Tim Hanlon of gizmag.com recently got an IdeaPad S10 – Lenovo’s lovely, $400 “netbook” – to test. He didn’t just do the usual benchmarks, though. His review also included the unlikely choice of Ableton Live and, thanks to a free ExpressCard slot, a MOTU Traveler FireWire interface.
The inclusion of an ExpressCard/34 slot opens the IdeaPad up to a range of high-bandwidth applications. The most relevant for me as a musician was the possibility of using one on stage alongside a professional audio interface. Taking your expensive (and for some, irreplaceable) main rig out on tour and having to constantly keep an eye out for people putting their beer down on the stage next to it is a stressful affair, and the thought of using a relatively cheap, incredibly portable, and ultimately replaceable machine instead was always incredibly attractive – and I’m very glad to say, now possible.
We used a Silicon Memory ExpressCard/34 adapter that added an additional USB 2.0 port and two FireWire 400 ports, although any adapter based on a Texas Instruments FireWire chipset should work with a vast majority with audio interfaces. Windows XP Home recognized the adapter and installed the drivers automatically without needing a driver CD, and we quickly had the MOTU Traveler interface up and running.
My current Ableton Live set sat at a perfectly manageable 15% CPU usage for a majority of the time, however you will need to watch the CPU intensive plugs. One particularly long reverb tail using Ableton’s built-in reverb used up 25% of the CPU on its own.
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One major catch, before you get too excited: Tim has the same problem I have universally with these ExpressCards. They just stick our awkwardly. They’re even worse on the full-sized slots on bigger laptops. Chancing an audio interface popping out while playing pretty much kill the appeal for me, especially when there are plenty of workable USB2 audio interfaces out there (including from MOTU). MacBook, you’re not off the hook yet, because this just means I want more USB slots, but I digress.
The bigger message here to me: software developers ought to pick up a couple of these machines and think about what will run on them. With zillions of these netbooks now shipping, why not? They’re not going to replace even standard laptops, but it’s an opportunity to sell more software by targeting these boxes, or even testing lighter-weight software on them. (Imagine notation or quick drum machines.) I don’t really miss the days when we ran Ableton Live on 400MHz G3s, but, well, we did.
And Tim has a point: next time you’re playing a frightening club with chicken wire and angry drunks, here’s your machine! Actually, that S10 is cute. Maybe just bring a tarp and some tazers.