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Q. Which PC laptop should I buy?

By Martin Walker

Dell's notebooks offer good specs at decent prices, but you may find that they are not ideal for audio.Dell's notebooks offer good specs at decent prices, but you may find that they are not ideal for audio.

I'm considering buying a laptop for various audio tasks, including recording school choirs, community music workshops, live DJ'ing (using Ableton Live), and writing my own material. I'm looking at a Dell Inspiron 9400 and think I've made my mind up but I was just wondering if you had any advice on this particular machine and if I should be considering any others?

Lee Perry

PC Music Specialist Martin Walker replies: Thanks for the compliment, Lee — we do our best! As one of the first models featuring Intel's Centrino Core Duo processor range, Dell's Inspiron 9400 will certainly be fast enough to run lots of plug-ins and soft synths and perform plenty of audio manipulations in Ableton Live, whether you choose the 1.86GHz or 2.0GHz model. For recording school choirs and community music workshops I suspect you'll want a quiet laptop, so that no cooling fan noise is picked up by the microphones, and once again a Centrino model should be ideal.

The Inspiron 9400's 17-inch widescreen display and high-end graphics with 256MB of dedicated RAM is generous, to say the least. However, choosing a model with such a large screen does have one disadvantage — weight. At 3.6kg (4.2kg with the AC adaptor) the Inspiron 9400 is generally regarded as too heavy for regular travel which, judging by your list of proposed activities, may influence your final decision.

Don't forget also that you've left out the most important gear item in your query — the audio interface. Recording school choirs and community music workshops could require plenty of microphones, so in a way you're putting the cart before the horse — perhaps choosing a suitable multi-channel interface should come first. Indeed, were you only to be carrying out these activities, many people wouldn't recommend a laptop at all, instead favouring some sort of hard disk recorder or digital multitracker with built-in mixer and mic preamps, so you'd end up with less boxes to cart around.

However, with your DJ'ing and own music composition in mind, let's return to the proposed laptop. Many musicians would look down their noses at one aspect of its performance — the hard drive. At 5400rpm, this seems out of sync with the rest of the specification. Although I'm perfectly happy with the performance of the Seagate Momentus 5400rpm hard drive in my own laptop, which is capable of recording and playing back at least 30 audio tracks at 24-bit/96kHz, most musicians nowadays tend to look for laptops with 7200rpm hard drives, particularly if they intend to record using the more demanding 24-bit/96kHz audio format.

Of course, like lots of other musicians, you could add an external 7200rpm hard drive, but that's yet another box to transport to your live recording sessions. This brings us to another hurdle for PC-music laptop performance — the Firewire controller chip found on the laptop's motherboard that's in charge of Firewire duties, which can be crucial to achieving glitch-free Firewire audio recording and playback.

There are three main audio interface formats suitable for laptop use: USB, Firewire and PCMCIA. Since the Dell Inspiron 9400 features one of the new Express Card 54 slots rather than a PCMCIA one, you're restricted to the first two, but fortunately buying a Centrino-based laptop guarantees you an Intel USB controller for maximum compatibility with USB audio interfaces. However, there are still very few multi-channel USB 2.0 audio interfaces available, so the majority of musicians who need multi-channel recording capability opt for a Firewire audio interface.

Specialist laptops like this one from Nu Systems are custom-made with audio in mind.Specialist laptops like this one from Nu Systems are custom-made with audio in mind.It's generally accepted that Texas Instruments' controller chips are more widely compatible with Firewire audio devices, and most interface manufacturers provide some sort of list of compatible chips on their web sites. However, it can be difficult to find out which Firewire controller chip a particular laptop uses, unless its manufacturer is prepared to tell you — and a mistake here will be expensive to rectify.

One final factor can prove very frustrating for musicians when choosing a laptop: ground loops. Many manufacturers use three-wire earthed power supplies for their laptops, particularly if they feature metal cases, and this extra earth connection is notorious for causing ground-loop problems such as background buzzes, whistles and other noises in your audio, which change during hard drive activity, when you move your mouse, and during graphic redraws. I'm afraid Dell are one of the most notorious in this respect, and I specifically mention the Inspiron 8200, 8500 and 8600 models as causing such problems in my PC Music FAQs forum, at www.soundonsound.com. You can cure such problems with a systematic approach and DI boxes between your audio interface and other gear, but it's added frustration and expense.

For this reason, I generally recommend one of two approaches when choosing a PC laptop for music. The safest is to contact a specialist music retailer (many of whom advertise in the pages of SOS) and discuss your requirements with them, as they not only choose their laptop components carefully for maximum compatibility and minimum likelihood of ground-loop problems, but can also advise on the most suitable audio interface to go with the laptop, depending on what tasks you want to perform.

You may pay a little more than you would for a mass-market model, but you'll get technical backup from experts who know all about music hardware and software — after all, most mainstream laptop manufacturers have little or no idea of the particular technical requirements of the musician, which are rather different from most ordinary users. I bought my Centrino laptop from a specialist music retailer, as have members of SOS staff, simply to avoid all the potential pitfalls and possible strife.

The second approach is to post your suggested laptop model on the SOS Forums and ask if any other musician has bought it, and, if so, what experience they have had. Such answers are, of course, no guarantee of a problem-free purchase, and you're likely to have the added confusion of a host of other models being recommended as alternatives, and others to avoid, but at least this approach is better than buying blind. Whatever model you decide on, choose your audio interface at the same time, and try to buy from a dealer who is prepared to give you a refund or exchange on the laptop in the (hopefully unlikely) event of the two ending up in conflict.

Ultimately there are hundreds (possibly thousands) of different PC laptop models available, all including a slightly different combination of components such as motherboard, CPU, RAM, hard drive, graphics, screen, selection of ports, and so on. Such competition keeps prices keen, but it does make choices more difficult for the musician! 

Published July 2006