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.