Could your next music controller be a tablet or slate? Dell’s “concept” points the way to what that might look like, but the wait continues for more shipping products. Photo: Dell.

For all the focus on clever little music apps on your phone, it’s the slate/tablet form factor that seems to hold the greatest promise for live performance. Thanks to a larger screen area, these devices look far more usable for control – equipped with multi-touch, they could be reasonable substitutes for hardware control surfaces, a la the Lemur.And with greater horsepower under the hood, you might not need to use them as a controller – you could run an entire live gig off them.

With this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), many onlookers expected news on these devices, particularly as industry buzz anticipated a big announcement during Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer’s keynote last night. And we got that news – sort of. Unfortunately, manufacturers teased “concepts” and prototypes, without much in the way of details – a repeat performance of 2009’s fuzzy glimpse at this device category.

That said, having been wrong about when it’ll happen, I’m still convinced we’re about to see a flood of new PC devices with interesting potential for music performance. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

Dell has a tablet “concept.” Dell’s own keynote included a brief mention of a five-inch tablet. That could make a nice form factor to stow on a keyboard or music stand as a controller. That’s about all it’ll do, as the pictures show only an audio output jack. But it will evidently have multitouch. This is only a “concept,” with no details publicly released; I’ll be following up with Dell if they announce an actual product. Photos:

Dell Tablet Concept [Flickr]

More on Dell’s new lineup (the rest of it is shipping, and may interest you more, anyway — Dell is taking advantage of wildly cheaper PC component prices to deliver some amazing machines under $1000)

HP’s Slate: Seen briefly in Ballmer’s CES keynote, the Slate is a “consumer notebook” in a slate form factor. The only good news relative to Dell’s model is that this is supposedly hardware that will ship. The bad news is, HP isn’t saying much else. The device does have a nice, sizable screen, at at least 10″ or larger (if my ability to tell the scale of things relative to Steve Ballmer’s torso is correct). That could make this an appealing alternative to other devices and form factors.

And, oh yeah, Apple: Here’s the power of Apple: PC makers, who have been shipping tablets for years, and who have shipped alternative form factors for years more, are accused of ripping off an Apple product that isn’t yet public, and about which most of us know nothing about (including, indeed, if it actually exists in the form we think it does). Not only that, but sight unseen, I’ve heard many people who assume that the Apple model of this currently-nonexistent product category will be superior, even though they don’t know what OS it’ll run, what it’ll do, what it’ll look like, what size it’ll be, or what it’ll cost. PC vendors, of course, had the opportunity to provide a clear alternative, and instead made their picture somewhat murky, too.

I don’t just mean Mac fanboys, either, who could be excused the pre-emptive positive review. Even The New York Times got in the act. Ashlee Vance of the NYT Bits blog wrote in advance of Ballmer’s speech:

It could be one of Steve Ballmer’s riskiest trade-show moves in years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, will unveil a novel take on a slate-type computer … This product better be good because Apple is expected to unveil its take on the slate/tablet form factor later this month … The last thing Mr. Ballmer wants to hold up is a me-too device.

Yes, how dare he … announce … a product … that might compete with a product that no one has seen yet? What a risky move! (Deep thought: can a product be “me-too” even before there’s a “me,” or in this case, an “i”?)

That said, yes, most industry analysts expect an Apple announcement later this month. I’m skeptical about whether such an announcement will be useful to our audience, however. If Apple chooses its relatively locked-down iPhone-style operating system over the Mac OS, and if there’s no hardware input and output, and if the focus is buying magazines and books from iTunes, I think I’ll pass. Of course, some PC vendors may go a similar route.

And, in fairness, I’m sure part of what has prompted PC makers to unveil prototypes of non-shipping products is fears of what happens if Apple gets there first. It’s too bad Apple doesn’t leak a secret plan to solve global warming, or give away chocolates.

Android is a big winner. Murky as the slate announcements were, the one message that has been clear out of CES is that we’re going to see more of Android.
HP may even ship a version of HP Slate running the OS, says TechCrunch. Ordinarily, this would be relatively bad news; on Windows, you can run any music software, whereas Android is relatively limited. But I think that could improve, with open source controllers and work on porting free multimedia tools like Pd (Pure Data) and Processing.

Just keep in mind…


Dell’s XT2 is one of a new generation of more-powerful, multi-touch tablets. They have the maturity and pen functionality of previous pen tablets, but finally with more robust specs and multi-touch input to boot. That could mean the days of carrying a Lemur and a laptop are numbered. Photo: Dell USA.

Don’t forget “traditional” tablets for multi-touch. Sure, these smaller slates are interesting, apparently an attempt to blend the appeal of e-readers like Kindle and Nook with handhelds like the iPhone. But why carry a tablet and a laptop when a multitouch laptop could be both? Yep, tablet PCs are back, now with multi-touch input as well as pen. And their convertible form factor means you could have multi-touch control without your arms getting tired.

Case in point: Dell’s Latitude XT2 joins entries from Lenovo and HP. HP’s TouchSmart tm2 (as seen on Engadget) finally improves on HP’s previous, somewhat underpowered entry; I’ll be looking more closely at it. Also appealing: the HP is the first of these devices I’ve seen to pack discrete graphics, which could give you a machine with enough graphics muscle to do live visuals and video, plus music, all with multi-touch control and the I/O ports you’d expect on a laptop. It could be an all-in-one live performance beast if it pans out; I hope to check it out soon.


More analysis of the options – and why the upcoming battles could be a battle for computing’s soul:

Time to rethink – and restart – this whole idea? Designer Christophe Stoll asks that question visually; his textual commentary is linked below.

