A LiveBook on the test bench at Rain Headquarters, photographed for CDM.

One of the things that attracts me to computers: choice. So it’s worth noting that you do have choices when looking to laptops, PCs included. (This sounds like those lame “We know you have a choice in your travel plans” announcements you get on airplanes. Unlike those choices, though, these are genuinely different – thankfully.)

So let’s cut straight to the chase: there is a choice between Mac and PC, and there are choices on PC that keep it competitive (to say nothing of Linux). If you’re looking for a rig that runs PC-only tools like FL Studio, and you want more hardware choice to get there without being locked into a Mac, Boot Camp, and an extra Windows license, you have options.

Rain Recording has just introduced a revised pro laptop offering. You may have seen the announcement around, but I did get to talk to them while they were developing this, so I want to offer my own, semi-biased reflections. Rain is a custom system builder focused on music and audio applications. They and a handful of vendors like them do test their configurations with actual audio software, which isn’t generally the case with bigger PC laptop makers. And they offer music and audio-specific support, beyond even what Apple can offer.

Now, that said, I have to say I haven’t actually been that blown away by what custom builders have been able to do in the laptop space. The problem is, builders don’t have the kinds of options with laptops that they do with desktops; traditionally, you’ve needed huge manufacturing scale to get many choices. Even a lot of big brands get someone else to make their machines, so custom builders really face an uphill battle with limited barebones systems. Rain and others have put together some interesting systems, but at a price premium and generally lagging some of the hardware options on the mainstream laptops. For that reason, many PC users have chosen to stick it out with “commodity” machines and try to navigate to the ones that do music well.

The current LiveBook, though, is the first that I think really makes a custom builder competitive – and it’s the first I’ve started to covet for my own desk. It’s pricier than some mass-market machines out there, but it is competitive, and with far more of a guarantee for audio performance and reliability.

  • Processors are now available up to 3.06GHz on the Centrino 2 “Montevina” – so it’s about as current as you can get architecturally
  • Prices start at US$1999 – and that’s already a pretty fully-loaded machine
  • The body is all-aluminum and offers a laser-etched case
  • The GPU is no slouch: NVIDIA 9600M GT 512M standard, with a healthy 1680×1050 resolution on the 15.4” monitor (which I think is about perfect – any higher is hard to see, any lower cuts down on real estate)
  • Lots of ports: three FireWire 400 ports (with the standard ExpressCard plugged in), one eSATA, a card reader, HDMI and VGA out, and two USB 2.0 ports
  • Fast, audio-ready drives: up to 320GB 7200RPM (there’s also now a solid-state option, but I prefer conventional hard drives for their price/performance/capacity ratio)

This issue of specs has already started a debate, even among Mac users. And that’s the world we live in: PC buyers are considering Macs, and at least a handful of Mac users are seriously considering PCs. (At the very least, it’s not uncommon to find people with both.)

From the angry thread about FireWire missing in the (non-Pro) MacBooks, one MacRumors reader points to this very Rain LiveBook. Here’s what I’d put in the pros column:

  • eSATA is very useful for high-speed storage (you could add it to the MacBook Pro, admittedly)
  • The Rain has a TI chipset for its ExpressCard-provided FireWire, which has been more stable for audio performance – even on Mac OS
  • Rain has up to 8 GB RAM, and with 64-bit Windows you can use it
  • Blu-ray is an option
  • You get a dedicated numeric keypad, which is a big boon for shortcuts – think Sibelius on the road, for instance (the notation editor relies on the numeric keypad for quick input)
  • For some, Mac OS is the big draw – but for others, Windows is, depending I think largely on the apps you want to run if not everything you use is cross-platform

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Apple machines stay really competitive. The I/O gripes aside, the new machines are pretty remarkable. And you lose a lot going to Windows from Mac OS – Core Audio and built-in inter-app and over-network MIDI, for instance. On the other hand, I’m perfectly happy running FL Studio, SynthMaker, SONAR, Vegas, and Sound Forge on my Windows laptop and not having to use Boot Camp on a Mac to get there, and with solid ASIO drivers, I can get terrific performance from Windows. I don’t personally agree with the conventional wisdom that makes people just “default” to either choice – I think the choices are interesting.

