Laptop vs. Desktop for Home Music Recording
UPDATED: October 2012
If you’re looking to build a home music recording and production workstation, then deciding which computer to buy will be the single most important decision you’ll make. In this age of “in the box” computer music production, we’re asking our computers to: record audio, convert analog to digital, interpret MIDI, process audio effects in real-time, process powerful virtual instruments in real-time, mix multiple audio and MIDI channels simultaneously, control kit hardware, and surf the net at the same time. It’s a tall order for any box.
So deciding if your first purchase should be a desktop or a laptop is an important one that really depends on your needs. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I’ve used just about every computer configuration possible including: PC laptop only, PC desktop only, PC laptop and desktop networked using FX Teleport, and now an Apple iMac. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of laptops and desktops as they relate to computer music recording and production, and hopefully provide some insight to help you make an informed purchase decision.
Laptop vs. Desktop for Home Music Recording
Let’s start off with some discovery questions, because these will help you consider and prioritize your needs.
- Are you looking for portability? Will your home recording computer also be your gig computer? Do you expect to travel often and want to take your studio with you on planes, tour buses or work from hotel rooms? Will you work with a studio outside of your home studio and desire to record on your system instead of theirs?
- Are you looking for flexibility? Do you anticipate wanting more than two screen displays? Are you looking to add multiple internal hard drives and DVD drives? Are you looking to customize the computer after purchase? Do you need multiple USB, Firewire or HDMI ports?
- Is computer power and speed most important to you? Are looking to have the fastest hard drives and DVD drives available? Are you looking for the most powerful graphics card? Do you anticipate updating the motherboard for future CPU and RAM upgrades?
- What’s your budget? Do you expect to buy another computer in less than two years? Are you looking to avoid buying another computer for five years or more?
Let’s take a look at each of these areas as they may help you to prioritize your needs.
We’ll review computing power first as this is the single most important part of your computer purchase decision. So what computing power will you need to produce music with today’s powerful DAW’s and plug-ins?
- RAM is king. When choosing either a laptop or desktop you’ll want at least 4GB of RAM with the possibility to upgrade to more. Many powerful laptops today come standard with 4GB of RAM with the ability to upgrade to at least 8GB of RAM and many desktops offer upwards of 32GB of RAM. Having the ability to upgrade your RAM will save you money in the long run by avoiding a computer upgrade in two years when your favorite virtual instruments have overextended your current RAM capabilities. Increased RAM lessens the need for direct-to-disk streaming by your virtual instruments, and you’ll have improved performance and no crackling do to disk streaming overload. I’ll note that a 64-bit operating system is required to take advantage of more than 4GM of RAM. Both the latest versions of Windows 7 and OS X are 64-bit capable.
VERDICT: A desktop or laptop will be fine if the computer has the capacity for future memory upgrades to at least 8GB of RAM.
- Processor is Queen. The second half of the royal computing family is the processor (CPU), and more importantly a multi-core processor. You can read more in depth on multi-core processors on Wikipedia, however in the basic sense consider the core (or processor) as a single brain. One brain can process information well, but it could process better if it can divide duties amongst four or eight brains. Popular DAW’s such as Apple Logic and Steinberg Cubase offer 64-bit versions that take advantage of computers with multi-core processors, by dividing the plug-in processing and other real-time functions between the various cores.
VERDICT: For process intensive DAWs and effects plug-ins, you may want at least a quad-core processor. A quad-core CPU will last you for some years and save you costly future computer upgrades. Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors, and AMD’s Phenom II processors are among the best as of this writing.
- Hard drive and DVD speed. Hard disk drive (HDD) speed and DVD read/write speed is third on the list of importance for power and is typically where a desktop computer may have an advantage over a laptop. With many of our favorite virtual instruments requiring over 1GB of RAM per sound, software developers use direct-to-disk streaming in order to share performance responsibilities. For example: my Synthogy Ivory II Grand Piano plug-in requires 1.3GB of RAM, however I can set it to load 800MB of data into my RAM and stream the rest from the HDD. For best playback performance you’ll need a fast HDD of at least 7,200 RPM with 10,000 RPM being preferred. Many inexpensive laptops only ship with a 5,400 RPM HDD which is generally insufficient for music production. Alternatively, you can purchase external hard drives to house your DAW projects, sample libraries and virtual instruments (which I recommend in any event), but you will still want a fast HDD as your primary internal drive. In the near future, computers will all have Solid State Drives (SSD) which have no moving parts so speed is no longer a concern. Mac computers already offer this option.
