More and more musicians are turning to systems based around a laptop PC, and Intel's new Pentium-M processor — as found in this model from Maxdata and SME Solutions — seems to perform well with music applications.
There's a lot of interest at present in laptop PCs suitable for music-making, and SME Solutions have now entered the fray with a range of laptops specifically catering for the musician, using Celeron, mobile Pentium 4-M, and Pentium-M processors. Rather than buy laptop carcasses through a UK distributor and make them up with their own choice of parts, SME Solutions have become a UK distribution partner for the well-respected German company Maxdata, who I'm told manufacture 12,000 machines per day, and are the second largest OEM manufacturer in Europe. Their Maxdata range of desktop, server and laptop PCs, along with the Belinea range of CRT and TFT monitors, regularly gets good reviews in mainstream PC magazines.
SME Solutions have been canny in sourcing their laptops through Maxdata. Since they can buy direct from the manufacturer without involving a middleman, they are able to offer competitive prices, especially as they also don't have to pay someone for the added work of assembling the machines themselves. Instead, your SME order will be passed to Maxdata in Germany, who build each machine to the specification of the individual customer, and then deliver it directly to you within five working days of the order being placed.
There are several laptop models in the range, ranging from an entry-level Celeron-based machine to the new flagship model Pro 8000X with a 1400 x 1050-pixel SXGA+ resolution screen featuring ATI Radeon 9000 graphics, just like that of the Millennium laptop I reviewed in SOS September 2003. The Pro 7000X model under review here fits into the middle of the range, and features a 15-inch screen with 1024 x 768 graphics resolution, but has a powerful 1.6GHz Pentium-M processor, large 60GB drive, and 512MB of RAM. For many musicians its best feature will be the price: just £1299 including VAT.
- Processor: Intel Pentium-M 1.6GHz with 1MB cache.
- Core logic: Intel 855GM 'Montara' chipset running 400MHz system buss.
- System RAM: 512MB PC2100 DDR soDIMM (expandable to 1024MB).
- Hard drive: Fujitsu MHT2060AT, 60GB, 2.5-inch, 4200rpm, Ultra ATA-100, 2MB cache.
- Graphics: Intel Extreme Graphics 2 (integrated in 855GM chipset) sharing 8 to 64 MB of system RAM, dual-view, supporting up to 1024 x 768-pixel XGA display, plus up to 1600 x 1200 S-Video TV and up to 1280 x 1024 CRT monitor output sockets.
- Screen: 15-inch TFT LCD display, XGA+, up to 1024 x 768-pixel resolution.
- Floppy drive: none (optional USB floppy drive available).
- CD-RW/DVD combo drive: QSI SBW242, with 10x CD-R and 8x CD-RW writing speeds, 8x speed reading DVD-ROM.
- LAN: Broadcom 440x 10/100 integrated controller with RJ45 port, Intel Pro Wireless LAN 2100 802.11b (Wi-Fi).
- Modem: Agere Systems AC97.
- Keyboard & mouse: Win Key with embedded numeric keypad, PS/2 port touchpad, left & right plus scroll button.
- Other ports: three USB 2.0, RJ11 phone, mini-Firewire, parallel, Type II/I card slot, SD/Multimedia/Memory Stick card slot, infra-red send/receive.
- Audio ports: speaker/headphones output with S/PDIF support, line/integral mic input.
- AC adaptor: input 100 to 240 Volts, 50 to 60 Hz, DC output 19 Volts, 3.42 Amps, 70 Watts.
- Battery: smart Li-Ion 65 Watt (removable).
- Physical dimensions: 327 x 270mm x 29.8mm (width, depth, height).
- Weight: 2.9kg with battery.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Professional Edition with Service Pack 1.
The Pro 7000X has a smart two-tone silver moulded case (but no metal reinforcement), and like all PC laptops features plenty of ports. Along the back are the power input for the bundled line-lump AC adaptor, an S-Video TV output and 15-pin VGA connector for an external monitor, ECP printer, RJ11 modem and RJ45 network ports, a mini-Firewire port, three USB 2.0 ports, a loudspeaker/headphone socket that also supports S/PDIF format, and a mic/line input socket. Along the left-hand side are a thumb-wheel volume control (more on this in a moment), a Type II/I PCMCIA card slot, infra-red send/receive, and a very useful card slot that accepts Memory Stick, Secure Digital and Multimedia cards.
