image Musicians have generally had to shy away from slim, light portable PC laptops, but watching the specs on these machines, I’d say that’s finally changing. Take the upcoming Lenovo IdeaPad U110. Like the Apple MacBook Air, you have to rely on an external optical drive, but otherwise, this machine comes pretty close to being a worthy mobile music machine. If shedding pounds and size is important to you, there’s no question you could make this box work on the road.

Lenovo IdeaPad U110 [ Early Specs at GottaBeMobile.com]

  • There’s not that much of a price premium: it’s US$1899.
  • The specs look good: a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo ("Merom") plus up to 3GB RAM — not high-end specs, but more than enough to run SONAR, Ableton Live, and the like. (Similar to the equally-capable specs on the MacBook Air side)
  • Lots of ports: 3 USB 2.0 ports, so you don’t run out of ports when you plug in, say, a keyboard, an audio interface, and a high-speed USB storage stick. (Here’s where it bests the Air.)
  • Lots of slots: Express Card supports high-end audio interfaces, and having an onboard card reader is nice for your camera and mobile recorder
  • 2.4 lbs, .66 inch thick (actually slightly thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air) … and super small, meaning this is easier to tote and keep inconspicuous onstage

What’s the catch?

There’s only a 4200 rpm 120GB hard drive, which would likely be an Achilles’ heal. I do think the ThinkPad comes a heck of a lot closer to the mark than Apple’s MacBook Air, which sacrifices virtually all your ports and expandability — a black mark no matter how pretty the Air is. In fact, a lot of my live Ableton sets fit easily onto a flash drive, so I could imagine popping that into a machine like this.

Then again, that’s not really the competition: a US$1000 PC or Mac laptop could easily best these specs with only slightly more power consumption, size, and weight.

I still find these machines interesting, though, in that they demonstrate cooler, lighter, smaller, thinner, power-miserly directions for the same laptop platforms — all things that could make their way into more practical machines in the near future. And while I can’t really recommend the Air over the MacBook or MacBook Pro on the Mac side, on the PC side the U110 is at least in the running for those willing to make some (significant) sacrifices, which is a big change from the recent past.

  • http://www.cypod.co.nr dj cypod

    But the Air is cordless, just hook your airport express up to the PA and your ready to crowd surf the pit while still playing, just like those grungers used to.

  • kingmetal

    4200rpm PATA hard drive? No thank you! I know the Air suffers from the same issue (unless you drop another grand on a SSD) but my 5400rpm SATA drive chokes on some of the audio I do on my laptop, a 4200rpm drive is molasses slow.

  • gwenhwyfaer

    I'll have kingmetal's :)

  • mots

    it is great idd, but it misses a few things : trackpoint, a faster processor , a decent battery life, a faster drive. oh yeah.. i wouldn't if it would loose a bit of its shine :)

    my 4 years old ibm X31 is 1.5ghz.. ok mono core though ;)

    on the list of cool mini laptop for music there is also the upcoming Dell D4300 and D4400
    http://www.engadget.com/2008/03/21/up-close-with-

  • cobalt

    The new HP Mini Note ultraportable seems to have a 2.5" 7200RPM inteneral HDD. It packs a VIA CPU, however. It will be ineteresting to see how the new Intel Atom and the VIA Isiah perform for music apps. Also, Windows XP will be available for ultraportables for a few more years.

  • Alex

    Man, how you make music? With 3 vstis, 3-4 channels and 2 vsts? A core 2 duo @ 1.6Ghz with Live, can't run a serious music setup in it…I have a laptop @ 1.6ghz c2d with 2gbs of ram, and i can only do some dj stuff and browse the internet…ok, maybe it could work if you do all the work with Ableton's built in effects and instruments or buy using only samples…definitely not a production choice, and they are veery expensive for what they offer…and for the money, i prefer buying a Macbook Air…(useless too)

  • gwenhwyfaer

    Alex raises a good point. However did anyone make music with computers a few years ago, before any technology could touch the specs of this laptop? They must have had some kind of freaky alien technology!

    …or, you know, talent and imagination. Sorry Alex, but the quality of your music doesn't improve with the speed of your laptop… if anything, the relationship is inverse. Anyone who says these machines are "useless for music" is frankly talking out of their arse – they might not be able to cope with the limitations, but many, many people won't even see the limitations, and will really appreciate the form factor.

    Wouldn't it be nice if every time someone posted a comment saying "X is useless for Y" (when in fact the only thing they are qualified to say is "I don't have any interest in even checking how useful X might be for Y") they were required to donate $50 to the forum on which they posted?

