Novation’s Launchpad may have begun its life focused mainly on controlling Ableton Live. But a new update, while not radically different from the original, is more flexible, working with more software and more operating systems – including the iPad. It’s also brighter and refreshes faster than the original.

Updated – for a newer Launchpad, check out our hands-on guide to the Launchpad Pro.

The Launchpad S is, generally speaking, still a Novation Launchpad. It has the same complement of controls, and unlike some recent hardware, it lacks features like velocity sensitivity and full-color RGB LEDs. This is still just a basic, tri-color 8×8 array grid controller with some extra controls. But like the original, that also means it’s about the cheapest grid controller you can buy, and it’s unusually light and portable.

What that “S” adds in terms of hardware is mainly brighter LEDs – much brighter and more saturated, from the looks of the video – and a “significantly-faster refresh rate” that might appeal to specific programming applications.

The other big change is, while there’s still an Ableton logo (the old one, even) and prominent mention of controlling Live, the Launchpad is no longer tied to specific drivers and software. Class-compliant operation means you can plug it into any Mac, Windows, or Linux machine (hello, Raspberry Pi), as well as, via the USB Camera Connection Kit, an iPad.

I think it’s most interesting what hackers will do that, but Novation is also bundling some extras to get you started. There are new custom software control overlays in the box, including FL Studio. (No word yet on what others may be included.) And there’s a gigabyte of Loopmasters samples, as well.

It seems to me there’s a window of opportunity for Novation here, both in timing and cost. On timing, any mention of Ableton’s much-fancier Push controller has to come with a big caveat: Ableton can’t ship you one, with a backlog stretching into the summer. Novation says the new Launchpad S will be available this month. Add to that the dealer price / suggested retail of US$169.99. We’ve seen some street prices much lower than that.

So, sure, the Launchpad S does less than most of the competition. Significantly, Keith McMillen’s QuNeo controller offers more touch controls and continuous control, plus RGB color, for US$199.

But, if you really just want a grid controller bargain, the Launchpad S is a contender. And it’s worth observing that, for not much more than a Push, you could pick up an inexpensive PC laptop or netbook, install Linux and Renoise, and plug in a Launchpad S for an all-in-one setup (among other solutions). I’m also interested to see what an iPad-plus-Launchpad S rig might look like.

What do you think? Is the Launchpad S – or original Launchpad, which may now be even more impossibly-inexpensive – something you’d consider? Let us know in comments.

Artist Videos

With the new ‘S’, here’s KillTheRobot. There’s an Ableton session to download, too:

And behind the scenes of how he produced this: