When I bought one of Griffin Technology's PowerMates, I thought it was the cat's pajamas. In my review here last year (see "Unleashing the Power of the PowerMate" in TidBITS-653), I said, "It will most likely remain by my keyboard for a very long time." Alas, that time is shorter than I had expected, for I have found something even better: the Contour Design ShuttleXpress.
The PowerMate is a strange gadget: consisting of a rotating knob and a push-button, it can be programmed to do almost anything with any application. While the PowerMate's brushed aluminum finish and pulsing blue LED give it an additional cool-factor advantage, the ShuttleXpress wins out in usability. Since the ShuttleXpress has replaced my PowerMate, and since the PowerMate is a popular item that many readers may be familiar with, much of this article will compare the two devices.
One for Each Hand -- Becoming accustomed to one of these alternative controllers - either the PowerMate or the ShuttleXpress - involves changing the way you work and accepting the idea of having two input devices: one, your mouse or trackball, which you use to point, click, drag & drop; and two, a rotating device, which offers scrolling and other functions that are normally available either from the mouse or the keyboard.
This also implies a certain amount of ambidexterity. Although I am right-handed, I find it more comfortable to use my left hand for my trackball and my right hand for these additional devices. Not everyone will be comfortable with this approach, but it's worth a try.
A Bird's Eye View of the ShuttleXpress -- Shaped like the top half of a flying saucer, in matte black plastic, the ShuttleXpress is designed primarily for video editing. But, like the PowerMate, it can be programmed to run any of a number of commands or actions with any application you want. Its background process monitors the active application, and makes the appropriate settings available according to the program you are using.
The ShuttleXpress features a central jog wheel, which has a finger depression, and which turns 360 degrees. Around this jog wheel is a rubberized, spring-loaded shuttle ring, which has a total of 15 positions: 1 in the center, and 7 to each side. You can program the action associated with each independently. Five buttons run around the top circumference of the device in positions that naturally lie under your five fingers. The three middle buttons have depressions so you can locate them more easily, and you can program each button separately.
So, with a total of seven controls, the ShuttleXpress out-controls the PowerMate. The main differences are the five buttons and the spring-loaded shuttle ring: with the PowerMate, when scrolling, you must keep turning the knob; with the ShuttleXpress you just turn and hold the shuttle ring, and, when you have finished scrolling, the shuttle pops back to its center position.
Programming the ShuttleXpress -- It's easy to program the ShuttleXpress, almost as easy as for the PowerMate. But the ShuttleXpress is less Mac-like, since you must program it through a dedicated application. It would be simpler if the ShuttleXpress used a preferences pane, as with the PowerMate.
To configure settings for a program, open the ShuttleXpress application and choose a program name from a pop-up menu. About two dozen pre-configured programs appear in the list, and each includes sample settings that you may or may not want to keep. You can add other programs, and also adjust global settings that will apply to any application not in the list.
Configuring these settings can be a bit complicated. Although it's easy to set actions for the buttons and even the jog wheel (they can type keystrokes, press modifier keys, open files or folders, scroll up, down, right or left, and perform all sorts of mouse clicks), it's not as simple to program the shuttle ring. Part of the reason is that this ring has 15 settings. In addition, you can program actions for the passage from one ring position to the next.
Looking at the shuttle ring's built-in settings can give you an idea of how to program it. To best use the shuttle ring for, say, up and down scrolling in document windows, you want to have the amount of scrolling increase as you turn it. In other words, turning it to the first position scrolls slowly, and turning it further scrolls more quickly. This variable speed system works much better than PowerMate's single-speed scrolling, but it takes a while to program all 14 settings (it's best to leave the central rest position doing nothing for most uses). As for the jog wheel, you can only set it to scroll at the same speed, since it's designed to rotate 360 degrees, and you can program only right and left movements with it.
One tip: to set up scrolling for several applications, find one of the built-in settings that has the kind of scrolling you want already set and export it. Then import it, renaming it to match the application you want to use. As you work, you may find yourself adjusting the scrolling settings for one application to tweak it just so; use it as a template for other programs you want to scroll in the same way.
