This is something. The Horizon 2 is a 27-inch flatscreen device manufactured by Lenovo. It is designed for gaming and entertainment but my use of it is primarily as a music library and sheet music reader. It does not entirely replace my collection of printed piano music (comprising hundreds of volumes) but it opens practical performance access to the Borgesianly infinite library of public domain music freely available in PDF format.
Free public domain sheet music is easy to find on the WWW. Its usefulness, however, has until now been largely limited to serving as reference material. The hassles of printing out the PDFs and arranging the pages in a usable way outweighed the benefits of actually using them for practice or performance. I put a fair amount of time and effort into doing that (I have several three-ring binders filled with printed scores to show for it) but it Just Never Worked. Even with paper hole reinforcements and thick-stock paper the pages inevitably came loose. At one point I seriously considered taking a course in bookbinding to create quality volumes of this stuff, but I never did.
I was a little apprehensive about the Horizon 2. After actually ordering it I felt I had boarded the hardware equivalent of a sinking ship. Lenovo’s official pages for the Horizon 2 are frozen in time. Customer reviews seem to indicate that this thing hit the stores in July, maybe earlier. Yet for some reason the official web site still lists the Horizon 2 as “Coming Soon”, months after its release, and details of its technical specifications are not present.
Adding to my apprehension: Customer reviews complained that what specifications are shown on the official web site and at online retailers are not accurate. The official website says there should be a 3-in-1 memory card reader (which would be handy) but there is none, nor does the Horizon 2 ship with the promised “Joystick, Striker, and E-dice”. Not having the latter gaming pieces is no big deal to me (I don’t even know what a “Striker” is) but errors like this, where a product manager is simply not doing their job and should be fired, inspire no confidence.
Notwithstanding the specification errors on Lenovo’s and other web sites the Horizon 2 fully lives up to what I had in mind for it as a music reader and library. Somewhat against my will (more on that later) I purchased the Music Reader software and imported a stash of PDFs from the “CD Sheet Music” discs I bought years ago. Online collections such as the estimable Petrucci Music Library and sites linked to from there helped build a library, and I quickly had the Horizon 2 mounted on the piano and functioning as a music reader. In that capacity it Just Works. The more I think about it the more amazing it seems.
Setup of the Horizon 2 was not without its irks. I do everything I can to avoid interacting with the Windows 8.1 operating system. I was unaware that Windows 8 makes logging in through your Microsoft account seemingly compulsory. As I should have known there are workarounds for this, but while such petty skulduggery may be satisfying it comes not necessarily without consequence. I just wanted to get this thing going, so I gave in and dug up my Microsoft account password, which I had changed to something unmemorizable after the Heartbleed thing.
My only complaint about the hardware is the difficulty I have in getting this latch undone:
That’s the latch that holds the kickstand in place for when you place the device flat on a table. I use the butt end of a screwdriver to dislodge it, which feels like I might break something. In a way I respect this for the sense of confidence it gives that the kickstand is mighty sturdy. But it is always a challenge to undo this freakin’ latch.
Friends have asked me: Why not just use a regular computer?
I was never inspired by that option, though I twice attempted to use a laptop as a music reader. That was before Windows 8, when no touch screen support existed, which was just one factor among many that made the effort unrealistic.
The advantage of the Horizon 2 over a regular computer and monitor setup is its all-in-one portability, containing within its thin surface a full operating system, 1TB hard drive, and (of course) a 27″ monitor. 1TB of storage is probably enough room to store the entire canon of western classical piano music in PDF format.
Traveling with a laptop and an external monitor certainly makes portability possible but the scenario seems gawky by comparison to this.
The Horizon 2 ships with a garish tote bag. This gives the device some level of portability but it is an advertisement for the product and an announcement to anyone who might be interested in stealing such a conspicuously unique device. I turned the bag inside out to conceal its advertising (which is not even for the Horizon 2, it’s for the previous “IdeaCentre” iteration). The bag feels flimsy and I do not expect to carry the device very far with it. At 16 pounds the Horizon 2 isn’t that heavy. It is its shape and dimensions that make it awkward to transport by hand.
I find that reading music from this screen is easier than reading it from paper. I do not feel this way about eReaders such as the Kindle device or the Kindle app. For whatever reason those are harder on my eyes than printed matter.
The Music Reader software behaves pretty much as expected, but it needs a lot of work. Once in a while it just freezes for no apparent reason. On account of that I would have to think twice before using this software in live performance. The interface looks primitive and even amateurish. Browsing through the library is something of a challenge, as opening a PDF frequently sends you right back to the list of files.
I had intended to try the Music Reader software for its trial period whilst researching other options in the meantime. The trial period was supposed to be 30 days or 60 uses, but for some reason it expired after only 4 or 5 uses. Irritated but impatient at 3:00 a.m. I just went ahead and bought it, somewhat against my better judgment but it’s fine.
Pageturns in Music Reader are done by tapping the screen. An available USB-connected foot pedal accessory allows you to turn the pages by tapping it. I am not sure I need the pedal. Tapping the screen to turn pages creates the illusion of a nostalgic connection between this new technology and the analogue world of page turns, without the risk of paper cuts. But I will probably give in and get the pedal.
In vertical mode the page defaults to flush top. Given the size of the Horizon 2 you might have to crane your neck to see the top of the page, and Music Reader does not appear to have any way to make it flush bottom.
The Horizon 2 in vertical view looks kind of ridiculous. Indeed, the horizontal placement of this enormous screen on top of my Roland digital piano took some getting used to, but I don’t think twice about it now.
Music Reader’s ½ page option suits me best, but it is twitchy, frequently failing to find the middle of a page. When ½ page mode works as expected it cuts the page in half, making the noteheads plenty large enough for this ocularly challenged pianist to read. Unfortunately it does not always work. The ½ page view is most valuable while first reading through and getting to know a piece. As I become more familiar I can change to single page view or even 2-page view.
I will make little use of Music Reader’s annotations feature. I have not written notes on solo piano scores since high school. I was impressed by a comment (I believe it was Rudolf Serkin’s) that the fastidious scribbling of reminders and fingerings on scores is needlessly gratuitous. To wit I have never understood the sense of satisfaction that musicians feel by violating scores with acres of their own comments and notations. As Serkin would have said, if you want to learn this music you will. No amount of handwritten reminders will help. Indeed, such things can create distractions if you are playing from score in a performance that is not going exactly as planned.
I feel a small bit of buyers remorse for not fully exploring other options. There are 24″ Android tablets out there (at much lower cost) which might have sufficed. But I’m satisfied that paying a premium for the larger screen works best for me. My eyes are not as good as they once were (some days are better than others) and the jumbo size of this screen helps compensate for that.
The Horizon 2 may seem expensive for what it is but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what it would cost to purchase printed copies of all that piano music. Until the Internet explodes I do not expect to purchase another Dover edition ever again.
I obviously do not expect to play or even contemplate every last piece of piano music that is out there. But the reality of bringing up obscure works of Sergey Lyapunov as easily as summoning the complete works of Chopin is simply amazing. Lyapunov is my current favorite neglected composer. His Op. 27 Piano Sonata is a favorite find from this week.