Gotta Be Mobile has long been a stalwart analyst of, and advocate for, the tablet PC. Here’s the surprise: even die-hard Tablet PC fans are skeptical about just what the new “tablet” or “slate” means. And the bigger surprise: even outside of the world of music and visualist sites like CDM, people are asking the question about whether the future of slate/tablet computing is passive consumption. Here’s Tablet PC MVP Warner Crocker writing for the blog:

Then there’s the question of what do we do with these things now that we seem to be on the threshold of seeing them everywhere? That boils down to content and in most cases that means consuming it, not creating it.

Floating on a Sea of Tablet Paradoxes

Christophe Stoll of precious, the Hamburg-based design firm responsible for everything from familiar soft synth user interfaces to rock band graphic looks, has similar skepticism. His take is even more far-reaching: in the midst of rabid gadget consumption, what about affordability, ecological impact, and truly open, community development? His first story looked at some of the shiny possibilities in the future:

The tablet innovation race: Three commented examples of what Tablet Computers could look like in the near future.

A follow-up story, however, responding to comments by me and others, wondered if a more open, sustainable, hype-free future could apply more intelligent design:
Tablet innovation race II: Some more critical thoughts regarding the ongoing hype around tablet computers.

Bottom line: by this time next year, I do expect that we’ll have some powerful, new, affordable solutions for multi-touch control and portable music and visual performance. Just what form that will take, though, isn’t much clearer now than it was this time last year. I hope that situation will change soon – and I hope Apple doesn’t prove to be the only company able to articulate a vision for the category.

  • Holotropik

    Very excited by this direction in tech. Welcome personalized audio interfaces that open up a whole new world of possibilities 😀

    Sitting here just drooling over the ideas floating around my head right now…..OMG!!

  • Holotropik, you're not the only one!

    I'm envisioning all kinds of mixing and music creation apps on a 10" or 11" touch interface. In addition to apps like Live, I'm guessing we'll see virtual versions of many controllers (MPC, APC40, Monome, Launchpad, etc.)

  • Yeah, although, I will say:

    Turn a hardware interface into an onscreen interface, and it's instantly inferior.

    Built an interface *for* that onscreen interface, and it's instantly unique.

    Even the monome hardware is capable of multiple pages, for instance.

    So despite some of the gripes here, I'm still enthusiastic. And I think an open platform will be the easiest to develop for — including, though we don't usually use the word "open" with Windows, Windows.

  • cubestar

    I actually hope that the Mac tablet it is the iPhone OS.

    Traditional OS's and Apps are cumbersome with a touch interface.

    iTouch and Android might be neck-to-neck and we'll see some great Android deals, but iTouch could have a huge advantage in available apps (although not as open as we would like.).

    For me, iTouch 10" Tablet + Touch OSC + Numerology 3 on my MBP would likely = XOXO

  • Alex

    I'm waiting for the new technology too! The following decade we will see many technological miracles that we saw in movies and we thought impossible to exist the last 20-30 years…

    I'm not excited at all for Apple's new propaganda/brain washing…I was about to buy an iphone/ipod touch for the music apps but i thought it many times and i have changed my mind..too many restrictions for a pc user…Apple is "Evil Inside"! They play a lot with their marketing, they spread rumours, they sue other companies and finally they create a hype around their products…Apple user's most of the times must follow Apple rules by living into an "Apple world" and paying Apple for almost everything in that world. Its a whole culture of advertising!

    I'm looking forward to see regular pcs/tablets/touchscreens, without so many stupid and "money-eating" bonds with their companies.

    @Soilsound: Virtual versions of an MPC pad controller are somehow difficult IMO…I don't believe that a touch screen can replace the feel of a rubber velocity sensitive drum pad which you can hit with strength and passion!

  • I think that the Apple tablet, when it ships, will quickly become a new musical platform. Innovative developers have already shown us what's possible in new musical instruments on the admittedly limited iPhone screen; I wouldn't be surprised if many of them were already porting their apps to the tablet. There are some genuinely creative, useful, and expressive music apps on the iPhone, and the enhanced possibilities of the tablet will only make them better.

  • prevolt

    If Apple won't make a tablet that runs OS X, hopefully whatever they make could at least serve as an innovative/customizable interface for other Macs–some kind of wireless Cintiq/Lemur combo. I'd love to forget about keyboards and mice already.

    Of course, that's probably a little too forward-thinking for as conservative a company as they've become.

  • vinayk

    Star Trek is almost upon us!

    Now we just need a transporter!

  • I don't think it's fair to say conventional operating systems are cumbersome with multi-touch — it's the specifics of the windowing interface. And even then, there's no reason you can't build touch-friendly tools atop the system.

    I'm surprised no one brings up Linux. On a Linux device, you could easily swap out the entire windowing interface to focus on the applications, but *without* sacrificing the ability to support the hardware and software you want.

    An iPhone OS-based tablet could be a powerful tool in the way the mobile phones are, but compared to a real desktop OS? No contest.

    Of course, I suspect we're talking about different devices. On a 5" screen with no I/O, it's basically just a big iPhone. On a 10" screen with USB ports, it's a laptop. You get the point.

  • Poor "Lemur" … Now they'll have it a lot harder to market it. And there probably be tons of apps and synths. The only drawback is probably the mini-jacks.

  • cubestar

    I'm basing this on human fingers Vs the size of a pointer, the fact that a pointer should not exist a touch OS, and that OS's/Apps tend to not support multitouch.

    Also, click-dragging sucks on touch devices. I am using a Wacom Bamboo at work and home and have noticed the huge difference between it and a laptop touchpad is the lack of a pressure sensor or button to click when dragging items.

    Both the OS and the apps have to have their GUI and user input mechanism adjusted. It might be possible for a company to modify their existing OS to simplify it and adjust for these factors, but I believe that's what Android and the iTouch OS already do. They may appear too simple now, but they are adjust versions of desktop OS's. Some desktop app developers are already considering porting a modified version of their apps to these platforms, and I think larger tablets will make this viable.