There are no ports on the right-hand side, but this is where you find the main ventilation grille for the cooling fan, plus a Kensington anti-theft lock point. The front houses the press release catch for the lid, plus the QSI SBW242 DVD/CD-RW drive (a popular model used by quite a few laptop manufacturers), while underneath are access panels for the battery compartment, hard drive and RAM.
Once the lid is open there are plenty more controls on offer. Dominating the proceedings is the Windows keyboard, and as with all laptop models, there's an extra Function key that provides numeric keypad functions when used in conjunction with a group of existing keys, plus various other functions including screen brightness, switching between the two screens if using an external monitor alongside the inbuilt one, sound muting, and Num and Scroll locks. Every laptop keyboard layout is slightly different, but I did find it difficult to get used to the lack of dedicated Home and End keys on this one — you have to use the Function key with the Page Up/Down keys to access these functions. There are five additional silver Quick Launch buttons for your choice of frequently used applications in a vertical array to the left of the Windows keyboard, while above it on the left-hand side is the computer power switch.
There's a further horizontal row of six controls in the top middle position for the audio CD player, and you can play CDs without having to start the computer. There's a dedicated power switch (which only works if the computer is switched off), a display showing the current status and track number, four buttons for play/pause, stop/eject, previous track, and next track, while overall volume is controlled via the thumb-wheel already mentioned.
This thumb-wheel also controls the level of the on-board sound chip, a Cirrus Crystal AC97 device, with software level control also available via the Windows mixer. Its WDM drivers worked well, although the built-in speakers are placed to either side of the CD controls rather than on the sides of the laptop, and only four inches apart, so there's almost no stereo effect.
Beneath the keyboard is a touchpad with left and right mouse buttons below it, plus a four-way scroll button that can act like a mouse wheel, and an inbuilt mic. This mic input is overridden when you plug a cable into the audio line input on the rear panel, and although the internal 16-bit audio recording is not up to the standard demanded by most musicians, relatively few laptops provide a line audio input, and this is a useful addition for emergency recording on the move.
There's also a row of seven indicators along the bottom of the 15-inch screen, displaying the status of the wireless LAN, power/battery, the power saving mode, hard drive activity, battery charging, plus the current status of Caps and Num Lock. There's no scroll lock indicator, although in my experience so few people use this keyboard feature that it isn't a major loss. The first three indicators are also duplicated on the lid top.
All in all this is a good I/O selection — there's no PS/2 socket for an external mouse or keyboard, but of course you can use USB versions, and the multi-format card slot is very useful for anyone with a digital camera — I used it quite a lot during the review period to ferry files across from my desktop PC via a 128MB SD card.
In order to be called a Centrino, a laptop must not only be running a Pentium-M 'Banias' processor and an Intel 855PM 'Odem' or 855GM 'Montara' chipset, but also an Intel Pro/Wireless 2100 (802.11b) Wi-Fi wireless network connection. It's possible to buy laptops with a Pentium-M and 855 chipset, but officially they cannot carry the 'Centrino' brand label unless the wireless network components are also present. On some models these may be an option to keep prices down, but in general they are unlikely to cost more than an extra £50 or so if not fitted as standard.
The Phoenix BIOS Setup Utility provided more options than on most laptops, including a useful tweak for the LCD backlight — by default this dims automatically when you unplug the power supply, to extend battery life, although you can disable this feature in the BIOS if you prefer.
Acoustic noise levels were almost non-existent when the cooling fan wasn't spinning, and the fan didn't need to come on very often when using the various power-saving schemes such as Portable/Laptop. However, in the Home/Office Desk power scheme most likely to be used by musicians requiring full CPU capability at all times, the fan had an annoying habit of starting up with a full-speed whine every 50 seconds or so, slowing down to a quieter speed for about 15 seconds, and then repeating the cycle. This might get annoying during a long session, and could get onto acoustic recordings.
Once I reached the Windows desktop, I discovered that unlike offerings from the vast majority of other specialist music retailers, SME Solutions hadn't split the 60GB hard drive up at all, providing just one huge partition for Windows Professional, its applications, and your data. This would make backing up and defragmentation more of a chore, but SME Solutions subsequently told me that the individual customer can specify exactly how their drive is to be divided up into partitions, and can choose a dual- or even triple-boot system with multiple operating systems if desired — it would pay you to discuss your requirements in some detail with SME before placing an order.
