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Unleashing the Power of the PowerMate

I have always had mixed feelings about gadgets. I like the cool factor inherent in some of them, but I tend to find that the cooler they look, the less useful they are. So I rein in my gadget-buying impulse, and try to purchase only those that are both cool and useful.

Sometimes it’s hard to find whether a given gadget is useful. If a friend or colleague owns one, you can try it out; if you see it on display in a store, you can give it a whirl. But some gadgets are hard to find – especially here in my Alpine village, where mail-order is my only option.

When Griffin Technology’s PowerMate came out last year, there were lots of articles saying how cool it was, including a mention in the traditional TidBITS Macworld Expo Superlatives article. The coolness is clearly visible – an attractive brushed aluminum knob/button, taken from the most minimal of stereo designs, sits atop a thick layer of translucent plastic with a soft blue light pulsing beneath it.

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However, cool is one thing, but not one of the articles I read, nor the manufacturer’s Web site, did a good job of describing how I might apply the PowerMate to my everyday tasks. This brief article is intended to do just that – you’ve gotten a gist of how cool it looks, so let me tell you how I have been using this gadget for the last week, and why it will most likely remain by my keyboard for a very long time.

Setting It Up — Setting up the PowerMate is a breeze. It connects to a USB port via a short USB cable, about 18 inches (48 cm) long, but also comes with a 40-inch (101 cm) extension cable if you need to connect it to a computer farther away.

You configure the PowerMate via a preference pane under Mac OS X or a control panel under Mac OS 9. When you open its preference pane, you see four sections: Setting, Action, Pulsing, and Long Click Length. The first section, Setting, lets you choose for which applications you want settings to apply. The PowerMate doesn’t do much – you can rotate it (right and left), click it (press the button), use a long click (press and hold briefly), or click and rotate (right and left). That gives you a total of six actions, each of which can tell your Mac to do one of several things: rotating can raise or lower volume, scroll up or down, move the cursor left or right, move the cursor up or down, or (and here’s the most important) invoke a key combination; clicking can invoke a click or a double-click, mute the volume, open a file, or send a key combination. Choose which action you want to program, choose what you want it to do, click Apply, and it’s set.

The PowerMate also works as a power button – you can use it to turn on compatible Macs. This can be useful for those with keyboards that lack power buttons and whose computers live under their desks.

To help you get started, the PowerMate driver comes with presets for a handful of applications. For example, in iTunes, rotating the knob raises or lowers the volume, and clicking it pauses playback. For iMovie, it is set to work as a jog and shuttle controller. For most other applications, it is set to scroll up or down, but you are free to change these settings, add applications, or delete any of the predefined applications’ settings.

You can also adjust settings for the length of a long click (since the PowerMate software sends its actions when the button is released, you can adjust the long click length from 0.5 to 4 seconds). Finally, you can change the pulsing speed of the two blue LEDs beneath the knob – a feature that was frequently requested shortly after the PowerMate began shipping. One thing to note is that Unsanity Software has released a free CPU usage monitor, called Cee Pee You, which lives in the Mac OS X menu bar and can also indicate CPU usage via the PowerMate, so, for example, you can have it pulse faster or slower, or change brightness, according to your CPU usage.

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Putting the PowerMate to Work — None of the above would have been enough to convince me to buy a PowerMate (which retails in the U.S. for $45; I paid 79 euros for mine). What would have been useful, though, is a clear explanation of how this gadget can be applied in everyday use. So, here are some examples of how I have programmed my PowerMate.

  • Microsoft Entourage: One of the most common actions I perform in Entourage is to check my mail. So, I set the click to Command-K (Send and Receive All). I’ve kept the right and left rotate settings to scroll – the PowerMate’s scroll is much smoother than pressing the spacebar and moving down one screen at a time. It is also easier than using a scroll wheel on a mouse – I have found that with the PowerMate under my right hand and my trackball under my left hand, I can do much more, and do it more easily.

  • Microsoft Word: I use the PowerMate to scroll within Word documents, and I set the click to Command-F6, which cycles through windows. When I long-click the PowerMate, Word saves my current document.

  • Internet Explorer: In addition to scrolling, I click the PowerMate to invoke Command-~ (tilde) to cycle through open windows. I also connect the long click to the Back command’s keyboard shortcut – Command-[ (open square bracket).

  • NetNewsWire Lite: This news gathering application has changed the way I receive news, and the PowerMate is a welcome addition. Command-G goes to the next unread news item, which I now access by rotating the PowerMate to the right. When I click-rotate to the right, I invoke Command-K to mark all items in a feed as read. I set the normal click to the Return key, which opens the item in my browser.


  • Terminal: What, use a multimedia knob to control the command line? Absolutely. I set the PowerMate to emulate the up and down arrow keys when I click and rotate, letting me scroll through my command history quickly. Clicking maps to Return, which runs the selected command. Rotating normally scrolls the window up or down.

Power, Mate — These few examples show you how versatile the PowerMate can be. I’m sure others will find even better ideas how to use it; I only wish there were a way for users to share this information. The manufacturer should allow users to post their ideas, but the Web site currently lists only a few tips. If you have other ideas, feel free to share them in TidBITS Talk.

It is rare that I adopt such a new type of tool so quickly, but in just one week I have become convinced that this is an essential tool for any kind of computer use. Have a look at what the PowerMate can do – you might be surprised how practical it is.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. He is co-author of Microsoft Office v. X Inside Out, published by Microsoft Press.]

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