AF’s Weblog

December 1, 2010

Lifting the Lid on Audio Laptops: The Test

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:

  1. Asus N61JQ i7 720QM 1.6GHz 4GB ATI HD5730 ~ £1000
  2. Fujitsu Lifebook E780 i5 520M 2.4GHz 4GB Nvidia GT330M ~ £1050
  3. Fujitsu Celsius H700 i5 540M 2.6GHz 4GB Nvidia Quadro 880M ~ £1900
  4. Lenovo Thinkpad T510 i5 520M 2.4GHz 3GB Intel HD GFX ~ £1100
  5. 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…

Conclusion

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

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November 17, 2010

Choosing a Laptop for Music Making: Part 1

Finding the right laptop for music production can be rather troublesome. In this, the first of two articles, we’re going to look at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it.

With a desktop computer you can select a few good components, screw the thing together, tweak Windows and you’re off making music. With a laptop there’s no real knowing what’s inside the box and you certainly couldn’t build one yourself. So, you have to make a choice, take a stab, and hope for the best.

The thing is that it really should just work. You should be able to buy a laptop, plug in a compatible interface, install some software and make some music – why would that be difficult? In many cases it’s not and often people do exactly that, but sometimes you can run into trouble with audio dropouts, glitching, clicks and pops or simply a refusal to work.

In this, the first of two articles, I’m going to be looking at the reasons why laptops have problems and what can be done about it. In the second article I’m going to be looking at whether there are some smart choices out there for music production and live performance and I’m going to be revealing the testing I did in trying to find the next model to use as the Rain UK Livebook.

The Apple MacBook Pro

Before we do, let’s get past the ubiquitous Apple MacBook Pro.

It’s everywhere, the glow of that white piece of fruit, throbbing annoyingly. Every electronic musician or DJ seems to have one. Every piece of marketing from a music manufacturer with a laptop product seems to feature one. It would be silly to do an article on audio laptops without mentioning it. The MacBook Pro is beautifully designed, elegant and ergonomic. The aluminium shell has a great quality to it, the backlit keyboard fantastic for live performance, it’s built with quality components and runs OSX which works wonderfully with Apple compatible products.

 

The biggest down side is the price. A 15” MacBook Pro starts at $1700, but that’s only the beginning. The standard 5400rpm drive really needs to be upgraded to a 7200rpm one for audio work which adds a further $200. Standard tech support is only for 90 days unless you purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan for an additional $349, so without even thinking about it you’re over two grand and that’s for the entry level machine. Apple do somehow manage to generate a kind of mystical energy field around their products which makes them appear head and shoulders above anything else. In reality they are simply good quality laptops which share many of the same pros and cons of other good quality laptops. They have a tendency to run hot and the fans can be noisy; the battery life can be poor (although the latest generation are much improved, many Mac users complain of poor battery life after a years use so we don’t yet know how the new ones will pan out); they only have a couple of USB slots and with the standard version described above there’s no ExpressCard slot.

On the up side they do have powered firewire which is a fabulous thing that’s sorely missing on PC laptops. As with all Apple products you have the security of knowing that whatever works with it will work very well – however, that also means that your options are limited when compared to the PC. You can also run Windows on a MacBook Pro, but then it becomes a very very expensive PC as many of the advantages are to be found in the smooth flowing proprietary nature of OSX.

I don’t think you’d ever be disappointed with a MacBook Pro, and at that price you’d hope that you never would be. Are there alternatives? I believe so yes. I believe the laptop you get free when signing up to Tesco (popular supermarket chain in the UK) broadband is capable of making music, however, if you want to do things a bit more properly and can aim for a quality laptop then they can be completely capable of doing the job just as well.

Now let’s take a look at some of the problems with laptops…

Firewire Bandwidth

This is increasingly an area of concern. With most professional audio interfaces favouring the firewire connection then you need to have a good, working firewire connection on your laptop. But these things are never straightforward. It seems that not all firewire connections are the same. The specification appears to allow for enormous variation in the quality of the chipset and the drivers. In most cases, for most devices, such as cameras and external hard drives, then it all works fine.

For real-time, multichannel, high definition audio it can be a different story. It’s become accepted now that the Texas Instrument (TI) firewire chipset is the best choice for audio interfaces. Very few, if any, laptops come with a TI chipset firewire socket, the chipset is usually by another manufacturer and would appear as a generic “OHCI IEEE1394 Firewire port” in Windows. The only way around this is to get an ExpressCard firewire card (like this one from Startech) which fits into the side of the laptop (assuming it has a slot for it). Unfortunately our troubles are not quite over. The Firewire card connects to the system via the PCIe bus. The PCIe bus has a finite amount of resources and has to share them with other devices attached to the system. Modern laptops tend to pack in components so you get modems, Bluetooth, fingerprint security, the inbuilt firewire port and the graphics engine all vying for the same resources and the same bandwidth. Firewire is designed to negotiate for what it needs, however, multichannel audio needs more bandwidth than any other firewire device and it may be that there simply isn’t the room with all the other junk connected.

The best solution is, of course, to use a USB audio interface! There’s a sense of frustration in the industry with firewire at the moment. The amount of problems people have and the subsequent technical support load it causes for the manufacturers are having an impact. USB 3 has just arrived giving much greater bandwidth and speed than firewire and I imagine that it won’t be long before we see professional interfaces with USB3 sockets on them.

With all that in mind the chances are that your choice of laptop will work fine! DPC latency can usually be tackled by disabling stuff, and the firewire bandwidth problem is not that common. But they are both worth checking out as soon as you get your laptop so you can return it within the 7 day cooling off period.

In part 2 I’ll be looking at getting a laptop from Audio PC companies and also how Rain UK came up with their new Livebook.

To read the full detailed article see:  Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 1

 

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