Podcomplex Guides | Laptops


If you're planning on buying a laptop, it's generally a good idea to do a bit of research first. As everyone tends to have different requirements from their machine, it's just not possible to recommend any single laptop model, or manufacturer.

Many musicians prefer to use MacBooks for live performance - partly because of the operating system, but also because Apple control which components go into the computer, and these parts are tested extensively to ensure they work well together.

This standardisation tends to result in fewer hardware/software compatibility issues, but it is also possible to have a PC that offers equal levels of reliability, if you know what you're looking for - and the PC route can be significantly cheaper (see Mac Vs PC below).

Of course, it's worth bearing in mind that laptops do have quite a high fault rate (for both Mac and PC) - approximately 20% of all laptops will develop some sort of physical problem within the standard warranty period. This is largely due to the increased levels of miniaturisation and associated heat dissipation issues - so unless portability is really necessary, you will get better reliability and performance out of a desktop model.

If you're new to the world of computer hardware, then you might want to check out the computer components guide, but on this page I'll cover some general points to consider when choosing a laptop...


Choosing A Laptop - First Steps

When you first decide to buy a new laptop, you might think that all you have to do is go down to the computer store, find one that looks nice (and isn�t too expensive), buy it and head home.

This might seem a bit simplistic - but in reality, most people won�t go too far wrong with this approach.

In fact, even the cheapest laptop available today is more than adequate for general office use - word processing, surfing the Internet, simple multimedia work such as ripping CDs, watching DVDs, or basic image editing. You'll only need to be concerned about processor performance if you play the latest video games or work with audio or video in a more serious way - such as video editing using Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, 3D image rendering or multichannel audio sequencing.

Matching Your Laptop To Your Needs

If you just want to work with Excel spreadsheets, Word and PowerPoint, then the only thing that's going to strain a modern PC is the amount of bloatware, adware or viruses on it. If you find that your computer can't do these basic things, then you need to do a spring-clean on your operating system. For some tips on how to keep your computer running smoothly, have a look at this PC maintenance guide.

If you're really after raw performance, you might want to check out an Alienware or Rock laptop - these tend to be targeted at gamers, and many of them have dual graphics cards and large screens. Dual or even Quad Core Intel i7 processors are where the best performance benchmarks are coming from these days.

However, such machines are also very bulky and heavy, and really quite unsuitable for someone who wants to travel a lot and only plays low-power games such as World of Warcraft - or a business user who will never play games at all. If you are in this category, then you should pay particular attention to the size and weight of the machine, as well as its battery life. It might even be worthwhile investing in a second battery if you take a lot of long-haul flights...

To help you decide what type of laptop suits you best, select one of the user profiles below...
  • General Use Laptop

    Laptop For General Use

    Most people use laptops for a variety of tasks, including Web surfing, word processing, listening to music and watching videos...

  • Gaming Laptop

    Laptop For Gaming

    If you're going to a lot of LAN parties, you'll need a machine that can keep you fragging for longer...

  • Laptop for Multimedia and Music Production

    Laptop For Music

    If you need a laptop for media production, both power and reliability are prime concerns...

Inspiron 15 laptop

Choosing A Laptop - General Usage

Most computer users will fall into this category, where the laptop is required to deliver a balanced performance across a range of areas, without being subjected to any unusually strenuous tasks.

As mentioned in the First Steps section above, pretty much any laptop you can buy today will deliver enough power for Web surfing, word processing, watching YouTube videos or DVDs, office work, slideshows and image touch-ups. Therefore, you might want to pay particular attention to details other than the processor; for example, a new Windows laptop should come with Windows 7 (avoid getting Vista), and at least 2Gb of RAM.

The size, weight and design of the laptop should also be considered - if you are a student and plan on carrying the laptop with you around campus, then a lighter machine will suit better. However, one of the heaviest components of a laptop is the battery, so you'll need to find a balance between weight and battery life - larger batteries provide more juice, but increase your carrying load. Most manufacturers don't cite battery life in their main specifications, so if you find a model that you like the look of, you should check out some reviews online to see how it lasts under test conditions. Dell's Inspiron 15 is a good example of a general purpose laptop, and you can check out a review of the Inspiron 15 here, or the Dell Studio 15 here as a slightly more expensive alternative.

What About Casual Gaming?

