REVIEW : Palette - Customizable Controls for Software

 The Palette Professional Kit from Palettegear

The Palette Professional Kit from Palettegear

The idea behind Palette is to allow the user of a number of photo and video applications to build a custom control surface for each application.  I contacted the manufacturer when the device was first announced, but they were not ready for media review at the time and I forgot about the device for about a year.  I recently, through the help of Chris Atkinson at Henry's, obtained a Professional version for evaluation.  Let's see what we see.

Palette is composed of an interlocking set of controllers, push buttons, rotary wheels with press options, and sliders.  They connect together via magnets and a set of pins and contacts.  Putting them together is really easy, literally just click them together in a layout that you find pleasing. 

Next you download the Palette application, I did my testing on macOS and run the installer.  Registration means that the application gets activated.  There are a number of predefined profiles included with the Palette app, and you can create your own. 

Kudos to the team.  Their website www.palettegear.com is easy to navigate and filled with informative and useful videos.

The controller connects to the computer by USB and the whole thing is powered that way, no batteries or wall warts needed.  I was up and running in under five minutes. 

 This is what a Palette controller looks like from the bottom.  Very clean and simple

This is what a Palette controller looks like from the bottom.  Very clean and simple

I built my first Lightroom profile in about two minutes bypassing the predesigned profile in order to accommodate my standard workflow.  I used one of the profiles for Final Cut Pro X but found it didn't suit my workflow so I modifed it and saved it under a new name.  The app supports this and will also support automatic profile switching when you are moving from application to application.  I find this useful as I often jump back and forth between Lightroom and Photoshop.

When you start an application the controller displays the icon and name of the profile.  Touching a controller displays the name of the configuration that you have assigned to that controller.  You can name these whatever you like for clarity.  I think that if was setting this up for a lot of apps, I would have to make some acetate overlays that I could write on as reminders of what each controller does.

I have had a couple of challenges during the review process.  While it is great that the master controller tells you which app profile is active, the reality that you have to remember what each control unit does has proven hard for me.  Each app profile is different, and if I go a couple of days without using the application with the Palette I forget which buttons do what and the idea is to speed things up not slow things down.  You can change the halo colours of each Palette controller using the configuration app as a means to group things together.  I confess doing so while easy, did nothing to improve my memory of what each controller was set to do, and the more controllers I had, the more confusing it was.  Touching a controller to display what it does could cause a change in the software and that is, in my opinion at least, less than a bonus.

Initially I thought I would want more control units for customization, but practice says I don't because I just cannot remember what each control unit does for each app.  What I missed initially is that while it is possible to have innumerable profiles for different apps, you can also have multiple profiles for a single application and toggle through the available profiles.  Spending the time to design your system will pay off in the long run.

The large push buttons are fine for what would be key clicks and mouse clicks.  They do not appear, or at least I could not get them to, to enable macros.  So you are limited in what they can do.  They have a fairly long throw and are loud, so I had to stop using them during the recording of my podcast, and now only use two of them to perform a blade action and a delete action.  They act like momentary mouse or keyboard clicks although I suspect you could program them for on / off functions too.  I had no need for that so did not try it.

The rotary knobs are very handy for replicating sliders.  As they have no preferred position and no scale indicators, they are good replacements for mouse driven sliders and a huge win over mouse driven dials such as are found in Soundsoap and other Logic audio controllers.  They also have a momentary switch function, that allows to switch into fine grained movements if the software supports such a thing.  That's a huge win.  With Lightroom, I found the momentary press reset the assigned control to zero.  I also found that if you use option key presses with an assigned Palette control (such as the so useful white/black overlay you get with the LR Masking slider if you hold down the Alt/Opt key while moving the slider) doesn't actually do anything.  This means that if you like to use modifier keys with sliders, it appears you are out of luck if you map the application adjustment to a Palette controller.

I had the most hope for the slider controller units and sadly they are the least usable and therefore least useful.  They have no zero position so as soon as they are activated to replace a slider in software, wherever the physical position of the slider is, absorbs the position in software. Using Lightroom as an example, the default zero of any slider is the middle, but if your physical slider happened to be all the way to one end of the controller, you would effectively be locked out of going the other way.  Your first touch of the slider activates the software positioning and then you can move the slider to where you want it.  This makes for a very visually bouncy experience.  I very much respect that this is not a trivial thing for the folks at Palette, but I firmly believe that when a profile is loaded the Palette sliders that are assigned should move to the proper position automatically.  This would raise the cost for motorized sliders, but they exist in relatively inexpensive audio interfaces and do these resets automatically.  I've used boards from Mackie and Presonus that have automated sliders and they are very useful.  I cannot say the same about the Palette sliders for any of my use cases.

The control units have periphery illumination so they are easily located in a dark room, and I have found Palette to be quite on the ball with software updates and new profiles.  The challenge that I face is that I would need a ton of units to build a useful toolset for Lightroom or Photoshop or Final Cut or Premiere and the inability to see at a glance what a mapped controller does makes this both ridiculously costly, space demanding and hard to use.

I really like the idea of one set of controls being usable with multiple apps.  I wish I could control the speed of the control more precisely, but that may be an issue with the host software itself.  I like the build quality, the design and the responsiveness of the Palette team with updates.  The elephant in the room though is the cost which overshadows some of the challenges I saw using the system.  The Professional system sells for $720 and comes with one Master, four pushbuttons, six dials and four sliders.  Being kind that's about $50 per controller, and as I said, I found the sliders lovely to look at but a challenge in production.  The Palette folks have never lied about what their offering does, but at the current pricing, I cannot recommend it.  The Professional kit would need to be around $320 to be a reasonable purchase considering the limitations.  I just don't see the return on the investment at the present costing.

Your needs may be different from mine.  Lots of folks are very enthused with the Palette system and see it as critical to their success.  While I liked it, I can not justify the purchase given the limitations I see.  You can certainly head over to palettegear.com and check out what the folks have to say and perhaps a Palette is just what you need.