Selecting the Perfect Sheet Music Reading Computer: Mobile & Stationary Options

by airturn

After considering what you want to be able to do and determining the best operating system and apps to perform those tasks, our next question in the quest for the perfect sheet music reading computer asks, “Where do you want to go?” This question has to do with your need for – or lack of – mobility as a musician.  Are you a gigging musician constantly traveling to a variety of venues?  Or are you a stationary musician performing or teaching from a single fixed location?  Perhaps you’re a mix of mobile and stationary and need a variety of digital sheet music options to accommodate each situation.  Whatever the case, let’s start by examining what to look for in mobile and stationary computers, as well as some interesting hybrid solutions.

Mobile Computers

While laptop computers have been in existence since the early 1980’s and Microsoft’s Tablet PCs have been around since 2001, it was Apple’s re-envisioning of the tablet computer as the iPad that revolutionized the idea of using computers to read digital sheet music.  Even though I said I didn’t want to mention specific brands or models, it’s impossible to overlook the major impact of the iPad as a mobile computer that is incredibly portable, turns on instantly, is easy to use, and features a full-day battery.  While the iPad does several things very well, there are other options, particularly if you need a larger screen for viewing your music while still being able to carry your computer around.  You can still find Tablet PCs in both convertible and slate versions that run full versions of the Windows OS, for example.  Android tablets have invaded the market from a wide variety of manufacturers, offering cheaper alternatives to the iPad and in some cases, slightly larger screens.  And there’s nothing wrong with simply using a laptop if you can work with vertical music on a horizontal screen – we’ll talk more about laptop/desktop software options in the “Content” section, as well as some interesting solutions for mounting your laptop as a music stand in the “Containers” section.  And with Ultrabooks offering a much slimmer and lighter version of the laptop form factor with battery life rivaling the best tablets, your options are wide indeed.

Here is a simple comparison grid of features for tablets, tablet pcs, laptops, and ultrabooks:

Tablets Tablet PCs Laptops Ultrabooks
Operating Systems iOS/Android Windows Windows/Mac OS X Windows/Mac OS X
Screen size Smaller than paper (8.5”x11”) Paper Size (8.5”x11”) and a bit larger Paper size and larger available Paper size available
Bulk/Weight Super Light to Light Medium to Heavy Medium to Heavy Light to Medium
Viewing options Vertical and Horizontal Vertical and Horizontal Horizontal Horizontal
Input options Finger, stylus Keyboard*, mouse, finger*, digital pen Keyboard, mouse, external digital pen Keyboard, mouse, external digital pen
Memory Small to medium Medium to large Large Medium to Large
Battery life Moderate to Long Short to Moderate Short to Moderate Moderate to Long
Price $ to $$ $$$ $ to $$$ $$ to $$$

*only available with certain models
Stationary Computers

If you are a stationary musician like an Organist, then you may want to look for a stationary computer solution.  Traditional desktop computers are made up of several components:

  • The computer itself (the box “brain”)
  • The monitor (what you use to look at the information coming from the computer)
  • Input devices (what you use to enter information in, most typically a keyboard and a mouse)

At the very least, you’ll need to deal with the cable to connect your monitor to your computer, and unless you get wireless versions, cables to connect your keyboard and mouse as well. If you don’t want to deal with the equipment and cable clutter typically associated with traditional desktop computers, then you might want to consider an all-in-one computer which integrates a touchscreen monitor and the computer itself into a single unit.  Instead of using a mouse, you can touch and move things with your finger directly on the screen.  This comes in very handy when you want to draw digital ink annotations on your music.  You can also call up a virtual keyboard and type text right on the screen.  Keep in mind that as of this writing, touchscreen all-in-one computers are only available for Windows operating systems.

Desktop computers give you the option to use very large monitors to super-size the view of your digital sheet music.  Touchscreen all-in-one computers are also available in screen sizes that can view two full-sized pages of paper music at a time.

Hybrid Options

But what if you want the best of both worlds?  What if you want the mobility of a smaller computer combined with the larger screen viewing options of a desktop computer?

One option is to forego the desktop computer itself (the box “brain”) and just get a monitor (or even a digital TV!) that can accommodate a direct cable connection to your mobile computer of choice.  You will need to carefully make sure that your monitor or TV has the necessary ports to accept your computer’s output, and that your computer or tablet itself has the capability to connect to an external monitor.  There are a dizzying array of options, ranging from the grandaddy VGA connector, to S-video and the more modern HDMI and now the new Thunderbolt I/O from Apple.  If there’s enough interest from folks who are reading this as a blog, I will work on showing some specific examples of various connections between computers/tablets and monitors (post a comment and let me know!)

Another option is to use both a desktop or all-in-one computer AND a mobile computer.      You can use software to project the screen of your mobile computer onto the monitor of the larger stationary computer.  You will need a WiFi (wireless Internet) connection to make this work in most cases, but it’s a great way to teach and work in an ensemble setting, for example.  Again, I will post some specific examples of software and hardware combinations to create hybrid mobile/stationary solutions for reading digital sheet music in my next posts.

From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution