Quick Look: TourBox Elite Creative Controller 3

Quick Look: TourBox Elite Creative Controller

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Introduction

TourBox Logo

TourBox was formed in 2016 and has gone through a couple of branding iterations along the way, including TourTech, before settling into the company it is today. It became better known in 2018 with the launch of the TourBox Neo, a programmable controller with several dials, knobs, buttons, and wheels meant to positively add to the workflow of content creators. I had heard of the product before as well, but was still using the Palette (now Monogram) Expert kit. Products of this kind are not very common given the niche market they serve, but with the burgeoning streaming business where everyone wants to be a full-time Twitch streamer or YouTuber, there's certainly room for a single, one-size-fits-all device that does not rely on expansion modules or costs 4+ figures.


I never got a chance to check out the TourBox Neo, but then came along the TourBox Elite—currently still up on Kickstarter as this is written. A representative from the company clearly had just looked up top tech websites or similar, assumed we do YouTube videos, and got in touch with me. I even received a "very useful" article review guideline to where it was obvious that there were a few other reviews of the thing that clearly were a copy-paste advertorial at best. But that did not seem necessary at all, especially given the feature set boasted by the TourBox Elite. Imagine an Xbox controller with haptic feedback and wireless connectivity, but with far more features and the ability to get your job done more efficiently. This remains a product for a select few, yet the Kickstarter campaign has surpassed its goal ten times over already. Out of interest and curiosity, I agreed to a quick look article, so thanks to TourBox for providing a sample for review!

Packaging and Accessories


There is a fine line between Kickstarter products actually needing the funds to get going and companies using the platform as a marketing/pre-order system. TourBox seems to be treading somewhere in between, with the experiences gained from the TourBox Neo put to good use in having a few samples ready for marketing, but there remaining some tasks for the retail launch itself. Packaging does not appear to be one, with this sample shipping in a full retail box inside a bubble wrap envelope for further protection. The TourBox Elite box is clean and black, with marketing lingo and the company name on the front. A sticker on the back is all that confirms the product name, and minimalism seems to be the name of the game on the sides, too. The lid of the box lifts up to reveal multi-layer packaging, which starts with a detailed multi-language user manual I highly recommend going through if this is your first time working with a creative controller, and by this I don't necessarily mean the controller is creative, which it might well be too, but that it is a controller used for creativity tasks.


A molded plastic inlay hosts the other contents, which come in two black drawstring bags in two separate compartments. These bags are thick enough to act as carry bags should you fancy bringing the controller along from one place to another, and somewhat negates the absence of a carry case. The larger of the two clearly contains the TourBox Elite itself, and the narrower, longer one houses a set of two non-rechargeable AA batteries along with a Type-C to Type-C cable. The TourBox Elite clearly features wireless connectivity over Bluetooth, and I appreciate the use of user-replaceable batteries rather than relying on an internal Li-ion battery that will eventually wear out, making for a controller that is always going to be in wired mode. The cable is 6' long and black, and I would have liked to see TourBox include a Type-C to Type-A adapter for those running short of available Type-C ports on their PC or laptop.

Closer Look


11 Keys, 3 Rotary Buttons, 4 Default Presets—that's how TourBox marketed the TourBox Neo, and it applies to the newer, better TourBox Elite too. The form factor is not different from the previous offering, which makes it all the easier to again relate to the world of game controllers with standard and elite versions, because why not. The TourBox Elite is about the size of an average human palm and has soft corners and curves to accommodate the left hand especially to keep the right hand free for other activities the creative controller is changing on the fly, though I can certainly see right-handed use having benefits, too. There are plenty of different I/O options on board, most of which are on the top, and all of them feel well executed. I do not see or feel anything cheap here, but was surprised by the use of an actual clicky mechanical switch on the left side. Dials, wheels, knobs, D-pad, buttons—there are many ways to describe all that is going on here. But I have to give credit to TourBox for not making it feel too crowded, with the different zones of activity leading you to segue fairly naturally from one position to another, and no adjacent set is even remotely similarly shaped, which is good for touch usage by memory.