  • @cubestar: That's true, but having developed in the Android OS and toyed around with the iPhone SDK, it's not as though these enable things that you can't do with a desktop OS. You're doing exactly the same things — drawing the interface, responding to events. It's really the rest of the crud (window management, file system navigation, menu bars, irrelevant window libraries) that tend to get in the way, and developers don't necessarily *need* to use any of that stuff on a desktop OS. (In fact, a lot of the time, I really wish they wouldn't!) Linux makes it especially easy to swap this stuff out if you so choose, but it's possible on Windows and Mac, too. And then you can still have your touch-friendly interface, but without being forced to give so much up.

    It's not that you can't port applications to these environments; you can. But you don't necessarily get *new advantages* that weren't possible on the desktop OS. And you do lose things – like the ability to plug in a USB interface.

    We could see $500 devices called "netbook tablets" or something that are just as seamless to use with your fingers, but can also accept input of a USB MIDI keyboard. And that could mean a huge revolution in the kind of setup people need to play.

  • I wonder if a solid tablet that the electronic community can sink it's teeth into would pressure Jazzmutant into a Lemur price drop.

    For a long time, I thought that touch screen PCs were going to change the musical controller and program landscape. It is probably inevitable, but I think the most important part of that is the market for it. And if you want touchscreens in people's hands you have to lower the price.

    You're right, Peter. A netbook equivalent to the touchscreen world is what is necessary. Under $500 is absolutely neccesary, while under $400 or $300 would be a slam dunk (of course not giving up too much functionality).

  • dyscode

    Excellent writing, Peter,

    And, in fairness, I’m sure part of what has prompted PC makers to unveil prototypes of non-shipping products is fears of what happens if Apple gets there first. It’s too bad Apple doesn’t leak a secret plan to solve global warming, or give away chocolates.

    I couldn´t have said that better in a 1000 years trying. But whoever leads the new tech better come up with a fully workable PC'Tablet' with reasonable I/O.

    I already have a iPod Touch, I am simply NOT INTERESTED in a bigger one.

  • experimentaldog

    I was very close to buying a Lemur this holiday season, but I kept hearing a voice in my head telling me to wait, so I've held off. I did however buy a Monome 64 which will let me bide my time. I do wonder though if Apple will incorporate a 10/100 ethernet connection in it's tablet. Me thinks it's a no go on that and more of a wireless approach. I also wonder if more tangible wireless multi-touch multi-use tablet screens without the computer brain will surface soon.

  • Wiley

    The best thought out speculation about an apple tablet has been from Gruber over at Daring Fireball. It'll be a new OS based off OS X core and redesigned for the new form factor. And I sincerely doubt it's going to be useful as an audio interface. It'll probably be a great product, but it'll be a consumer product, not the high-torque prosumer gadget you are looking for.

  • It's worth saying, from what I've seen, not one of these multi-touch devices has the level of accuracy and responsiveness of the Lemur.

    But I'm still surprised everyone wants a controller and a computer. Why not have the controller be the computer? A netbook is already perfectly capable of running many live sets, even if you don't want a full-sized laptop (which is also an option).

    In fact, if they don't hermetically seal all of these units, there's no reason a 5" slate with netbook guts couldn't be your entire rig.

    @Wiley – well, that's why I'm not putting all of my eggs in Apple's basket. 😉 Of course, the PC market is supposed to offer more variety. I think they may yet, but at CES, we're getting more "teasers" than actual products.

  • i hope also manufacturer will be more clear about the name "multitouch " cause many sell screens who are in fact only dual touch..( Packard Bell Viseo 200T for example )and for audio applicaton it's not the same…

    wa all are waiting for cheap good ones for sure..

  • C'mon touch screen tablet PC's are nothing new.. and every manufacturer under the sun has tried and failed.

    I see the logic this time around.. Take an iPhone, and make it as big as my head. Genius.

  • dyscode

    But I’m still surprised everyone wants a controller and a computer. Why not have the controller be the computer?

    I thought that was too obvious to state it explicitly. At least that is what I am talking about when I speak of PC 'Multitouch Tablets'

    but it needs at least a USB for a decent multichannel audio interface.

    And with running something like TouchOSC on the main screen, it would be all I ever need.

  • RayFlower

    I think i would prefer having osx rather than iphone os on a touch device myself, but its a valid point that the apps for iphone have better taught trough touch interfaces for touch, but really all we would need would be a application with midi in/out with all of the bells and whistles to communicate with the daw.

    What would be killer would be having a piano roll,drum "pads" and hum lack of a proper word, bebot interface to make seamless continuum like sounds.

    I don't know but i think this would be a good way to go instead of redesigning every app in human history, though that is not a bad thing if touch is indeed the future.

  • I hope its an adjusted Iphone OS they're going with. I always wanted an OSX tablet, but realistically they would run it slower than any current computer.

    It would drive me mad, going back to OSX with the power of a g4.. Yikes..

    Remote desktop client would be awesome. And probably most likely, taken that Sony has pulled it off quite nicely with the PSP and PS3.

    And the OnLive guys worked on the original quicktime. Add skype and Ichat and you have 4 methods of controlling a remote computer from the tablet.

    I definitely see the appeal of having Osx in the unit itself, but I just can't see it deliver the power I'm used to these days.

  • Paul Norheim

    "But I’m still surprised everyone wants a controller and a computer. Why not have the controller be the computer?"

    Peter, 99 % of your readers probably already have one or more computers with plenty of software, audio in/out etc. I would assume that most people here think of the "iSlate" (or whatever the name) and similar products in the context of what they currently have – in other words: as a welcome and exiting addition. This way of thinking will probably change two or three years from now, when every computer has multi touch.

