The objective of this study is to evaluate potential interface control modes for a compact four-degree-of-freedom (4-DOF) surgical robot. The goal is to improve robot usability by incorporating a sophisticated haptics-capable interface. Two control modes were developed using a commercially available haptic joystick: (1) a virtually point-constrained interface providing an analog for constrained laparoscopic motion (3-DOF rotation and 1-DOF translation), and (2) an unconstrained Cartesian input interface mapping more directly to the surgical tool tip motions. Subjects (n = 5) successfully performed tissue identification and manipulation tasks in an animal model in point-constrained and unconstrained control modes, respectively, with speed roughly equal to that achieved in similar manual procedures, and without a steep learning curve. The robot control was evaluated through bench-top tests and a subsequent qualitative questionnaire (n = 15). The results suggest that the unconstrained control mode was preferred for both camera guidance and tool manipulations.