Buying a new laptop for music is a minefeild. There are literaly thousands of laptops out there and many promising excellecnt performance for music use. As many of you know sorting through them to find the right one is a case of tedious research, research, research. Just when you’ve found one you think is right you find a compatabilty issue or a massive flaw.
For most first time buyers it’s an even bigger task as most have no idea of what CPU, RAM, hard drive, size, weight or even operating system they need in a laptop. It’s one of the most asked questions in the forum. So i’ve decided to create this guide.
The guide covers what CPU, RAM, hard drive and operating system you will need. The weight and size issues are covered as well as a mini guide to buying, price, second hand and refurbished laptops. Theres plenty of tips so get reading if your thinking of buying a new laptop.
The processor or CPU as it’s more commonly referred to, is the heart of any computer. It’s very important to choose the right CPU. If you pick the wrong one your stuck with it for good, as they are difficult to replace and upgrade on laptops.
There only really one rule for selecting a processor for music and that’s buy the most powerful one you can afford. You won’t regret it in the long run as future software and hardware becomes more demanding.
At the moment there’s only really one manufacturer who is producing good CPU’s and that’s Intel. Their recent core 2 duo range has been a hit with musicians, packing alot of power in an affordable package. My advice is not to go any lower than a 2.0 GHz core 2 duo. You might get away with 1.8 GHz but your pushing your luck.
The good news is core 2 duo laptops are becoming cheaper and are available in both PC’s and MAC’s.
RAM, like CPU, is a big factor in the performance of a laptop for music. Music software uses a lot of RAM when editing, previewing, bouncing, using virtual instruments and samplers.
When looking for a laptop for music try to find one that will take at least 2 Gigabytes of RAM. It doesn’t matter if the full capacity comes installed, which it rarely does, RAM is easily upgraded and replaced. It’s also worth checking out which type of RAM the laptop takes and how much it costs using the crucial RAM tool.
For more information on RAM, how it works, good and bad brands see my article, RAM and memory.
The hard drive is an integral part of any computer but especially important for laptops for music. After all you will be storing all that important data of your precious music.
There are three main factors when considering the hard drive of a laptop, size, speed and reliability. The size of the hard drive refers to how much data can be stored on it. Music takes up a lot of data, the applications, recording and performing of audio and music takes up much more space than usual usages like the internet or word processing. I recommend about 200 GB + hard drive space, although more is always better.
The speed of the hard drive refers to the RPM, revolutions per minute, a hard drive disk can spin at. The faster the drive can spin the faster data can be accessed. Most laptop drives are 5400 RPM which is too slow for music really although they can be used but it isn’t recommended. I recommend a 7200 RPM hard drive in a laptop for music, you can get faster one’s but they cost a lot more.
I cannot stress the importance of the reliability of a hard drive. So many people lose important data, songs and master tapes due to cheap hard drives failing or crashing. Try to find out the brand of the hard drive inside a laptop your researching. A good brand is Seagate. A bad brand is hiatichi.
Laptop hard drives are very easy to replace so do not fear if your dream laptop for music has a crummy hard drive inside, you can replace it for quite cheap. For more information on hard drives see my article,hard drives for music.
If you want to use lots of midi controllers and firewire audio interfaces your going to need USB and fire ports. finding a laptop with the right amount of USB and firewire ports can be a pain. Usually most laptops come with at least 2 USB ports, which is ok if you don’t need to use lots of midi controllers but 3 is better. Don’t forget you can always use a USB hub to increase the number of USB ports available but keep in mind that most midi controllers draw power from USB, so you need a USB powered hub or more powered USB ports on the laptop.
Currently I’m using 2 external hard drives, 3 midi controllers, a midi interface, mouse, a USB audio interface and other USB perils off 3 USB ports on my laptop. I use 2 usb hubs and had to juggle the different devices around so they are can draw power from the laptop USB ports.
Another thing to be aware of is that you can’t always use USB audio interfaces via a USB hub and usually have to be connected straight to the computer. This to do with ICQ conflicts. So when buying a laptop try to plan ahead and think about how many USB devices your going to use.
Firewire is a little bit more complicated as there are two types of firewire ports, one powered and one not. Four pin firewire ports are not powered and 6 pin firewire ports are. There are also different speeds, firewire 400, 600 and 800 but this doesn’t matter too much at the moment as it doesn’t make too much difference with audio interfaces.
For more information about ports see my article, how to connect, which explains the different ways to connect an audio interface and firewire 400, 600 and 800 in more detail.
This is a touchy subject for most music heads, mac or PC? Well i’m not going to go into a debate about which is better for music. I’m simply just going to look at it from an objective point of view as it’s a personal choice and there is no right answer.
