PowerMate, by Griffin Technology
Posted: 18-Feb-2004

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Griffin Technology Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: HARDWARE
Overview
The Griffin PowerMate is a USB controller and input device, designed to give you precision control in applications (as well as being the coolest volume knob your computer has ever seen). It can be used to edit home movies or scroll through long documents and web pages. It is fully configurable, so each application can use the PowerMate for different functions (scrolling, nudging, volume control, etc.).

Price

$39.99 (Comes in aluminum and black)

Setup
The PowerMate plugs into any USB port, including the ports on your keyboard, and is powered by the USB connection. To program the PowerMate, you need to install the driver (supports both OS 9 and OS X). Once the driver is installed, you go into the Control Panel (OS 9) or System Preferences (OS X) to configure the device. Each application is fully programmable as well as a global settings for applications that are not specifically programmed.

In Use
The PowerMate is made of a high-quality machined aluminum, and comes in two colors: aluminum and black. The unit being reviewed is aluminum. It truly looks and feels like a volume knob right off of your stereo unit. It glides when it turns, and is very sturdy in construction. It also includes a click function by pressing the top of the knob (also programmable). At the bottom of the knob is a clear plastic disc that emits a very cool blue glow when the unit is on. Beneath that disc is a small rubber layer that keeps the knob firmly in place on a hard surface (such as your computer desk).

Programming the PowerMate is relatively simple. In the OS 9 Control Panel, for example, you are provided a popup menu under "Setting" that includes "Global Settings" as well as a few pre-configured applications (such iMovie, iTunes, and Quicktime Player). You can delete a setting, and add new settings for other applications. There are two checkboxes for "Global Only" and "Game Mode". It was not immediately clear exactly what these buttons do, and there was no Balloon help or mouseover help either. The PDF manual explained the Global Only box as meaning that all other settings are ignored (basically means you are going to use the PowerMate as a volume control knob no matter what app you are in). The Game Mode box, when checked, means that the User Action assumes continuous key operation, specifically designed for playing games. The Global Only setting applies regardles of what application is showing in the settings menu, while the Game Mode setting applies only to the application that is showing (can be different for each app). The different behaviors of the checkboxes can be confusing, and makes for a poor interface design.

The "Action" area of the settings dialog is where the actual programming is performed for the PowerMate. There are different PowerMate functions that you can control, called "User Actions", such as Rotate Right, Rotate Left, Click, and Long Click. For each function, you can define a computer behavior. Depending upon the function selected and whether you are on OS 9 or OS X, there are different preset behaviors, and they all include the manual "Send Key" choice. The presets for click action include Open File, Mute Toggle, and on OS 9, also includes Power and Eject Disk. If the preset does not do it for you, then choose Send Key, and you can select any key and any combination of key modifiers. For instance, you can do a Send Key command of Command-Q to define the click action to quit from an application. In OS X, if you wanted to eject a CD on a click, you can define the click action as F12 (since Eject Disk is not a preset).

The presets for rotate actions include volume up and down, and cursor movements. I used the volume up and down for my Global settings, but found that for applications, you'll want to use the Send Key manual setting. For instance, for scrolling in Internet Explorer, I send the "Down Arrow" key for Rotate Right, and the "Up Arrow" key for Rotate Left.

You can adjust the Sensitivity (called "Key Repeat" in OS X) of the knob rotation, which for some applications is crucial. For iMovie, I setup the rotation to scroll left and right along the movie play line. With any sensitivity setting higher than the lowest setting, you get batched commands such that after you stop turning the knob, iMovie is still moving the playhead (which defeats the purpose of using the PowerMate). I did find, however, that on the lowest sensitivity setting, the playhead stopped moving when I stopped turning the knob, making the PowerMate a powerful companion in adjusting the playhead for your movie productions (behaving just like a jog/shutter wheel).

As with all devices powered by USB, if there is not enough power in the USB port, the device will not work. I have about 10 USB devices hooked up to my machine, so stability was an issue, but mostly on OS 9. The PowerMate was always on in OS X, but under OS 9, it alternated between activating and laying dead. After unplugging a device or two, I found that it become much more reliable under OS 9.

Another problem I had in OS 9 is that changes you make do not take immediate effect. In OS X, there is an Apply Now button, and clicking on it always activated the new settings. That button does not exist in OS 9, and even after closing the control panel, the changes would not take effect. What was worse is that after making a change, my system would almost always freeze upon using the PowerMate (in fact, I had to redo much of this review because I was testing it on OS 9 and it froze on me, causing me to do a hard reboot, thereby loosing what I had written). The safest way to deal with making changes on OS 9 is to immediately reboot your system after changing any PowerMate settings (an annoying inconvenience).

One other thing you can do is tell the PowerMate when to pulsate the blue glow, and how fast to pulsate. You can have it always pulsate, or have it pulsate when the computer is shutdown. This is a neat eye candy feature.

Summary
The PowerMate is a beautifully designed add-on component for your Mac, providing a fully programmable USB powered controlling device for your favorite applications. From scrolling, to volume control, to using the device as a jog/shutter wheel, the customization of the PowerMate gives you a high precision tool for improving your productivity. It would have received my highest rating if not for some significant stability problems using the device on OS 9 (requiring a system reboot after changing the settings to avoid freezes). If you only use OS X, the OS 9 issues are not relevant. Overall, the PowerMate provides precision control and functional shortcuts all in a very cool and ergonimically pleasing device. I highly recommend it.

Pros

  • Solid, stylish and ergonomical design
  • Fully programmable for any application
  • USB powered
  • Great precision control tool

Cons

  • Stability issues in OS 9
  • Parts of the configuration interface are not intuitive
  • Lacks online help within the configuration software


Overall Rating

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice