Although Centrino laptops have advantages in terms of weight and battery life, standard Pentium 4 CPUs still offer the ultimate in performance, and Nu Systems's desktop replacement machine is a processing heavyweight.
|Photos: Mark Ewing|
Leeds-based Nu Systems are a new name to me, but they already provide a comprehensive range of PC systems suitable for the musician, ranging from 2.6GHz desktop base units without monitor screens at just over £700, to complete 3.0GHz systems with 1GB of DDR400 memory for under £1500. They also have two laptops in their range. Both feature a standard desktop Pentium 4 processor and offer 15-inch screens, but the processor, memory, hard drive and optical drive can be customised from the default specs.
While the the standard Nu-Audio NB model has a 533MHz FSB (front side buss), the Pro version under review here has an 800MHz FSB, using DDR400 memory, and supports Intel's latest Pentium 4 processors with hyperthreading, just like the fastest Intel desktop systems. The Nu-Audio NB Pro notebook starts life with a Clevo D510P carcass, which has largely superseded the popular 5620D previously used by many specialist music retailers (it was, for instance, the basis of the Millennium laptop model I reviewed back in SOS September 2003).
The D510P is based on Intel's 865PE chip set, and Nu Systems can supply it with standard P4 processors of up to 3.2GHz clock speed, up to 1GB of RAM, and hard drives of up to 80GB. The review system came with a 3.0GHz P4 processor, 1GB of DDR400 RAM, a 60GB 7200rpm hard drive, and a DVD/CD-RW combo drive. If you want a portable replacement for your desktop PC, this spec cuts no corners!
Since this Nu Systems laptop is very similar to the Millennium 5600 model on the outside I won't describe all the various ports again
— a full list is detailed in the Specification Box, and if you want any more details you should refer back to SOS September 2003 (you can read the article on the SOS web site at www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep03/articles/millennium.htm). The only difference I noticed is that the RJ11 phone and RJ45 LAN ports have now swapped places with two of the four USB 2.0 ports, placing all the USB ports more sensibly together.
The same handy audio CD player can be used when the laptop is switched off, and unlike most comparable Centrino laptops, a floppy drive is fitted into the second drive bay (which can also hold a second hard drive or CD drive if required, or an additional battery). The only port I missed on the review laptop was a memory stick card slot, as I've found these more useful than floppy drives.
The first drive bay always holds a hard drive, and Nu Systems had installed into this a Hitachi (IBM) Travelstar 7K60 of 60GB capacity with a 7200rpm spin speed. This is one of the most popular models around at the moment, and it's not hard to see why — it's faster than most other laptop drives, yet still very quiet, and the extra performance doesn't result in significantly higher power consumption and therefore a shorter battery life. It is, however, considerably more expensive than competitors such as the 5400rpm Seagate Momentus, which is reflected in the overall system price, but either of these drives will give you a significantly shorter Windows boot-up time than the 4200rpm models found in many cheaper laptops.
Graphics are provided by ATI's Mobility Radeon 9600 Pro chip set with 128MB of dedicated video RAM (compared with the 64MB of the Radeon 9000 used in the previous 5600 series). Musicians still don't really need the powerful 3D graphics capability of this chip, but gamers will love it. It supports up to 2048 x 1536-pixel resolution, and this is particularly useful with the dual-head capability and S-Video output, although the laptop's 15-inch TFT screen also supports up to 1400 x 1050-pixel resolution before you have to scroll.
Nu Systems sent me an impressive bundle of software and hardware with the review laptop, although of course you can buy just the laptop, or specify any other combination of extras from their extensive lists covering audio and MIDI hardware, and music and office software. In addition to the laptop and Windows XP Home operating system, I was sent an M Audio Firewire 410 mobile recording interface, Iomega 120GB external USB/Firewire hard drive, Cubase XTC bundle (consisting of Cubase SX 2.0.1 and TC Works' Native Bundle plug-ins, as reviewed in SOS May 2003), Norton Ghost utility and backup discs, Creative optical mouse, and a pair of Beyer DT770 headphones.
Many of these are personal choices, and I discuss the performance of the Firewire 410, Iomega external drive, and Cubase SX 2.0 in the main text. However, I would certainly recommend you add the Norton Ghost utility option to your bundle, especially since if you do Nu Systems will also provide a complete set of CD-Rs containing the contents of your hard drive as shipped, as well as a single image file in the G Ghost drive partition, just in case you do anything disastrous to your new purchase.
Acoustic noise was initially very low, with only the quiet purring of the hard drive to disturb the silence for the first seven minutes or so. However, a standard P4 3GHz processor generates a lot of heat, and a thermostatically controlled fan then cut in on about a 50 percent duty cycle (one minute on, one minute off) to cool it down, while running high-powered applications like Cubase SX resulted in the fan being on most of the time. Huge numbers of Clevo-based laptops have already been sold to musicians, and I think most users will be happy with this fan noise, although those who anticipate recording with mics in the same room might be concerned.