    Even from a strict consumer standpoint, it would make much sense for Apple and competing producers to equip the device with, say, at least one USB 3.0 port – to transfer photos and videos from your camera.

    On the other hand, Apple is unpredictable, and I`m prepared to be disappointed.

  • Paul Norheim

    BTW, I sincerely doubt that Apple is interested in making the "iSlate" as a replacement for their laptops and desktops, cannibalizing on very profitable products. Other companies will probably do it though – with Windows, Linux etc.

  • rondema

    My brain and fingers love tactile feedback. Clicky buttons and keys, twisty knobs, bouncy pads, sliding faders… and sometimes even resonating instruments. Having my digits pressed up against a slab of flat and unresponsive glass (or whatever) is not the pinnacle of user interface technology so far as I am concerned.

    While I agree that multitouch works on a hand-held device enabling the form factor to be filled with screen, if it doesn't fit in my pocket then it's not any more portable than anything else that will fit into a bag.

  • rondema

    However, in the event I hope to be proven wrong…

  • Gavin@FAW

    "But I’m still surprised everyone wants a controller and a computer. Why not have the controller be the computer? "

    To quote Steve Jobs quoting Henry Ford in a recent interview, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

  • Guy

    Hi all,

    I feel that this would be a good time to point out that there is already a netbook/tablet hybrid out and available.

    The hardware is finalised but the OS (Open Embedded Linux based) is still being worked on. It's running on a Beagle Board (Cortex A8 Arm based, same as iPhone 3GS) with a 9.1 inch resistive touchscreen.

    I'm currently using python on this to create a wireless, OSC touch controller for a Pure Data sequencer amongst other touch based stuff. more info at for anybody interested and any help appreciated.

  • Guy

    oh, i feel i should also mention that this thing clocks in at $400.

    I'd probablly only recommend it for people willing to get their hands dirty with linux and tweaking but its worth an investigation either way i feel

  • I'm glad to see this stuff but I do think the Apple product will send all these guys back to the drawing board.

  • Alex

    @Guy: Nice idea for a start…(it looks a bit chunky to me…),but, is it accurate enough? One of the best things with Apple iphone/itouch, is their responsiveness but are all these products accurate like a Lemur? I mean, they haven't been designed for professional use in audio…they are just responsive…

  • Guy

    @Alex: alas the calibration on the touchscreen is a bit funky, its one of the major things that needs improvement. All in all the device is running my python stuff ok and i'm pretty sure i could push it a bit further.

    I'm mostly just planning on using it as a wireless OSC controller and makemyself a rackmount server for the heavy lifting audio stuff.

    ultimatelly, i expect that i'll get something a bit better once the market matures and there's something i like, but for the moment it's a good machine for developing on.

  • Genjutsushi

    I agree with Spark. Give me an iPod Touch or iPhone in a 10" format but with the ability to run my favourite modular patchable platfoms (Audiomulch, REAKTOR and MAX / PD) and i'll have an iSlab on order the day of its release like every other fanboy!

  • Genjutsushi

    Question… how hard would it be for the community to develop, specify, and get their own tablet built – complete with balanced audio outputs, HDMI, DVI Video etc etc in a similar vein to the awesome community DVI mixer. Now that is a project i could see getting a LOT of support and orders.

  • velocipede

    I'd be happy to have a jumbo iPod Touch with no additional features. Most of the music apps, reading (news, books, etc.) and other apps would be better with more space for the interface. Pounding out notes, making beats, reading the NYT… all would be improved with a larger screen.

    Of course, the price will determine whether I rush to buy one. $1000 for a 7" touch screen… probably not. $5-600 for a 10" touch screen… count me in.

  • @Guy: Thanks for that! Actually, you can do a lot on OpenEmbedded; I've tried running Pd on that even on the (less sophisticated) BUG, and I know people have gotten Pd and Processing working on the BeagleBoard.

    But For $300-400, I think you may not have to settle; you should be running a desktop Linux soon, or even Android may soon be less of a pain. Asus I know has something coming up in this price range.

  • Here's an interesting offering from NVIDIA:

    But yes, the new model seems to be passive consumption. And that means no ports – including, perhaps, no HDMI out. Come on, just one USB jack and one HDMI out, and you could do anything…

    My money still says someone will build a device with ports on it both in the $500 price range and the laptop-like $1000.

    Let me put it this way: do you want to be playing with simplistic 808 clones, or Renoise? 😉

  • kid versus chemical

    Good stuff Peter. I love anything with a touchscreen and anything thats mobile to be honest, I've collected several such devices over the years in different platforms, from PDA's to gaming devices to the Ipod Touch.

    As for the Apple tablet, I would love an ipod touch with a larger screen, my fingers are very large. Also the ability to run multiple apps at the same time would be sweet.

    I would be just as happy if it ran OS X though, It would be equally useful to me either way. It would be neat if it had a special version of OSX that let you run iphone apps as well as OSX stuff, I doubt it though.

    As far as PC's go, I've been considering getting a tablet for ahwile now, there are a number of options out there already. What I really want is a netbook-tablet hybrid capable of running Live or Renoise or Reason. When I come across that I will snatch it up no doubt. The machine Guy linked looks neat, I will have to look into that. There is some decent linux stuff out there I bet I could get running on that machine…

  • Guy

    @Peter i've been able to get Pure data running on it fine. i had to compile it and a few other packages myself which was certainly a learning experience but its certainly usable, even if not too user friendly.

    Initially i was planning on coming up with a bluetooth Midi link so i could have all the software on the touchbook and then just have a rack or two of gear, but it quickly became clear that OSC is awesome and rackmount PCs are powerful.

