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Computer Accessories

Microsoft Dial, MacBook Touch Bar outsmarted by Brain Magic O2 joystick

The joystick may be the smartest accessory yet for replacing keyboard shortcuts in creative apps.

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Lori Grunin/CNET

Launching on Kickstarter today, Brain Magic's Orbital 2 joystick seems like one of the most well thought-out control devices for creatives I've seen in a while. I didn't get to use it much -- the interface was completely in Japanese when I met with Brain Magic to see it -- but it still looks like a pretty impressive piece of interface design and engineering. 

The O2 works with MacOS and Windows, and uses a common control convention of mapping its controls to keyboard shortcuts. In this case, it supports up to 256 keyboard shortcuts, macros or text snippets per profile, all completely customizable with the software. 

The hardware uses several control mechanisms: tilting the joystick to one of eight positions (with vibration to tell you it's "clicked") to select a tool; rotating the dial at the top of the stick or pressing the button at the top for modifiers; and a flat ring that adds eight more buttons that can bring up custom menus as well as execute commands. The glowing ring tells you which profile you're using.

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It doesn't support wireless connections, which would be nice. It connects via Micro-USB.

Lori Grunin/CNET

What makes it different? The total package. It's compact. It requires small hand and no arm movements. It can provide onscreen hints for the active controls until your muscle memory takes over. You can adjust the sensitivity. And it's illuminated, so it's usable in the dark. It's all metal and feels durable and well made. The onscreen menus can be optimized for the input device in your dominant hand -- clickable areas for a mouse or flick menus for a stylus -- and each menu item can be a group of several options. 

It's not as slickly integrated as the Microsoft Surface Dial or Apple's MacBook Touch Bar, or as a custom control surface for individual applications (such as Loupedeck). You can't, for instance, glide your way through the color picker in Photoshop. However, if the tool maps the number row, such as the opacities in Photoshop layers (which change to key percentages, like 80 percent when you hit "8") you can map those, too.

And without Linux support, it won't work with many really high-end custom applications, which is too bad.

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You can tilt, rotate and press the top button with minimal hand movements.

Lori Grunin/CNET

But to get the most out of any of those, it requires custom programming for each application; the keyboard-shortcut approach allows a device to work with all your applications. For the Dial's coolest features, you have to slap it on the screen of a Surface device. The Touch Bar forces you to look down, which defeats the purpose of using it for most creative work, among other serious design drawbacks.

The price, though, might be a sticking point for some. Brain Magic currently lists the "normal" starting price at 36,000 yen (about $320, £240 or AU$440), or as little as 31,000 yen for Day 1 backers. (Though it looks like day one started at 4 p.m. Japan time, so assume normal Super Early Bird pricing of about 10 percent more.) There are different bundles of cases and bases.

While Brain Magic's Kickstarter offers discounts for early backers, everyone is slated to get the O2 in January 2019. Caveat: Since this is a Kickstarter campaign, there's no guarantee that this is or will become a real product. 

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