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Review: Palette’s Modular Photo Editing Controls Are Pricey but Powerful

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In a world saturated by digital controls and on-screen buttons, the team at Palette is looking to create a more tactile future. Originally launched on Kickstarter, Palette wanted to change the way people interact with software by creating hot-swappable hardware modules. We got a chance to test the Palette Expert Kit, which allowed us to map our favorite programs, such as Lightroom, onto three dials, two sliders, and two buttons.

There are a number of Palette editions ranging from the basic starter kit to the more advanced professional package. There is also a special limited edition professional outfit that is crafted from wood.

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Let’s take a closer look at what came in our box. First is the core module that is the brains behind the entire operation. It has a small screen to let you know what software profile is currently selected. Next we received three multi-function dials and two ‘arcade style buttons’. And finally, we also received two manual sliders.

All of the modules contain an LED Halo that lights up, so you can quickly organize your configurations. The combination of the anodized aluminum, metal knobs, and LED Halos create well-crafted modules that feel well worth their prices.

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The power module itself features an OLED screen in addition to the LED Halo. This module is hooked up to your PC or Mac via the included Micro USB cable. The power module acts as the central point of communication with which all other modules communicate through. It measures 45mm on all sides and weighs 47 grams.

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The button module is modeled after a typical arcade style button, giving you the feeling like you’re playing Street Fighter every time you give it a click. The dial module is beautifully crafted with knobs machined from metal, giving them a pleasant feel. Each knob can be turned and clicked inwards for an additional programmed function. Both units measure as 45mm squares with the button weighing in at 46 grams while the dial weighs 56 grams.

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Last is the slider, which acts as a linear fader. This is the largest and heaviest of the modules coming in at 45mm x 90mm and weighing 86 grams. The module is not motorized, but we’ll come back to that later in the review. Overall, each module feels great and works as promised.

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Palette works with both Mac and Windows, and can emulate a number of different hardware including keyboards, MIDI devices, and joysticks. The included software can be used to program custom functions with built-in support for Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of applications. The USB cord not only provides data but powers the entire system without the need for any additional cables or wires.

The modules can be attached to each other in almost any configuration, allowing a truly custom experience. Magnets ensure the modules stay connected during use. The module will still remember its programmed function even if it comes undone.

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We plugged the power module into our Mac and began testing. The software allows you to create the following types of profiles: Lightroom CC, Photoshop CC, Illustrator CC, After Effects CC, InDesign CC, Premiere Pro CC, keyboard emulation, MIDI emulation, and joystick emulation. We decided to start by using our Palette kit with Adobe Lightroom CC.

With a single click, we selected the Lightroom photo editing option and were asked to assign our controls. We assigned the three knobs to control shadows, exposure, and highlights; the two buttons to control image ratings; and the sliders to control contrast and saturation.

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We decided to keep the light blue LED color scheme for Lightroom, as it seemed appropriate, and fired up the application. The main Palette app immediately noted that it was connected to Lightroom, and the power module displayed the application’s logo.

Loading up a default Lightroom catalog, we were able to play with a few test photographs. The Palette add-on worked perfectly as promised. We were easily able to adjust the image’s tone using the knobs and control the exact amount of contrast and saturation using the sliders. When we liked a photograph, we simply hit one of the arcade-style buttons to increase its rating and the other to decrease it.

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So far, all seems perfect in the world of Palette, and for $300 one would expect that it comes close to perfection. However, we couldn’t help but notice one issue that seemed to destroy our entire workflow. The included sliders are not mechanical.

Let us explain exactly what having a nonmechanical slider means and why it is needed during post-processing. Let’s say that we are editing an image and have the slider set to -30 saturation. When we switch over to another image the software will display saturation as zero, but our slider is still set to -30. This means that as soon as we gently touch the slider, it will force the software to jump to -30. When working on a number of different photographs, this can get pretty cumbersome.

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We reached out to Palette and were excited to learn that the company is currently looking into developing a motorized version of their existing sliders. As of now, the slider module costs $50, so we are curious to know how much a motorized variation may end up costing. If you are looking to add on additional buttons or dials, they are $30 and $50 respectively.

With Adobe Lightroom, the Palette kit seems to be an excellent solution for those looking to add a more tactile experience to their editing process. We also briefly tested Palette with Photoshop where we were able to adjust selection rotation, brush properties, layers, and more. It was a nice addition to Photoshop, but we feel Palette truly shines within Lightroom.

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Lastly, we decided to test out the unit’s ability to emulate the keyboard. Selecting the keyboard profile within Palette, we were able to choose the button and dial modules for customization. Unfortunately, the slider module cannot be used while in keyboard emulation mode.

We paired the Palette button and knob and downloaded Lep’s World, a free game from the Mac App store, to test. We programmed the button for jumping and the knob for running left and right. To our glee, the controls worked perfectly and we played a game for a bit longer than we would like to admit.

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Overall, the Palette systems have a lot to offer, and the team is continuously improving how the modules function. Right now the kit makes a good offering for photo editing enthusiasts; however, we might suggest waiting until the more advanced motorized sliders are released. Palette has a lot of possible applications for photographers, gamers, DJs, and more. If you simply demand physical controls, then Palette may just be perfect for you.

The price tag for Palette starts at $200 for the “Starter Kit” which includes two buttons, one dial, and one slider. Our kit, the “Expert Kit” cost $300 and included two buttons, three dials, and two sliders. The top of the line “Professional Kit” costs $500 and includes four buttons, six dials, and four sliders. Lastly, if you need your professional kit carved from pure wood, you can pay $900 for that limited edition production.

The prices may seem a bit high, but the Palette is extremely well constructed and offers capabilities above any other system we have seen. If you are interested in the system and debating on making a purchase, we suggest beginning with the “Starter Kit” and seeing where that takes you.

If you are interested in learning more about Palette, or purchasing a unit for yourself, you can visit the official website by clicking here.

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