  • I have a bunch of music apps on my G3S and my old G1 iPhones. Lots are very useful. I myself don't want to have the tablet with ANY cables running off of it. I want to be able to put it anywhere a move it around. Wireless connections from my iPhone work great controlling my computers. For me the portable rig would be the tablet running a set of apps like the ITM apps (Matrix, Keys, MCU, and Pads) and driving a couple of Mac Mini's or laptop. Let the real computers push the audio around in multi-channel etc. I have a Tenori-On and hate it when I have to tether it to the rest of my rig. Wireless has plenty of bandwidth for control.

  • cubestar

    I don't want to plug a wireless tablet into an interface and a bunch of USB gear, that's what my main computer is for. Maybe if a wireless bridge could be made to those devices…

    I think people are getting ready to be disappointed because the Apple Tablet will not be a full Mac, but there are great possibilities way beyond a simple 808 sample player. Jasuto Pro, several synth studios, beatmaker, etc.. already exist and could become more sophisticated on a larger device.

    For people looking for Lemur-like control, Touch OSC is already here and fabulous. Apple gave one hint about a month ago to iTouch developers, prepare for a device that has a greater resolution. All the devs have to do to support this device is change their app to run in full screen instead of a set resolution. This means that Touch OSC (along with its desktop editor)could be ready almost from day one. It is very responsive with at least four fingers (haven't tested it with more, this is all I would ever need).

  • To create a new market, tablets need to harness the true strengths of technology. The touch interface is cool, and the compact form is a real bonus for mobility. However, once you start adding peripherals that need to be hooked up to it, I think that form factor starts to loose the benefits.

    There are somethings I could see myself implementing with an onscreen surface, but anything that requires accuracy or timing doesn't fall into that group. When you consider that, the usefulness in a live music scenario wanes, in my mind.

    However, having a small screen that you can plunk anywhere in your setup, with some onscreen controls, could prove useful. I just don't see it as a panacea platform unless it can do everything an laptop can already do. As far as music is concerned, I feel it will be an additional option, but nothing game changing.

  • Guy

    Actually one of the things i've been thinking about looking into that bears mentioning is super collider.

    thats already designed around the client + server communicating via OSC. having a wireless super collider interface could be useful

  • So far I really don't see any evidence that anything will changing for music performance and production with any of these rumored tablet products.

    Excellent tablet PCs with touch and pen inputs and fast processors have been available for years and years now. But they've not gotten much traction even among music producers who would seem to benefit greatly from their features. Why is this? Because they are relatively expensive and less CPU power and storage compared to non-touch/pen laptops. Another real factor is that there are few tablet PCs that run Mac OS without a lot of hacking (are there any hackintosh Tablet PCs?) or because the cost and usability premium is huge as with the ModBook. And like it or not music production trends are largely influenced by what you can do with a Mac.

    I don't see how anything mentioned so far in all the kerfuffle about new tablets changes any of this.

    The second segment that has languished so far is the consumer touch-screen netbook tablets with real desktop OS (and most importantly full software and hardware compatibility). These have been around for some time too. They started out as UMPCs and now touch is a feature on some mass-produced netbooks. But who knows? Maybe they will get popular. Even keyboard-touchpad-based netbooks languished for years and years outside of Japan as "ultralights" then the prices dropped dramatically, and now they are bigger than Jesus. Maybe tablet netbooks will find a following, but I think there's a good chance people will quickly figure out that they really need a real keyboard when dealing with any of the desktop OSs like Windows or Linux (or Mac OSX via Hackintosh). And convertible tablet netbooks with real keyboards will suffer a penalty in terms of weight and bulk (and maybe cost) that mass consumers may not be willing the shoulder.

    So the third class of products are a new breed of lightweight, light CPU, long battery-life tablets with specialized touch-centric OSes like iPhone OS or Android. These products might take off because the UX will be massively better than the desktop OS tablet netbooks. That success may result in a huge swelling of apps and complimentary products and services like what's currently happening with the iPhone. And if this happens the momentum will carry the prices down and the popularity up and drive demand for more solutions creative applications.

    But these new mobile tablets will never have the CPUs, I/O and power that music producers dream about. It will always be a losing battle to get an untethered ARM-type processor to do high quality real-time music synthesis and effects, run a UI, generate visualizations, stay connected with OSC as well as the six or seven other things producers want to be happening simultaneously.

    That's why for production and performance it makes sense to break up the problem such as use the mobile tablet as an OSC control surface thus eliminating the tasks of synthesis and visualization from my example above.

    Music use of mobile tablets in other domains besides performance and production like music education, composition and light entertainment will probably flourish though.

  • All of the new equipment "around the bend" is extremely interesting from the standpoint of someone who is only just now getting together a proper set of midi control (Novation Nocturn and Launchpad, iPod Touch) but now that I have knobs buttons and sliders to play with I'm amazed at how nice having the tactile feedback of a button or a fader feels.

    It will be truly amazing when technology advances to the point where there are nano vibration feedback devices that will allow the glass to make it feel like you are actually sliding something.

  • low resolution sunse

    I think so far that touch interface seems cool, but will they be easy to clean my fingerprints off of?

    @ Peter: I think controllers still have relevance as a means to control stuff that is not visible on screen. Going with a touch-only interface means only controlling what is immediately on screen.

    Also, I hope that the industry doesn't flood the market with a bunch of devices that are essentially useless to us. I'm not even really sure to whom the devices are being sold, in demographic terms.

  • @RichardL: just a couple of points —

    Just because something doesn't run the Mac operating system doesn't mean it can't be a music trend. But the issue is, yes, even among PC users tablets haven't been all that popular.

    If the novelty of an input method is going to make it worth using, make it worth paying a price premium, then the input has to be really good. And the problem is that single-pen input just isn't all that much fun; it's relatively inflexible. So I'm not surprised those weren't successful.

    The question is whether multi-touch, greater portability, and yes, greater power for the money can be compelling.

