The advantages of laptop PCs used to be undermined by lower performance and higher prices. Now, however, machines like Millennium Music's notebook are claimed to offer a reasonably priced, mobile replacement for a desktop PC.
Plenty of musicians have bought PC laptop computers over the years with a view to using them for recording and playing back music, but as I explained in SOS January 2001, there are many potential pitfalls, largely because there is no such thing as a standard PC laptop. Then, as now, the only ways to find out how a particular laptop would perform with music software and hardware were to enter the lottery of buying one and finding out for yourself, or to source one that had been custom-built or modified with the musician in mind. In the following issue I reviewed just such a beast — a 700MHz Pentium III laptop from Red Submarine — and was impressed by its peformance, but at £2100 it was still beyond the reach of many musicians.
However, during the last two years processor speeds have rocketed, such that you can now entertain the idea of abandoning your desktop PC and creating a portable software studio in a laptop, and prices seem to be in free fall. After the latest round of processor price cuts by Intel, Millennium Music have managed to assemble the custom-built laptop under review here, which incorporates a 2.53GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, a 15-inch screen and a 40GB hard drive, for a very reasonable £1299.
All Millennium laptops carry a one-year collect-and-return warranty, with the option of an extended three-year collect-and-return warranty for an extra £150. Unlike most other extended guarantees, those for laptops are well worth considering, since if something does go wrong it's likely to be an expensive repair. Technical support is also available on a dedicated number between Monday and Friday during the hours of 10am to 4pm, plus email contact via email@example.com.
As with all all notebooks, the vast majority of the action is on the outside, although there are some internal options that I'll come to shortly. Apart from the LCD latch, the front-panel controls are devoted to an audio 'DJ' CD player, which lets you play CDs even when the computer is shut down. On the right-hand side there's an infra-red transceiver window, plus storage device bays one and two, which can house a variety of hardware peripherals. Millennium normally fit bay one with a floppy drive, but it can instead hold a secondary battery pack to double the operating life, or a CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, or CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, or a second hard drive. These devices are interchangeable, and make the laptop incredibly versatile. Drive bay two holds a fixed CD device from the selection already quoted for bay one, and the review model housed a TEAC DW224E which can play DVDs as well as read and write CDs (see spec list for full list of options).
Millennium supplied me with a second battery to try out, and a second 40GB hard drive which had been assigned drive letter F within Windows. The TEAC optical drive had been assigned the letter G, so that it didn't change whether you had one drive or two installed — a nice touch.
The laptop's left side houses a Type II PC card slot, a DC input socket for the supplied AC adaptor, and a cooling vent. There is an internal cooling fan, but this only operates in times of need. As usual, the majority of I/O is at the back. There are four USB 2.0 ports, parallel and PS/2 ports for a printer and external keyboard or mouse, a mini IEEE 1394 port for external Firewire devices, an RJ11 phone jack to connect the internal modem, and an RJ45 jack for LAN connection. There's also an S-Video connector for TV output, and an external monitor port supported by the dual-head graphics. These are provided by an integrated ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics device with 64MB of dedicated video DDR SGRAM on board — this is a huge improvement over notebooks whose displays share the system RAM, as this can hamstring overall performance. This display provides good 3D as well as 2D performance for those who need it, as well as advanced hardware acceleration for DVD playback, with a resolution of up to 2048 by 1536 pixels and TV resolution of up to 1024 by 768 pixels.
Once the LCD panel has been opened, the traditional laptop arrangement of compact keyboard and trackpad is also revealed, plus various hot-key buttons, LED status indicators, stereo mini-speakers, and main Power button. The 15-inch Super XGA+ screen display arrived with a 1400 by 1050 pixel resolution with 32-bit colour depth, although it's possible to increase this up to 2048 by 1536 virtual pixels if you're prepared to scroll around it. At first I reduced the resolution to the 1024 by 768 I use on the Hansol flat-screen display connected to my desktop PC, but I soon returned to 1400 by 1050 for use with Cubase SX, since the Millennium screen was of such high quality.
All in all this is an impressive array of socketry, and the four USB 2.0 ports are especially welcome. To complete the system, Millennium supply a black carrying case, while bundled software includes Windows XP Home Edition, Nero 5.5, Win DVD 4, and Norton's Ghost, plus a four-CD-R set of image files to restore your laptop to its shipped state after a catastrophe.
- Processor: Intel Pentium 4 2.53GHz 512kb cache (Northwood B), 4x133MHz front side buss.
- Core logic: Intel 845E chipset running 400/533MHz system buss.
- System RAM: 512MB PC266 DDR SO-DIMM (expandable to 1024MB).
- Hard drive: Toshiba MK4019GAX, 40GB, 2.5-inch, 5400rpm, ATA-5, 16MB cache.
- Graphics: Mobility Radeon 9000 with 64MB non-shared DDR SGRAM, dual-view, supporting up to 2048 by 1536 pixel display, plus S-Video and CRT monitor output sockets.
- Screen: 15-inch TFT LCD display, SXGA+, resolution up to 1400 by 1050 pixels.
- Floppy drive: 3.5-inch 1.44MB, fitted into interchangeable drive bay one.
- CD-RW drive: TEAC DW224E, IDE/ATAPI interface, 2MB buffer, with 24x CD-R and 10x CD-RW writing speeds, 8x speed reading DVD-ROM, DVD-R, and DVD-RW, and 5x speed reading DVD-RAM, plus buffer under-run protection, fitted into drive bay two.
- Modem: Smartlink 5600 MDC.
- Keyboard: Win Key with embedded numeric keypad, Synaptics PS/2 port touchpad, left & right buttons, and central rocker switch.
- Other ports: four USB 2.0, RJ11 phone, RJ45 LAN, mini Firewire, parallel, PS/2 (mouse or keyboard).
- AC adaptor: input 100 to 240 V, 50 to 60 Hz, DC output 20V, 6.0A, 120W.
- Battery: smart Li-Ion 59W (removable), optional secondary battery pack.
- Physical dimensions: 329 x 290 x 44mm (width, depth, height).
- Weight: 4.4kg wth battery.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 1.
- Review system audio hardware: RME Hammerfall DSP Cardbus PCMCIA Type II interface, Multiface I/O box.
- Review system audio software: Steinberg Cubase SX version 188.8.131.52.
A quick trip to the BIOS showed that like those of most laptops, it doesn't offer a huge range of user options, but I was able to confirm that the internal hard drive had been connected as Primary Master, and the DVD/CD-ROM drive as Secondary Master. Millennium had set up the laptop in a dual-boot configuration, offering both General and Music partitions. To this end the 40GB Toshiba hard drive had been split into three partitions: a 10GB one for General and another 10GB for Music, with the remaining 18GB or so for Audio purposes. It's worth noting that this is a 5400rpm drive, whereas most notebook drives tend to be the slower and cheaper 4200rpm versions that won't give you as many simultaneous tracks. I've noticed quite a few musicians purchasing additional Firewire drives for serious audio work, but you may well not need to do this with the Millennium notebook.
At startup there was almost no acoustic noise, with the drive's fluid dynamic bearing providing scarcely audible idle noise, and head-seeking a gentle background tapping — overall, it was quieter than my heavily treated desktop PC. However, a standard 2.53GHz Pentium 4 processor generates a significant amount of heat, and a thermostatically controlled cooling fan cut in periodically to disturb the tranquillity, and switched itself back off a few minutes later as soon as things had cooled down. Thankfully a quiet fan unit had been specified that made less noise than those of many other laptops I've used — it was certainly quieter than the TEAC CD-ROM drive when a data CD was being read.
Millennium also offer a slightly cheaper 14-inch laptop, plus plenty of other system options. The laptop 'carcass' supports a range of Intel Pentium 4 processors from 2.4GHz up to 3.06GHz (the only one that currently supports hyperthreading), and a choice of 128, 256 or 512 MB of PC266 DDR SO-DIMM memory. Hard drives can be 20, 30, 40 or 60 GB in size, and you can if you wish upgrade from Windows XP Home Laptop to XP Pro or 2000 Pro. There are also plenty of choices for both MIDI and audio interfaces if you want to buy a complete audio system. The easiest way to examine all the latest options is to visit the Millennium web site, where you can select from drop-down lists to configure your own machine.
It's now generally accepted that Windows XP doesn't need as much tweaking as its predecessors, and Millennium had wisely left the machine in ACPI mode rather than switching to Standard mode. However, Processor Scheduling had been changed to favour Background Services (the most important alteration), and most visual effects had been disabled, as had System Restore, Automatic Updates, Remote Assistance and System Sounds. The desktop and search had also been switched to Classic view. Power Management had been set to leave all hardware permanently on when mains powered, but to turn off the monitor after 15 minutes' non-use when operating on batteries, and Hibernation had been disabled.
Both the internal and optional drive bay two drive had been formatted with NTFS and 4k clusters — Millennium say that using larger clusters makes less than 1 percent difference in performance. The DVD/ CD-ROM drive had been correctly set up to use Ultra DMA Mode 2, while the internal hard drive had been checked for Ultra DMA Mode 5 transfer mode, and its transfer rate tested. I did the same using Dskbench, and measured both read and write speeds at close to 25MB/second on the Music partition, and the multitrack audo file tests showing 97 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks with a block size of 128k, 82 at 64k, and 75 at 32k. The General and Audio partitions were slightly slower, but personally I'd use Partition Magic to reduce the Music and General partition sizes to 3GB, which would bring the Audio partition performance close to that of the Music partition.
Memory bandwidth measured with SiSoftware's Sandra 2002 Standard measured 1992MB/second for integer calculations, and 1993MB/second for floating-point — very close to the figures I have measured for desktop PCs using DDR SDRAM from Digital Systems, Digital Village and Red Submarine in previous reviews. The 2.53GHz Northwood B processor of this system gave loads of clout for plug-ins and soft synths, running even Waves' Renaissance Reverb at just 5.5 percent CPU overhead, while their C4 multi-band parametric processor took just 4.5 percent.
The standard Pentium 4 processor is designed for maximum performance, but with no great emphasis on low power consumption, since after all it's normally to be found in mains-powered desktop PCs. The Pentium 4-M processor uses the same production process, but is optimised for lower energy consumption, and incorporates technologies such as Enhanced Speedstep, Deeper Sleep, and IMVP (Intel Mobile Voltage Positioning). All three technologies are designed to reduce energy consumption by switching between different power states or running at lower voltages.
Just to confuse us still further, the new Pentium-M processor range (codenamed Banias) used in conjunction with an Intel 855 chipset and a WLAN adaptor called Calexico becomes a Centrino notebook — Intel's much-advertised mobile solution, which offers more power and a longer battery life. Battery life always depends on what sort of application you're running (typically, office applications will run twice as long as games), but in the comparisons I've studied, a Pentium-M Centrino system is likely to give you another hour or so beyond a Pentium 4-M with an equivalent spec before conking out.
If you mainly want a notebook to run office applications, and to view the occasional DVD, a 1GHz processor will probably be quite sufficient, and one of the two Intel mobile processor options may well be a sensible option. However, musicians wanting to stream audio tracks and run multiple soft synths need the fastest CPU they can afford, and the special power-saving features of a mobile processor are largely irrelevant when your CPU overhead is always high, which is nearly always the case when running a MIDI + Audio sequencer. At the time of writing, notebooks featuring a standard P4 2.53GHz processor were generally retailing at about £200 less than those with a Mobile P4 1.9GHz CPU, which is another attraction.
So, for maximum performance, musicians would do well to opt for a notebook aimed at 'desktop replacement' rather than maximum mobility, and this is the route Millennium have taken. Their notebook uses the Intel 845E chipset, which supports standard Intel Pentium 4 Northwod B processors running at up to 3.06GHz with a 533MHz front side buss, including support for hyperthreading. Most laptops featuring a mobile chipset run with a slower 400MHz front side buss, and don't currently support processor speeds much beyond 2GHz.
