Sunday, June 18, 2017

MobileSheets on Windows 10: growing pains

I've been relying on MobileSheets on various devices for several years now, first on Android and more recently on Windows 10. The Android version was mature and stable when the developer (all by himself, it's a one man show) undertook the huge task of porting the app to Windows. I had tried it under emulation with the DuOS Android system, but never really used it that way much as I had an Android tablet that I really liked.

The native Windows release combined with Microsoft's Surface Book starting to turn up used on craigslist for increasingly temping prices was enough to push me over the edge. For most of this past year, an entry level Surface Book has been both my primary computer and my primary music reader. For various reasons, I've just moved to a significantly upgraded Surface Pro 4. One of those reasons was my increasing frustration with the music reading experience.

Some of this is inherent to the design of the Surface Book - mostly battery life in the clipboard and pen performance, and also because I had an entry level model, the limited storage in the clipboard and the fact that the microSD card lives in the base, so I would lose access to it whenever I wanted to work with just the clipboard. Ultimately, pen performance was the number one factor that tipped me back over to the Android version on a Samsung Chromebook Plus as my primary music reader.

One of the main areas the performance of the Windows app is not on par with the Android app is accuracy in annotation. The pen lags in a way that makes small figures difficult to draw accurately and quickly, which is basically what string players need in rehearsal. Now, I'm not sure how much of it is the pen technology itself (Microsoft Pen Protocol vs Wacom EMR in the Chromebook) and how much is MobileSheets inking engine, but the end result was that rehearsals with the Surface Book were frustrating in a way that working with the Chromebook is not.

Inking is significantly smoother using Xodo (a PDF reader, without specific music tools) on Windows, so I'm going to go ahead and blame the software. Using Xodo in rehearsal was perfectly acceptable, but without setlist tools and half page turns, it's not nearly as nice to use in performance. I do wish I had access to one of the new Samsung Galaxy Books to see if the Wacom EMR based spen technology is enough to make the Windows version of MobileSheets as easy to use as it is on the Chromebook.

The Windows version has seen some more significant bugs along the way as well. Two of which bit me in performance. Now, I have to give major credit to the developer, since he's working alone and fixed these bugs very quickly, but they hit me at just the wrong time to cause some major annoyance in performance.

The first bug involved annotations not acting properly over half page turns, causing the bottom half to display annotations for the next page once the top half was turned. This was only a problem for a few days, but those few days happened to hit right over a Pops concert, so I played that concert without half page turns.

The second, more significant bug, involved the complete loss of annotations between an Android backup and a Windows restore. While this is a rather specific scenario that not many people are going to have a problem with, it bit me right as I was headed into the studio to record for Resonance. I had been using the Chromebook in rehearsal as we were making lots of changes and I wrote a ton on the music.

But, I love the giant screen of the Surface Book so much, I thought I'd use that for the actual studio days. I didn't think there'd be anymore writing, just playing. I did a backup from the Chromebook the night before and restored it to the Surface Book the next morning. Of course, I didn't thoroughly check the restore before leaving for the studio. When I showed up and opened the parts, I had zero annotations. Remember that part where we had been making lots of changes and writing a lot in the parts? Yeah, it was all gone. Well, not gone, just not on the Surface Book. It was all safely in the music on the Chromebook still, thankfully. Which is a large part of why the Chromebook came with me on the second day.

That bug was fixed the next day.

It also took several attempts to restore the backup on the smaller Surface 3 to be able to use it as an auxiliary display for background parts. It kept failing (probably due to the bug with the way annotations are stored) taking over 2 hours of fiddling in between things to finally get it loaded properly.

So, of course, this brings me to my real problem, which is my inability to leave well enough alone. This all started because I was tired of dealing with the quirks of the Qualcomm pen on the HP Pro Slate 12; mainly that I had to hit the button on the pen to wake it up then wave it over the screen to make sure it had synced with all the mics before writing to avoid huge jumps in the cursor position.

I'm sure at some point, I'll get tired of the (relatively) smaller screen of the Chromebook, or of the fact that I have to flip it around leaving the keyboard face down on the stand, and I'll pine for a larger screened slate again.

So what's the point of all this rambling? For the time being, if you want to use not an iPad for sheet music, your best bet is a large Android tablet, which means your options are very limited right now. There are tons of 12" Windows slates on the market, if you're adventurous enough to put up with MobileSheet's occasional growing pains, but the last few have been significant enough and the timing unfortunate enough for me to step away from the Windows platform as a performance reader for a while longer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Studio tablets: Samsung edition

After a frustrating experience trying to write on my Surface book the day before, I decided to go with a tablet that I know allows for much smoother writing. In the interest of pen compatibility, I chose the Galaxy Note 8.0 as my secondary screen. Each of these machines has an spen stored in a silo on the machine, but I also have a Bamboo smart pen, which is a full sized stylus compatible with the latest generation of Samsung Wacom EMR based tablets. That means I can leave the little toothpicks safely in their silos and use one full sized pen on both machines.

The 12.3" Chromebook is noticeably smaller than the 13.5" Surface book, but after being so frustrated with the Surface book, I found that to be an acceptable trade off given the vastly better inking. It's also way slimmer and lighter than the Surface book with its keyboard base.

The Galaxy Note 8.0 is only an 8" screen, which is really very small for music. It was acceptable for the simple background lines, but I would not want to read anything more complex off such a tiny screen. I mostly brought it for fun and to see if it would work at all. I had the Surface in my bag in case I wanted something bigger.

