuild it for $600 with a Wacom touch-sensor (“It’s penabled!” Ugh.) behind the display, a new casing on top to support everything and a stylus which fits nicely into the side. Presto: Mac tablet.

So, ultimately, I think I may, from a cost versus benefits perspective, end up having my MacBook modded. But I’m still excited to see what Apple’s throwing on the table Thursday.