Specs aside, Rain really does test every configuration with audio software, and they think about the impact of specific drivers and components. That’s not so much of an issue on the Mac, but part of the variability of quality on the PC has absolutely been about certain configurations and driver issues causing problems. You can get audio software pre-installed from Rain, you can call Rain about audio questions, and they’ll even install Windows XP for you, if you like. (I’ve been to New Jersey and seen Rain’s facility and talked to their testers. Another vendor offering similar services is California-based PCAudioLabs – they’re also worth checking out; I’ve heard nothing but good things from people using machines from both makers, which says something, too.)

This comes back to the question of what your ideal configuration would be. If I had my dream machine on this LiveBook, I’d have a couple more USB2 ports on the LiveBook, and DVI or mini-DisplayPort plus TV out for video. But it is a nice-looking system. Rain will certainly be hearing my feedback, and they do offer a fair number of custom options.

Interestingly, ASUS and Intel have teamed up to do a site where they get communities voting on what they want from a laptop, called WePC.com. It’s the opposite of Apple’s design process – though I suppose, arguably, it could result in The Homer Effect. (Episode of the Simpsons in which Homer designs a car and gets something … well, overdesigned. But Homer didn’t know anything about cars. Odds are, as a computer musician, you actually do know what you want and need.) Anyway, just so we’re heard, do go vote for audio stuff.

The bottom line for me: I don’t think we always benefit from someone else choosing what we need.

It’s really not worth debating which laptop choice is better, because there’s not an answer to that question. Laptops – even Macs – are bundles of literally thousands of detailed hardware decisions, and I’ve never seen two users doing exactly the same thing with their machines. That means it’s almost impossible to get a machine that’s absolutely perfect, anyway; it’s more about finding the right compromise. And OS arguments tend to devolve into meaningless debates. The actual internals of what makes operating systems work is so technical and involved, it would take a lot more than a few lines to talk about with any accuracy.

But it’s not about which is better; it’s which is better for you. So, instead, I’ll ask: got a laptop you love, Mac or PC? In the market for a new machine, economic downturn be damned? Which one are you thinking? And what would your perfect machine look like – within the realm of possibility?

Disclosure: I recently bought a cheap ASUS (pronounced ah-SOOS) laptop to replace a sudden failure of a machine. (I got an M51Sn-C1; more on that later.) I own a MacBook which I use pretty heavily, too. I’m writing stories for Rain. Heck, I just generally like computers – and I’ve got some gripes for every OS and hardware maker out there. So, like you, I’m biased about everything because I live and create on these machines – more hours than I sleep, I think.

  • Marc

    Pretty cool, I had no idea anybody was doing this.

    I wish somebody would do something similar with Linux systems…I would absolutely drool over a machine that came with Jack and all the audio apps installed …and guaranteed to work.

    Right now I use LMMS through ALSA on my Dell Ubuntu laptop. I can't use jack because of the crap onboard soundcard – too many xruns. One of these days I'll buy a FW sound interface for it. But the LMMS setup makes for easy composition/doodles on the road. LMMS is pretty amazing for a 0.4 release.

  • Justin

    That looks like a great machine, it pretty much fits what I've been looking for in PC audio laptop.

    Thanks for the article Peter.

  • http://www.swamidigital.com/ Swami Digital

    It does look good, but I've used tons of PC laptops over the years that looked good in terms of features. What really stands out about my MacBook Pro is the reliability. I've traveled around the world with this thing, dropped it more than once, and never had a problem with it. Once I did knock in a pin on my magsafe power connector, and it took 5 minutes at the apple store for them to give me a new one free of charge, so support is also good. By contrast the PC laptops I've bought have all had problems, and none of them have taken impact well. The only PC laptop that really has been reliable for me was the IBM thinkpad, which is great, but for business not audio. The real test for this laptop will be seeing what issues emerge after people have had a chance to break it in and travel with it.

