Rain Recording make audio-ready notebooks – that is, they’re pre-tested to function well with audio software, with Windows tweaks, driver selection, and configuration all chosen and tested for music and visual production, and no crapware installed. They’re one of a handful of music-friendly vendors that does that (see also: PCAudioLabs, etc.). Given that the PC music making experience can range from awesome to awful depending on which hardware and (particularly) drivers you’re on, that’s no small matter.

Rain has always styled themselves a premium brand. But the latest Diablo really does go to extremes spec-wise. It’ll cost you – base price starts at US$4000, though that’s not as high-end as these sort of desktop specs commanded more recently. Intel and AMD/ATI really are economizing, even at the high end. But cost aside, this machine really maxes out components. You have to admire the results:

  • Quad CPUs: up to 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Quad 12MB/1066 MHz “Montevina” Centrino 2 — the most powerful brain you can put in a laptop right now
  • Up to 8 GB DDR3 RAM (and if you boot a 64-bit operating system like Vista x64 or – cough – Linux, you can use all of it)
  • ATI Radeon MR HD3870/512M DDR3 RAM — just about the most powerful GPU (and some people do prefer ATI to NVIDIA), giving you up to two discrete GPUs
  • 17″ display at 1920×1200
  • Optional dual 320GB 7200RPM SATA drives with 16MB cache
  • 1x eSATA, 3X USB2, 3xFireWire (yeah, you read that right – one onboard FireWire, plus two more using a bundled, TI chipset PCI ExpressCard that pops into that slot, also standard on the lower-cost LiveBook)
  • 1 x HDMI, 1 x VGA, card reader, headphone out, mic in, gigabit RJ45 Ethernet, fingerprint scanner

The key specs, of course, are the quad CPU, that ATI GPU, and the maxed-out-res 17″ display. Given those specs, the weight actually isn’t all that bad – 8 lbs. with the 12-cell battery (which you’re going to want, as this machine is likely to suck up electricity in a hurry).

You can put audio on a dedicated chipset (the TI, which isn’t currently available from Apple). You can run two drives in RAID-0, or opt for solid-state drives (which have been improving in performance and value at a pretty impressive rate). And the ATI chipset means this is a pretty powerful visualist / visual production workstation – that also happens to be faster than a lot of high-end gaming laptops, for your off-hour enjoyment..

This is usually the point where someone says, “but do I need all that power to –”

No. You don’t. This is a bit like buying a souped-up supercar — and likely to be about as fuel-efficient. You might “need” this if you want to play Crysis between Pro Tools sessions. (I’ll let you bend the definition of “need” there.) That’s not to say you won’t get a lot of performance out of this, though, and it’s nice to know you have this option if you want it. The GPU only really impacts visuals at the moment, but with the push to do more processing on the GPU, that could change soon even for audio.

Actually, maybe the reason Rain keeps misspelling the GPU as “discreet” is that you can “discreetly” buy one of these and hope your significant other / the IRS / your conscience doesn’t notice you just bought a killer gaming rig as your (ahem) pro audio machine.

For mere mortals, I like the $1999-base-price LiveBook from Rain. It actually gives you a fair amount of this performance, all of the same I/O specs, and compares favorably on specs against Apple’s rival (including offering some serious FireWire and expansion the Apple lacks). And, incidentally, it isn’t a bad gaming machine, either, in case you want to join some of the CDMers the next time they fire up Left 4 Dead.

I do find all of this interesting, though, on two points. One, if any had doubts that you could buy a pre-configured PC and know that it’ll work reliably on audio tasks, Rain ought to put those doubts to rest. I’ve tested the previous Diablo and LiveBook, and out of the box they were ideal audio machines – no tweaks required. It’s absolutely possible to build or buy a mainstream PC that does that, but the luxury of knowing someone at the other end has actually tried running Ableton Live and SONAR sure is nice. (Heck, that’s not necessarily true of Apple – as people found out the hard way during some buggy early releases of Leopard, happily since fixed.)

This also demonstrates that said PC vendors don’t have to fall behind the “enthusiast” custom builders who cater to gamers – if you want to push the envelope on your laptop for audio and visuals and not just games, you can do that, too.

I certainly know not everyone can — or should — spend $4 grand and up on this particular machine. But just like that supercar, it’s sort of nice to know it’s there. And hopefully it can start to serve as a wake-up all that there are communities pushing their PC to the bleeding edge who aren’t primarily gamers.

Diablo Product Page [Rain Recording]

Diablos don’t hang around long, but I do hope to get my hands on a current-generation Rain soon; stay tuned.

  • Ish

    really unnecessary

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

    Well, wait a minute — I mean ridiculous in a good way.

    Consider: The performance specs on the quad core really are impressive. Loading more RAM means the ability to load more samples. Hard disk performance can otherwise be a huge bottleneck on laptops. The higher-end graphics cards are a huge leap in terms of processing capabilities.

    $4000 and this machine can replace a lot of other outboard gear. Properly tuned, it might stay in service for a long, long time to come. (I keep old machines around here running away.)

