Topic: DAW Laptop Buying Guide 2011


This article is not meant to give you specific brand or model recommendations. These change way too often to bother, especially on the mainstream off-the-shelf laptops. It is more of a guide to help you shop for the right system. Before you go out and get the laptop, I do recommend you decide on and purchase whichever audio interface and software you plan on using. You will need them for testing your laptop. You will want to test the laptop as soon as possible, ideally well within the return policy of the laptop.

Please post on this thread if you have a working laptop configuration.

Rule 1 –?Only post currently available models and they must be listed and available on the company’s web site.
Rule 2 –?When posting about this working laptop please post the following info.
Laptop Manufacturer:
Laptop Model Number:
Operating System details: (i.e., Windows 7 Professional 64 bit)?CPU:
Amount of Ram:
Audio Software:?RME Audio Interface: (Include driver and firmware version)?What latency you can operate at reliably without clicks and pops:

Feel free to post if you like (or hate) the article, but do not post support questions. They are not relevant to this article and I will delete or move them as I see fit.
The article in no way represents RME’s opinions. This is written from my personal experience in the DAW building industry over the past decade.

Reality Check
For the past three years or so, laptops have come a long way in both speed and portability. They have become just as popular as desktops, and in some areas more popular. Most home and business users have more power now, even with some of the netbooks, than they did in their desktop from 4 or 5 years ago. The laptop industry, no matter if it's PC or Apple, is focused completely on the consumer market. This makes perfect sense from a business standpoint, since pro audio and video is at best 0.1% of the computer market. The closest computer manufacturers ever get towards designing products that would typically meet the needs of professional audio and video producers are systems designed for high end gaming or servers. These systems will typically have more connectivity and internal expansion, as well as higher performance hardware.  The consumer market is driven by features like low cost, ultra-light weight and long battery life. Unfortunately, these features are the reason behind most laptop performance and reliability complaints.

Making Sense of Laptop Hardware Specifications

When shopping for a new laptop, you have probably noticed that the technical specifications on all the models seem almost identical. This happens because the shell and the guts of virtually every laptop comes a handful of Taiwanese and Chinese ODM/OEM manufacturers. It doesn’t matter if it’s Dell, HP, Gateway, Apple or even DAW builders like ADK, Rain or PC Audio Labs. They all rely on these companies for production. Some of the larger companies can customize the shell extensively, in order to get a certain look to all their products, but this basically aesthetics, rather than functionality.

?You may have also noticed when shopping for a new laptop that companies can be very vague when it comes to details on the components being used. They are not really trying to hide anything. They just tend to publish the most basic information that the average consumer would care about. It seems your Mom and Dad don’t care about what FireWire controller or eSATA chip is used. They just want to know that they can get pictures of the kids off their camera and post it on Facebook. Well, unless they are audio or video producers…

CPU and Chipsets
Intel basically is the laptop market at this point, when it comes to pro audio and pro video production. The current Intel HM65 and HM67 chipsets and the Intel Core i5 and i7 Mobile CPUs are extremely fast. Unfortunately, AMD does not have any current chipset and CPU combos that compete with Intel on the mobile platform.

Nvidia, AMD (ATI) and Intel all make graphics processor chipsets. In general, you will want to choose a GPU that has its own RAM, instead of sharing the memory of the laptop. Shared memory tends to be common on the lower budget laptops. The newer Intel HD graphic chip that uses shared memory actually seems to be working quite well, compared to previous shared memory graphics chips, so it’s not such big deal if you can only afford a system with this chip. If you are only using the system for audio production and general use, then any of the graphics chips mentioned will work fine. If you are doing audio along with some gaming, then either AMD (ATI) or Nvidia will be good. If you are doing any video or desktop publishing, as well as audio, then Nvidia would be a better choice.

All current laptops use DDR3 memory. If you’re using this for pro audio or video, then a minimum of 4 GB is recommended. You should make sure that your laptop can expand to at least 8 GB. This is especially the case if you are using virtual instruments or doing video editing, as both are very memory intensive. If you are doing just basic audio multi-tracking and editing then you will be fine with 4 GB, in most cases.  I would not worry much about memory speeds like 1066/1333 FSB, as there is not a huge difference between them in real world performance.

Ideally, an LED backlight display with at least 1600x900. The higher your screen resolution, the better off you will be. Screen real estate is always at a premium with audio and video applications.

Hard Drives
Laptop hard drives are getting larger and faster. Even most of the new 500 GB and higher 5400 RPM drives are fast enough for most audio and sample use. For external drives I would stick with USB 3.0 or eSATA for your main production drives. They are almost as fast as your internal drive.  With Apple you only have the choice of FireWire 400/800 and USB 2.0, unless your Mac laptop has an ExpressCard slot, in which case you can add an eSATA controller this way. For general storage and backup you do not need more than USB 2.0. SSD drives are the fastest drives available. They are great for an OS drive and for audio production drives. They are still too small for most sample libraries. If you can afford it SSD drives are awesome, but even if you can’t most current SATAII drives will be perfectly fine.