Unless you want the lightest laptop available, or the longest battery life, and are prepared to pay a few hundred pounds more, buying a desktop replacement design like this Millennium model makes far more sense. The only down side is that a standard P4 generates more heat, and will therefore require more cooling.
If you want a laptop for occasional music dabbling use you may be able to get away with a mobile processor (see box) and stereo audio I/O, but it's a measure of how seriously Millennium take their machine that they supplied the review model with an RME Cardbus interface and Multiface I/O box providing eight analogue inputs and outputs, S/PDIF co-axial and optical in and out (with ADAT digital I/O as an option on the Toslink optical sockets), plus ADAT Sync, word clock in and out, and MIDI I/O. These are part of the well-known Hammerfall DSP range, and I'm pleased to report that playback quality was excellent, with a -108dBA background noise level at 24-bit/96kHz, proving that this Millennium notebook is well suited to audio use, with none of the ground loop hums, buzzes, or noise problems from its switching-mode power supply that plague some other systems. Moreover, if you want a totally mobile solution, the Multiface can also be powered from a 12V battery (a suitable adaptor cable is supplied).
The integral Intel 82801CA/CAM sound chip has a mic in, headphone out, and S/PDIF out socket. Millennium had disabled this AC97 audio device individually in both the General and Music partitions in favour of the supplied RME Cardbus and Multiface combo, but you could reactivate it whenever you like from the System applet of either if you want to use the mini-speakers or headphone output while travelling. I managed to run this 16-bit chip using the Cubase SX ASIO Multimedia driver with 93ms latency, which is not much use for real-time soft synths but perfectly adequate for mixing purposes.
Choosing a PC notebook for music making has never been easy, given the number of basic component choices you have to make, plus the number of further processor options you now have to consider, and for many musicians it's turned into a nightmare, judging by the number who plead on the SOS Forums for help deciding on which make and model of notebook to buy. Buying a standard model can be a very expensive gamble unless you get to try it out with music hardware and software, which isn't very easy to do in most cases. On the other hand, although buying a bespoke custom-built model specifically assembled with the musician in mind does completely remove such worries, it does tend to be a more expensive solution.
At £1299, this Millennium model has a spec that, on the surface, you might think you could track down elsewhere for perhaps £1000. However, most off-the-peg laptops have 4200rpm hard drives that will manage considerably fewer audio tracks than the 5400rpm model in the Millennium range (spindle speed is the parameter most closely connected to sustained transfer rate). Of course you could buy an external 7200rpm Lacie Firewire drive for your audio recordings (Millennium offer the 120GB model for just £169), but for many musicians, adding yet another box defeats the whole point of a notebook PC.
Moreover, the £1000 models that I found during my researches mostly offered a significantly lower 1024 by 768 resolution, fewer USB ports and no integral floppy drive. Millennium also install their 512MB RAM as a single stick into one of the two available slots, whereas many other suppliers will give you two 256MB sticks — again a cheaper option for them, but one that means you have to discard the existing RAM if you ever want to upgrade to 1GB. Overall, Millennium have assembled a powerful replacement for a desktop PC without cutting any corners, guaranteeing high-quality audio results with a suitable interface, and at a price that's still cheaper than some other specialist systems of equivalent performance. I was so impressed that I'm seriously considering buying the review model.
- High-quality 15-inch SXGA+ display with resolutions up to 1400 by 1050 pixels.
- Media bays offer the option of a second battery or drive.
- Faster-than-average 5400rpm hard drive fitted.
- Dedicated graphics RAM.
- Four USB 2.0 ports.
- Custom-built high-performance notebooks are more expensive than standard models.
- Thermostatically controlled cooling fan occasionally cuts in, and could be audible on recordings made in the same room.
This Millennium notebook PC combines a powerful processor, plenty of RAM, and a faster-than-average hard drive to provide a machine that really can replace a desktop PC with few compromises, and all for a competitive price.
Basic system as reviewed without music hardware or software, £1299; as reviewed, including Steinberg Cubase SX sequencer and RME Cardbus/Multiface £2369. Prices include VAT.
Millennium +44 (0)115 955 2200.
+44 (0)115 952 0876.