I was disappointed to find that no attempt had been made to optimise Windows XP for the musician. Although the graphic frills such as window animations and shadows, plus menu fades and slides, don't take a significant amount of CPU power, when most musicians seem to be running their PCs to the limit this extra overhead is rarely welcome, and may limit soft-synth polyphony. System Restore, Automatic Updates, Remote Assistance, System Sounds and a screensaver were also still active, all of which are routinely recommended to be disabled to avoid background interruptions to real-time applications. Worst of all, Processor scheduling had been left at its default setting, for the best performance of Programs, rather than favouring Background services. This will affect such things as ASIO driver performance for Cubase and Logic users. I also discovered that the AVK (Anti-Virus Kit) monitor was also running in the background, and while this does provide complete real-time protection against virus attacks, it will once again prevent musicians getting the maximum performance from real-time music applications.
SME Solutions told me that they are partly 'going against the grain', since they don't think that the majority of tweaks make much real difference on today's powerful PCs, and they also prefer to leave the graphic look to the customer's preference, but that they would make any OS changes recommended by developers if they were installing a specific MIDI + Audio application such as Cubase for a customer. Part of the reason for this setup is also that Maxdata insist on their PCs having virus-checking and firewall software installed as standard before they leave the factory.
Maxdata's support is impressive, with a full three-year collect-and-return warranty in the UK. You just phone up the supplied UK number, quote the 11-digit serial number from the bottom of your machine, and a courier will arrive with a special bag into which you place your laptop (so you don't even need to keep the original packaging).
Technical support is also available by telephone from Maxdata UK for hardware and Windows problems, and from SME Solutions or the specific manufacturer for any supplied audio software and hardware. I initially had reservations about this split approach, but did find the Maxdata UK helpline very helpful, knowledgeable and informative.
As I'd already found with the Millennium 1.4GHz Centrino laptop I mentioned in PC Notes December 2003, the Pentium-M processor is well up to the task of running audio software, and my various measurements with Waves plug-ins showed that the 1.6GHz version in the Maxdata Pro 7000X delivered exactly the extra power you'd expect compared to the 1.4GHz CPU. Waves Rverb took just 5.6 percent of the total processing power (roughly equivalent to a Pentium 4B 2.4GHz desktop model), while C4 took just 3.0 percent, which is better than the P4C 3.0GHz processor of the INTA desktop system I reviewed in SOS November 2003!
Once I'd installed Cubase SX 1.06, the Fivetowers test also performed fairly well, giving a CPU overhead of 67 percent, although strangely I got exactly the same figure from the lower-powered 1.4GHz Millennium Centrino laptop (the Millennium 5600-series laptop with a standard P4B 2.53GHz performed some 6 percent better at 63 percent). The 4200rpm hard drive in the Pro 7000X has a lower spin speed than those used in many modern laptops, and Dskbench measured a sustained transfer rate of 23MB/second, compared with the 26MB/second of the 5400rpm models used in both Millennium's 5600-series laptop and their new Centrino model. However, it should still be capable of around 43 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks with a 64k buffer size, and 72 tracks with a 128k buffer.
Memory bandwidth as measured by Sisoftware's Sandra was also rather lower than expected at about 1725MB/second, compared with 1970MB/second for both Millennium's standard P4 and P4-M Centrino models. This may be connected with the shared graphics — the Pro 7000X employs Intel's 855GM chipset with integrated graphics capability, sharing anywhere between 8 and 64MB of system RAM for video purposes. This doesn't give it the graphic performance of a dedicated chipset like ATI's popular Mobility Radeon 9000, but music software doesn't require much graphics power anyway, so unless you intend to play 3D games this probably won't matter too much. SME Solutions also told me that Maxdata are moving to dedicated video RAM for all their models in due course.
The highest resolution of the 15-inch TFT XGA screen was 1024 x 768 pixels, and this proved perfectly adequate, with a crisp and sharp display, although many other laptops are now routinely offering higher resolutions, so anyone who wants plenty of audio tracks displayed on screen might want to consider Maxdata's Pro 8000X model instead, which also has dedicated graphics RAM. On the up side, having less powerful graphics does result in lower power consumption, and therefore longer battery life, and the Pro 7000X can last between four and five hours with office applications, and perhaps three hours with a typical Cubase song.