    -D

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » ExpressCard FireWire that Actually Works for Audio?

  • zeekay

    I'd personally have zero use for an insanely over-priced macbook pro, costing up to $1000 over a similarly priced windows setup. Aesthetics and anecdotal nonsense aside, there is no reason to assume the hardware in a macbook is going to be more reliable. In fact, 99% of the internal hardware is going to be found in almost identical configurations, in lower-priced windows/linux/dos/whatever based laptops.

    Looking at the Rain rig, it's clearly over-priced as well. If I had to recommend a vendor, I'd suggest xoticpc.com, or newegg.com, which I've always had great success with in terms of support.

    Quit screwing yourself over aesthetics people, and shop around. Or hey, throw your money away!

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

    Well, I can personally vouch for having had pretty nasty reliability problems with Apple machines. That's not an Apple slam. If something has a 99% reliability rate, you can always be that 1%. The honest truth is, there's no way to know for sure what *your* experience will be. (If you think you do, I suggest staying away from Vegas casinos.)

    That said, yes, absolutely you can look at reliability numbers. Apple does rate very favorably statistically. (So, too, incidentally, does Lenovo / IBM.)

    But just basic *reliability* — as in component failure — is going to be dependent on components, most of which come from the folks who manufacture the hard drives and displays (the two components with the highest fail rates). These components almost never come from the brand on the box, with rare exceptions like a Toshiba laptop with a Toshiba drive.

    Reliability as in software reliability / compatibility / performance is a function of component choice and drivers. Apple has the advantage of a reduced number of configurations to support. What a PC vendor can do – what Rain and the others have done – is to limit their own configurations to something they can actually go and test with audio and music apps, which happen to be the things that can most often cause trouble. There's also a tradition of that in custom builders for games – different sets of variables and concerns, but I think the same track record.

    That's not to say there's anything mystical about these systems. You can indeed shop around and get a good, cheaper system. Of course, if you make a mistake and the return policy isn't liberal, you could be stuck with it. So you can save yourself some money; you might even get a system that makes you happier than one from a vendor like Rain. But you'll have to balance that against the ability to call up Rain and complain because you've got audio hiccups in Cubase. That's something that's tough to do even with Apple.

    I don't think there's one "right" answer, like I said. But I also don't think anyone, Apple included, has the magic formula on reliability. I love making music with computers, so I'm sure as heck not saying "go get an MPC" or something insane. On the contrary, I think what you need to make up that reliability gap is a *lot* of information, and I hope we'll figure out smarter ways of drawing upon user experiences to get more knowledge out there for consumers and get fixes sooner.

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

    One addendum: look at support costs. Look at the speed of service, level of support, and cost. You'll see a really wide range of costs and (more importantly) value.

  • http://www.kev009.com/ Kevin Bowling

    The ThinkPad W500 is worth a look. This is the lineage of IBM's professional workstation notebooks. Specs include the usual 2.8GHz C2D and up to 8GB RAM in a thin-n-lite form factor, and UWXGA screen resolution on a 15" form factor. Pricing for a fairly decked out unit is under $2k if you are smart and get your 7200RPM 7k300 hard disk and RAM off newegg.

    Also, the W700 is a nice option for more demanding types. Quad core, ultra high end nVIDIA graphics (when will softsynths/DAWs take advantage of GPGPU?), 17" UXGA and an integrated Wacom tablet. The tablet could be interesting to play with for integrated midi control.

    I'm a programmer, so the keyboards of these notebooks are what keep me from buying anything else. I also quite like the spartan industrial engineering look :) .

  • zeekay

    The value of Apple support is a myth. Take a look at the 15inch 2.53ghz Apple Macbook Pro: $2499 with 4GB of ram, 320GB harddrive, 9600M GT. Compare with an ASUS M50 Series M50Vm-B1, available on newegg.com for $1299. Specs? Same processor, same amount of ram, same size harddrive, nearly identical videocard (9600M GS), slightly lower res display. I could buy two for the price of a single macbook + support. TWO? SERIOUSLY? IT'S TWICE AS EXPENSIVE?

