Review: Griffin Technology's PowerMate

The PowerMate will have you twisting the night away (August 20th, 2002)

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Product Manufacturer: Griffin Technology

Price: $45

The Good

  • Easy to configure, great customization options, flexible, attractive

The Bad

  • A little pricey, two actions are difficult to execute

Griffin Technology's PowerMate is a gadget in every sense of the word. More than almost any other hardware peripheral at Macworld Expo, users crowded around the PowerMate at Griffin's booth - before they even knew what it was used for. The most common question heard at the Griffin booth was "What's this glowing chrome wheel and what does it do?" The most common answer was "Pretty much anything."

The PowerMate was originally conceived as an hi-tech volume knob and mute button, but it's developed into one of the most flexible peripherals on the market. PowerMate, which is compatible with Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, and Windows, comes with software to configure its five actions: roll right, roll left, click, click and roll right, click and roll left. These five actions can be bound to any arbitrary keyboard combinations within an application.



PowerMate allows a Global setting (which it uses if your currently active application doesn't have a specific setting), which by default controls the system volume, but users can add as many custom application settings as desired. One of PowerMate's greatest strengths is scrolling through long documents; reading lengthy developer documentation like the Aqua Human Interface Guidelines (a 300-page PDF) is made much easier with a device like the PowerMate. Although it may not sound logical, loosely twisting a small wheel is far more ergonomically sound than gripping a mouse and continually clicking a small button or scrolling a small wheel - especially when you're doing it over a period of several hours. Repeated use shows that users' hands feel far less tired at the end of reading long PDFs or web pages with a PowerMate than a mouse and keyboard. Because of this strength, we configured our PowerMate to scroll up and down in Internet Explorer and TextEdit and turn pages in Preview.

But for some applications, scrolling is neither a practical nor an optimal use for a PowerMate. Creativity goes a long way with putting the PowerMate to its best use. For example, twisting left and right can be configured to flip through tabs in Adium (Cmd-left and Cmd-right arrow), a popular Mac OS X AIM chat client. It can be configured to scrub through video in QuickTime Player, iMovie, or Final Cut Pro (and indeed, this is one of its most popular uses in the hands of video professionals), or as an audio controller. Andrew Green, Griffin's Vice President of Marketing, commented that some customers had contacted the company asking for the ability to use multiple PowerMates at once; audio customers, for example, wanted to connect eight PowerMates as audio controllers to their Macs, and other customers wanted to use them to mix tracks together. (Griffin, in an amusing example for the wide variety of things PowerMates can be used for, demoed a Mac set up as an Etch-a-Sketch with two PowerMates as the controls.)

There are some other interesting features as well. Griffin includes a "game mode," which causes the PowerMate to send key commands to the application in a way more useful for games. As the PowerMate manual says, "[games] take a key command and continue its action until another key tells it differently." This can be used for navigating ships in games like Descent 3, steer cars in driving games, or aim guns in first-person shooters. The PowerMate also supports remote power on for compatible computers, and the included 40-inch USB extension cable makes powering a computer under your desk more convenient. And if the built-in customization isn't enough, PowerMate is also completely scriptable. One of the more interesting applications that uses PowerMate scripting is Unsanity's Cee Pee You, a menubar CPU monitor that also includes the option to make the PowerMate pulse at various rates to indicate system load. Although this can get rather blinding during some intensive work, it does show the kind of things PowerMate can be used for.

Since the PowerMate's light is completely AppleScriptable (the AppleScript dictionary is available under "PowerMateDriver"), the possibilities are endless. Users could script the PowerMate to blink on receipt of new email, or write a shell script that causes the light to blink when server processes crash (with the Unix osascript program bundled with Mac OS X). The functionality is limited only by a user's imagination.

Griffin also provides a Tips and Tricks page that suggests key combination settings for a few popular applications.

When using the PowerMate as a system volume control, the volume level does not update in other displays, such as the menubar; however, Griffin will be releasing a software update that fixes this bug shortly (Griffin stated that the update would be out in a "few days" as of August 20). The software update also adds the most requested feature: using the PowerMate as an Eject key, so users can use third-party keyboards and still have an eject button. Additionally, the forthcoming update will add a "long click" feature: holding down the button for 1-4 seconds can be configured as a different function than standard click, which can be useful for ejecting a CD or powering down the computer. Finally, the update will offer improved sensitivity to system volume adjustment.

The PowerMate is not without its faults. Firstly, the "click-and-rotate" action is relatively difficult to execute, and many users will likely fall back to standard keyboard shortcuts or the mouse to execute those actions instead. Also, the $45 price tag will likely deter some would-be customers, because although the PowerMate can increase efficiency and enjoyment in several arenas of computer use, it isn't a must-have device in the full sense of the word.

All things considered, our final call is that the great looks and extensive customization features make the PowerMate well worth the money, especially for Mac users in the audio or video arenas.

by Neal Parikh


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