During several weeks of using the Pro 7000X I did have one extremely annoying problem: seemingly random cursor movements occasionally happening when I typed on the keyboard. I couldn't manage to type a complete sentence without finding I'd jumped somewhere else in the document and was continuing to type on a previous line or halfway through an existing word. I tried everything I could think of to cure the problem, even running a full virus check, but to no avail. Eventually I gave up and phoned the Maxdata UK helpline, only to discover that a lot of people have apparently been having this problem. The solution is simple: place a beer mat or other thin sheet of material over the touchpad, which is sensitive enough to be activated by a stray finger or even a shirt cuff. Sure enough, this completely cured the problem, although Maxdata should sort this out this hyper-sensitivity as a matter of urgency.
There's a standard bundle that accompanies most Maxdata PCs, comprising Microsoft's Works Suite 2003, plus GData's Anti-Virus Kit, Secuties Personal Firewall, and Cyberlink's ubiquitous Power DVD and Ahead Software's Nero Express to complete the package. The Works Suite 2003 includes Works itself, plus Word, Money 2003, Encarta, Picture It! and Autoroute 2002. This comprehensive selection will no doubt be welcomed by most users, although Microsoft Office does run a utility at startup, and as mentioned in the main text the virus checker is also by default running in the background, which won't provide the ultimate performance with music applications.
The Intel Centrino-branded laptop has proven to be well up to the demands of running music software compared with its Pentium 4 Mobile and standard P4 cousins, and the 1.6GHz Pentium-M processor in the review machine can roughly hold its own in performance terms against a Pentium 4 2.4GHz laptop in most areas including music applications, as well as being lighter, quieter, and having a significantly longer battery life with mainstream applications. 'Desktop replacement' laptops are still slightly more versatile with their dual drive options, and sometimes have more ports, but having now experienced both types myself I bought a Centrino model for the reasons just given, especially as their pricing has dropped significantly over the last three months and you no longer have to pay £300 to £500 extra to achieve equivalent performance.
Like most Centrino laptops, the Maxdata Pro 7000X does become noisier when you force its processor permanently to top speed by using the Home/Office Desk power scheme, which most musicians will have to do to get the best performance with real-time audio applications. However, it's still not too obtrusive, and at least you can get rid of the noise by switching to another power scheme.
If you want a higher-spec machine, Maxdata's Pro 8000X model has a 15-inch XGA TFT screen featuring 1400 x 1050 pixels, along with more powerful ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics with 64MB of dedicated RAM, and SME Solutions will also be offering this as part of their range at a price of £1486. This model is also more in line with the specs of competing 'desktop replacement' and Centrino models from Millennium, Red Submarine, Philip Rees and others, so it's worth comparing their specs closely to see which one suits you best.
I had no specific problems running the Maxdata laptop 'as is' with music software, but I do have reservations about the lack of any Windows tweaks for the target market of musicians. Such changes have always been part of the raison d'être of the specialist music retailer, but with an SME machine you're effectively buying a standard laptop configured for the general user. Although you do have the reassurance of buying a machine whose various chips and ports are guaranteed compatible with a wide variety of MIDI and audio peripherals (the biggest worry with any laptop purchase), you will still have to modify the Windows setup yourself if you want to extract the last ounce of performance from modern MIDI + Audio applications.
Despite this niggle, the Maxdata Pro 7000X's CPU performance was very good for music applications, although it's let down slightly overall by its slower-than-average 4200rpm hard drive and shared graphics RAM. However, at just £1299 for a 1.6GHz Pentium-M, 512MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive capacity, this is still a powerful laptop at a very competitive price.
- Excellent music processing performance.
- Good value for money.
- Very good battery life.
- Virtually silent except when cooling fan switches on.
- Good mainstream software bundle.
- Useful audio CD player functions.
- Line input for integral AC97 audio.
- Screen only has a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels.
- 4200rpm hard drive and shared graphics lower overall performance slightly.
- Inbuilt speakers sound tinny and provide little stereo effect.
- Touchpad is very sensitive to stray input.
- No operating system tweaks for musicians.
The SME Solutions Maxdata Pro 7000X laptop provides a very useful combination of a fast processor, lots of RAM, and a large 60GB hard drive, and although its shared graphics, slow drive, and lack of Windows tweaks do limit its overall performance slightly, it nevertheless provides a lot of machine for the money.