Q. What factors should I consider when buying a PC laptop?

Published in SOS April 2010
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Various

I'd like to buy a fairly inexpensive PC laptop for production when I'm on the move. Having never used a laptop for audio before, I'd like some advice on the main factors to consider. I've had lots of advice on which brands to avoid, but I'm still concerned that I will end up making a costly mistake.

Paying a little extra for a custom‑built audio laptop from a specialist company (like this one from Rain Recording) can help you avoid expensive mistakes.Paying a little extra for a custom‑built audio laptop from a specialist company (like this one from Rain Recording) can help you avoid expensive mistakes.

Via SOS web site

ASOS columnist Martin Walker replies: It's always sensible to get advice from other laptop users. However, you still have to be very careful when buying a PC laptop 'blind', if you want to avoid a very expensive mistake: while you can fairly easily replace or bypass any desktop PC component that causes problems with audio software and hardware, this is rarely an option with a laptop. I discussed the various pitfalls in some depth in SOS August 2008 (/sos/aug08/articles/budgetpc.htm). However, here's a handy checklist of the main points, in order of importance:

Throttling/Fans: Very important factors to consider are the processor throttling and fan cooling regimes. Throttling ramps the CPU clock speed up or down automatically to suit processor demands, with the aim of extending battery life, while the fan speed gets adjusted automatically, to ensure the CPU remains at a safe temperature at all times but noise levels are minimised. Unfortunately, some laptop models suffer from short audio drop‑outs each time either of these speeds gets changed and you may not be able to disable such features. Each laptop manufacturer tends to offer a range of models — some may cause throttling/fan glitches and some may not — making it impossible to generalise about which brands to avoid.

Overheating: Musicians are rare among computer users in frequently running their processors continuously at near 100 percent load, which in turn raises the CPU temperature beyond the norm. It's not unknown for the occasional laptop model to shut itself down due to excessive temperatures if you attempt to run it 'flat out' for more than a few minutes (which its manufacturer may assure you is a highly unusual practice). You should avoid such models as well.

Resource hogs: Various laptop components, or their drivers, may periodically take more than their fair share of resources, once again disturbing the smooth flow of audio. The worst offenders tend to be Wi‑Fi networks, which can normally be disabled while you work on music, but some interruptions can only be resolved by changes to BIOS settings, which may not be available on a particular laptop.

Firewire: If you intend to use a Firewire audio interface, you will need to check which Firewire controller chips are the most compatible to partner it. If your laptop has a different one on its motherboard you may, once again, suffer from audio clicks and pops. Buying a Firewire card adaptor may solve the problem, but it's safer to buy a laptop that's already compatible with your interface.

Ground loops: Finally, many laptop users hear background hums and whistles in their audio, which are related to mouse, graphics or hard-drive activity. This is a result of a ground loop created when the laptop power supply is earthed and the laptop is connected, via audio cables, to an earthed mixer or active monitors. Such loops can be broken either with a replacement double‑insulated laptop power supply, balanced audio cabling or a suitable line‑level DI box. Again, buying a recommended laptop model may avoid this extra hassle.

When short-listing PC laptop models, you therefore need to do some detective work on the above points. Only trust recommendations from people who actually use that make and model (you can find a useful thread related to exactly this point on the SOS web site at /forum/showflat.php?Cat=&Number=414373&page=0&view=collapsed&sb=5&o=&fpart=1#414373) and, if at all possible, try out that model before parting with any cash. One SOS forum user found this out the hard way, ending up with an expensivean £800 laptop that had an unfixable BIOS problem rendering it unusable.  .


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