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Write On! New Touchscreen Tablet PC's

(Microsoft Surface Pro 2, microsoft.com)
 
This week Microsoft announced the third generation of their Surface Tablet PC, and the attention it garnered shows that the market is starting to mature for these hybrid devices, which combine the processing power of a laptop with the touchscreen interface of a tablet or smartphone. To some degree, these devices (called Hybrids, Tablet PC's, or Touchscreen Laptops) are hard for consumers to wrap our brains around: is it a tablet (albeit a more expensive and heavier one)? Is it a computer? Why would I need this when I already have 'x'? These devices can offer some interesting possibilities in the music technology field, but I suggest that properly understanding what these devices are meant to do will help us understand where they can best be utilized.

The Players

While Samsung and others have made Android-powered tablets that tout their increased power and productivity over devices such as the iPad, the Tablet PC's run on the new Windows 8 platform. Windows 8 attempts to merge both a touchscreen interface and apps with the familiar Windows desktop that we're used to from the history of that operating system. While Windows 8 got some decidedly heated feedback, the subsequent update to 8.1 has been much better received (8.1 is a free update to 8). Complicating things a bit, and driving some of the misunderstanding about the power of the Tablet PC's, has been the release of a stripped-down version of Windows 8 (called RT) designed for mobile devices such as phones and lighter tablets. RT is the version which is meant to compete with the Android- and iOS-powered tablets, but it is limited in terms of what it can run. Developers have been much slower to embrace Windows RT and move their apps already developed for iPads and Android tablets into a third operating system. This has led to a collective impression that the Windows Tablet PC's "don't have many apps to run."
 
If you can discard mobile-purposed Windows RT devices for the moment, devices running the full version of Windows 8 suffer from no such limitations on the programs available-- since it's a full-version of Windows, it runs everything that your Windows laptop or desktop runs on these devices as well. Rather than thinking of devices like the Surface Pro, or the Lenovo Helix or Yoga as tablets, think of them as laptops that you can write directly on. And therein lies the potential for the music field-- the combination of touch interface and the computing power of a full operating system.
 

Audio Recording

One of the most recurring statements that I hear about working with audio recording on the iPad is that it's much easier to do the fine controls of music editing with the touchscreen devices than with a mouse and keyboard. Being able to physically manipulate the software sliders as you would a board, drawing envelopes and filters, or manipulating the playback head for fine editing and splicing are all controls which lend themselves well to the fine finger control available in the touchscreen (or with a stylus) rather than the large and more clumsy mouse control. On a Tablet PC, we gain the ability to use this style of interface, but can apply it to fully-powered Windows software. Again, while mobile-oriented RT devices have to wait for programs to be designed specifially for that space, chances are that all of the software currently running on your Windows device will translate to the Windows 8 hybrids-- your full Cubase setup, for example.
 
The processing power and storage capacity of these machines is significantly higher than a mobile tablet as well, and that combined with built-in USB ports means that you can use them in combination with external audio interfaces to a much greater degree than is possible with mobile tablets. While still being smaller and lighter than your traditional laptop, and thus easier to deploy in a field recording setup, it can be the computer hub for your recording needs.
 

Notation and Composition

As with the recording, the ability to use your full Windows programs in combination with the touchscreen interface is an intriguing combination for composition. Whatever your preference of notation program, running it one a hybrid device will allow you to "ink" and edit your manuscripts by hand using the stylus. In comparison to iOS or Android, I find the Windows 8 stylus capacity to be much smoother and higher-quality. Writing on an iPad, for example, always feels like the pen tip is a bit too thick for my tastes, and my script usually ends up being a bit "fat" and sloppy because of it. Writing on my Surface Pro 2, by comparison, feels very realistic. This review of the upcoming Surface 3 from WIRED describes writing within one row of graph paper. That level of detail makes writing within a notation program very smooth and satisfying. With a little practice, I was able to use the keyboard number pad to switch note values while writing with the stylus in the other hand for a pretty efficient workflow. And of course, with the USB interface, things like keyboard input and external sound synthesis devices are still available as well.
 

One More Toy?

Some people are the natural gadget-collectors, and the idea of adding another device to the quiver isn't intimidating at all. For the rest of us, using a Tablet PC involves thinking a bit about what place in the toolbox it best occupies: does it replace an existing device? Does it make something else redundant? Thinking of these devices as tablets with more power, I initially held it up against my iPad and found it unsatisfying. It was once I decided to use my Surface Pro 2 as my full-time work machine that I understood its value-- it is truly a laptop with extra capacities. As such, I added some extra work considerations (extra monitors, external keyboard) that make it indistinguishable from my previous desktops or laptops. When coming to something in graphics or audio which is best served by the touchscreen capacity, I can pick up the stylus and work directly on the screen. It's a great combination of modes, and of course I still have the mobile flexibility. There are times when I use it in a traditional "tablet" capacity as well, although there is a lack of the apps that we're used to from the iOS and Android space.
 
In the end, ironically, it did end up largely making my iPad redundant, but because most of the things that I used to do with that device have now either been scaled up to the Tablet PC or down to my smartphone. As more devices appear in the market with this model, including the (much larger) Surface 3 from Microsoft and what now feels like a steady rollout of devices from other manufacturers, a wider range of power and size will be available letting people choose whether they want a true powerhouse machine or something closer to the traditional tablets. Regardless, the combination of the full operating system and the touchscreen interface gives us huge possibilities in speciality or niche computing needs such as music and audio, where a wider range of software, diverse input/output capacity and higher processing power are all necessities. 
 

How About You?

Have you experimented with a hybrid or Tablet PC running the full version of Windows 8/8.1? What are your thoughts or experiences? Do you have questions about these devices? Join in the comments below!
on June 14, 2014 10:37am
I am very excited about the Hybrid and have just acquired a Surface Pro 2.  I am still exploring its possibilities and looking forward to discovering apps not only for music education but also for professional music use as well.  Currently, I am trying to find the best pdf annotation system for scores and the best notation system for input. Is there a WIN 8.1 based app for performers that has page turning technology that works quickly and easily.  I would love to hear of others' recommendations in all these areas!