An electronic tablet that displays music may seem like a revolutionary concept, but it will come as no surprise to those music historians that take the long view. Ever since methods of displaying and disseminating text have been invented, refined, and popularized, those methods have soon been adopted and modified by those seeking to display notated music.
For centuries, those methods of displaying music have involved some manner of placing ink to parchment or paper. When computers came around, the music made the leap to being shown on a screen — although still as means of approximating what the “final” (i.e., printed) output would look like. That printed output looked much better, naturally, and was certainly much more portable and practical for performance and study purposes.
As tablets such as iPads have become ubiquitous over the past decade, displaying music has quickly gained a following for many owners of these devices. Apps like forScore and Newzik are godsends for gigging musicians, who can leave the cartons of songbooks at home and instead toss their iPad into their bag, with thousands of songs easily fitting onto a microchip.
Still, even the largest tablets barely meet the threshold of a display size comfortable enough to be read at a reasonable distance from a music stand, or by aging eyes. Whether because for centuries we’ve been accustomed to reading music in book format — seeing two pages at once — or the discomfort of looking at a backlit screen, or simply because of the familiarity of working with pencil and paper, the overwhelming majority of people reading and performing notated music still do it the old-fashioned way.
The GVIDO music reader, released late last year after years of development, aims to change the way music is read, by addressing all of those obstacles. It’s a dual-display hinged device that can show two facing pages. Although the display size for each screen — about 8 x 10.5 inches, with a diagonal display of 13.3 inches — is smaller than a letter-size or A4 page, it has a feature that automatically detects white space in the margins and zooms the image to the edges of the display, making the effective display size very close to that of those customary page sizes.
Those displays aren’t the familiar backlit displays common in most tablets. Rather, they utilize E Ink Corporation’s Carta e-paper technology, giving the screens an appearance much closer to that of an e-reader such as a Kindle, and thus being much easier on the eyes (and suitable in venues where screens would be inappropriate). And there is an included “pen” for marking up your music — but more on that in a bit.
From a conceptual standpoint, then, the GVIDO (pronounced “Guido” and named after Guido d’Arezzo, the eleventh century monk credited with the invention of music notation) checks all the boxes for a device that is poised to make converts of performers using printed music. But before you say “shut up and take my money,” you might want to know a bit more…
…and, since we’re on the subject, let’s talk price.
You read that right. As you lift your jaw off the floor, though, take a look at Onyx’s BOOX Max2 e-reader, a single-display 13.3″ device which came out around the same time as GVIDO and costs $800. Although the BOOX is more functional than the GVIDO, $1,600 for double the screens doesn’t seem wildly off by comparison. And since we mentioned Kindle: the display of Amazon’s newest, largest iteration, the Oasis, maxes out at 7 inches — barely half that of one GVIDO screen — and it goes for $250, not exactly pocket change.
So while $1,600 will probably be a disqualifier for almost everyone interested in the GVIDO, when you consider its peers in the market — keeping in mind the uniqueness of the dual-display — it can be justified, or at least rationalized. Also, the makers of GVIDO have informed me that they will be offering an interest-free financing option on their web site, which may make it a little bit easier for consumers to purchase.
In any event, let’s review what you get for those 16 Benjamins — or, if you like, 160 Alexander Hamiltons.
(Here I will mention that GVIDO provided me a new unit to evaluate, but in case you are wondering, no, I don’t get to keep it permanently.)
Bezel, size, weight
Each display has a bezel of about 1 inch on the bottom and outside edge, and about 5/8 inch on the top and inside edge, giving each display an overall size of approximately 9.5 x 12.25 inches. When opened fully, the GVIDO spans 19 inches wide, so its proportions will seem perfectly at home on any music stand. At 23 oz (650g) it’s easily transportable, and at 0.5 inches in depth it’s nearly exactly the same overall measurements as the sheet music for a certain popular Broadway musical (speaking of Hamilton).
The GVIDO comes with 8 GB of onboard storage, the same as the above-mentioned Amazon Oasis, but significantly less than the 32 GB found in the Onyx BOOX. However, about 3.3 GB is used by the GVIDO system, so there is only 4.7 GB available for scores. There is a microSD slot which can be used for additional storage.
Accompanying the GVIDO in its sleek black packaging are a micro-USB cable for charging and data transfer, a sleeve case, the required pen, three spare pen tips, and a little tweezer-like gadget for pulling the pen tip out of the pen. Over time, GVIDO says that the tip will wear down and require replacement.
Actual physical controls are fairly minimal and, with the exception of the page controls, are all contained on the right display. At the bottom there’s a small home button and a smaller menu button. The power button is off to the side.
