Saturday, August 31, 2019

Buying a Laptop for Audio Production - Part 2

In my last article I laid out the problems and constraints involved with buying a laptop for audio production. In this article I will continue by describing hardware constraints and my purchase methodology.

Going shopping
First, make a list of essential features. I begin by specifying 16 GB of RAM, which is often the maximum a model will accept. Applications will be happy with 8 GB, but especially when multitasking the extra RAM smooths performance.

A 255 GB SSD drive is the standard for blazing fast boot times and general operations. If you can get more... great! But you will likely want an external drive as well, for backup if nothing else.

With so many choices, choosing a processor is a complicated matter. An Intel Core i7 is not necessarily faster than an i5 or an i3. But an i7 will generally use more energy and generate more heat. This means less battery life and potentially more fan noise. I specified one particular i3 chip in my last computer, since it was powerful and energy-efficient. But there are hundreds of different chips, and they are all generally fast enough.

However, if you plan on running a DAW with many channels of plug-ins, you should choose a processor with a greater number of cores. Though some software won't make use of multiple cores, a DAW in this scenario will. To give a specific example, Reaktor utilises only one core in stand-alone mode. But when run as a plug-in, your DAW can allocate a core to each instance of Reaktor.

Avoid computers with specialised video cards. These speed up your games and video work, sure. But they also introduce driver incompatibilities, add weight, generate heat, and cost more money.

Figure out your optimal screen size and resolution by experimenting with your primary programs on your desktop. Laptops come in 4K screens now, but this renders text impossibly small. It's a bling thing, not a practical feature. Instead, add an external monitor when you are docked at a desk.

Touchscreens add weight and expense, besides being another point of failure. Avoid them unless you have a special requirement.

If you can, try out a unit to see if you can live with the keyboard and trackpad. These are essential to enjoyable and productive use of a computer.

Ports Revisited
In the last article I gave out about proprietary ports and the lack of backwards-compatibility on recent computers. I should now be more specific, so that you will know what features to expect from a given laptop.

USB C and USB A have different connector shapes, so the cables will not physically match different sockets. I have several MIDI controllers and other devices that use the older USB A standard, and so any computer I buy needs to support these. Unfortunately that is becoming difficult.

USB C was introduced to provide a more versatile single connector. This standard supports higher currents and can hence charge a laptop and other large devices. Hence laptops no longer need proprietary power connectors.

The number after the USB designation indicates the speed. USB 3 is ten times as fast as USB 2, and 3.1 is twice as fast again. However, for most practical purposes to which these connectors were put, it doesn't matter.

When Apple introduced their own Thunderbolt interface, it used the mini-DisplayPort physical connector. Very few companies followed suit (Dell were one exception). Apple then switched to using USB C connectors. Thunderbolt began by supporting the same speed as USB 3.1 (10 Gbps). But then came Thunderbolt 2 which doubled this, and Thunderbolt 3 which doubled throughput again.

If you remember from the last article, I pointed out that RME sound devices support up to 70 channels of audio by using old-fashioned USB 2. In the audio world there's no pressing need for all this throughput. But video is different. The main advantages of Thunderbolt 3 are that you can throw video streams from one device to another. So you can purchase an external GPU that your laptop can use to accelerate video processing.

The ramification is that manufacturers can now omit video ports from their laptops. Instead, they provide a USB C connector that will also function as a DisplayPort, assuming the correct dongle.

Once upon a time a computer would come with 3 USB ports that could all be used for external devices (keyboard, mouse, audio interface). A monitor could plug into the HDMI and the whole thing would be powered from an adaptor. Now, a computer that has 3 USB C ports forces you to use one for the monitor and another for power). This leaves only a single port for everything else. Some call this progress!

Methodology
I choose to buy lease-end computers, refurbished by established companies. If you wish instead to buy from individual sellers, you can often get better deals, with a concomitant increase in risk and variability. But either way, buying used means that you are doing your part to re-use technology that is poisonous for the planet. You generally get more ports and greater flexibility on older models. And you save money at the same time. It's win-win-win!

I will provide prices in pound sterling, as determined from eBay. These prices depend on the condition, processor, and storage capacity, and so will vary. I will also provide a link to Notebook Check for each model. That website provides extensive reviews and feature lists. This doesn't mean that I agree with their opinions or recommendations. But it's an easy way for you to find out more about a particular model.

Continue Reading
The third part of this series is now online.

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