In Part 2 we go deeper into PC laptops for music production and put a few choice models to the test.
The most sure fire way of removing the headache from selecting a laptop is to pop along to someone who knows what they are doing. If you pick up a laptop from a specialist Audio PC builder then you can feel assured that the DPC latency will be under control (see Part 1), and it would have been tested with numerous audio interfaces. However, regardless of the marketing materials, no laptop is going to be “designed for audio”. With desktop computers Audio PC specialists can carefully choose and combine components to produce a system that will work well for music production. With laptops this isn’t possible. Unless you order direct from the Far East in large container loads then you are not going to get any say over what goes inside a laptop. Audio PC builders have to rebrand and sell someone else’s laptop.
Some name brand manufactures release what’s known as a “whitebox” version of one or more of their range of laptops. This is essentially an unbranded, vanilla laptop chassis without CPU, RAM or hard drive installed. The specialist would then add the missing components to order, rebrand and sell it as their own product. In the UK at least whitebox laptops are increasingly rare. Asus, MSI and Intel have all had a go in the past but the general feeling is that the money to be made supplying specialist builders isn’t really worth it. That leaves a company called Clevo. Clevo specialise in whitebox laptops, they do nothing else and don’t tend to sell them under their own brand – so they’re not competing with their own customers like the name brands do. They supply laptop shells to all the little companies and shops that wish to brand and their “own” laptop – been doing it for years. There’s nothing wrong in any of this. For people wanting a properly tested and supported laptop for audio then this is the best route. The only downside is that the choice is very restrictive. The chances are that wherever you go the specialists will be selling the same laptop. The laptop won’t have any features specific to music making, it will probably be designed for gaming as much as anything and the best the Audio PC company can do is tweak it and support it for audio use – which is a great thing in itself. The value in having a laptop properly set-up and supported to do the job should not be underestimated. It’s one of the downsides of buying from Apple – you’re not going to get that specialised music production support in the event of trouble.
As an Audio PC builder whitebox laptops can be quite frustrating because you don’t have any control over the internal technology. When a new version arrives there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get it work for music production and you are off again trying to find a new solution. This has been particular difficult with the latest laptop technology from Intel. The mobile Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU’s seem to have brought with them a bumper set of features and components that all get stuffed into the laptop making it really difficult to minimise the DPC latency impact and maximise the firewire bandwidth.
So, instead of restricting ourselves to only whitebox laptops let’s take a look at some name brand manufacturers that just might do the job.
The Laptop Face-Off
Our search resulted in five possible solutions from three manufacturers:
- Asus N61JQ i7 720QM 1.6GHz 4GB ATI HD5730 ~ £1000
- Fujitsu Lifebook E780 i5 520M 2.4GHz 4GB Nvidia GT330M ~ £1050
- Fujitsu Celsius H700 i5 540M 2.6GHz 4GB Nvidia Quadro 880M ~ £1900
- Lenovo Thinkpad T510 i5 520M 2.4GHz 3GB Intel HD GFX ~ £1100
- Lenovo Thinkpad W510 i7 720QM 1.6GHz 2GB Quadro FX 880M ~ £1650
These aren’t cheap and cheerful, they’re high spec, professional laptops comparable (arguably) to the MacBook Pro – that’s the idea anyway. It was interesting how out of the box they all had various problems and barriers to working well for music production. I’m pretty experienced with these things and so I knew how to approach the issues but I often wonder how non-technical people get past this point – or even if they do.
Let’s look at them one at a time and then compare some test results…
The similarity between the results of the Fujitsu E780 and Lenovo T510 shows that the technological differences between the two laptops has little effect on the performance. Both units have the Core i5 520M 2.4GHz processor and although the E780 has one more gigabyte of RAM it didn’t make a substantial difference. The question remains though if the E780 had a graphics solution that didn’t cause a blue screen would the performance be even better? The two Quad Core’s were not as fast as expected but then the comparison between at 2.4GHz dual core and a 1.6GHz Quad core is difficult to make assumptions about – essentially you are comparing 4.8GHz to 6.4GHz and so we should be looking at a 25% performance difference and that is actually not far from what we got. The perception of a Quad Core though would assume a much bigger increase! The Fujitsu H700 was largely untested due to the driver clash problems and so its results are inconclusive. The Asus was always lagging behind the W510 in all but one test – probably down to the lack of available BIOS editing to stabilise the CPU speed but it’s also the cheapest model on test. On performance alone the Lenovo T510 and W510 take the crown although the Fujitsu could equal the performance if the clash with the graphics drivers was sorted out.
The performance differences and behavior of the audio interfaces is worthy of note. The Edirol FA66, which has the most uninspiring driver and control panel, seems to outperform the other, arguably more professional, interfaces by a fair margin. The FA66 also worked the same whether it was connected to a TI chipset card or the internal firewire port – it didn’t seem to care. When plugged into the Fujitsu it was the only interface not to blue screen – instead you got crackly playback. Edirol obviously know what they’re doing in terms of programming – shame they have no sense of style. At the other end the Firestudio misbehaved the most, failing to work successfully on everything except the T510. The Saffire Pro 24 sits safely between the two. I know very little about how driver architecture actually works but my assumptions are that the differences are to do with the amount of channels the interface requires – the FA66 only needs 6in/out, the Saffire 16in 8out whereas the Firestudio needs 24 in/out. Maybe the interface has negotiate the full bandwidth to accommodate all of its ins and outs when plugged into the firewire socket – further testing required I think. That said, once working the Edirol was a clear winner on performance which must be down to a combination of the technology in the box and quality of the drivers.
Was that helpful? Who knows! I think it shows some of the trials and tribulations involved in choosing a laptop for music production and how performance can vary not just between laptops but also between audio interfaces. As the majority of users don’t get the chance to compare their laptop to others then it all comes down to whether it’s doing what you want it to do. If you can make music on it then it’s doing a good job.
To read the full detailed article see: Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 2