As with other controllers, the goal with the TourBox Elite is to replace the mouse and keyboard combination, but in the realm of content creation. It comes in three color options: classic black, ivory white, and the modern smoke-black translucent edition I have here. It's no surprise then that the smoke-black ends up a limited edition, costs more than the other two opaque models, and also happens to be the one sent out to the media. I can certainly see the appeal, but you may want to check out the price hike between the other colors to this first. The TourBox logo is etched into the top-right corner on the front. The translucent acrylic panels also allow for a teaser of the internals, and as with everything else, it is tastefully done.


On the bottom is more of the smoke-black translucency, with the four raised feet at the corners each getting a rubber pad on the bottom to prevent scratches to the case, as well as add friction against the resting surface as you go about applying pressure to the TourBox Elite from various directions. A sticker on the back confirms this is indeed a testing prototype, with TourBox already aware of a few growing pains that are being fixed as we speak for the final version shipping to backers before a general retail launch. I appreciate the dedicated on/off switch on the back for when you wish to use the TourBox Elite in wireless mode, and the battery compartment cover that comes off to access the two AA batteries inside. I recommend going with NiMH rechargeable batteries once the provided alkaline batteries run out. Wired connectivity comes in the form of an expected Type-C port on the backside facing away from the user, and the accompanying Type-C cable fits in just fine. Note that the batteries do not charge with the wired connection in place, and you will have to find an available Type-C port or Type-C to Type-A adapter on your own as well.


After all testing was completed, I decided to see what is actually inside so you don't have to. There are Phillips-head screws under the rubber pads on the bottom, following which you need to pry the bottom case panel from the rest of the product. This is also when the enclosure for the on/off switch on the back can come loose, as will four spacers at the corners that go around the screws themselves. Putting everything back together is not trivial, so I do not encourage disassembly even outside of the obvious reason of voiding the warranty. The only reason I can think of doing so would be to lube the various moving compartments, but even that is not typically done by the user base for creative controllers, and some of these keys are best left unlubed. I did find it interesting that TourBox has a fairly substantial steel plate inside to add mass on the bottom, which also keeps the controller from easily sliding around on your desk. Solder quality is average, at least on this prototype sample, and all controller chips come with the identifier labels deliberately removed to make it harder for the competition and people like me to find out what is being used. All I can tell you is that there's clearly a USB microcontroller, and there should be a Bluetooth 5.1 transceiver, too. As a bonus, the final photo above is a side profile of the used mechanical switch.

Software and Performance


There absolutely need to be first-party drivers for creative controllers, though Microsoft is trying to get into this with generic drivers for the likes of smart wheels, such as the first-party Surface Dial, as well as third-party takes, such as the i-Rocks K71M keyboard we saw earlier this year. TourBox's take is simply called TourBox Console, and you should be able to find the latest installer on this page. Given the TourBox Elite is still in the crowdfunding stage, the latest public release at the time of testing clearly did not support it. I was sent two versions of a beta release, and my article on the TourBox Elite is relatively late because I chose to wait for the second release that fixed some of the bugs the first one had. I am glad I did since it's an impressive software experience already. The installer for this 4.0 beta developer release was 76 MB, and the software asks for ~185 MB on your system. The installation process is fairly straightforward, and I recommend having the controller connected via USB first for any available firmware updates, which was the case here. Once installed, the home page offers having the controller connected via Bluetooth or USB, and automatically goes to the home page that has helpful cue tips pop up the first time around. These tips can at any time be pulled up through the minimized icon in the system tray, and there is even an option to pull up an interactive guide as seen above.
At this point, I had become familiar enough with the software to tinker around, and TourBox had even prepared a detailed manual going over the various customization options with TourBox Console. Seen above is an admittedly rushed video going through the various options on board since going through the plethora of possible customizations takes longer. In summary, there are four default presets for the four primary Adobe software suites this is best used with. You can edit the presets, make new ones, import/export as needed, and have them automatically pop up when the respective program launches. This is where I experienced the only software bug in my testing, wherein the correct preset would sometimes just not pull up automatically. No matter, there are several hardware keys to get me to where I want, and even more via key combinations. This makes for an extremely powerful controller where you can create macros, akin to those on a keyboard, that are then assigned to different turns of a wheel, for example. Each of the four preset types has different functions pre-programmed to make the most of the software, and I definitely enjoyed taking my time to set up the Photoshop and Lightroom profiles just as I wanted them.