And that’s the extent of what can be controlled on the GVIDO by your fingers. It’s crucial to note that everything on the screen can only be accessed by using the pen. That includes not just marking up the score or jotting handwritten notes, but menu selection, navigation, and entering text in search boxes and data fields. When you think about how accustomed most of us have become to touching our screens, it feels unusual and awkward to reach for the stylus to perform these basic tasks.
In response to a question about this, a GVIDO representative told me, “The reason for not adding a finger-sensitive touch panel is to make it easier to see the e-paper. If you install an electrostatic panel, the resolution will be reduced, and the color will change. The score will be blurry. There is also a method to attach an electrostatic panel to make a panel with high resolution and make it easy to see with side lights, but this sidelight technology is not established for a screen this big. Also, the price will be considerably higher. However, since there are also inquiries that the score cannot be opened without a pen, we are planning to provide some kind of alternative method in the near future.”
Navigation and display features
Since we’re on the subject, relying solely on the pen to navigate the GVIDO is fraught with a more fundamental concern besides ease of use: what if you lose it? It’s not a commodity like a standard pen or even something fairly easily replaceable like a stylus or Apple Pencil; the GVIDO’s pen is proprietary to the device, costing $50 to replace and only available through GVIDO’s online store.
Moreover, there’s no convenient place to securely attach it to the device, although there is a loop to hold the pen embroidered in the soft sleeve case that accompanies the product.
Powering on the GVIDO takes about 30 seconds; you’re then taken to a home screen from which you can access your scores. Various viewing options are provided: in addition to listing all of your scores, you can choose from recently viewed or recently added scores, or search by composer or artist — provided that you’ve tagged the scores appropriately.
You can also see your set lists, an essential feature for using an electronic device such as the GVIDO. Here, the device’s dual-display is much appreciated, as there is ample room for viewing lots of information without navigating between many menus.
Upon choosing a score to display, the score will open with the first two pages showing by default.
Turning the page is achieved by tapping the one sensor on the right bezel of the device to turn the page right, or either of the two sensors on the left bezel to turn the page left. I found that it wasn’t strictly necessary to make physical contact with the sensor; simply hovering my finger within about 1/2 inch was enough to trigger it. A small green light in the upper left of the device flashes on when the page is being turned.
The smaller of two buttons at the bottom of the GVIDO brings up the menu settings in whichever mode you are in. While in a score, you can chose the pen size and shade, enter score information, adjust the display information for the score, create a bookmark, and navigate larger scores via a horizontal slider.
Entering text, such as score information or bookmarks, is done through an on-screen keyboard, which unfortunately can only be controlled by tapping with the pen, making such tasks rather tedious:
Tapping on Score display settings offers helpful viewing options, which can be set on a score-by-score basis, or globally via the GVIDO Settings menu.
Among my favorite settings was the Zoom feature, which automatically detects the margins of the score and removes them, allowing for a bigger and clearer view of the music. Users who wish to preserve the recto/verso layout of printed music, with the odd pages on the right and even pages on the left (evidenced by page turns in parts) will want to set the Initial score display to First page only.
On the other hand, using the GVIDO does not mean that you have to be bound by the same conventions as printed music. Should you wish to display the pages out of order — most useful if you are navigating repeats in the music with da capo, del segno, coda, etc. — you can do so by setting the Page display order to Custom. From here you can insert, duplicate, and re-order pages as you wish.
Finally there is the Score View Ahead option, which is a little disorienting, but if understood by the performer could come in quite handy. Basically it allows you to display the next page of music well in advance of turning the page, without losing your current place.
In other words, say we are using the First page only display option so that your first display has a blank page on the left and page 1 on the right. When you tap the page turn in an ordinary settings, you would be taken to page 2 on the left and page 3 on the right. But in Score View Ahead mode, tapping a page turn keeps page 1 on the right and shows page 2 on the left. Tapping again keeps 2 on the left but replaces 1 with 3 on the right.
So, the sequence is:
blank / pg. 1
pg. 2 / pg. 1
pg. 2 / pg. 3
pg. 4 / pg. 3
pg. 4 / pg. 5
Obviously a feature like this is demonstrates the unique nature of the GVIDO’s dual displays (although single-display apps can somewhat do this by showing half-pages at a time). This can mitigate quick page turns and, when used by a performer accustomed to the feature, ensure a smooth, uninterrupted performance.
Pressing the larger of the two bottom buttons returns the user to the home screen. Creating set lists is a straightforward, though somewhat tedious task; you can’t drag-and-drop items to re-sort them.
If you want to re-order the scores in a set list from the home screen, you must tap on the menu dots and selecting from a list, and then repeating that action over and over if you wish to change up your order.
A slightly better experience is found by tapping Show all, which brings up a screen showing all of your set lists. Tapping the menu dots there and tapping Edit brings up yet another screen, from which you can sort items more easily using up/down triangles and also add additional scores to the set list using arrows.