The BIOS showed that the parallel port had been disabled, which is the most sensible setting for most musicians who will prefer an extra IRQ, although the laptop's APIC capability does provide you with 24, so sharing should be minimal. However, unlike the 5620D, there's no BIOS setting for the processor's Throttle Duty Rate — because of its extra power consumption Clevo have decided to stick with their default setting of 50 percent, which means that as soon as you unplug the mains lead your battery life will be significantly longer, but your CPU overhead will more than double. I very much doubt that anyone would buy any 3GHz P4 PC and expect to run high-powered music software on it using battery power, but be aware that it's not very feasible on this model.
Nu Systems had carefully implemented all of the recommended Windows audio tweaks, and the only improvement I could find was to increase their 1024 x 768-pixel resolution to the maximum non-scrolling value of 1400 x 1050-pixels. As with most TFT screens, this preferred native resolution gave a noticeably sharper image, plus the advantage of more screen area for sequencing duties.
The internal Smartlink modem had been disabled, but it's only a one-click operation to re-enable it if you want Internet access on your music laptop. Clevo also advertise other communication options on their web site for this carcass, including Bluetooth and a 802.11b or 802.11g Wireless LAN module with Mini PCI interface, if you're interested.
The 60GB hard drive had been inventively partitioned, with the outermost (and therefore fastest) 5GB portion formatted in FAT32 and 32k clusters and devoted to Scratch duties — in other words your current project and audio files — and forced to be drive S. Next was a further 39GB FAT32 partition labelled Data (D) for sample libraries, older projects, and general data storage. An 8GB C System partition came next in NTFS format, while the remaining and innermost 5GB was labelled Ghost, appeared as drive G and intended for backup image files.
This is a clever arrangement, especially the allocation of drive letters, but I was just as interested to see how the theory translated into practice using Dskbench. Sure enough, S provided the fastest sustained transfer rate for reads at 36.5MB/second, while D managed 35.4 (although as this larger partition filled up this figure would drop), C measured 22.6MB/second, and G was 20.4MB/second. Nu Systems normally adopt this formatting arrangement for all their systems, and I was impressed!
With performance like this from the internal drive, you might wonder why Nu Systems bundled an Iomega 120GB USB 2.0/Firewire 7200rpm external drive with this system, but of course it's always useful to have more storage space, and an external drive is very convenient for transporting data from one PC to another, or for students to take work in progress into college. It proved to be a reasonably capable performer, although with rather lower transfer rates of 30MB/second read and 25MB/second write it would pay you to record to the internal Scratch partition for maximum performance (see this month's PC Notes column for more detailed coverage of the difference between the Iomega drive's USB 2.0 vs Firewire connectivity).
Memory bandwidth as measured by Sisoft's Sandra Max 3 was 4266MB/second Integer and 4243MB/second Float — very similar to that of the INTA 3GHz desktop system I reviewed in SOS November 2003, and a huge improvement over the 1992/1993 I measured for the Clevo 5600 series. All the subsequent CPU tests I performed (Sandra CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, Mad Onion's PC Mark 2002 CPU, and Waves' Renaissance Reverb inside Wavelab 4.0) produced results very close to those of INTA's 3GHz desktop system. Although the disk benchmarks were obviously significantly lower due to the lack of an SATA/150 drive, I still found it disconcerting to be reviewing a laptop that's actually faster with plug-ins and soft synths than my own 2.8GHz P4 800MHz FSB desktop PC.
- Processor: 3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 with 512kb cache (Northwood) supporting hyperthreading, 4x 200MHz front side buss.
- Core logic: Intel 865PE.
- System RAM: 1GB DDR400 SO-DIMM.
- Hard drive: Hitachi Travelstar 7K60-60, 60GB, 2.5-inch, 7200rpm, ATA-6, 8MB cache.
- Graphics: ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 with 128MB non-shared DDR SGRAM, dual-view, supporting up to 2048 x 1536-pixel display, plus S-Video and CRT monitor output sockets.
- Screen: 15.0-inch TFT LCD display, SXGA+, resolution up to 1400 x 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).
- Internal audio: Realtek AC97 16-bit, with built-in mic, mic input, headphone output, S/PDIF digital out supporting up to 5.1 channels, stereo speakers.
- 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: 4.2kg with battery.
- Hardware options: second battery pack, second CD-ROM, second hard drive, 802.11b or 802.11g Wireless LAN module with Mini PCI interface, Bluetooth 1.1 with MDC interface.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 1.
- Review system audio hardware: M Audio Firewire 410.
- Review system audio software: Steinberg Cubase XTC bundle (SX 2.0.1 and TC Works Native Bundle).
I had no problems or background audio interference when running the supplied M Audio Firewire 410 interface with the Nu Systems laptop, although I did have to use its four-pin-to-six-pin Firewire adaptor and the supplied wall-wart power supply, as only six-pin Firewire ports supply power to peripherals. With Cubase SX 2.0.1 I also managed glitch-free audio even at the lowest 64-sample buffer size, giving a very low 1.5ms latency at 44.1kHz.
In line with Steinberg's published method (discussed in PC Notes February 2004) I measured the CPU overhead when running their downloadable Cubase SX song, getting results with a 3ms latency setting of 33 percent for Stop Mode and 45 percent for Play Mode, while at the suggested 23ms standard latency I measured 28 and 38 percent respectively. By way of comparison, my 1.4GHz Centrino managed 35 and 50 percent with a 23ms latency, so this suggests that you would need a 1.8GHz Centrino to match the Nu Systems laptop's performance (if one existed — the fastest currently available is 1.7GHz).
I also managed to tweak the Direct Sound drivers of the integral 16-bit Realtek AC97 audio chip down to a very usable 12ms, making it quite feasible to use for playback duties if you don't want to cart about an external audio interface.
Clevo's choice of an ENE CB1410 Cardbus Controller for this (but not the previous Clevo 5620) carcass means that a few users of RME's Cardbus and Multiface combination have had problems running lots of simultaneous input and output channels at low latency with this controller. However, this may be a driver rather than a hardware issue, since Nu Systems have had no problems running eight analogue ins and outs at 96kHz with the Multiface. I've also got exactly the same Cardbus Controller chip in my Centrino laptop, and it's caused me no problems at all with the stereo in and out of an Echo Indigo IO Cardbus device. Nor will it affect anyone who uses any USB or Firewire audio device, so overall I don't think potential users need worry unduly.
Each time I review a PC from a new company, I like to provide some extra details explaining their approach to technical support, plus any unique options on offer. Like many other specialist music retailers, Nu Systems do seem to offer a huge list of options with each and every one of their computer systems, including such things as dual-boot or RAID configurations, and you can have your hard drive(s) partitioned in any way you please at no extra charge.
However, one special Nu Systems feature is their SLIP (Student Loan Instalment Payments) plan, which allows students to pay half up front, and then the rest in equal instalments when they receive their student loan. This is designed to help those on music technology courses, and the only extra charge is a one-off £3 to cover administration costs.
Nu Systems offer a one-year collect-and-return warranty on their computer systems. Technical support is available if required both by email and telephone, the latter on a dedicated number from 10am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and runs for six weeks from date of purchase, which should be enough to get most customers through any initial teething troubles, although you can extend this to a year for just £29.99. The collect-and-return warranty can also be extended to three years for an extra £129.99, while the Nu Support Pro package, which costs £149.99, additionally extends support to the same three-year period.
When I reviewed a previous Clevo 'desktop replacement' laptop from Millennium back in SOS September 2003, Centrino models were still new, in short supply, and rather more expensive than they are now. They have, however, proved to be very capable when running music applications, as well as being lighter, quieter, and having significantly longer battery life than 'desktop replacement' laptops, while their prices have also dropped. This is why I bought one for my own use.
However, 'desktop replacement' models still seem to be very popular with musicians, largely because with processors of 3GHz or faster they can still offer even more processing power than the fastest currently available Centrino, as well as more flexibility when it comes to storage options such as floppy drives and second hard drives. They also tend to provide more USB ports to cope with every eventuality. I was certainly impressed with how Nu Systems had set up this laptop, from the clever drive partitioning to the thoroughness of its Windows XP tweaks, and its £1599 price is competitive considering its 3GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and fast 60GB 7200rpm drive.
Ultimately your choice will depend on what you want from a laptop. Those looking for a lightweight portable model will obviously opt for a Centrino, particularly now you can buy models with the same fast 7200rpm drive used in this review system. However, if you want to replace a fast desktop PC with a laptop of equivalent processing power, this Nu Systems model has to be a prime contender.
- Provides more plug-in and soft-synth processing power than many desktop PCs.
- The 60GB Hitachi hard drive is one of the fastest yet quietest available for laptop use.
- Clever arrangement of drive partitions for maximum audio performance.
- One Firewire and four USB 2.0 ports.
- Flexible SLIP payment scheme for students.
- The cooling fan remains on almost continuously after initial warm-up.
- Full processing power not available when using battery power.
- No SD/Multimedia/memory stick card slot.
Although a quiet and lightweight Centrino laptop will suit some musicians better, this powerful Nu Systems desktop replacement laptop truly lives up to its name, providing as much processor clout as any 3GHz Intel desktop PC.
Basic system as reviewed without music hardware or software £1599; as reviewed, including M Audio Firewire 410 interface, Iomega 120GB external USB/Firewire drive, Cubase XTC bundle and Beyer DT770 headphones £2769. Prices include VAT.
Nu Systems +44 (0)870 350 4500.
+44 (0)870 350 4501.