For those thinking the TourBox Elite isn't good with non-Adobe programs, that's again where the presets come in. The benefit potential new customers of the TourBox Elite have is that a lot of this foundation was laid with the TourBox Neo, which has an active community that develops presets for various programs. In fact, a dedicated presets page on the TourBox website for this very thing allows you to download and import presets for various other programs, such as Final Cut Pro X, DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Illustrator, as well as audio mixers since this is again a MIDI controller at heart. Other productivity programs are supported too, including MS Office, Chrome, and even Zoom. The software allows for macros and mouse functions to be added too, with various pre-programmed options that already go 90% of the way to get you going.


There is one other portion of the software meal you need to be aware of, and I feel should be better executed. A few of the elements are not layered to TourBox Console, including the cue tips, so they will remain in place with the software minimized. So when I saw the elements above do the same, I initially thought this was a potential bug before realizing it's a heads-up display (HUD) element. These can be set to white or dark color schemes and different sizes, as well as moved around your desktop or hidden entirely as desired. Seen above are the default HUD elements, which can also be customized for the four presets in order of Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere-edit, and Premiere-color.



That's basically it, and the TourBox Elite otherwise works very well. Seen above are some example routines from the manufacturer directly because I am not set up for the video capture of my own hands and the screen at the same time. But I can say it works as intended in various applications I tried. I have several macros set up for Photoshop and Lightroom on my keyboard and mouse, and creative controllers such as the TourBox Elite go a long way in saving editing time. In fact, all the photos I have taken of the TourBox Elite were edited in Adobe CC using the TourBox Elite, and I went ahead and used it for several other reviews, too. I soon had touch controls going to where I barely had to look down at the controller, and this is again where the deliberate layout chosen by TourBox comes in handy. If you saw the Financial Modeling World Cup finals earlier this month, which you really should watch because it's truly fascinating, something like the TourBox Elite would come in very handy for those Excel experts, too.

Bluetooth connectivity is a real game changer for me because I often like to work in the living room with my huge TV connected to a custom PC. The larger screen helps with photo editing in particular, and having the TourBox Elite with me on the couch made for a significantly improved user experience. Bluetooth 5.1 LE allows for responsiveness with no perceived lag in use, and battery life was clearly on the order of weeks at least given I did not run out of the stock batteries in the weeks of testing. What the TourBox Elite also improves upon compared to other such creative controllers I have tried to date is the surprisingly good haptic feedback, and it ends up overpowering in a few cases to where turning a particular dial ends up more audible than I would like. In a few other cases, said feedback could be somewhat improved, which TourBox says they have already worked on, but to give you a better idea, this is generally on par with Apple haptic feedback. Having levels of sensitivity also helps, especially when using the dials and wheels for options such as changing the brush size. I also have here an XP Pen graphics tablet, which I use mostly for annotations in various online meetings, but I did try drawing in illustrator and Paint.net with the TourBox Elite. It did not make me any better at drawing, but helped me confirm that I still suck at it more quickly.

The TourBox Elite is currently still up on Kickstarter until Dec 24, and can be had for $188 for the black or white colors or $206 for the smoke-black limited edition. These are supposedly 33% off the MSRP, which will be $268 and $308 respectively when the product ships to backers and launches in Feb 2022. There are plenty of other examples of how the TourBox Elite works in various use cases, but the point remains that this is generally an excellent product for the money, especially for the simpler colors, even in the current prototype phase for both hardware and software alike. It's not often that I am so impressed by a Kickstarter product, and having a previously successful campaign followed by continuous product development and an active community is just the icing on top of this content creator cake.
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