Trinity Audio Group and creative director Ronald Stewart have pushed the idea of a mobile music tablet since around 2005. I first saw what they were working on in the summer of 2006, as they readied a dedicated mobile DAW. But, at least from my vantage point, it’s really taken until now for some of the available hardware and software to evolve to the point that it could deliver on what they wanted to do. Products based first on Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) platforms and netbooks, while usable and more mobile than a laptop, required various tradeoffs. Linux software provided some significant power, but wasn’t yet an optimized experience for mobile use. I noted some of the promise, and shortcomings, in a review in late 2008 for Keyboard of Indamixx’s original Samsung hardware. (Keep in mind, this is all before anyone had heard of the iPad.)

Now, as they gear up for a 2011 release, Trinity have a new play to make a dedicated mobile music computer work. They’re offering a beta, starting now, for early adopters. I haven’t yet used the beta tablet, so I can only offer my personal perspective from my conversations with Indamixx.

There seems to be some confusion about what you get for the $699 price tag from an Indamixx 2 beta tablet. Engadget wonders why it tacks $200 on the price of the M1 Touch tablet on which it’s based. In fact, there’s more than $200 in bundled proprietary software, as well as customization of the free software. That makes Indamixx effectively a system integrator and the tablet a hardware/software bundle, rather than stock software. Synthtopia asks “does it matter,” as James Lewin argues for the greater “developer attention that the iPad has received.” That ignores the fact that what Indamixx represents – with one vendor’s customization work – is at its heart a Linux system. With compatibility with Windows VSTs, deep tools like energyXT, Ardour, Renoise, and LinuxDSP, and a host of free software like Pd and Csound, I’d say any Linux machine has an order of magnitude more music software developer hours behind it than iOS. That’s not to say it’s better or worse, but it is different: if you are musically productive in these more conventional tools, you may already have passed on the iPad.

The software bundle is the main source of value here, since the tablet you could buy separately. The beta includes various commercial, proprietary software, including file exchange support for Ardour, full copies of Renoise, energyXT, and superb plug-ins from LinuxDSP. There’s also software that, while free, could take a significant investment of time to set up, even for someone with some familiarity with Linux. That includes customization, tweaking, and configuration of the MeeGo Linux operating system, and packages for things like JACK setup. The beta also includes extras like access to a streaming server, accessories, and pre-installation of a multi-boot configuration. As Trinity has pushed before, one audio output option is HDMI, which provides multichannel outs without the need for a dedicated card (provided you have something to which you can connect HDMI on the other end).

I’m going to ignore the iPad versus Indamixx argument for now, tantilizing flame war bait as it may be. I think the software offerings are significantly different that people will have an easy time choosing. If you like the iOS apps, you’ll get an iPad. If you’re more productive in something like Ardour or Renoise, you won’t. If you want single-app experiences, you’ll go iPad. If you like interconnecting apps or using plug-ins, you won’t.

Instead, I think the question for the Indamixx 2 is how competitive other tablets may be. The “not-iPad” category now is small, but it may not remain so. Indamixx is betting big on MeeGo, but that Linux distro is relatively new and untested. The M1 Touch hardware features a capacitive touch input like the iPad, but I haven’t yet been able to use it myself, so I’m not sure how it stacks up in terms of display quality, touch quality, and overall reliability and performance. Many tech pundits, myself included, incorrectly predicted a slew of new tablets in 2010 to rival Apple’s, at least in hardware quality. But 2011 does seem a likely timeframe for new hardware. That means the question is whether you want to bet on Indamixx to customize your experience, or assume that you’ll set up your own Windows or Linux tablet.

Diving in on a beta now isn’t for the feint of heart. Trinity offers only 6 months free support for the system, and warns against “airing out” criticism publicly, instead asking for bug reports. (Support after six months is available for a fee.) I don’t see an indication of NDA, but I would like to see indications of how responsive Trinity is to criticism – and this is a significant investment of cash for something that lacks long-term support.

To me, the big competition for Indamixx 2 is likely to be, ironically, Linux and Windows themselves. Will Trinity’s solution rival your own Linux or Windows install in May 2011? And is the better solution for tweaking Linux – which, even with the addition of these proprietary apps, still depends mainly on free and open source packages like JACK and MeeGo itself – be Indamixx as a private vendor, or the free software community? The latter is a relatively open forum for participation, whereas Indamixx, in its beta, warns “no crybabies” in its invitation to beta testers.

What we need to see is whether Trinity can build on its work in this field to deliver a truly finished, polished product, and whether it can build the kind of support relationship with users, developers, and the press to make its solution viable. Laptops have that ecosystem, and Apple – love them or hate them – does with iOS. Now, we’ll see how Indamixx stacks up to what’s likely to become a more crowded mobile space in 2011. In 2005, Trinity was relatively alone in calling for mobile music systems based on Linux. By the spring, when it comes to the tablet space, we may be off to the races. We’ll be able to judge the finished product, and its rivals, then.

Beta site: