Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I finally got a Surface Book

Thanks to the magic of craigslist, I found a well loved base model at a price I was willing to pay. I've been so tempted by these for so long I'm very happy to finally have one. It's a fantastic laptop, but the real fun is using the 13.5" screen for music. It made its Pops debut this weekend:

Bonus! The magnetic surface pen sticks to the stand. The extra height vs a 4:3 screen doesn't look super useful on this page as it's cropped short, but many pages come out taller than 4:3 and are rendered narrower on the screen to fit height. At 3:2, you get room for tools and information bars at the top and bottom and all pages take full advantage of the width of the screen.

My biggest reservations about using the Surface Book's clipboard (the detachable screen/tablet part) were about having something so pricey on my stand and the potential battery life issues since most reviews pegged the clipboard at only about 4 hours. The price issue was mitigated by the craigslist deal as I'm into this Surface Book for less than an iPad Pro and Pencil and there are two of those at the Pops too. Also, I realize I've never actually had anything bad happen to any of my machines at any gig in the many years I've been doing this now. I mean, it only takes once, but so far, I've never even had a close call.

The battery life issue is a bit more of an actual issue. In addition to looking for a cheap deal, I really did not want an i7 due to the fact that it scored about 30 minutes less in most battery drain tests. The difference between 4 hours on the i5 and 3.5 hours for an i7 is kind of a big deal in a 3 hour rehearsal. Sure enough, my range anxiety ramped up to 11 when battery bar turned red in the last 10 minutes of rehearsal. It says 50 minutes remaining, but turning red is not reassuring.

Luckily it made it through a 45 minute sound check and then a 2 hour concert only barely going yellow. I know I can always throw it on the base, but that's a less ideal solution compared to how beautifully thin the clipboard is on its own.

I did have to use it in draw mode (turned backwards and folded down over the base) when I used it to take notes at an all day bow workshop. It lasted through the morning session on its own and I added the base through the afternoon.

I'm also really enjoying it as my primary computer. I'm excited to see where Microsoft will go with this form factor and what other manufacturers might jump on this larger detachable size.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Web browser based New Smart Music is here, sort of

MakeMusic started trialing the new, browser-based, SmartMusic back in September and has now formally launched the new version.

I'm currently booted into Ubuntu (because, why not?) and thought "awesome, I should give this new one a try." I currently use classic SmartMusic extensively in my new classroom gig and love the idea of a browser-based version as the other school I teach at has chromebooks and iPads for the kids.

I was all excited to see if it would run in Chrome on Ubuntu, but all you can do right now is sign up for a free trial. After filling out the form, I get a friendly message that they'll get back to me in 3 business days. It's Saturday. So that'll take about forever.

If you want to read more about it or sign up for your own free trial and join the wait here's the blog post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

So, I inherited a Ukulele program...

Not on purpose, but here I am. During back to school night at my older son's new school, the music teacher kept saying things like "hopefully the new teacher will keep going with this." (I missed the beginning of her talk as the Pre-K classes are separate from the Elementary program and it overlapped a bit. I didn't technically need to attend the specials part, since the Pre-K don't participate in those classes, but I wanted to know what the music teacher was doing out of professional curiosity.) Of course, I went up to the principal to get more details immediately after. Turns out, the current music teacher's husband had gotten a job up in Oregon, so she had put in her two weeks notice the day before.

I promptly updated my resume and sent it on in. I like private teaching. A lot. But with two small children, the logistics of childcare is simply easier if I can work during the school day.

The previous teacher had already sold the school on the idea that the middle school group should play ukulele, and the school had just invested in a classroom set. So, it was pretty much expected that the new teacher would actually use them. The younger grades play recorder and have access to glockenspiels as well.

I finished Music Mind Games training literally the day before I interviewed, which significantly beefed up my tool box for general music teaching. I played recorder in the early music lab in my undergrad, so not only do I not mind teaching recorder, I actually like it. But the ukulele was one I'd never touched aside from occasionally trying to tune this fun little toy a neighbor had given us when she moved out and didn't want to take it with her.

Luckily, a favorite blogger of mine is well down this path of using the ukulele in a middle school music program. He's spun off a new blog to chronicle that journey, and share resources, called Ukestuff.

I upgraded myself to a nice tenor thanks to Amazon, and I have another on the way. Because.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Oh Yeah, the Chuwi....

I've been sitting on this for a while meaning to write more. First, it took me a while to get a pen. My eBay order was cancelled when it didn't make the delivery and the seller assumed it got lost in the mail. At least I didn't have to mess with getting a refund on my own, but I lost three weeks. The pen I ordered from Amazon did make it despite also shipping as an epacket from China. But we've had a crazy summer and I haven't had a chance to really figure out how to make this thing do all the things I keep hoping it can do.

It has so much potential to be amazing, but so far my experience with the pen has been frustrating, which is basically a deal breaker for this little guy. But I haven't had the time I'd like to mess with things and really see if I can get it working or if it's just not a good pen. It's looking like it might be the latter, in which case I'll be headed off to eBay with it, but I'm not ready to give up just yet. This thing has so much potential to be the perfect music box for both the studio and gigs.

There are plenty of general reviews already floating around the internet, so I'll just go with an overview of why it's so almost perfect for my studio uses.


Form Factor - The 12" 3:2 screen size is nearly perfect. Yes, my HP PS12 offers wider music since it's 4:3, but not significantly enough that the 12" chuwi is too small. People are still using 10" iPads at gigs. I feel like the HP is so big as to be unweildy in other scenarios and it's pretty much limited to just a reader because of it. The Chuwi is good both as a tablet in the hand, on the stand, and on the keyboard dock being a laptop.