    But yeah, if $4000 seems too much, history demonstrates that power / heat / space improvements should mean similar architectures will be at a lower price point down the road.

    Peter

  • http://www.keyofgrey.com Sean

    Wow, that's a pretty nice laptop. I especially like the extra FW ports. Is it just me, or does the picture have a weird texture. Looks like it's heat damaged…but it's probably just the photo compression.

  • http://www.rolandreinke.com Roland Reinke

    I didn't know laptops had HDMI outs… but no Blu-Ray? Does that make sense?

  • Chris

    Hey, it's the internet, so I… probably don't need to be one of a legion of dorks to itemize all the flaws in these companies' pricing. So, that's pretty much all. Actually, you may have opened my eyes to a new business opportunity, so I certainly don't wish to get snarky. Those Windows tweaks had better be legendary. How can they sell "audio" PCs without discreet sound cards!? Quality ins & outs are a lot more valuable than 10 or 20% CPU improvements.

  • Alex

    a laptop with 17" monitor !! This isn't a laptop…its a desktop in disguise! Not even a graphic designer wouldn't get a 17" laptop…its not convenient and portable any more! Its huge and useless IMO. Maybe some people would like to buy one, but it WON'T last that long…the technology it uses will be outdated in 2-3 years and at half the price someone will be able to get a more powerful machine…quad core cpus aren't fully applicable yet for Windows and Windows applications…most of them won't take advantage of the 4 cores. So, 4000 for 2-3 years…sorry, it is just a waste of money.

  • CV!

    @ Alex,

    I can tell you graphic designers DO get 17" screens, from my experience.

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

    @Sean: I think it has a gloss finish which is just showing up oddly in this photo post-compression, yep.

    @Roland: HDMI + VGA is pretty standard on PC laptops now (though I'd rather see HDMI + DisplayPort, because HDMI doesn't always output all the way to 1920×1200, and DP can go to VGA or DVI or dual-link.)

    @Chris: Well, obviously the reason is because they assume you'll grab your own audio interface. Anyway, I still say, look at the $1999 dual-core model, which isn't in the stratosphere on pricing.

    @Alex: I've carried around a 17" laptop at one time or another; at 8 lbs, this is still portable. But again, look at the 15" model… and yeah, I personally find 15" about right.

    This is for a very specific audience. I think the sweet spot is absolutely dual-core, solid discrete GPU, 15" screen (big enough but not too big), plenty of I/O. That's the non-Diablo LiveBook, and of course many other models from other vendors worth considering.

    But for the record, "discrete" is not spelled "discreet" in this context. ;)

  • http://www.otownmedia.com Richard Lainhart

    I wonder how loud the fans get on this thing….

  • Toby

    I will be forever scared of using a laptop live…last time I did that, the power supply jack died on me…which was quite a hopeless situation to be in…

  • http://www.hakimcallier.wordpress.com/ Hakim Callier

    Hey Peter,

    This machine look kind bulky, I didn't read anything about the weight. I like the thin-ness of my Macbook. I think anything heavier than a Macbook loses my vote.

    -Hakim

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

    Hakim – heavier than the 13" MacBook, or the 15" MacBook Pro?

    @Toby (and maybe on what Hakim's saying) … you know, these days I find ways to play with two laptops. If one is doing visuals, then ideally I have a backup sound source and a mixer. I hear you, totally. (sadly, there's NOT an easy way to have a backup visual source unless you're willing to tote a video mixer and mix out to S-Vid/composite … or you can run a DVI/VGA switcher and have two machines there, which I've done)

    Another nice option: the Linux-powered MUSE Receptor, which sits in a rack.

    Of course, laptops aren't the only gear to break. Redundancy is always the answer.

  • http://andrew.hicox.com plurgid

    @Alex OMG man, are you kidding?

    I think in spite of the name "laptop" that this wasn't intended literally to be used on your lap.

    It's a portable workstation for taking out to gigs or to practices, and holy hell is it nice.

    Now if I could only run OS X on it (without resorting to semi-legal hackery) we'd really have something.

    I have one of the new 15' MacBook Pros, and immediately I maxed out the CPU in Logic. Hell YES I want 4 cores (or more) in my laptop, and I don't give a damn if the battery only lasts 15 minutes, 'cause really I'm not using the battery that much anyhow (nice to have the backup if someone trips a power cord during a performance though)

    It's good to see someone realizing a laptop "not for use on your lap" type of machine.

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

    @plurgid: Just out of curiosity, what were you doing that maxed out the CPU on the MBP?

    (one reason I ask is that I'd love to find better real-world models for benchmarking audio!)

  • http://andrew.hicox.com plurgid

    @peter

    I had about 6 tracks of sculpture instruments. I think 4 of them were running through Amp sims. I had three aux channels each with it's own instance of delay designer and space designer. I also had some real instruments in, a guitar with a few effects on it, and one with no effects coming in of my microkorg.