  • mediawest

    as someone who does film and tv sessions here in hollywoodland, i have tried many different laptops to run protools le and my virtual instruments.

    sorry, the laptop even maxed out is too slow to really to a pro job. i wish i could take even my high end mac laptop, but my workstations eat any laptop for lunch. unless you only need to run one or two vst or rtas VI's….. even my older duo cores desktops will do a better job than any laptop…..

  • JohnnyHorizon

    The Lenovo IdeaPad is NOT a ThinkPad. Even though IBM sold the ThinkPad line to Lenovo, there is big difference between the ThinkPad-branded models and the rest of the Lenovo models.

    Many other things can interfere with a laptop's low-latency performance (like SMM issues and power management features). I wish there was a way to know this before buying a laptop…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    These are all fair points, but I do think we're exaggerating the gap a bit. @mediawest — one or two VSTs on a laptop? What laptop are you using, seriously? I've run some pretty involved setups on my laptop machines. Also, I can benchmark this last-generation desktop I'm on at the moment (dual-core AMD) against the current dual-core Intel mobile chips. The latter are significantly faster.

    Everything else being said here about bottlenecks is absolutely correct, and desktops remain faster than laptops, but there is quite a lot you can do with music production on the current-gen laptop.

    I do agree, though, there are a lot of unknowns on this IdeaPad.

  • http://www.protman.com protman

    I have been rocking a little 12" lenovo v200 running ubuntu studio and I am super happy. They keyboard is so very tactile and made for human use. $700. 1.5ghz core2 duo. 2gb.

    Here is my first track made on it using only an sk1 drumkit (i was anxious and didnt have my samplebase handy):
    http://protman.com/content/protman-130bricked

    I can't say that I've ever even come close to overloading the cpu on a laptop while using ableton and many VSTs; possibly hard drive caching issues from time to time. I actually had my finger on the button for one of those new aluminum HP minis on thinkgeek the other night.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Right, absolutely — the bottleneck here is not the CPU; it's the hard drive. And other issues, while important to performance, are not necessarily going to be make/break.

    But to me the real deal-breaker remains price. From Lenovo, for instance, you can get a really terrific machine for about $800, and it'd be perfectly capable of live recording and performance. Maybe not a desktop replacement, necessarily, but a good mobile machine. I find that I usually pare down what I'm doing on mobile for *musical* reasons before I run out of machine capabilities, anyway.

    In fairness, I'd have to be really into light and thin to pay twice as much for a couple of pounds in weight. But as I said, this shows you where things are going in terms of miniaturization, power, and heat (meaning noise, too), and whereas the "subnotebook" was a separate class a couple of years ago, now I think it really does indicate what's happening with mainstream machines, too.

  • MonksDream

    I agree with most of the foregoing about hard drive speed and CPU power. However the bigger issue is reliability.

    I've been working exclusively on laptops, both PC and Mac, for years now. With a fast Firewire drive I've rarely run into performance bottlenecks that prevented me from doing what I needed to do. I wish I could say the same about OS, software and peripheral performance.

    I'm trying to replace my keyboard rig with a single keyboard and a laptop. I've had some success but disappearing interfaces, software hiccups, and OS weirdness and such seem to be par for the course with ANY computer solution.

    I'd happily trade bleeding-edge processing power for a computer-based system that's as stable as a 15 year old Roland keyboard.

  • http://www.stribe.org phineus

    get a macbook – I used XP forever and finally broke down and got a previous version Macbook w the 2.2 Ghz and maxed the RAM – this thing just rocks

  • zenzen

    I'm sure this would run Reason 4 well enough, with power to spare. Ableton, too, with Reason re-wired in. My 4-year-old Thinkpad T41 1.6 Pentium M does.

  • Malachi

    Tonight, on my way home from work, I added some finishing touches to an arrangement I've been working on with my Tabletkiosk UMPC. Currently said project has 6 single shot sampler instances, 5 VSTi's (among them 2 instances of Blue and 1 Albino), 2 audio clips and 3 VST fx. And still power to spare. To spare everyone the need to look up the specs of my powerhouse, it has a 900MHz Celeron M processor and 1GB RAM. Now, I only really use it as a sketch pad while I'm wasting away on public transit, and it does the task quite amiably, in fact I've worked on other projects of even greater complexity as concerns VST's. So I'm confused how a device with a faster dual core processor and greater amount of RAM is incapable of making music. Could it be because I put pixies inside? It's the pixies, isn't it?

    I'm with MonksDream, stability is the most important factor. Everything else is worthless without it.