The laptop is such an obvious part of music making today, it’s almost easy to understate its importance. But here’s the bottom line: for many musicians, it’s the most important gadget they’ll haul around with them. The glowing Apple logo may be the butt of some jokes, but it’s there for a reason. It’s tough to beat the versatility of a laptop for music making – and it’s tough to beat Apple on value.
No, I really said that. On paper, Apple’s machines are pricey. But while OS X, like any OS, is a complex beast and far from perfect, it’s still in my experience the easiest to maintain for music making. (And I’ve spent a lot of time with Linux and Windows, too, and I know many developers working cross-platform who tend to agree.) And so you buy this hardware to run that OS. Now, that said, Apple’s value equation isn’t so hot when it comes to desktops. The Mac Pro bests machines configured similarly, but Apple doesn’t have desktop offerings across the whole range of what you can build in a full-sized enclosure on the PC. (Let’s leave iMacs out of it for the moment.) I think there’s a reason some have turned to “Hackintosh” solutions when it comes to desktop builds.
But when it comes to the slim, battery-conscious confines of the laptop, it’s another story. What Apple gives you for that premium price is excellent support for high-speed devices (FireWire and Thunderbolt), a ridiculously fast SSD, great-feeling, thin hardware, long battery life, and a ridiculously nice display.
I’ll admit, when it came time to replace a MacBook Pro, I gulped a bit at pricing – especially here in Europe, where we pay both an import premium and added tax. MacBooks’ internal storage is especially pricey; sure, you can use external drives, but you don’t want to run out of internal space.
After a few weeks with a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro, I’ve changed my mind. The SSDs from Apple are so expensive partly because they’re high-end spec drives. Macworld’s benchmarks have consistently shown that (and likewise showed when Apple skimped on the MacBook Air); you can even read those benchmarks alongside PC World benchmarks and determine that, Mac or PC, you want a fast drive. Fortunately, this isn’t just a benchmark thing – the difference in real-world usage is astounding. Apps are responsive. Sample-heavy music apps (including clips, as in Ableton Live) purr. Multitrack audio is never an issue. The machine boots faster, loads software faster.
Recent CPU changes make a huge difference, too. Forget what people have told you about the end of the CPU: just a difference of a couple of years in Apple models has an enormous impact on CPU load using modern synths and other processor-intensive music tools.
Performance makes a difference in creativity. It means not having to worry about running out of horsepower, not losing the flow as you wait for your machine to start up or your music tool to load or a plug-in to start responding.
And then there’s the display. It’s been over a decade since I used a 13″ display in day-to-day work, and the Retina Display on the 13″ MacBook Pro makes it all possible. Unfortunately, most music apps haven’t caught up yet: Ableton Live and most of my plug-ins actually look blurry, and it took some time before I could actually feel comfortable using them. But they’ll get there soon, partly because all these new Retina machines (and similar PCs) are making their way onto the desks of developers, who are just as appalled at what they see as you are.
Battery life and mobility matters, too. Carrying a MacBook Pro around is now as easy as bringing an iPad – you get the same forget-about-it battery life and thinness and lightness that’s reminiscent of a tablet. (The MacBook Air would be even better, but it’s not as good a buy, because of an inferior display, one fewer USB port, and a slower CPU, at roughly the same price. Just get the Pro; you won’t regret it.)
I’m not going to say here get a Mac and not a PC, only that if you have been on OS X, there’s reason to feel comfortable about the price. A MacBook Pro is still a great machine to run Windows (though spend extra to make space on your internal drive to dual boot). The PC laptops wading into the same territory tend to cost the same or, most often, slightly more, if you want extended battery performance and a great display. One exception is if you want a powerful GPU; there, Apple’s premium is fairly painful, and there are fewer options. But that’s a niche application even for people doing live visuals; you have to have really intensive 3D needs (or an addiction to gaming, which doesn’t matter much at CDM) to want that GPU.
Why does this week’s “speed bump” refresh matter? Well, I was already set to recommend the 13″ Retina Pro machine as the best bang for your buck. But I was going to have to point out that you absolutely wanted 8GB RAM and not 4GB, and the bigger SSD. Now, Apple’s made that job a little easier. New this week:
1. If you’re on a budget, and mostly use your laptop with an external display attached, the non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro is just US$1099. It still has 4GB of RAM (ugh), but you could spend all the money on the upgrade.
2. The Retina 13″ machines all have marginally faster processors and come standard with 8GB of RAM. You should still have a look at refurbished computers or open box units of the most recent generation – that’s how I managed to afford my machine. But otherwise, US$1499 gets you the 256GB internal drive I’d consider a minimum, and represents the best price.
3. If you do have a little extra to spend, you can now get a quad-core i7 and up to 16GB of RAM in the 15″ models.
In my studio, I’ve opted for the 13″. Even without 16GB of RAM or an i7, it’s plenty fast – I’ve been editing HD videos in Final Cut on it with no issue, and it’s tough to max out the processor with music apps. But at least the 15″ does also give you some power for your added cash investment. And with both, refurbished models can get you a bargain.
Also, Thunderbolt is a revelation. Well, it’s first a painful revelation when you realize how much cables will cost you. (Fortunately, your existing video adapters from the previous generations of Mac will plug right into the same port; the connector is the same.)
But then, you use something like Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin, and you have a compact, rock-solid audio box that can add DSP with zero latency and stream audio from the computer with low latency. Or you try out one of the excellent new video capture tools for this bus. (This is really a topic for another article, so I don’t mean to gloss over the potential of USB and FireWire for similar applications. But in the meantime, there are certainly plenty of uses for this connection. And I will say this: even if Thunderbolt performs exactly the same as USB does, you don’t have a dedicated USB bus for each USB device. Just being able to move to that separate bus is already an advantage.)
Yes, you’ll need to buy a USB hub. But all in all, these are great machines.
On the PC side, honestly, I’m less sure of what to recommend than I was fairly recently – I haven’t been as impressed with Lenovo as I once was, for instance. I’d be curious to know what you’re using. But even for Windows, if we’re talking a laptop (key word, not desktop), I think the Mac is an easy box to recommend, and you have the option of running another OS if you need.
Now, there’s just one problem: we need a better way of masking out that Apple logo so it doesn’t distract when we play. Until then, I’m sticking with the 13″ MBP and a roll of gaffer tape. Done.
I realize I’ve opened a potential platform war on a weekend, but I am curious what people think. I’ll stay out of it; I’m reasonably confident in my experience with different platforms. Do have at it.