    This ran on my Mac Pro just fine, but there's a bit more horsepower there.

    RAM & Hard Drive speed may have had something to do with it. I only had 2G installed at the time, and the drive is a bit slower on the laptop. My guess is that it needed more RAM and things got horked waiting to swap memory out onto the hard drive.

    After upgrading to 4G it runs w/out glitching up, but it does keep the cpu meter in the red.

    I really miss my 4 cores from my desktop. Of course, I could you know … bring myself to freeze a track or two … there are ways of dealing with it.

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

    Ha, yes, well, Sculpture will do that. That proves the point I was trying to make in this article, though — how many more Sculptures would there be in the world if quads were more common? What about if the GPU got in on the act? (real-time audio processing on the GPU is an issue at the moment, but that may not always be the case)

    And in the meantime, there are certainly uses for this additional power. I'm not sure you get a dollar-for-dollar increase in performance from, say, the $2000+ Rain to the $4000+, because of the nature of pricing as you add more high-end components. But that's not to say this won't make sense for someone — and it's nice to have choices.

  • Andrew

    A couple of months ago I would have scoffed at this, but having recently bought an HP tablet only to find it horrible for audio, I'm now seriously considering a laptop specifically designed for audio. What would really be great is a site that reviews consumer PC hardware with the musician in mind. Specifically it would be good to know what laptops work well with USB audio (this seems very hit or miss–my Dell from 2005 was much more reliable than my new HP).

  • Damon

    "Powerful Enough to Be Kind of Ridiculous" LOL!

  • Steve

    Buy a Mac.

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

    See, you know your site is healthy and growing, that traffic is expanding nicely, that readership and interaction are reaching a special level, when you get ridiculously stupid comments like Steve's there.

    It's a connection to a greater continuum of history. It could be 1994 right now. It could be any age. Sadly, the kneejerk PC response has largely expired, a victim of Vista and the addition of a UNIX command line, but the meaningless Mac comment lives on.

  • dan26

    Glad not too much macboy fanism being flung here (minus Steve's post). Its not just the fact that it is a Quad core that would make this baby impressive, a 12MB cache and a FSB of 1066 MHz, is desktop level, and to pack it into something you can carry around with you is amazing.

    While my gamer side still stays away from ATI (since most games aren't natively optimized for them these days) the new ATI cards are extreamly impressive, and this unit has the top card.

    The price tag isn't too bad for the "latest and greatist" which (to not deviate to far from topic) is what kills me on the new MBP, most of the features it comes with are already dated (Mid-grade asus computers for half the price has the same hardware), and for me, paying double for a computer that is half a year out of date when you buy it just isn't worth it.

    The bottom line is though, does it play W0W?

  • http://syncretism.net Niall

    These look pretty swell. I'd like to run Mac Oh-Sex on one, theoretically.

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon

    I want to hear more about that $200 Linux laptop touted in the NYTimes last Sunday! ( I am too lazy to find your link for NYT article. ) So, what about audio capabilities on that web machine? (And sorry to hear about the deth of kapitalizm! oops, sorry, topic drift)

    And, also, I for one welcome our new Vista overlords. User-friendliness, elegance, design, Unix core, lack of virus vulnerability and money saved on service are all so effing overrated. I want to sweat blood and labour like MIlton or Beethoven on anything dealing with computers!

    Just glad the PC/Mac holy wars are over!

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

    Um, SkyRon, just for the record, this machine should run Linux quite nicely. ;)

    How will the $200 laptop run audio? Very, very badly.

    If you really want a cheap machine, reuse and recycle. I've seen some really incredible machines down at J&R that are just a few years old. But if you're buying new, I'd go up to a full laptop over a netbook unless I was planning to mainly do MIDI sequencing of other hardware (for that, a little netbook would be great).

  • Jobs

    If you're serious with your music, you get Mac.

  • pat

    And get smoked by this laptop.

  • http://www.3amnoise.net/runagate runagate

    I am peering greedily at an overclocked i7 920 and thinking, "Will this damned thing finally be powerful enough for the realtime automated physical modeling synthesis and chains of controller-expressed effects I compose with?" I doubt it. I'm always amused at the people who think processors are too powerful. There's no way I'd pay 2 grand for a laptop when a tower is a small thing to lug to a stage when you think of what poor drummers go through.

    Plus, to get decent latency throughput (live input mics and such through effects and back out to sound) you have to play at a high sample rate, thus taxing your processor more. I find it quite hard to believe I'm the only impecunious person that would dearly love more processor power than is currently economically reasonable. Computer musicians are exactly the people who want it all "in the box" and not have to deal with any external gear (except control surface or midi instruments).

  • ian

    looks awesome – but why no dedicated audio? i understand it's probably easier and cheaper in the long run to get an external interface… but for a truly dedicated audio powerhouse machine, i would expect there to be at least some decent onboard audio going on (onboard audio/video is killing me on my laptop but it was a cheap fix when my desktop died, before i could start building another desktop).