In general, once one becomes accustomed to navigating the GVIDO, it is easy enough to maneuver around, but don’t expect as satisfying an experience as with any modern tablet. The E-ink is slow to refresh and the user interface lacks certain efficiencies that might help compensate for the lag.
Among the reasons to use the GVIDO is the ability to make annotations. Being a greyscale device, however, those annotations are more-or-less limited to what you could do with a series of pencils of various weights. There is no highlighting, color choices, text entry, shapes, or even a library of musical symbols from which to choose, all of which could be useful on a modern digital device.
You don’t need to do anything special to start annotating; just start marking up the score with the pen. As you might expect by now, though, the experience will not feel the same as using a pencil or even one of the modern styli like the Apple Pencil or the Surface Pen. There’s a delay as each mark is processed, and it’s best not to go too fast when making a marking.
I got good results using one of the dark grey options, which helped differentiate my markings from the printed music:
You can erase any marks by flipping the pen around as one would with a pencil. There is also an eraser option available from the menu as well as a white-out option.
Annotations are saved in a Note group. Each file can have up to 100 note groups — helpful to create alternative bowings, or perhaps one group with performance marks and another with editorial indications. Although it is not possible to display multiple note groups simultaneously, it is possible to create a new note group by duplicating an existing note group — essentially a “Save As” feature — by selecting Create new with current notes. Note groups can be synced with the GVIDO Service.
Intriguingly, there was a Share with a group option, but when selecting it I received a message saying that “This feature will become available in a future software update.” Of course, if the GVIDO is to be used in any sort of collaborative or ensemble environment, this would be essential.
The annotation feature was made less useful, unfortunately, when used with the custom page order feature described earlier. I was excited to create a custom page order for a particularly confusing piano-vocal score to a show tune which had multiple repeats, a D.S. and a coda. Creating duplicate pages was easy enough, but when annotating them — for instance, to cross out sections of music which didn’t apply or to apply markings which only applied to a specific pass — I found that the GVIDO duplicated my markings across all copies of the page.
Notice how the markings I applied to my 8th page — a repeat of p.2 — were undesirably applied on the 2nd page as well.
Hopefully the ability to duplicate pages with separate annotations within a file can be added as part of a software update in the future.
When viewing a score created by a software program such as Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore, etc., the GVIDO is pleasing to read — generally more so than reading music from a tablet.
Presuming the music is prepared at an adequate size, there is no strain on the eyes, although I wished for more contrast between the background and the items on the page. The grey background is similar to the early Kindles; there’s a reason why the higher-end Paperwhites are the future. The GVIDO could benefit from a lighter “paper”.
In ordinary lighting conditions, there is no problem reading the GVIDO, but because it has no backlight of its own, ambient light is necessary, just as it is while reading printed music.
Items on the page appear sharp and clear at a distance, but when viewed closely, the pixelation of the display becomes more apparent. Unlike printed music printed on a low-dpi setting, the GVIDO employs anti-aliasing like one would find on any other display to help smooth out the edges.
The GVIDO is noticeably less successful when viewing scanned music, music with a smaller staff size, or, worse, a combination of the two. While some scanned scores are legible, they are not as comfortable to read. Any skew in the document is exacerbated by the display, especially when it comes to staff lines. Certainly the higher quality the scan, the easier time the GVIDO will have in displaying the music, but lower-quality scans are much more of a chore to read on the GVIDO than they are on a printed sheet of paper.
The device itself is well-constructed and fits easily on a standard music stand. Its carbon fiber hard case is light but very sturdy. Although for understandable reasons I chose not to test this, the manufacturers claim the GVIDO is sturdy enough to weather a fall from the height of a music stand, should this unfortunate calamity occur:
Files and syncing
The sole file format that can be displayed on the GVIDO is PDF. The GVIDO does not have any ability to read MusicXML files or any other music notation format.
Files are loaded onto the device either by syncing files with the GVIDO Service (membership is included with the purchase of the device; registration required) or by connecting the device with a computer via the included micro-USB to USB cable. On Windows computers, the GVIDO mounts like any other hard drive and you can copy files to it. Mac users need to install the free Android File Transfer app; a minor hassle for the less technically savvy, but not a deal-breaker.
Files appear on the GVIDO only after you disconnect the GVIDO from your computer.
The GVIDO Service also has scores for sale through partnerships with major publishers:
These and any scores you choose to sync from your device appear in your Library. In addition to syncing your scores, the GVIDO Service will sync any annotations (note groups) that you make.