    I largely agree with what you're saying, until I get here:

    "It will always be a losing battle to get an untethered ARM-type processor to do high quality real-time music synthesis and effects, run a UI, generate visualizations, stay connected with OSC as well as the six or seven other things producers want to be happening simultaneously."

    Almost everything about this statement is wrong.

    For starters, it's wrong to assume these processors will all come from ARM and not Intel, too.

    The ARM processor is perfectly capable of doing all these things.

    On the visual side, you're discounting the likely inclusion of dedicated graphics processors (not least because these vendors want to decode video, for starters).

    These machines are perfectly capable of doing all the things you describe.

    I think we're going to have two strong categories from which to choose:

    1. laptops that add-on convertible form factors and multi-touch input in a way that make them more comfortable to use onstage

    2. mobile devices that are nonetheless powerful enough to work as either controllers or dedicated performance machines in their own right

    They're perfectly capable. And whether or not they run Mac OS is up to Apple.

    Ultimately, it does come down to people writing software for them. But that's a part of the future you can control. If anyone ships hardware good enough, I personally know about a dozen people, myself included, who will jump on the opportunity.

  • Also, to clarify, I still love physical controllers (hence want something with a USB port, please!), and likewise could see cheap tablets as controllers, too — I just expect dedicated machines ought to at least be an option.

  • oh, and don't forget multitouch!

    Single point touch screens aren't going to work well with MPC type apps or virtual keyboards. Perhaps they can be suitable for live step sequencing, but I can't imagine much else.

    This is another reason that the Lemur and iPhone have great music hype: solid multitouch. I think HP has a somewhat affordable multitouch laptop, but that feature always has a premium. Also, some multitouch systems are actually limited to two simultaneous touches. One more is better than none, but that's still a downer and certainly still presents some limitations.

  • @Peter > Almost everything about this statement is wrong.

    So I think we see this juncture pretty differently. Sure dedicated processors and DSPs in these low-power mobile devices will continue to get more powerful. And that's helpful with specific problems such as video and audio codecs and OpenGL polygon texturing. But is it helpful with a more general computation such as running Reaktor or Processing?

    Whether the next generation of mobile devices run Mac OS is not entirely up to Apple. Suitability for specific applications is what drives innovation and implementations. As much as people may like to think so, smartphones are not just small personal computers that happen to also work as phones. They are dedicated devices that are highly tuned to a new set of tasks. The apps they run well are very different from desktop software. Mac OS and Windows are not suited to running a smartphone. iPhone OS and Android are.

    Combine that with what I've seen which is that peoples' expectations for music performance and production tools have been whet by what they can do with today's desktop software on Core Duo processors. And there's a huge disconnect between that and what has the processing power of a Pentium from 1994.

    Unless chiptune becomes the dominant form of expression, I don't think these mobile devices are going to cut it for much integrated professional-level performance except as novelties.

  • Andrew

    Here's a point that I'd like to make:

    I'm sure there are lots of musicians that are looking to upgrade their machine, just like me (my comp is 4 years old and it's sad.) Although these tablets look pretty, there are full scale touch desk tops that should be considered as well if you're looking for touch flexibility. Example, the ae2220 from MSI. I've been playing out for a few months now hauling all kinds of controllers, and honestly I could care less if my laptop gained 20 pounds and a plastic roadcase. Now, I don't know how accurate these machines are, but as the touch real estate is much larger, I don't think it would be as critical.

    I know someone earlier said that they don't want a new computer, the one they have works fine already. Mine doesn't, and I think the extra hundred bucks or so makes a touch pc a no brainer as I'm already planning on upgrading. The ae2220 could (almost) make my plans for a wacom theremin disintegrate (no pressure sensitivity), not to mention the sweet ghost story effect that could be achieved while playing it.

    I'd like to see more details on how a full 22" touch screen could be utilized on stage as a controller.

  • Aaron

    I absolutely refuse to use the term slate. They come to CES and try to gives a new gimmic marketing name for something already is familiar with. Stupid. Smacks of other annoying marketing lingo of that past.. like Electronica.

  • @Richard: Again, we agree on a lot of this stuff. And I'm not saying that the smaller tablets with slimmed-down CPU are likely to be a better choice than a Core 2 Duo (or now Intel i3/5/7) CPU for everyone; that'd be absurd.

    It's this statement I can't agree with:

    "It will always be a losing battle to get an untethered ARM-type processor to do high quality real-time music synthesis and effects,"

    There's every reason to believe these tablets ought to be able to do some pretty sophisticated synthesis and effects, especially as the NVIDIA Ion and Intel Atom platforms are involved. See the work done on the Renoise competition, on similar-spec netbooks. I've used them and they're perfectly capable of doing the things you'd typically do live – like playing a synth, or running live effects, or playing back samples, or even some combination. People have been happy with dedicated (non-computer) hardware that does far more primitive things, so why not a more flexible arrangement on computer?

    "run a UI,"

    The iPhone, with a far less-sophisticated CPU/graphics unit, is capable of some pretty slick UIs. And anyway, many of us want trimmed-down UIs for music anyway.

    "generate visualizations,"

    These are machines capable of doing basic OpenGL stuff – the kind you'd do in Processing – as well as HD video.

    "stay connected with OSC as well as the six or seven other things producers want to be happening simultaneously."

    OSC — I'm using desktop OSC libraries on mobile platforms right now.

    That's not to say a multitouch *laptop* with a Core i7 and a discrete GPU wouldn't be more appealing. But we might have that choice, too. And it might not be as primitive in specs and input as the earlier tablet PCs were.

    And it's not just a novelty, or "non-professional." I'm finding in order to be more musically expressive, I'm taking stuff out of my live sets. And I'd love to have a machine that worked well as an all-in-one mobile device. It might finally combine the single-function elegance of hardware with the flexibility of computers.