I ended up just turning it sideways a lot of the time since the background parts were only a few lines each and fit without needing to scroll.

I may or may not switch to the Chromebook plus for music full time. It's hard to say no to the giant Surface book screen when I know I won't need to write much on it.

However, I'm typing all these posts from the Chromebook right now. I have to say, I'm pretty impressed by this little thing. The form factor is amazing. The spen is still miles ahead of the Surface pen. I can do almost everything I need between Chrome and a few Android apps, which run quite well on the Chromebook.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Studio tablets: Surface edition

Resonance, the jazz group I play with, headed out to the studio this weekend to record our 2nd CD. I've been using the Surface book for performance recently for the big screen, even though I've been using the Chromebook plus more often for rehearsals.

The Surface book on the right is flipped back on the keyboard base for battery life since we were in the studio for 8 hours each day. There's no way the clipboard portion on its own would have lasted.

On the left is the smaller Surface 3 (non pro). At 10.5 inches, I wouldn't use it full time, but in this scenario, having a second tablet to display the background lines for solos was helpful. The main chart and background lines are currently in separate files and I never got around to combining them. I could have put them in a single file and used my footpedal to switch between pages, or created set lists for each tune with all the needed pages, but I figured since I have a million tablets floating around, I'd just use a secondary screen for those parts.

Yes it's overkill. Yes it was fun.

Except for the pen experience. That was terrible. I normally grab the Surface book for performances because of the bigger screen without worrying about the pen performance because there's not much writing to do in performance.

However, due to a bug in MobileSheets (which has already been fixed) my annotations didn't transfer between the backup I made on my Chromebook plus and when I restored it to the Surface book. Of course, I also didn't take the time to verify my restore before heading out the door. I mean, I made sure all the tunes restored, but I didn't check closely enough apparently. Luckily, we've been practicing enough that I didn't really need the annotations, but I rewrote a few things from memory and wanted to write in some new ideas for a solo I have in one of the tunes.

The accuracy just isn't there for writing in new stuff on the Surface book. It's a combination of hardware and software issues. I know MobileSheets can handle smooth inking, because it's amazing on the Chromebook plus, hence my using that machine for rehearsal. Inking on the Surface book is acceptable in Xodo and OneNote, so I know the hardware can do it, even if it's not as smooth as Wacom EMR spen on the Chromebook. But the combination of the MPP pen on the Surface book and the Windows version of MobileSheets is just not good.

By the end of the session, I was so frustrated with the Surface book that I decided to just bring the Chromebook the next day.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The gadget itch strikes again - Samsung Chromebook Plus!

I couldn't help myself. Actually, what happened is that I've been using an older Thinkpad Tablet 2 as my studio tablet for a few months and I'm always impressed with how buttery smooth the inking is. Not even my fancy Surface Book is so smooth. Why? Because the Thinkpad uses Wacom's older, batteryless EMR technology. The Surface Book is using N-trig's latest and greatest (which they now own), but it's just not the same. Even Wacom's newer AES solution, which is similar in that the pen requires a battery, is not quite up to the smoothness of the older EMR setup.

It looked like EMR was basically dead though with Microsoft invested in N-trig's technology and most other tablets using Wacom's AES pens (or the less idea Synaptics active pen). But then Samsung announced the Galaxy Book line with S-pens. Samsung's S-pen (the little toothpick stylus that comes in the Galaxy Note phone line) is basically a Wacom EMR digitizer!

That got me all interested again and I remembered I had an older Galaxy Note 8 hiding under a pile of stuff on a desk. I had been using that as my studio tablet, but the digitizer was going bad and had a dead spot right where I most needed to write stuff. It hadn't been charged in months. Whatever was going on with the digitizer seems to have magically fixed itself while the tablet was dead, but now the battery is shot and runs down normally to about half then just jumps quickly down to empty. I might replace it if I'm feeling project-y in the future.

Then I remembered I don't even have to wait for the Galaxy Book to come out. Samsung's Chromebook Plus also has an S-pen, access to the Google Play store on Chrome OS, and a beautiful 12.3" 2400x1600 screen. I had forgotten about it as it's been so long since it was announced.

Here it is next to the similarly sized Chuwi Hi12 and the slightly larger Surface Book:

It looks bigger than the Chuwi because it has a much larger chin (the bezel under the screen) which makes it sit up higher.

I just finished the set up and installed a few Android apps and set it aside to charge while I get this typed out, but so far I'm very impressed. It's thin and light with a great screen. The pen is fluid in everything I've tried so far and my comfy older Thinkpad stylus works and feels much better than the toothpick that comes in the machine. But the fact that the S-pen is in the machine at all is huge. If I forget the bigger pen, I've always got one built in. Both One Note and Mobile Sheets Pro work smoothly, which means this machine has potential in the studio and at gigs, although a fold around convertible is less ideal on a music stand versus a slate tablet.

I'm looking forward to seeing what this platform can do also. I haven't really used a chromebook in a long time. I was lucky enough to get a Cr-48 from Google back in the day, but that was years and years ago. I think I started it up a year (or more?) ago to see what ChromeOS was up to, and while it updated to the latest build, it was not a pleasant experience. But I remember being so much more productive when using the Chromebook back in the day. There's something to be said about the simplicity of the set up. I wonder if it will still feel that way with access to the Google play store making it as much of a potential distraction factory as my phone.

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.