    Forget support costs, I'll just buy an extra laptop, :P

    As for Rain's support, I've yet to desire support installing Cubase, Live, or any other DAW for that matter. While I've had hiccups along the way with various interfaces/VST incompatibilities/etc, in all honesty, installing an application like Ableton Live takes 5 minutes, installing a new interface about the same… If you can't figure that out, you shouldn't be wasting your money trying to make electronic music.

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

    @zeekay: Sorry, I should clarify. The issue isn't *installing* Cubase. It's making sure that some other glitchy driver isn't keeping your audio interface from working right. And so it's not so much picking up the phone and calling their support — it's knowing they know you'll call if they don't get it right. As I said, you can do this on your own, too, but either way, it's worth getting that right.

    And actually, I was saying look at support costs for the opposite reason … cut myself off mid-sentence there. Look at Apple's support costs, as in what they charge for AppleCare. For that rate, some of their competitors do on-site coverage. ;) Buy Logic, and you have to pay for an additional support plan. People tend to buy Apples because they hope they won't ever have to call support, but I've burned through quite a lot of cash on AppleCare for machines over the years. By contrast, the Asus came with a 2-year warranty and 1-year *accidental* coverage, free. That said, there is some odd crapware installed on their machine, and getting up-to-date NVIDIA drivers through them seems damned near impossible, which I think is pretty odd coming from a company that makes their own logic boards. So, again, all of these value propositions — Apple included — go beyond the sticker sheet.

    (Happily, for OEMs that don't give you the video drivers you need (partly NVIDIA's decision to leave that to OEMs), there's:
    http://laptopvideo2go.com/ )

    @Kevin: good point. I'm also intrigued by the fact that the Lenovos have more OpenGL-friendly graphics guts in them.

    And I agree about keyboards. Some of those cheap PC laptops have hideously awful keyboards. Go peck on the machines at Best Buy. I think they've engineered a way to make JELL-O work as keyboard action.

  • Chad

    Wait a minute! A Mac-vs.-PC debate? ON THE INTERNET?!?

  • ERF

    If you like to live life in the grey do a search for "osx86".

    Cheap PC Hardware + OSX + Hours of Frustration Trying To Get Things To Work Right = Win?

  • Mike S

    I was lucky enough to pick up one of the old MacBook Pro's at a very good price, literally rang up the apple store the day the new macbooks were announced. The guy there told me the old machines get sent "back to the factory" and used for spare parts! This baffles me because they're good machines and being a student I know there's plenty of others like me that would be willing to pay a discounted price for them.

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

    @Chad: ha!

    I'm trying desperately *not* to go there…

    The point is really figuring out what laptop purchase will make you happiest, that's the point. But here's one major difference: aside from the meaningless Mac vs. PC flame wars, I think there's more actual purchasing across platforms than there used to be.

  • http://www.swamidigital.com/ Swami Digital

    Don't get me wrong I use a PC for many things, and custom built PCs provide plenty of value over anything Apple sells. I was just speaking from my experience about what makes a laptop good. I've used every PC laptop brand under the sun before going to the Macbook Pro. (And that too only after I had the option of bootcamp if I wanted.) The reason they've gained my brand loyalty is reliability. I've had my MBP knocked over onto a concrete floor in India, and it didn't take more than a scratch. When you're 10,000 miles away from home and you need your laptop to be reliable for on-location recording, you really sweat out those small percentage points of reliability difference.

    I would love to see a PC laptop with the kind of reliability that I've gotten out of my MacBook Pro. If Rain has made that laptop they have won a fan out of me! I was just pointing out that you can't tell how good a laptop is by features, or at launch. You have to wait some time and see how it performs. That's what I was trying to say rather than touch off a pointless mac vs. pc debate.

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

    Well, I have a Toshiba laptop that's now six years old that I actually *wished* would die on a couple of occasions … still ticking along. :)

    I think the late-model aluminum MacBook Pros are a really solid machine. The new generation, of course, still a bit new to call.