    And to talk about I/O flexibility is especially funny. Right now, a lot of *netbooks* have three USB jacks while Apple ships "pro" machines with two.

    I don't think one size fits all, but then, that's part of the point.

  • Obviously, your crystal does not come from the same factory in China that mine did!

    I have no doubt that Atom-based multitouch tablets would be capable of delivering a satisfactory experience for performance. (I used to use a Toshiba Pentium 3 Tablet PC with Ableton 3. It worked well.)

    My guess, though, is that Apple will go for something with lower power and longer battery life than an Atom processor.

    I have fundamental questions about what Apple envisions people will do with their device(s) — maybe just surfing the internet on the toilet.

    One thing that's clear to me though is that people want to do creative stuff with these devices. They want to draw, paint, animate and make music.

    But I think there's a disconnect between peoples' expectations of what they will be able to do and the capabilities of the devices that actually emerge in the market.

    I gotta check the return policy on my crystal ball though. Just in case I need to take it back after Apple's announcements.

  • Actually, Richard, I couldn't have said it any better myself. And that accounts for part of the success of the iPhone — it did more than what manufacturers perceived that users needed, and even more, perhaps, than Apple themselves imagined. (Remember when they thought Safari was the SDK?)

    Regarding Gavin's comment from ages ago, sometimes the customer asks for a faster horse and Henry Ford gives them a car. Sometimes the user asks for a car and gets a horse.

    I have no idea what Apple's planning, but some of the products shown at CES show just the disconnect you're describing. I'm at least hopeful that out of all this activity, we'll get at least a few select choices that let users go further.

  • n4cer


    The term, slate, has been used to refer to Tablet PCs without keyboards since the platform's introduction around 2002. The two major form-factors are slates and convertibles (convertibles usually feature a twisting screen that folds down over the keyboard converting the device from the traditional laptop to a slate form-factor).

    It's amazing how the hype over Apple's possible product has caused people to think non-Apple manufactures who have used the term for such devices for a around a decade are suddenly copying "new" Apple terminology.

    Motion Computing has almost exclusively sold slates since the Tablet PC debuted. Fujitsu (and at one time HP) sells both form-factors. Most other OEMs prefer convertibles.

  • Aaron

    well, its still a stupid name. 😉

  • I assumed "slate" is used for that form factor to recall the chalkboards kids used to carry around with them to classrooms. Which, okay, doesn't make it sound like less of a stupid name. 😉

    But yes, it is beyond remarkable that PC manufacturers can be accused of copying an Apple product no one has seen, years into making similar products of their own.

    Looking through the latest news from CES, it seems the slate form factor is the most popular. (Maybe the gadget blogs aren't covering the convertible tablets, though.) And it seems most of these devices are running Android, which to me is actually a bit surprising. It means that a number of these OEMs agree with commenters that you want a touch environment right out of the box, rather than trying to add a touch interface to a conventional OS.

  • n4cer

    Date correction: Tablet PC introduction was in 2001 at Comdex (slate references within).

    Prototypes were shown at Comdex 2000

    (contains an image of a prototype)

    RE: the last link, during the Windows for Pen Computing/PenPoint days, Dan Bricklin founded Slate Corporation and wrote software for those platforms.


    Correct, the term is a carry-over from traditional writing slates.

  • Well, and if you keep tracing the history, you wind up at Apple again – but Scully's Apple, not Jobs' Apple. The eMate is a clear predecessor of the netbook, and the (keyboard-less) Newton form factor may wind up looking more like the devices that come out this year than things like the iPhone (or even the Palm).

    I also find it pretty amazing that some tech journalists have rewritten the history of this technology to start with iPhone, labeling, say, the Android as a "response to iPhone."

    Somehow, we seem to have erased a couple of decades of history. And that history gets all the more interesting as the slate-style devices that failed to catch on in the last two decades are suddenly back with a vengeance.

    Just to take one example:

    Google purchased Android, Inc. (in 2005, before anyone had seen the iPhone)

    Android included co-founder Andy Rubin.

    Andy Rubin founded Danger (maker of Sidekick, recently purchased by Microsoft.)

    Rubin also worked at General Magic, the company that – perhaps even more than the work at Apple, though it included a number of Apple Newton alums – did the most to develop some of the new user interface concepts being used on these devices. (Of course, General Magic's own effort was a commercial flop – but so was Mac OS X's predecessor, NeXTStep, or even the forerunner of today's Windows, OS/2.)

    And who else was at General Magic? How about Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld and Marc Porat — two of whom had already done more to shape the modern UI than any other living person alive?

    In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm looking at windows with action items, a drop down menu bar, and proportional thumb bars all in a form that was invented by Bill and Andy.

    Ironically, it may be the descendants of the work they did at General Magic that have the best chance to unseat the dominance of those paradigms.

    In a way, the tech press aren't wrong about the fact that a few really strong ideas tend to influence everything else. What they're wrong about is the notion that these things are spawned by corporations. In fact, for all the zillions of people who work in technology, it seems to me that there are a few disruptive people who tend to do a lot of the advocacy for certain design ideas.

  • I wish I could remember… at some point, I saw a documentary which included extensive interviews with the folks at General Magic talking about how they imagined redesigning the UI for mobile devices. The actual execution was pretty off, but the concepts were dead-on, and absolutely central to how things are put together on Android. Have to look that up… maybe someone here knows.

    I would love to see some of these radical ideas applied to creative work, too, though; somehow, they always manage to be about organizing your address book and calendar. I had that feeling looking at the XO Laptop's Sugar, too: the result wasn't really usable, but there were great ideas about how to reorganize your computer UI around doing real creative activities, instead of just launching Microsoft Office. 😉

  • n4cer

    <blockquote cite="Peter Kirn"> Looking through the latest news from CES, it seems the slate form factor is the most popular. (Maybe the gadget blogs aren’t covering the convertible tablets, though.) And it seems most of these devices are running Android, which to me is actually a bit surprising. It means that a number of these OEMs agree with commenters that you want a touch environment right out of the box, rather than trying to add a touch interface to a conventional OS.