Putting the ShuttleXpress into Action -- How can you get the most out of this gadget, and why is it better than the PowerMate? If you look back at my review of the PowerMate, you'll see a handful of ideas for using the device in different programs. You can mimic those ideas with the ShuttleXpress, but you can also go much further, thanks to the five buttons it offers.
In Microsoft Entourage, which I use for email, I set the five buttons to do the following: check mail, press Return (to open a message), press Delete, press Command-N (to create a new message), and press Control-T (to run an AppleScript that empties the Trash). That covers just about every action I perform regularly in Entourage, with the exception of typing. Naturally, the jog wheel and shuttle ring are set to scroll: the shuttle scrolls up and down, and the jog sends up arrow and down arrow keystrokes, to navigate message lists.
How about Web browsing? For Safari, I set the jog and shuttle to scroll, and set the five buttons as follows: display my home page, press Command-T (to create a new tab), press Command-W (to close a tab or window), and press the keyboard shortcuts for Back (Command-[) and Forward (Command-]).
Since I often work with Microsoft Word, I set one button to save my work (sending Command-S), another to create a new file (Command-N), another to switch windows (Command-F6), and two buttons set to show and hide the formatting palette. I can change any of these whenever I want, and I have already switched the last two buttons around to show and hide specific toolbars for different projects.
What about the Finder? Well, there's New Window, my Home folder, my Applications folder, and Show and Hide Toolbar. But that's just me: I'm sure you can think of different actions you'd want to assign to the five buttons in the Finder, as well as in all sorts of programs.
Pros and Cons -- Although the ShuttleXpress is better than the PowerMate for my use, it has some disadvantages. The PowerMate scrolls pages more smoothly - this may be the way it sends commands to my Mac. But since you can set variable scrolling speeds with the shuttle ring's different positions, the ShuttleXpress, with its scrolling acceleration and deceleration, simply works better, especially for scrolling through long documents.
The ShuttleXpress is much bigger than the PowerMate (about twice the diameter), which may be a problem for people with limited space, but it feels more natural under my hand, and my fingers rest perfectly on the five buttons. Its rubber, spring-loaded shuttle ring also feels more natural than the PowerMate's knob for scrolling. Aesthetically, however, the PowerMate's brushed aluminum and pulsing blue LED not only looks nicer but feels cooler as well.
The ShuttleXpress could go even further by offering chording, where you invoke actions by pressing two or more buttons at a time. Chording would expand the number of possible actions well beyond five. I would also like to be able to type, say, Command-Tab, to switch applications using this device. (As it is, you cannot set Command-Tab to this device, since the Finder traps this command, and you cannot manually select or enter keystrokes in the ShuttleXpress application, like you can when configuring the PowerMate.)
I'd also like some way of printing out the ShuttleXpress's settings. With so many buttons, and so many shuttle ring settings, you can easily forget which actions do what with which applications. It would be helpful to have a graphical printout, that shows the shape of the ShuttleXpress, with the settings next to each part of the device.
Contour Design has told me that most of the above reservations will be addressed in a forthcoming version, due out in a few months. If all these corrections are made, I'd have few negative things to say about the ShuttleXpress.
In the end, the ShuttleXpress wins out over the PowerMate for usability and flexibility. I'm sold, at least until someone raises the ante in this new breed of input devices. In just a couple of days, I became hooked on the ShuttleXpress and unplugged my PowerMate, a device that I previously couldn't live without. I won't claim that I'll never get rid of this device - I've already eaten crow for saying that about the PowerMate - but any competitors are going to have to go a lot further to get me to unplug the ShuttleXpress.
The ShuttleXpress costs $60, and runs under Mac OS versions 8.6 through 9.2, or under Mac OS X 10.1 or later.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. He is co-author, with Todd Stauffer, of the forthcoming book, Mastering Mac OS X - Panther Edition, to be published by Sybex in 2003.]
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