Tourbox have asked me to review their latest mini desktop controller the Tourbox Neo, that works for not only photography and video based software but for literally any program that could do with a level of extra button functionality.
I few years back when these controllers first came onto the market, I tried a few of them out. Now I have been an avid fan of the simple ‘keyboard’ for many years, trying to train my photography students to use both hands for fast interaction. Memorising shortcuts and making the computer work for you is vital for speed and flow, but all software takes a while to learn before you are working fluently. Tourbox extends that functionality with a small footprint pad, that attempts to enhance the user experience and immediacy of your computer experience.
Tourbox is a high quality product. It comes in a lavish box, with leads (which is rare these days). You install the Tourbox Console software which is easy to do and open to find a well laid out experience, with helpful graphics and Tool Tips to get you started.
Everything looks straightforward, easy to navigate and pressing the buttons on the console simply jump the software to the appropriate function, which is a relief. The start feels good.
So How does it Work?
Simply put, the idea is to match keyboard shortcuts, tools and other operations to the buttons and dials on the Neo. A complex set of key presses can be reduced to one button click. I have to say that for those who want template setups, although some are provided on install, you will have to learn somebody else software maps. Perhaps it is far better to map and create your own and fully customise the user experience. That is exactly what I did, mapping a host of regularly used keyboard shortcuts to the buttons, but on first attempt it became frustrating.
Now when programming the software, it is important to learn their method. Although button selection is so good, with the software menus responding to your Tourbox button click, assign a keyboard shortcut is irritating until you understand what is happening. This is is something that needs attention if Tourbox wants to keep their customers from returning the product or attract new ones.
If I want to program the software to make a button perform a particular function, it is important to understand it needs to be linked to a preexisting Keyboard Shortcut that is already set up in the software you are using.
To put it the simplest way, lets start with a easy program to map - Google Chrome. If you want to open a New Tab in Google Chrome with a button click, then CMD+T is the shortcut you need.
1 - Firstly open Chrome, create a new preset by linking the program to Tourbox Console (easy) and then add a shortcut to one of the buttons. Click in the field window, add the shortcut and confirm.
2- Now the problem begins - you have to remember that Backspace and Return are potentially programmable keyboard presses, so you if you accidentally press CMD+Y instead of CMD+T, you would naturally hit Backspace in the field to delete the character - now you have assigned Backspace. There is no ‘CLEAR’ button on the software (so badly needed) - you instinctively think you have to exit the page, delete the shortcut and then try again. That's not the case.
Actually all you need to do is press CMD+T and it changes, as it is not inputting a character in the field, its recording a key press, but I feel both approaches need to work properly as users get instantly confused and then frustrated (as trialling on a few of my friends has proved).
Quite rightly, you do need to know the Tourbox method, (supporting videos also need a lot of work) - the software should give the user a number of different ways to reach the same conclusion, like most good input programming methods in operating systems for example.
Tourbox needs to look at Ableton Live - it is so fast to program keyboard shortcuts and controllers without this heavy labour, which gets tedious when programming multiple buttons.
Also if you make an incorrect entry and then decide you want to delete it from the presets list, you have to leave the page, EDIT TAGS (that’s an well hidden click on the three little lines beside the Application (Google Chrome in this case) and then edit the list of Tags in a separate window.
It should simply be a ‘right click > Delete’ in the programming window, but it becomes laborious.
It’s this sort of routine that makes users switch off, but I am happy to overcome this! I often test software without the manual because these sorts of things should be intuitive and straightforwards - they also show off the programmer's ability to plan the user interface, but this is only a minor fail for Tourbox, but nonetheless a fail than can be easily corrected.
My tenacity for the software was pushed, but after I managed to get used to it, then things began to fall into place. I have since programmed an entire Photoshop layout, Capture One and I went with the Lightroom preset provided, which works very well.
If you prefer learning a template there are plenty on offer and they are easy to download and install from the Tourbox website. I am not sure I would want to do this, but it is nice to see the opportunity is there for those that do.
Does it Do the Job?
Well I have to say it, like most controllers I have personally used, it fixes a problem that doesn’t really exist.
After doing some local photography travelling in my camper van, I was not missing the Tourbox from my office setup. I have forced myself to use it for this review and don't get me wrong - I do find it useful in Photoshop - when changing brush sizes (with the dial), running actions from single button presses as well as selecting favourite tools. Yet when I think about it, all of this can be done from the keyboard and a mouse (which I know inside out) and a keyboard contains a lot more buttons so to speak.
A few of the buttons are difficult to use, the arrows feel too small and are clumsy to use with the thumb, the 'tour' button next to the rotary dial is inaccessible in its current position and the 'little finger' button (for those using it with the left hand) seems precarious, but then again I don't have to use it if I don't want to.
Nonetheless, now I have got over the steep climb of programming it, I will continue to use it as it calls me onwards to utilise it in my workflow. I keep searching for the software interaction where it will truly shine, but I have not found it yet.
It is a quality build, with some buttons that could require more tactile surface textures (they feel rather plastic as others have also commented), but the solid weight and wonderful rubberised finish win you over. It sits firm on the desktop for now. It’s a great complimentary size to a bluetooth Mac keyboard and it has a lot of potential.
Finally the price - its £148 in the UK which is a serious investment. I have also tried using Wacom tablets in my workflow, but the whole concept feels alien to me, as I am not a graphic designer needing the pen experience. In essence, it's just a software programmable box, whose sales rely importantly on the 'Apple experience' sales point. Increase those tactile buttons to Apple standard and it my be enough to win over more customers and improve that software experience.
Fix the programming user experience with some alternate routes, enhance the Console and the Tourbox Neo is a definite addition to your busy working day.