Optical Drive
A DVD/RW burner at this point is a must. If you do a lot of DVD burning then you should consider an external USB-based DVD burner. They are much faster and do tend to be more reliable for burning. On many newer Apple and PC laptops you can optionally install a hard drive in the bay the internal DVD drive goes into. You should check to see if this option is available from the laptop maker or from a 3rd party. Blu-ray is a waste of money, unless you are actively producing Blu-ray content or using your system as a home theater. Blu-ray is not a cost effective backup medium at all, so I would not get a Blu-ray for doing backups.

On Board (Built-In) Audio System
All laptops have them, and at some point you will probably use it. Current audio codec chips seem to not have many issues, so you rarely have to worry about disabling them, or having them conflict with audio or video programs.

Card Readers
Almost all laptops have them. They are not very useful for a pro audio/video system, so don’t worry about it unless you are using the system for general purpose also.

Networking and Bluetooth
You will want a Gigabit LAN connection on the system. This will be needed for product activation, updates, upgrades, driver installs, etc. If you need wireless and/or Bluetooth available to access the Internet or your network, then just make sure it is one that can be easily turned off via a function key or switch. Wireless and Bluetooth, although working better than in the past, can still cause performance problems with audio and video systems.

You will need a minimum 2 USB 2.0 ports. Four or more ports including at least one USB 3.0 would be ideal. Most laptops will not have more than four due to space and power considerations.

Keep dreaming. FireWire ports seem to be disappearing on PC laptops. You tend to only find them now on mid- and high-priced models. Even on Apple notebooks you only get one FireWire 800 port. Very few, if any, current laptops use Texas Instruments FireWire chipsets. This is not as big of a deal as it used to be. The current revision of the LSI/Agere chipset seems to be working just as well as the TI chipsets. Ricoh, VIA and JMicron are the other chips people are using. JMicron is the most problematic one. It does not seem to work well for anything other than basic FireWire hard drive use. Even then it seems to be slow. So, if a laptop you want has either a LSI/Agere or TI FireWire on board, then there is a good chance it will work fine for audio. If it has any of the others than there is a good chance it will not work at all, or work poorly, no matter which brand audio interface you own.

ExpressCard 34/54 Slot
Like FireWire ports, you will tend to only find them on mid- and high-priced laptops now. Even with Apple, you’ll only see them on the 17” Macbook Pro models. Most likely, manufacturers choose to do this due to the average consumer having no need for the port, thus keeping both the cost and power consumption lower. If the laptop you are considering has an ExpressCard slot, then that is a big bonus to expandability. If you are doing high track count projects and/or need PCIe port expansion or drive expansion then the ExpressCard slot is great. Of course, for anyone that already owns an RME device that uses (or can use) an ExpressCard slot, it is a required feature.

eSATA port
If the laptop has an eSATA port, then this is an excellent bonus. eSATA is the fastest external drive connection you will be able to get for your laptop. USB 3.0, with the latest drivers and firmware, is a very close second, so if your system does not have eSATA, you will be fine -  as long as you have an available USB 3.0 port.

Current Apple laptops (for better or worse) now include Intel’s Thunderbolt (Light Peak) connection. There are no Thunderbolt devices in the real world yet, so there is little useful info on how functional this early generation of Thunderbolt will be. You probably won’t see Thunderbolt on PC laptops until at least the end year, if not later. I have a suspicion that they are holding out for the 2nd generation of Thunderbolt, or at least letting Apple be the guinea pig. Early implementations of PCIe on both desktops and laptops were a mess, and took over year (and multiple design generations) to get the kinks worked out.

Any other features of the laptop are just icing on the cake, and should not take precedence over these primary considerations.

Warranty and Support
If you will truly be using your laptop as a mobile, then you should consider getting any extended warranty and/or support contracts, especially if they offer on-site. Laptops are far more prone to being damaged when in a mobile setup, so these can be real life savers if (when) a major component fails in the field. The main drawback with any of the off-the-shelf laptop manufacturers, is that they do not offer any sort of support outside of the actual laptop you purchased from them. They don’t know or care why your audio software or audio hardware does not work with their system. This includes Apple. You will only get that level of support from true DAW builder and/or integrator.

Mac or PC?
Apple now uses exactly the same hardware as PC manufacturers. The outer appearance of the shell, BIOS (EFI), and the operating system are the only real differences at this point.

Our own forum hero Timur sums it up nicely:

1. ?It's always the same decision for laptops:
a) Buy from a dedicated audio PC builder
b) Get a Macbook
c) Try your luck with the myriads of PC laptops out there, knowing that probably no other audio user is using the same config.

2.?Need OS X? Buy a Mac.?
Need the Trackpad *regularly* (instead of a mouse)? Buy a Mac.
Need keyboard backlight? Buy a computer with keyboard backlight.
Need Windows in combination with the above? Buy a Mac.
Need Windows without the above? Buy a PC and get your lady something nice for the money saved.

I will be working on some troubleshooting articles that will be posted in the next month or so. Stay tuned.

Thanks Chris

Chris Ludwig
North East USA Sales | Synthax/RME
Twitter @RMEAmericas