3Dconnexion SpaceExplorer, SpaceNavigator (First Look Review)31 Dec, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Next-generation motion-control devices.
If you model in 3D, you need to rotate, pan and zoom—a lot. Most programs provide methods for this: middle-mouse-drag, on-screen controls or even your computer's arrow keys. But none are very intuitive or easy to control. A company called 3Dconnexion has a better way. It offers a line of 3D motion controllers that are just about the coolest things going (figure 1).
The SpacePilot and SpaceTraveler may already be familiar to you. The SpaceExplorer and SpaceNavigator are brand-new models. The SpacePilot ($399) is the top-of-the-line product with an LCD screen and tons of customizable buttons that change their functions depending on what you're doing. The SpaceExplorer ($299) is next, with no LCD and fewer buttons. The SpaceNavigator is an entry-level product, and the SpaceTraveler ($199) is designed for use with mobile computers. I reviewed the SpacePilot last year (September 2005, www.cadalyst.com/905spacepilot), so I won't repeat it here.
Figure 1. The 3Dconnexion product line includes, from left, the SpacePilot, the SpaceExplorer, the SpaceNavigator and the SpaceTraveler. All can be customized to increase your productivity.
All four products let you control your models with absolute precision. The entry-level SpaceNavigator starts at $59 for personal—that is, noncommercial—use. The price is as new as the product. After many years, 3Dconnexion has finally figured out that its prices have to be within the reach of the common man. $500 was just too much for people to spend on a peripheral device. Now anyone can afford one! That's significant. You can use the SpaceNavigator in all kinds of programs besides your CAD application: Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, etc.
Businesses don't have to make a huge investment in the SpaceNavigator, either. They can pick one up for $99. There is no difference between the standard and personal devices other than the licensing. (3Dconnexion believes that businesses should pay more for the right to use the device to make money.)
The device itself takes up little space on your desk. It's heavy enough to stay where you put it. SpaceNavigator is slightly bigger than the SpaceTraveler and about twice as heavy. It looks and feels more substantial, even though it's less expensive. I tend to think it will eventually replace the SpaceTraveler for mobile operations, but only the market will tell.
The SpaceNavigator and the SpaceTraveler are almost the same device. The SpaceNavigator has fewer buttons than the SpaceTraveler, which has eight. I think this is a good move. Most users I've talked to rarely use the buttons. The SpaceNavigator has two buttons, one on each side. Their placement makes them easy to find and use. One button is for Fit, which centers the design or model in the middle of the screen. The other button is for Panel, which brings up a software control panel where you set or change device settings (more on this later). Of course, you can always reprogram what the buttons do.
3Dconnexion SpaceExplorer, SpaceNavigator
Both controllers work with a USB connection, so hookup is no problem. Be aware, though, that when they say you need to be running Windows XP SP2, they mean it. The software won't install otherwise. 3dconnexion plans to add Windows 2000 support in early 2007.
The SpaceExplorer is for those who want to optimize the modeling experience. It has a nicely ergonomic design with 15 buttons for Escape, Control, Alt, Plus, Minus, Fit, Panel and functions that the user programs. You can easily reach all of them and, more importantly, you can see all of them. Because it has fewer buttons than the SpacePilot, which maxes out at 21, you have a better chance of remembering what they all do. The Space-Explorer connects to your computer in two ways: either USB (for Windows) or serial port (for UNIX and Linux).
The 3Dconnexion Control Panel software lets you configure how the device works (figure 2). You can set the sensitivity, and settings can be saved for each program that you use. The Update wizard checks to see if updated versions of the software are available on the 3Dconnexion site. If so, it goes out and gets the latest update. And it won't bug you with pop-ups every time you turn around. The current device driver no longer supports older serial port products, but if you own one, don't despair. 3Dconnexion understands that someone who has plunked down $500 for a device is going to want to use it until it no longer works. Older drivers can be downloaded from the Web site.
Figure 2. Using 3Dconnexion s products is very straightforward. Apply pressure to the knob/cap, and your model moves in that direction. It quickly becomes second nature. Once you get used to it, you ll never willingly go back.
One thing I really want to see is how to use these products in a gaming environment. At one point, the company made a SpaceBall game controller (it worked exceedingly well with Descent), but it didn't work with enough games to keep it on my desk (that, and its ergonomics were pretty questionable). With those kinds of comments in mind, 3Dconnexion plans to offer a software development kit sometime within the next few months or so.
The Whole Package
It doesn't matter which one of these devices you get—it'll be one of the best purchases you make for your computer. I'd like to see these products bundled with every computer sold. Run—don't walk—to get one of these just as soon as you can. For more information about 3Dconnexion or its products, go to www.3dconnexion.com. Highly recommended.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.