If you go down the windows route then you have a choice of vista or XP. Personally i think XP is alot better than vista for music for one simple reason. XP is more twaekable for audio and doesn’t use as much RAM as vista. Vista is a very RAM hungry OS and has a lot of bells and whisles visually which if your just interested in music then you don’t need. Besides you need all the RAM you can get to run music software.
Mac OSX on the other hand is and is not more stable for music than windows operating systems. It’s a bit of a double edged sword and is about change with apples release of the new snow leopard OS. I’ve used macs alot and they are more stable than windows but they do crash sometimes, just like windows. There are also a few more compatibility issues with hardware and OSX but like I said this could all change very soon.
The bottom line is very simple, choose an OS that suits you. If you’ve been running windows for music already and have a bunch of software for it it makes sense to buy another windows computer so that you can still use it. If you’ve already been using OSX then you’ll probably hate windows anyway.
The weight of a laptop is and isn’t an issue when choosing a laptop for music as it depends on what exactly you want to use it for. If your planning to use it for portable music or performing live with then weight is very important. You don’t want to be lugging around a very heavy laptop to gigs or recording sessions. If your just planning to move a laptop around a little bit then a heavier one won’t be a big issue.
Usually the smaller and lighter the laptop the less powerful it is. This just simply comes down to sacrifice, it’s hard to make really small laptops like the Macbook Air without sacrificing something and its usually the power, ports or upgrading features.
When looking for a laptop for music find one online then try to go to a shop to actually look and lift it to test the weight.
The size of the laptop is a factor that, just like the weight, depends on what you want to do with it. The most common size is 15.4 inches which is not huge but too small you can’t see the screen. 17 inch laptops are quite big and are more of a mobile workstation than a super portable light weight laptop. 13 inch laptops like the macbook 13 inch are light, small and portable but the screen is a little bit on the small size.
Just like the weight the size of the laptop also effects the power and configurable of a laptop. 17 inch models usually have better and more powerful CPU’s, more RAM, a full size keyboard and sometimes even two hard drives. 13 inch models usually have slower, less powerful CPU’s and less RAM.
As you can see it’s a compromise between portability, screen size and power. Chances are you’ll end up going with a 15.4 inch laptop as they are the most common and will give you the most choice over CPU, RAM and hard drives. 15.4 inches is a good compromise of power, RAM, screen size, portability and weight.
The battery life of a laptop is a funny thing. almost always you never get the advertised battery life as it depends on how much CPU power your going to be using. In music this is a lot, so expect depleted battery life. Also the length of time a battery will hold it’s charge gradually shortens over time. Don’t forget if you plan on using USB or firewire powered audio interfaces and midi controllers then your battery life is going to suffer.
If your going to be doing alot of mobile recording where using mains power is not available then your going to be looking at laptops with long battery life, the macbooks and macbook pros have a very long advertised battery life.
If your going to be doing studio or live performance work then chances are your going to be using mains power so battery life is not an issue.
Check out my tutorial on how to extend your battery life when working on music for tips on how to keep your battery lasting longer.
Technology moves fast, especially music technology. Buying a laptop for music that is top of line now will have it’s benefits in say a year or two’s time when you’ll need more power to run the latest software and hardware. So don’t forget to think about the future when buying a new laptop for music.
Research is the key to getting a laptop that will meet all your needs and be capable with hardware and software. When you’ve found a laptop you think is right for you start looking at user forums to see if there’s any big problems or compatibility issues. Its also a good idea to do this for any hardware or software you planning to use on it. Also read plenty of reviews to get an idea of the reality and practical use of the laptop. You’ll be surprised at how many people buy a laptop for music and then find out there’s a fundamental flaw when using a piece of hardware or software with it, basically rendering the laptop useless for their purposes.
Price & buying second hand
The price of a laptop can really sway your decision. There are many offers on laptops so shop around everywhere before you commit to buying one. There’s educational discounts for most laptop manufacturers too so if your a student or know someone who is a student then investigate as you could save a lot of money.
Buying a laptop second hand or refurbished laptop is a great way to save money but be very careful. Make sure that you ask the seller lots of questions about the exact condition, age, if any repairs have been carried out and spec of the laptop. Also find out if all the installation disks, manuals and cables are included.
Choosing a laptop for music is a very hard task indeed, made even harder when your on a budget. Searching for the right model with all the features you need and within your price range is nothing less than a nightmare.
Don’t give up as you will find the right one at the right price and once you do you won’t regret all the work you did to find it. If your not sure about a model or want some advise ask in our forum as you’ll find users who have brought many laptops and will know the pit falls.