    The aluminum case can make a big difference … it'll scratch and dent if beat up, but remains structurally sound and protects the stuff inside. So it is interesting Rain has gone to the aluminum.

    There are definitely PC makers, at least, that are roughly on par with Apple (to the point that I wouldn't give either an edge), and it's well worth going with them for their numbers. Particularly take a look at actual, quantitative return rates … *not* customer satisfaction reports, even on reliability, because that's a qualitative measure. I know Lenovo does well even in the post-IBM era, I've been impressed with lesser-known brands like Asus and MSI… now I have to go pull up those numbers.

  • http://chollyhoss.com/doot/ pete

    The mac-v-pc value debate can't be resolved by looking at hardware prices. I ran PCs for a long time (Sonic Foundry ACID and Vegas back then) and I switched to Apple because I actually started counting the hours I was putting into maintenance. Defrags, virus and malware cleanups, fending off msbloat, dealing with the aftermath of programs that leave their droppings all over the registry… All that work and after 6 months my PC was ripe for another reinstall. That was time I could have been using to become something other than a XP Maintenance Expert. I've been running those machine as part of my job since DOS.. so don't think I was new to it. My cred timeline goes back to programming BASIC on a TTY printer with paper tape, and a 300 baud acoustic coupler. So bite me. M$ never sent me a check for all of that downtime.

    Also… ever try to clone an XP system drive? It is enough to drive me back to the freakin church. I have a complete, bootable, external FW drive that I can actually run from if my internal were to die. I refresh the backup once a week. When I replaced the drive in my iBook… I duped it to an external drive, swapped in the new unit, booted from the external, cloned it back, and went on with my life. OS X is a real OS, and Apple doesn't assume that I want to spend my evenings watching a progress bar. My old iBook is currently living a life of leisure at my mom's house, quietly displacing her ancient 586 machine. My MBP has been a rock of reliability, and it does… just work.

    I'm happy to have a XP Pro machine on my desktop at my job because some IT intern gets to deal with that junk while I go on about my day, and I keep getting paid. But at home, in the studio, at gigs… my time has been paid back in spades since I stopped trying to beat back the tide with a broom on a PC. Sure, I could have a commodity PC for less. But I'll put my TCO (i GOTS to get paid) up against that M$ lifestyle any day of the week.

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

    Pete, I agree on principle (think value, not raw sticker price), but:

    Defrags: Now automatic on Vista. And there's no demonstration that this is any different on *any* modern OS.

    Virus/malware: Is this really still an issue for anyone? Basic precautions seem fine. The only issue I've had is crap like Norton slowing down machines — currently recommending Avast and/or Comodo, both lightweight and free and easily disabled during gigs, etc.

    Registry: Be careful what you install. Run Revo Uninstaller to remove apps, not the default uninstaller (it's free). And anyway, Mac OS and Linux have file maintenance issues of their own — the Mac has some bizarre UNIX issues.

    Cloning a drive: Well, getting a PC to boot off of Windows, I'll admit, is a pain; I use Linux for rescue situations. But cloning isn't terribly difficult.

    Regular reinstalls: Quite frankly, again, this can be a problem with any OS. It *shouldn't* be a problem, but it is — there are so many variables that sometimes a clean install is the quickest way to speed up a system. (And, literally, I've watched this happen with Mac OS and Linux as well as Windows. On Mac, my tool of choice is Onyx.)

    I hear you, and of course I hear horror stories. I'm just currently not having any more difficulty maintaining my main Windows box than my Mac box. Both are working just fine. Like I said, I don't want to start another OS war, but I have to state the obvious here: despite all our gripes, these OSes have matured. If we're going to hold these problems against them, I think they have to demonstrably *current* issues.

  • http://chollyhoss.com/doot/ pete

    I'm with you on this Peter. MS has made some big gains in stability. But it isn't like I don't deal with PCs on a daily basis. I still maintain my wife's XP machine (Thinkpad), a small group of XP Pro SP3 machines at my job, and a few laptops used by folks who work in the field (off site). Sure, My last PC DAW was 5 years ago, but I still keep up on the PC platform. I can thin of plenty of things that Apple can do better. But my impetus to switch was the massive amount of maintenance that my MS workstations needed to perform at top speed. My Apple boxes have been a lot less hassle and they perform very well. I think that the MHZ argument of old still holds. The same CPU has more power available to the user under OS X than under Windows.