- A fast DVD read/write drive is not as critically important for music production, but will certainly speed up instrument installations. Using the example of Synthogy Ivory II Grand Piano, this sample-based instrument requires 77GB of hard disk space and ships on 11 DVD ROM disks. With a fast DVD drive boasting 16x reading speed each disk takes approximately 15 mins to load, and 2 hours 45 minutes to load the entire library. Many laptops come with an internal DVD drive capable of 8x read speed. This means each disk of Ivory II will take approximately 30 minutes to load, and 5 1/2 hours to load the entire library. Since my beloved 27-inch Apple iMac came installed with a DVD drive with 8x read speed, I purchased an LG Super-Multi External USB DVD Drive which will read a DVD at 16x speed and read a CD at 48x speed. When you have a large virtual instrument collection and have to install all of it to a new computer, this could save you a day or two of installation time.
VERDICT: When purchasing either a laptop or a desktop be sure to look for one with a 7,200 RPM internal HDD. Secondly, very few (if any) laptops including the iMac, come with internal DVD drives with 16x read speeds. So the desktop will have the advantage here, or you can purchase an external DVD drive as I have.
Portability vs. Flexibility vs. Cost
With computing power considerations taken into account, the next question is whether flexibility or portability is more of the priority for your needs. It goes without saying that if you’re looking to use your DAW for live shows, or if you plan to use your DAW while on the road, then the portability of a laptop may be what you’re looking for. These days laptops can be equally as powerful as a desktop for music creation, and below are a few good examples.
- If you’re looking for a Mac laptop specifically, then I recommend Apple’s MacBook Pro ($1,455). The MacBook Pro can range in price from $1,199 for the off the shelf 13″ model, to $4,449 for a fully loaded and customized 17″ model. The version I’ve linked to above is great for music production and features a Core i7 processor, 5,400 RPM 750 GB hard drive, 8 GB RAM, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connection ports. MacBook Pros are thin and powerful and have more input ports than the MacBook Air. Macs also come with GarageBand bundled, so you can get started creating music right away. If you want more power you can order directly from Apple and get a 7,200 RPM HDD or a solid state drive (SSD) which is faster. Macs generally will be more expensive than a PC with comparable specs. I personally prefer Apple’s OS X operating system and don’t mind paying more for their computers… but that’s just me
- If you’re looking for a PC laptop there are many makes and models to chose from, but you’ll want something comparable to this DELL XPS X15L-3357 ($1,061). The advantages of this laptop are its powerful Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, powerful graphics card , 7,200 RPM 750 GB hard drive and USB 3.0 ports. I trust DELL and specifically their XPS line.
- Another option is the ASUS G75VW-AS71 Gaming Laptop ($1,350). This laptop comes with a 17″ screen, Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, powerful graphics card, USB 3.0 ports, and a 7,200 RPM 750 GB hard drive. This is a desktop-replacement laptop that has all the processor and RAM power needed for music production. I’ve never owned an ASUS computer, but this laptop is highly rated on Amazon.
Despite the power of the laptops mentioned above, you may decide that flexibility is needed more than portability. If this is the case and you intend for your home music recording and production computer to stay… well at home, then a desktop may be what you’re looking for. Advantages of having a desktop is that they tend to cost less then comparable laptops, and they allow you to upgrade items such as: the motherboard, cooling fan, graphics card, RAM, hard drives and add additional ports (i.e. USB 3.0) as new technologies are introduced.
- In the Mac category, I’m partial to Apple’s 27-inch iMac, but that’s because this is what I currently use. An iMac combines the best of semi-portability and power, integrated with a beautiful 21″ or 27″ cinematic display. The iMac can range in price from $1,199 for the off-the-shelf 21-inch iMac, to $4,099 for a fully loaded and customized 27-inch model. I recommend the 27-inch model as it comes with more options than its 21-inch counterpart including the Intel i7 quad-core processor. Like the MacBook Pro, the iMac has the option of including a 256GB solid state drive alongside a 7,200RPM hard drive which your speed hungry virtual instruments will love. Then there’s Mac’s powerful Mac Pro that ranges in price from $2,499 for an off-the-shelf quad-core system, to upwards of $13,000 for fully customized 12-core system. More than likely, if you can afford that latter system then you’re not reading this post, so I’ll move on.
- In the PC category, again there are many models to chose from, but you’ll want something comparable to this DELL XPS X8500-6842WT Desktop ($1,180). This desktop has power and plenty of flexibility. Advantages of this system include: Intel Core i7 processor, powerful graphics card with capability up to three screen displays, 12GB RAM upgradable to 16GB RAM, 7,200 RPM 2 TB hard drive, 16x DVD drive, USB 3.0 ports, card reader slots and multiple bays for additional internal hard drives. Add a large display monitor and you’re set.
Laptop vs. Desktop for Home Music Recording
Today’s laptops are powerful enough to be at the heart of any home music recording and production setup. So if you’re looking to purchase a new computer and are not sure if a laptop or desktop is best to support your creative needs, just remember to weigh in on the four key areas: computing power, portability, flexibility and cost. Hopefully this post has provided some insight on the functionality and specs to look out for. As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have questions.
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Happy computer hunting!
- #Home Studio Setup
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
- MacBook Pro
- PC Desktop
- PC Laptop