Review: Hanvon delivers the tablet Mac – sort of

David Braue
25 September, 2009
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One of the biggest problems with conventional tablets is the disconnect between where you gesture with the pen, and where the mouse appears. Practice makes perfect when it comes to mastering these gestures, but wouldn’t it be easier if you could draw directly onto the screen? Hanvon has tried to offer an easier solution with its SenTIP tablet – and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Design and setup. The unit is a flat, tablet-shaped device measuring 39x27cm and 17mm thick. A 12-inch LCD display is mounted slightly above centre, with a thick black bezel having four touch-sensitive buttons and a touch-sensitive slider on each side of the screen. An adjustable stand on the unit’s back allows it to sit at any angle from nearly-flat to nearly-vertical; the stand can also be folded away for use flat on one’s lap or desk.

The SenTIP certainly loves its cables: the display connects with a single wire to a separate breakout box, which includes a USB port, DVI port, VGA port, AC input, and four top-mounted buttons for controlling the display functions. The DVI and VGA ports allow connection to your existing Mac as a second monitor (BYO $35 Mini DVI-to-VGA or Mini DVI-to-DVI adapter if necessary).

Configuring the unit took a bit of patience, especially since all the documentation and on-screen installation software came in Chinese only. Load the Mac OS X drivers (the unit also supports Windows systems) and restart, and the tablet shows your desktop background and is automatically recognised as a second monitor by Mac OS X.

Our test unit came configured to display Chinese, but a bit of fiddling with the buttons on the breakout box revealed an On-Screen Display setting that supports English and a number of other languages. The box is also used to control brightness, contrast, and other video settings.

Usability. Once configured, the SenTIP functions both as a second monitor and a conventional tablet. Like any second monitor, application sessions are moved between primary and secondary desktops with a simple drag-and-drop. The effect is quite good, once you get used to it.

As with any tablet, the USB connection allows the device to emulate a mouse: move the stylus around its surface and the cursor follows it, while tapping simulates a mouse click. A button on the stylus emulates a mouse right-click.

It wasn’t initially clear how to configure the tablet, which was a problem because in its default setup we were seeing the second desktop on the tablet but all mouse activity was displaying on the primary desktop. However, inspection of our Applications folder revealed an application called HWTblt which loaded a rudimentary but effective control panel for the unit. [update: This review was conducted using Leopard, but upgrading to Snow Leopard after completion of this review generated an error message saying the drivers were unsupported; we are confirming the availability of SL-compatible drivers and will update this information when available].

HWTblt options include controlling the ‘hardness’ of the unit – in other words, how hard you have to push the pressure-sensitive tablet to make a mark – and a ‘Region’ setting that controls whether the tablet is mapped to the primary or secondary desktop. Correcting this setting redirected mouse movement and taps to the correct display, and we were in business. HWTblt also allows mapping of a limited subset of keystrokes – including Command-C, Command-V, Command-Space, and others – to each of the touch-sensitive buttons on the unit’s front.

The SenTIP comes bundled with a variety of graphics applications and five pen-based presentation and handwriting applications, but these were all Windows-only so we did not test them.

Performance. The ability to interact with the screen delivered the experience of a full touchscreen Mac, although with a 12-inch display at 1280×800 pixels it paled in comparison to our 24-inch iMac. That said, being able to draw directly onto a graphical image allowed a measure of control that’s hard to achieve using conventional drawing tools.

Our experiments with the free ArtRage Starter Edition, a pressure-sensitive graphical paint application, showed it was easy to draw colourful drawings on the tablet. Most importantly, the ability to interact with the desktop itself increased accuracy and made the unit a quite acceptable addition.

Interacting with other applications was easy and intuitive: the unit’s 5080 lines-per-inch resolution and the pen’s sharp nib provided high accuracy in its interface. Although our test machine wasn’t running Snow Leopard, loading that operating system’s large onscreen keyboard could easily turn the SenTIP into a tablet Mac of sorts.

While image quality was good overall, we found the screen a bit darker than we would have liked. A session with Mac OS X’s calibration tools seemed to improve the overall colour rendering somewhat, but efforts to increase the unit’s overall brightness caused the image to become washed out. This may also have been the result of comparing the tablet with the iMac’s quite-bright display; suffice to say that those looking for perfect colour matching will want to assess the tablet’s colour and temperature options quite carefully.

Australian Macworld buying advice. Hanvon’s SenTIP is a well-executed alternative to conventional tablets. Its overall solid design and ability to interact directly with the on-screen image make it a highly intuitive interface for those doing regular design and graphics work. Limited resolution and brightness range mean it’s not a full substitute for a computer monitor, but it’s definitely worth looking into if your work requires a tablet and you’d like to see what you’re drawing, and where.

Company Hanvon
Compatibility Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), 10.5 (Leopard); review version was not compatible with 10.6 (Snow Leopard) but we are checking on availability of updated drivers.
Pros Innovative design; solid build; programmable function keys; accurate interface; lightweight; adjustable stand
Rating 4
Product SenTIP
Price $1429
ANZ contact FocusIn, (03) 9381 0763, www.focusin.com.au

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