If you want to play web-based games, or occasionally try out disc-based games from a few years ago, then this should also be no problem, even with an integrated graphics option. However, don't expect to play modern games on any laptop that doesn't have a dedicated graphics card - a shared video solution just doesn't cut it for gaming.

Watching Blu-Ray Movies

Although watching Blu-Ray discs does require a lot more graphics power than watching DVDs, you won't really need to worry about whether your laptop's video card is up to the task - if your laptop comes with a Blu-Ray drive, then it will also have been equipped with a GPU that's capable of playing back those higher resolution discs. Blu-Ray drives are more expensive than DVD drives; you can get drives that can burn DVDs but only play Blu-Ray, or you can get Blu-Ray burner drives that can play back and record in Blu-Ray, DVD and CD formats (which is of course the most expensive option).

Alienware m17x laptop

Choosing A Laptop - Gaming

If you're a gamer, then you're ruling out a budget laptop straight away - and a Mac is also not really an option, as games tend to be released almost exclusively on the Windows platform (as well as games consoles).

Of course, unless you will be moving your computer around (for example, going to multiplayer gaming parties) then you should get a desktop rig, which will provide far more power for less outlay. However, it is still possible to get gaming laptops with impressive graphics chops.

For gaming with demanding titles such as Crysis, you'll need a fast processor and a very beefy GPU solution. In fact, you'll likely be limited by your graphics card before you are limited by your processor - once you hit the levels of a 2.6Ghz Core 2 Duo, then you'll probably not see much performance benefit from increasing your processor speed further. At this stage, your gaming performance will be throttled by the capabilities of your video card - or your RAM, if you have less than 4Gb installed.

ATI or nVidia?

There are currently two main manufacturers of graphics cards - ATI and nVidia. ATI is now a subsidiary of AMD, and so any machine with an Athlon or Phenom processor is likely to feature an ATI graphics chipset. However, as the Intel Core 2 Duo/Quad and the new i7 processors are the current performance leaders, it makes more sense to choose these for a gaming machine - and the Intel processors can be paired with either ATI or nVidia graphics. Both companies make extreme performance cards, and low-end budget cards, and although certain cards have their pros and cons, there is no overall leader in this space. The bottom line on graphics for gaming laptops is that it doesn't really matter whether you go with ATI or nVidia - rather, it's which particular card you have that counts.

It's also worth noting that a laptop with an ATI or nVidia sticker on it doesn't necessarily mean it has a dedicated graphics card; if the specs say something like 'up to 512Mb' graphics memory or '768Mb (shared)' then you are dealing with an integrated video card that borrows system RAM - a big no-no for serious gaming.

Basic Specifications For Gaming Laptops

Having said that, there are a number of points to note on the laptop GPU front. The most accessible statistic quoted for graphics cards is the memory; you should have at least 256MB of video RAM onboard, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Video cards also have a bandwidth rating and GPU clock speed; you'll want at least a 128-bit interface, and as fast a graphics processor as you can get.

In terms of processors, you'll need at least a Core 2 Duo 2.4Ghz. This should be paired with a minimum of 4Gb of RAM - memory is so cheap at the moment, it just doesn't make sense to skimp in this area. However, if you want to future-proof your laptop (in as much as this is even possible) then you should go with a Core i7.

If you get an i7 processor, then you would actually be better off with 3Gb of RAM, because the i7 uses a tri-channel memory bus architecture. For Core 2 Duo, your RAM should be in multiples of two, but i7 should be multiples of three. If you get a 64-bit operating system, you can get 6Gb of RAM - but remember, any 32-bit OS can only address up to 4GB of memory.

XPS13 laptop

Choosing A Laptop - Music Production

If you want to get a laptop for music production, I would assume that you'll be taking it to gigs, and possibly using it as the main (or only) sound source for your performance.

If you don't need to take your computer on the road, you'll get a much better studio machine if you go with a desktop.

However, for live performance, it is absolutely essential that your system is as reliable as possible. So, your first decision to make is the age old question - Mac or PC?

Should I Go With A Mac Or A PC?

In the 1990s, Macs had a significantly different video and audio architecture to PCs, which gave them a performance edge in multimedia applications. Over the course of the intervening years, however, such differences have been eroded - at least from a technical perspective. Today, claims of Mac superiority for music production largely stem from historical, personal or pseudo-political biases - as indeed do counter-claims of PC superiority.