Keyboard Dock - Since I brought it up, in spite of the terrible touchpad (which is fixed somewhat on the newer version of the keyboard dock) I really like the keyboard. I like that it makes the chuwi into a clamshell laptop. Others have complained about the key feel, but the travel is much better than something like the Surface type cover, and I like the stiffer feedback. I'm typing this on the Chuwi and my fingers are happy.

So Many Ports - There are two full size USB ports on the tablet itself and two more on the keyboard. Which is handy, since I almost always have a USB mouse plugged into the keyboard. But two full sized USB ports on the tablet! I keep meaning to pull out the old Footime pedal and try that, especially after my airturn decided to cut out during the recessional at a wedding recently. Good thing tapping the screen is still faster than page turning.

Micro USB charging - As if all those full sized ports wasn't enough, this thing charges via micro USB. The surface was fine and all, but required a separate charge. The Chuwi can use the same charge as my phone. In fact, after my phone barely lasted through some cross country travelling, I finally picked up a giant Anker battery pack. I can now charge both the Chuwi and my phone off the same charger.

Insane Battery Life - Not like I ever need to charge this thing anyway, the battery lasts nearly forever. Battery Bar in windows still says I have a 13 hour run time even though I've tried to run it all the way down several times to get a more accurate reading. I don't think I really have 13 hours, but I don't charge it daily, even when it's the only machine I use in a day.

Dual Boot - I need Windows for the studio, but I prefer Android for gigs. I like having the full versions of One Note and SmartMusic rather than just apps. But MobileSheets Pro is really best for gigs. I've tried running virtual Android machines over windows, but that's a clunky solution. Windows may not be a speed demon on an Atom processor, but native Android is really smooth. For day to day use, I tend to stay booted into Android. It's actually quite usable as a laptop OS on a screen this size. I'd be running things full screen no matter which OS.


The Pen - womp womp. This is a deal breaker unless I can figure out how to make it not suck. Right now, the lag in initial activation is such that I lose the entire first letter of whatever I write. Accuracy is not super hot either and my letters come out all squished. I'm spoiled by the older generation of Wacom EMR screens and still have one in my Samsung note 8. It's really hard to use anything else.

The Qualcomm pen on the HP PS12 is close. My writing looks good, but it's got some quirky drift issues unless you wave it around over the screen to catch all the microphones every single time you bring it back to write. It got me through a few summer conferences, but it's annoying.

I'd use the Samsung for notes, but the screen is too small for some things and I'd prefer Windows for studio notes. Also, the battery life on the Samsung is getting poor. It's no spring chicken at nearly 4 years old now I think. It's possible to pop it open and replace the battery, but more trouble than I think I want to invest.

There's really nothing that compares to the Chuwi in terms of a dual boot machine with this screen size and an active pen. But if I can't figure out how to make the pen not suck, it may not matter.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

About that giant dual screen eInk sheet music reader

So, this thing has shown up in my news feed from several of the sites I frequent. Now that I have some experience in the news room of a major tech news site, I understand the perspective many of these bigger tech blogs are covering this from. Someone who used to play an instrument back in high school (yes, many authors cited this as their experience) is handed a press release and told to put together a news item. They have 30 minutes and a "this looks neat" attitude. And it does look neat. Unless you've been doing this for, oh, say, the last 7 years.

What is this thing? This thing is two 13.3" Mobius eInk screens, running 1200x1600 (the same resolution and slightly larger than the HP PS12 I use now), on unkown internals, with unkown software. But hey, it's got a Wacom digitizer! You can totally write on your music! So revolutionary! And you can turn the page with a tap, so much faster than flipping a physical page!

A few things based on my years of experience:

1. We've moved beyond tapping to turn. If I have to take my bow off the string to turn, it's a step back from where I am now. Yes it has Bluetooth, but the press release only says "a variety of accessories can also be connected". It's probably not a big leap to assume that would include foot pedals for page turns, but it's still a leap.

2. Two screens != better. First off, just one of these screens currently translates to an $800 price tag, so two of them is going to be unreasonably expensive. If I'm not willing to put a $1000 iPad Pro on a stand, there's no way I'm going to put a $1600 reader out at a gig.

2a. Speaking of price, at least the $1000 iPad pro can do about a million other things. Likely paying more than that for a single purpose device? Nope. My current tablet was under $300 and runs full Android.

3. Okay, so back to the two screens thing, with foot pedals and half page turn options, it no longer matters that I'm looking at one page of music versus two. I don't have to stop playing to turn, that's one of the major benefits to going digital. Loosing half page turns is a huge step back.

4. eInk was cool some years ago, but we've moved past it. I'm using my HP PS12 in the pit right now. While there are arguments that I should still have my stand on, illuminating the space around the lit up tablet screen to make things easier on my eyes, I don't need the stand light. That's one less thing for me to carry and potentially forget at gigs. But eInk isn't backlit, you'll still need that stand light, just like paper.

4a. Also, eInk flashes when it refreshes. As eInk has improved, it no longer needs to flash each page turn, but it will inevitably be the one where you really need that next page RIGHT NOW. See why I don't want to give my half page turns? I can turn several lines before I actually need the next page.

5. OMG a pen! You can write on your music! Okay.....so my TC1100 did that many years ago. This should be a standard feature of anything (including apps) purporting to replace paper sheet music. But given how many apps don't even support annotation, I suppose it is still a big deal.

Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh. I mean, it's great to see companies trying new things and inveseting in this space. But we've long past the "let's emulate paper exactly, just digital" and into "how can we make the experience of carrying/reading/performing from so much sheet music better." Just slapping together two giant eInk screens is not better than the current digital solution, even if it's a step up from paper.