Fire Your Workstation, Hire a Laptop!
Dear Squeak and Blat,
I'm thinking about investing in a new laptop computer. Are laptops as good as a workstation for music computing?
Absolutely! Just so long as you are comfortable with the keyboard typing. I've given up my hunker of a workstation for my Dell laptop. I have a docking station at home and at work and I take my laptop with me where ever I go. Right now I drinking a nice hot cup of dark roast coffee while waiting for my breakfast at the local campus coffee house and typing this response on my laptop.
I do everything on my laptop: word processing, net browsing and email, multimedia development, digital audio editing, CD-ROM toasting (I especially like CD-ROM somores while using my laptop around the camp file with graham crackers and chocolate bars), Photoshop and Illustrator graphics editing, just about everything. I can take my laptop right into our computer lab and plug it in for teaching. All the software I want to demo is all set and I know it works beforehand because it's my computer and not a community teaching station.
The keyboard is quite comfortable for me and the large, flat screen is much easier on my aging eyes than CRT screens. I have the resolution set at 1024x768 with a large font set. This gives me lots of desktop space to work with. Digital audio capture works fine. Just make sure that your computer can handle full duplex operations. That is to say, it can input digital audio and video at the same time it is playing them back. My Dell has no problem with this. I have two inexpensive video attachments, a Nogatech USB camera that lets me do some video conferencing right from my laptop and the Nogatech USB video digitizer that lets me do simple video capture from a VCR. Both are under $150.
Now my road-warrior goal was to be able to take all my computing needs with me on the road so I have a cool Kensington computer backpack that is nicely padded for my computer and accessories. In my bag I also have a Canon infrared portable BJC-50 printer (that weighs in just over 1 lb), a neat Yamaha QY-70 keyboard MIDI synth (about the size of chimichanga), and a slim Zip drive that is little bigger than a Zip disk. About the only drag is those darn power adapters! If we could just get rid of those.
Now I'm not a heavy Finale user, but I have nothing I couldn't do comfortably on my laptop, music or otherwise
Let's see what Blat thinks!
Actually, maybe better. Laptops these days are nearly as powerful as your desktop machine. Heat problems with the very fastest microprocessor chips keep laptops a little below the very fastest of machines, but this is not a significant factor for musicians on the go. For straight MIDI work, laptops are a joy. MIDI interfaces work fine. You might need to tell your laptop to not use the modem port for the modem when you are using MIDI equipment, but this is a minor inconvenience.
There are a few gotchas:
Extensive work with music notation might be hindered by the size of screen, but even today's more recent machines are approaching 14" sizes which is fine for most work. Active-matrix screen technology is a must for notation work and thankfully the price on this kind of display is dropping monthly.
Higher-end sound sampling is really not possible on portable machines. If you are planning to record a large amount of live music, portable computers are really not a good choice right now. However, recording of simple clips is quite possible with the built-in microphone on most machines. By the same token, you cannot do too much serious work with digital video capture as well. There are a few PCMIA digital video capture cards for both Wintel and Mac, but portable machines are not really a good choice for doing this.
Finally, transferring digital data from your CD drive under certain circumstance to your hard drive might present a few problems. Squeak knows about this.
Other than these issues, music work with a laptop is really very possible. This is true for so many other computer uses in addition to music that both Squeak and I have moved almost exclusively to laptop machines for our home systems. We are rapidly approaching the time when portable machines are a great alternative for school labs where space is at a premium and security is not a major problem.
For a good description to what is available today, check out the online stores for Apple and Dell computers.
Peter R. Webster (a.k.a “Blat”) and David Brian Williams (a.k.a. “Squeak”) have presented workshops and other presentations together for CMS/ATMI conferences and workshops for more than 20 years. Their collaboration has led to publications and presentations internationally on music technology as well as the co-authorship of the textbook Experiencing Music Technology (Cengage Learning/Schirmer Books, 3rd edition Update, 2009), a widely adopted and highly acclaimed music technology textbook for high school and college students. Dr. Webster is emeritus professor of music education at Northwestern University and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California; Dr. Williams is emeritus professor of music and arts technology at Illinois State University, a freelance consultant, composer and musician, and immediate past president of The College Music Society.