Novation Launchpad ($150)
Like last year''s winner, the Akai APC40, the Novation Launchpad is a controller designed primarily for use with Ableton Live. Unlike the APC40, the Launchpad is strictly a button box—it has no knobs or sliders—but its cleverly designed Mixer mode lets columns of buttons approximate those functions. What you get is a compact and lightweight (1.58-pound) controller with 64 multicolor backlight clip-launch pads bordered on two sides by round navigation, mode-select, and global-function buttons.
At roughly 9.5 inches square, the Launchpad fits comfortably next to a laptop, and you can run as many as six units to gain simultaneous control of additional 8x8 banks of clip slots. You can also use the pads to send MIDI note messages to virtual instruments so that you can, for example, control a drum plug-in. Its light weight, larger pad array, and USB bus power make it an ideal on-the-road and compact studio controller for Live, and you can use Novation''s Automap software to control other applications with the Launchpad.