Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Future is Here

I enjoy experimenting and playing with new approaches, which probably explains how the idea of converting my 2-year old Macbook to a Modbook took ahold of me. The Modbook conversion was developed by Axiotron and was first announced about a year ago. This meant there were several reviews I could read and even a few on-line videos I could watch. After some creative financing, some scrimping and saving, I was able to take the leap. And it really is a leap because once you go Modbook, you can't really go back - literally and figuratively - as you'll see below. Now that I've fallen down the rabbit hole and come back, here are my observations on just how mod the Modbook really is.

I'd had my Intel Macbook for over two years and had used it for 4 or more hours a day easily, everyday. That's a lot of use and while the machine did (and still does) run fine, the track pad and some of the keys were starting to occasionally act up. This was my first rationalization for going Modbook: I was faced with replacing the keyboard and the trackpad soon anyway, why not go whole hog? Some other rationalizations I came up with include the fact that I use my Macbook for giving PowerPoint presentations to pilots during ground instruction and I sometimes need to draw pictures when teaching concepts like holding pattern entries and the like. So why not have a tablt computer I could draw on? Lastly, I use Photoshop and Illustrator for my writing work and trying to do some tasks with a mouse is not ideal. All of these factors, combined with my EFB dreams, pushed me over the edge.

My first step in tumbling down the rabbit hole was to locate an Axiotron-authorized service center to do the work. I chose TechRestore in nearby Concord, CA. TechRestore offers overnight Modbook service and they mean overnight. After calling and verifying I could drop-off and pick-up the unit myself, I purchased the conversion on their web site. Then I drove to Concord (I had some errands to run there anyway) and found my way to their shop, just off CA HWY 4 about midway between Buchanan Field and the Concord VOR. Here's a time-lapse video of a Modbook conversion put together by TechRestore.

I dropped my unit off around noon on a Monday and by 9:30am the next morning I received a call saying I could pick it up. Once I opened the box and saw my transformed Modbook, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I heartily recommend TechRestore if you are considering this service. They do excellent and fast work.

My first task was to test out the bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I planned to use when sitting at my desk. You can use a VESA style monitor mount to hold the Modbook, but my simple, low-cost solution was to use a document stand I had purchased quite a while back from Anthro. It works great. The Apple wireless keyboard and mouse were given to me by a friend a few months back who no longer used or needed them and they also work just fine. In fact, the keyboard is a big improvement over the tired Macbook keyboard I had grown accustomed to.

Next, I spent some time playing with the pen configuration and the various electronic ink features. When performing input on the screen surface, you have to use the pen that comes with the unit. The pen is stored in a slot at the bottom edge of the Modbook and when not in use is held is place by a small magnet. It comes with several different nibs and I will probably buy a second pen to keep in my pocket. The pen has a nib on one end and a virtual eraser on the other. It also has a two position switch that you can configure using one of the two new system preferences; Pen Tablet and Ink. You use the Pen Tablet preference to set the pen options, calibrate the screen, and customize the pop-up menu pen options.

The Ink preferences let you specify options for how your handwriting will be recognized and whether or not you want to "write" input into any application. I found my handwriting was too sloppy and inconsistent for handwriting recognition to be useful in the cockpit. Instead, I decided on using the write anywhere feature for taking notes and writing down ATC clearances. More on that later.

There's a menu bar item called Axiotron QuickClicks that lets you configure how and when a pop-up keyboard will appear for you to tap on to provide pen input to applications. This pop-up keyboard is activated using the upper button on the pen. Axiotron did a great job implementing the pop-up keyboard because it will mimic whatever keyboard layout and language you have chosen. Rather than the standard QWERTY layout, I happen to use a Dvorak keyboard layout. Did I mention I like to try new things? I think I did ...

Before long I was itching to try ReadyProcs™ and let me tell you it works great. In fact, I came up with a set up that involves rotating the chart view 90 degrees counter-clockwise, resizing the window to about 70% of the screen, and using the Ink window in the remaining space to take notes and write clearances. I hold the Modbook in my lap in "portrait" mode and it looks something like this.

ReadyProcs does not yet provide Airport/Facility Directory support, so I'm using Adobe Reader to access a PDF version that I download from the excellent Nacomatic site.

Last, but not least, I wanted to try out NACO raster sectional charts displayed with MacGPSPro using the built-in WAAS GPS receiver that comes with the Modbook conversion. That's right, a WAAS GPS receiver is included in the conversion. MacGPSPro will import VFR sectionals and Terminal Area Charts without a hitch and it also recognized the new, built-in WAAS GPS receiver. In the short flights I've done so far, the GPS satellite reception and positional accuracy seems to be quite good. Here's what the screen displayed during a recent flight (the little red circle on the screen is the aircraft's current position).

To manage the display of all these applications in flight, I decided to take advantage of the Spaces feature in Mac OS. I defined four spaces; one space for general use, another for ReadyProcs, another for Acrobat Reader displaying the A/FD, and the last one for MacGPSPro. I can quickly access any of these spaces by tapping the pen on the Spaces icon on the menu bar.

I plan to post another, more in-depth report of how it is to use the Modbook in flight, but so far it seems to work fairly well. There are some disadvantages and issues, which I'll cover then. Overall, I'm extremely pleased with the setup.

If you prefer Windows, I'm sure a similar approach could be taken with one of the new, mini Tablet PCs.

The bottom line is that we often resist change, even though there's almost always something fascinating to learn from trying a new approach. Only once you have gone down the rabbit hole do you realize that change is what life is all about.


Vannevar said...

May I ask, how much did the Mod cost?
Thanks, love the blog.

John Ewing said...

If you provide your own Macbook, the mod service costs around $1200. If you don't already own a Macbook, the price start around $2400. In my case, I had a Macbook and the associated sunk costs so it was easier to rationalize.

Early adopters always pay a premium ... sigh

Another answer could be the Asus unit I mentioneed or the $800 Mac tablet that is rumored to be released in November.

The Griff said...

Amazing! I have often thought about a tablet Mac, but I didn't know that you could have one built. I already use MacGPSPro and I didn't know you could buy Raster Aeronautical Charts. Man, you put me on to all kinds of things. I just read $1200 for a rebuild or a new mac for $1700 to $1900. I would be a little wary about using it as my chart and notepad for navigation in controlled airspace. I would fear a power failure or a crash that would lead me to ask for clearances again. ATC is touchy enough as it is. But if it works and you can use it, why not?

Thanks for the ideas.