    Getting a piece of the eReading market seems to one of the drivers behind the current (particularly non-Tablet PC) slate push. They're media portals, though some are also smartbooks or UMPCs in revised form.

    As far as non-reading use, I think there's room for both approaches, particularly if you can network the devices together. You could have a powerful, flexible, full OS device augmented by cheaper devices you can customize for specific needs (dedicated control surfaces for example). Or, if an Android device has good I/O, there's the possibility for it to be an economical choice for your main device via OS/app customization, or getting it to run an audio-oriented Linux distro. A cheap, customizable device is particularly interesting for any kind of remote control/monitoring application (or even a nice digital photo/media frame that can be a much better value than current dedicated devices).

    Regarding Tablet PC OEMs, I wish more of them would follow HP and realize Intel "GPUs" suck (of course, I have this wish for computer OEMs in general). I was hoping Asus would deliver in this area, but it looks like I'll be getting an HP TouchSmart tm2 at this point. I'd have gladly paid Fujitsu (or Lenovo) double for their 4410 or 5410 if they offered them with an ATI (current preference/better D3D support) or NVIDIA GPU, but HP seems to have delivered most of what I wanted (Wacom digitizer, multitouch, good GPU, hardware virtualization (hopefully), etc.) for $1000+ less. Even if not perfect, the price is good enough that I can still consider something better in the near future. Since replaceable GPUs (e.g., MXM) failed in this area, it really is a plus to be able to get as good of a GPU as possible for a device you will have for several years.

  • Android right now doesn't have any I/O solution; I'm hoping that'll change. I think what's done on Android is driven by the hardware vendors, so if they stick the port on it, I think it'll happen. It really *is* Linux under the hood, so there's nothing stopping them from providing device support if they want. But yes, you should probably be able to replace a stock Android install with either a customized Android build or more standard Linux.

    I mean, if we see Android tablets with big screens and good multi-touch response, that could be a perfectly reasonable controller solution for people, once you get inside $200.

    At the high end, though, I'm with you. I'd love to have a real tablet with at least modest laptop specs and a good multi-touch screen. The tm2 seems like the best bet; I'm going to try to get a loaner out of them for a week to find out for sure.

  • n4cer

    @Peter (your posts 1:10/1:13pm)

    I've not much to add there.

    It is amazing how so many concepts are fostered by a few key visionaries.

    I guess one of the more interesting parts of this industry is watching the evolution of these concepts — different interpretations that spawn in trying to best align them with user expectations — clear, immediate success or initial failure only to be reborn thanks to more computing power and/or better algorithms (or better press/marketing :-)).

    It's both frustrating (mainly because you see potential, but have to wait years/decades for product) and enjoyable to see technologies evolve from the earliest ideas/research to something usable/generally available.

  • n4cer

    @Peter — tm2

    If you can get one, I look forward to your review.

    One thing I haven't seen is any mention of sensors (e.g., light, accelerometers, etc.) on the tm2, so I'm assuming it lacks them. Hopefully, if reviewed, you can confirm this, or they can when their product page goes up.

  • @n4cer > Regarding Tablet PC OEMs, I wish more of them would follow HP and realize Intel “GPUs” suck

    There may be issues about dynamically supporting both horizontal and vertical orientations that make certain GPUs more appropriate for tablets than others. I know this has been an issue in the past.

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  • Obeest

    yo, google touchco, looks cool.

  • Kenwood Flanger Plun

    @n4cer/Peter: btw.. never accused anyone of lifting apple terminology or vice versa, i just said its stupid name/gimmic. i dont care who uses it.

  • @Kenwood: no, I got that. I think we just got sidetracked. Quite a few in the press are describing Apple's product as the one to beat, without actually knowing what it is, which seems premature. See the NYT quote at top, which goes so far as implying that new releases in a ten year old category are somehow "risky" for Microsoft just because there's a widely-rumored Apple entry, which is counter-intuitive on a number of levels. That was directed at these press outlets, not you.

    I'm not crazy about the name "slate," either, though I guess I understand why they're using it.

  • mat

    Well, just a question: The desribed touchscreens are dualtouch? They didn´t manage to realize more than 2 points, do they?

    So another point for the Lemur (10 fingers!) 😉

    But I appreciate that touchscreen might enter massmarket one day…. till then here are some nice thing you can already do with a Lemur:

    I wonder a little, that all people are so curious about touchscreens, but the Lemur only sold about 1400units. Most say it is the price. But you are willing to buy a screen with only dualtouch for half of the price? Hmmmm….other might fear that the Lemur is no more relevant technology. Well, it was the same 18month ago where I buyed it, but till now… I bet that it take another 1 or 2 years till there is a compareable product on the market (hardware with true multitouch and an editor for controls)….but one day….one day;)

  • sasze

    I already have an HP tx2 that is equiped for multi-touch but there is lack of multi-touch software. I have been struggling to learn programming myself over the last 6 months with no real outcome. Anyone want to give me hand? I would be happy to pay for your time. If you would please contact me at sasze @ hotmail

  • Paul Norheim

    Here is an interesting quote from New York Times last Friday:

    "Another former Apple designer said a team at the company had “spent the past couple of years working on a multitouch version of iWork,” Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s Office software suite. This could indicate that Apple wants the tablet to be a fully functional computer, rather than a more passive device for reading books and watching movies. That could help justify a higher price."

  • Jeff Brown

    The photoshopping of that gPhone image is bothering me. The reflection of each edge should be parallel to the original.