It’s no secret that I have an unquenchable, near fetish-like lust for buttons and sliders or anything really that makes image processing akin to playing some freaky, incongruous musical instrument one might find in the Mos Eisley Cantina. This year, at CES 2014, Griffin announced an updated version of their PowerMate - an all-purpose, aluminum knob that will be wireless and wonderful and not out for a few more months. Luckily, there is a pretty great (and relatively inexpensive) wired version available now.
The PowerMate ($30) has somehow managed to fly under my radar for quite some time. It came out in 2001, initially begging the question, “What the hell is this for?” A beautiful, rounded chunk of polished aluminum with a blue light on the bottom yearning for a Miami Beach DJ booth. To the laymen, it’s a glorified volume knob. But to me, it was a wondrous use for my left hand – giving me a better, more ergonomic way to control brush elements in Photoshop.
Out of the box, there wasn’t much included. There is the knob itself, a USB extension cord and manual. The PowerMate weighs a solid 4.2 oz (110 g) and has a 22” cable length with the extension. Although its own documentation touts the PowerMate as a volume knob, it quickly points out (in trendy jargon nonetheless) that, because it is actually an assignable USB controller, the possibilities for what it can do are pretty much endless.
No software is included, requiring a small download from the website. Within minutes, I was programming commands – giving shortcuts a what for. Programming is very basic and straight-forward. There are only have a few possible inputs: turn left, turn right, short press, long press and pressing down and turning. Commands can be assigned to particular programs as well – turning left change brush size in Photoshop, but it can scroll through your image library in Lightroom.
Programming the keystrokes is incredibly simple. First, drag and drop a "Trigger" into the active set. Second, drag an "Action" onto your trigger. There are many actions to choose from, but the only one I needed was the "Send Key" action. To decrease the brush size, use the shortcut "[" and to increase, use "]" I used "B" as my button push to select the brush tool and a longer button push (using the "J" shortcut) to select the healing tool.
After assigning my commands, I was ready to get to work. After a few minutes of experimenting, I did notice a bit of lag on the responsiveness in the early parts of the turn. I wanted something precise, not an arcade knob. I spoke to the support at Griffin, and they are aware of and investigating the problem. The solution – at least for now – is to use version 2.1 instead of their current version 3.0. I installed this, and the knob worked like a champ. There are, however, a few things that are sacrificed by downgrading the software. 1) You lose some fancy light effects. 2) The interface is slightly less streamlined. 3) I am getting a glitch that I can’t seem to shake regarding the shortcut keys not working when pressing the button – I’m aware this could be the fault of running the current Mac version on an unsupported version of their software. I’m still working on fixing this, but no solutions as of yet.
I would also like to take the opportunity to point out the blue light on the bottom. It can be set as a steady light, a pulsing light, a CPU monitor or it can be variable depending on volume. I suppose this is a neat, albeit completely arbitrary feature, but it’s distracting and I turned it off.
Do you need this? Of course not. That being said, it does make your life just a tad bit easier. Sure you can use a keyboard shortcut or the buttons on your Wacom tablet, but a Yaris will get you to the same place as a Cadillac. Personally, I’ll stick with the knob. Life is too short for cramped hand positions.