Mac v PC

This debate can get surprisingly emotional if you try and raise it on a forum, which is odd when you consider that we are merely trying to ascertain which tool is appropriate for one particular individual to achieve a particular set of goals. Everybody uses their computer in slightly different ways, and musicians certainly each produce music in very individual ways - so it is slightly absurd to claim that any hardware is the absolute best choice for music production, regardless of any other variables.

Mac Vs PC - The Software

Macs can now run both Mac OS and Windows (or indeed Linux). PCs can run Windows or Linux, but not (legally) Mac OS. If you are already a Mac user, you will almost certainly be sticking with Mac. If you have been making music on Windows for some time, you are probably more comfortable with its layout and workflow, so it may not be worthwhile switching to a new operating system just for the sake of it.

Remember, there is no compelling objective reason to choose either Mac or PC - it's a choice of tool, so choose whichever one will enable you to make music more effectively. If you already have a lot of PC-only software, and are familiar with how it works, then it probably makes sense to go PC. If you want to use Logic Pro, then you'll have to go Mac, as that particular DAW is no longer available for PC. Of course, the ideal scenario is to have both platforms - you might have a PC as your main studio desktop rig, and then have a MacBook or MacBook Pro for playing live.

Mac Vs PC - The Hardware

MacBook Pro

In terms of hardware, the MacBook Pro is an extremely impressive machine, and will handle any DAW you care to throw at it. Now that Macs are Intel based, the difference in specifications between Macs and PCs is not really a significant issue - the latest MacBook Pro models are powered by Intel Core 2 Duo processors at 2.53GHz or 2.66GHz. However, it is now possible to get Core i7 powered PC laptops, which are the new performance leaders in the CPU market.

For PC laptops, there is a far greater choice of hardware, with more customisation options - and lower price point options as well. This is both a blessing and a curse - more options means you can get pretty much any components you like, but the almost infinite combination of components possible in a PC means it's not possible for audio production software companies to test their products on each hardware variation out there.

There are very few possible configurations of Mac laptops, so most professional music software can be tested against each of the Apple machines. Furthermore, Apple tests the hardware combinations in their machines as well, to ensure maximum compatibility and reliability. This is all part of what gives the Apple computers their premium price tags. On the other hand, many musicians enjoy learning about computer hardware and building up an � la carte PC machine that they know (literally) inside out. Macs are billed as machines that 'just work', so if you just want to fire up Logic and get producing, you can do just that.

The Importance Of Your FireWire Chipset

Because a computer musician usually requires a better sound card than can be included in a laptop, it's important to ensure that your sound card actually works well with your computer. This compatibility issue is something that most people aren't aware of, but it can be the source of a huge range of buggy behaviour in your DAW.

PCI FireWire Card For A Desktop PC

Generally speaking, USB sound cards don't have significant compatibility issues, but as the FireWire protocol allows for a faster practical data throughput, this is the format of choice for most professional or prosumer grade audio interfaces. Unfortunately, it's not just a case of getting a laptop with a FireWire port and plugging in - FireWire chipsets in laptops (and indeed in desktops) vary quite a bit, and some FireWire controllers don't play nicely with certain FireWire audio interfaces.

On the Mac side, not all MacBooks actually have a FireWire port - which is a strange decision by Apple, considering so many of their users are musicians or video professionals whose interface of choice is probably FireWire. However, when a FireWire port is included, its compatibility is excellent.

When choosing a laptop, therefore, you'll have to consider the FireWire chipset as an important factor in your decision. It is generally agreed that a Texas Instruments FireWire controller affords the best overall compatibility with the widest range of audio interfaces. I discussed the merits of the TI chipset here, but the bottom line is that you should look for compatibility first, rather than a specific chipset.

After TI, it seems that VIA/SIS also have good compatibility records. However, just because you have a TI FireWire, it doesn't mean that your sound card is guaranteed to work glitch-free (or vice versa). When matching your sound card to a laptop, you should do a Web search to find out if your particular sound card has worked well (or badly) with your intended laptop/firewire controller in another user's studio. For example, my Dell XPS M1330 has a RICOH FireWire controller, which generally receives very bad reviews for audio compatibility, but it works flawlessly with my M-Audio Projectmix interface.

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