Notably, while you can browse thumbnails of your score online, you cannot actually view them in their entirety, nor can you download them to your computer from the GVIDO Service. Instead, you need to go through a rather cumbersome process of exporting them on the device and then connecting it to a computer with the USB cable. (Scores purchased through the GVIDO Service, as well as password-protected scores, cannot be copied at all.)
This closed, rudimentary system is a severe drawback if the GVIDO is to have wider appeal in today’s market. Not being part of a larger cloud-based ecosystem which includes e-mail access or any standard storage services, the GVIDO user will be frustrated when a colleague e-mails the latest piece or uploads it to Dropbox. Where an iOS app like forScore or Newzik would make quick work of grabbing the file and opening it, the GVIDO user will have to go through the extra steps of downloading it to their computer or uploading it to the GVIDO Service, and then back again to sync it with their computer.
The GVIDO is clearly being sold as an up-market device. A leather cover is offered in three color variants at $300.
A three-pedal foot switch is also $300. It can be connected to the GVIDO either via Bluetooth or USB, and the function of the pedals can be customized by connecting the switch to your computer and changing the settings. The foot switch can be used to navigate the set lists and select scores. This is the preferred method for navigation when used in a performance as it eliminates the need for the pen.
Unfortunately, the GVIDO Foot Switch is not compatible with any other devices, and vice-versa; you can’t use a more mass-market, reasonably-priced page turner such as the PageFlip or AirTurn with the GVIDO. Still, those for whom price is no object will at least appreciate the option to use a foot pedal.
Conclusions, recommendations, availability
I wish I could be enthusiastic about the GVIDO, but as it is right now, my enthusiasm is limited to the potential for its future descendants and not the current device, for two main reasons: price and the closed nature of the system.
I don’t see any problem in reading sheet music today that is solved by purchasing a $1,600 device. The GVIDO’s marquee feature, the dual E-ink display, is not enough to overcome its limited utility as an electronic paper reader. Musicians would be much better served spending their hard-earned funds on just about any other piece of technology. The interest-free financing option may lure a few customers who don’t have all the cash on hand, but it’s still a lot of money.
The decision to make GVIDO virtually independent of any common technologies is also a non-starter. From the proprietary (and obligatory) pen, to the walled-off GVIDO Service and lack of support for any mainstream cloud service, to the proprietary foot switch, GVIDO is sending the wrong message. Now, you might say, the Apple Pencil is proprietary to Apple iPads, so what’s the matter with GVIDO doing the same? The answer is because Apple is Apple, with millions and millions of users and a global reach. Besides, I don’t need a Pencil to operate an iPad, and even I did, I can walk into any Apple Store and pick up a replacement. If you’re at a gig and misplace your GVIDO pen — good luck.
Even if the price was lower and the system more open toward common standards, the technical drawbacks of the GVIDO are obstacles too great to overcome. Several times I encountered problems where the device would freeze — not at all ideal in the middle of a performance situation — like in this instance where I simply wanted to zoom in and change the display order, and I had to restart the device, which took more than a minute to get my score back up on the screen. A very awkward silence indeed…
Even when everything ran relatively smoothly, it still felt like old technology. If I were using this in 2010 — the year of the first iPad, and before mass adoption of cloud storage services, I’d be wowed. But in 2018 the GVIDO is well behind the times.
Why then, devote 4,000 words to reviewing a device that I can’t recommend? Well, as mentioned, there is potential; all hope is not lost here. This is very much a first-generation device that could lead to better things to come.
I don’t know what the business model is or how many units GVIDO expects to sell at its current price point, but if GVIDO can somehow sell enough units to stay afloat, and pour enough resources into research & development to make a device on par with more cutting-edge e-reader technology, there may well be a future for GVIDO.
It is very difficult to develop both software and hardware and to do both well, especially at the consumer level. Apple does it; Microsoft is fairly new to the game, having mostly been a software company for its entire existence (and still it’s an open question whether their hardware will be a long-term success). iOS developers like forScore and Newzik certainly recognize the challenge and are more than happy to follow wherever Apple takes the iPad, choosing to focus solely on creating software to take advantage of the latest hardware improvements.
So for GVIDO to be successful they will either have to make great strides in the evolution of both a unique hardware product and the tech that runs it, or focus on one or the other. There is something very natural about reading music in book form with two pages side-by-side; we’ve done it for hundreds of years. Representing music that way electronically is something only GVIDO can do for now. Whether or not that’s a compelling enough raîson d’etre will depend on creating a device that can be both adopted by more consumers at a lower price point and fostering interoperability with the broader technological world.
Price: $1,600 USD or CAD; £1,500 GBP; €1,700.00 EUR; ¥180,000 JPY; currently available from gvidoscore.com in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
In the box:
- GVIDO music reader
- micro-USB to USB cable
- Sleeve case
- GVIDO Pen
- 3 spare pen tips
- Pen tip puller