    I don't use Vista, and would like to have a chance to at some point, but it still seems like folks are downgrading from it with old copies of XP/2000 or with OEM setups. I haven't seen a lot of Vista penetration in the workplace. If it is a stable and well supported OS for A/V work, I'll take your word for it.

    Now… where is my Amiga?

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

    Oh, yeah, I believe you, I'm just wonder, specifically: what's the source of this "massive amount of maintenance?" I'm just finding with the right setup I'm not actually doing that … at least not beyond other platforms. The things you mention to me aren't really issues right now, though they have been nastier in the past.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say Vista is a major improvement for A/V work. We haven't really seen huge performance dividends from any of the changes. I would say it's reasonably well supported at this point. That's a huge change from where it was even a year ago.

    Yeah, here here on Amiga … and Be, and Atari and a whole bunch of boxes that focused more effectively on multimedia. (Amazing, this thing called "progress.")

  • http://chollyhoss.com/doot/ pete

    Like I said in my first post, I was doing a lot of work keeping malware at bay, drives healthy, drivers playing nice, registry healthy… I have not been in a position to run DAWs on both platforms the whole time. I literally kept a spreadsheet where I tallied up the time I spent doing cleanup and maint tasks, and it was too much time. Maybe 5-10% of my total use. I do a lot of pre-emptive data backup and archiving no matter what platform I'm on, but this seemed to be a case of MS laying their shortcomings off on the user. When I switched it was the 95 to XP transition, and neither was a low maintenance proposition. I'm also not arguing that the stability gap isn't as wide as it once was, but I have 5 years of very smooth sailing on OS X behind me, not 5 years of watching MS platforms get incrementally more stable and secure. MS lost me as a user for my music and video work. They would have to really show me something to get me to think about going back. So far they haven't. I'll still put the out of the box performance and software bundle that comes on a MBP up against the $1200 WinTel laptops that everybody points to as being proof that Apple is overpriced. Similar example: I dealt with HP back in the 80's, and they were the most expensive game in town. I heard a lot of "overpriced" talk back then too. My HP41CV still kicks out the RPN after 27 years. I love that ultra low TCO.

  • http://www.ghmetcalfe.com Graham Metcalfe

    I would say that there are fundamental differences in reliability between brands. Very inexpensive laptops, although sporting many of the same connections and overall internal architecture may be similar between PC brands and Macs, but the really inexpensive laptops will often use substandard (at least to those of us who like a maintenance free system) components.

    Although certain subsystems are sourced (CPU chipset, firewire interface, etc), there are many components such as capacitors (specifically) that can have a high failure rate. I have seen this borne out in a serial failure of Dell systems once they reached a certain age (about 1 1/2 – 2 years) from capacitor failure. This was company-wide, and the behavior was exhibited in a large majority of like-aged systems.

    So when people say "Macs are more reliable" it is probably due, in part, to using better components at all levels throughout the physical system. I would imagine that systems by Rain and other more "premium" systems would share this attribute.

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

    Well said, Graham. Of course, the problem is, there's usually no way to know other than to buy the thing and wait (and even then, luck is a factor). And from my experience, price alone — except at the extremes — tells you almost nothing. So, you have to look at other experiences, ideally the stats folks like Consumer Reports have up.

  • aaron

    Apple vs PC arguments aside (I own both, screw the fanboys), to begin the article making an assumption that there is more hardware available for Apple than there is for PC is a total and obvious epic fail and a transparent asskiss to your favorite brand. Branding is for chumps… unless you get paid.

  • Curtis

    @ Marc-

    Actually, check out eRacks. They make Desktop and Laptop DAWS specifically formatted for Linux, and equipped with a variety of software.

    I've been wanting a Linux based music setup myself, and I ran across their website.