Let’s cut straight through the marketing-speak on the Intel’s new notebook platform. As usual, Intel is likely to give its new platform a confusing name that sounds like a pharmaceutical product (Centrino?), and will make weirdly vague feature claims, like the new platform will be “better at running music.” (If they meant running Cakewalk SONAR 5, that’d make sense, but they mean running Windows Media Player, so it doesn’t.)

Here’s my quick take on what this whole thing really means for laptop music production . . .

Centrino is Cool: First, now that we don’t have to worry about igniting a platform flame war, let’s be clear: Centrino, the processing platform, is very cool. Part of what gave Apple PC envy was the low-power, high-performance CPUs in Windows PCs. Try running Ableton Live on even a cheap PC laptop, Mac users, and you’ll see what I mean. Now, before you get cocky, Windows lovers, PCs have their own share of problems, like an often-lousy OS, weirdly non-standard OS installs (XP Pro can’t recognize half the hardware on my Toshiba without third-party drivers), and PC vendors who cut corners on graphics cards and other features. Oh, yeah, I wasn’t going to start a platform war. Anyway, there’s plenty of reason to want to run an Intel laptop from Apple instead of a PC, and both platforms should be happy to see the processor playing field level.

Expect Macs as Well as PCs: This is a no-brainer. Apple said last summer that they switched to Intel in large part because of a lack of a fast PowerBook chip. Now, a new Intel platform is slated to come out at the same time that Apple promised to ship Intel-based PowerBooks. Still think it’s a coincidence? Listen to the experts. (Hey, I’m an audio guy, not an oracle of platform architecture, but even I find this one easy.)

More Power, Less Power Consumption: This one’s easy. The new notebooks will run faster, but use less power, and take up less space. Simple, but critical: laptop designs have stringent heat and power requirements, unless you want a 14-pound laptop that gives you third-degree burns and boasts a 10-minute battery life.

Dual Core: Yep, these are the infamous dual core laptops CDM predicted would hit the Mac platform first. Oops. (That’s okay, apparently Apple made the same incorrect prediction.) Now, with both Mac and PC platforms getting Intel access, everyone’s happy — and your music apps will run much, much faster, since processor-intensive real-time audio should benefit greatly from dual core.

No need to wait: Now I’m going to go out on a limb. Mac and PC users alike have plenty of reasons to want to wait to upgrade: Mac users are waiting for Intel Mac laptops, and PC users are concerned about higher computing requirements for Windows Vista, the upcoming OS upgrade. And, frankly, if you’re happy with your current machine, waiting could be a smart move. But if you’re trudging along on a slow, ancient machine, current Macs and PCs could still be a good buy. Early intel (no pun intended) on Windows Vista suggests that current machines will run fine, provided you turn off some of the UI’s eye candy (which you should really do anyway), and have enough RAM (which you should absolutely have anyway — think 1-2GB for music). Mac users, meanwhile, will have to upgrade their software to run on the Intel machines. I have a current-generation PowerBook and love it. So get what you need now.

All in all, I can’t wait for the new platform to arrive. I think I will try to save up for a new PC laptop, though I expect my current Power Mac G5 and PowerBook G4 to do fine for the time being. But with higher performance, lower power, and smaller size, I think we can expect to see not only great new laptops for music production, but interesting embedded processors in keyboards and music hardware, too.

Bottom line: live musical computer performance will take another big leap forward. And that’s good news indeed. Even if Intel gives it another dumb name.

  • Strauzzie

    At the moment, users with Dual-Core CPUs won't see much of an improvement over an equivalent single-core chip. From the mouth of Robert Henke (of Monolake, and Ableton of course)… "Currently the audio engine is one single thread, and can only run on one processor. But if you have a dual CPU machine, everything appart from the pure audio stuff runs on the other CPU, and this means you can max out one CPU for audio without slowing down the interface. This is a significant performance boost. As far as true multi threading is concerned I am quite sure some day you will see a Live version which runs on 10 CPUs if desired and available. ( No, this is not an official statement, this is just a prediction of what every software company which is doing CPU intensive realtime processing will have to do in the future since this is where computer architechture is heading to )"


  • rolandreinke

    Cheers for the info Strauzzie

  • admin

    System overhead is still an issue, though not a major one; it sounds to me as though we'll need multithreaded audio apps to take advantage of the new machines. (Though, remember, Mac users are coming from the G4 chip — the dual-core issue may not be huge, but I bet we'll still see a performance boost.)

    Guess my new research questions are:
    – how multithreaded will the Mac's Core Audio and Vista's new audio engine be?
    – what about individual apps?

    Hmm, seeing as I'm at NAMM next month, maybe I can corner some programmers on this one. 😉


  • carmen

    what about individual apps?

    you got it..linux already benefits from this architecture, while JACK itself only runs on one Core, its not actually doing much other than waking up other programs every ms or two and telling them to process. these programs (sometimes as small as a basic synth or filter) can then be running distributed across processors (or increasingly, machines).

    thats not to say the commercial houses won't use dual-core power to improve their apps. it's just harder when everything ( VST/AU plugins ) are all dlloaded into a single process/thread. Cakewalk will proably be the first to come up with something since they were the first for 64bit (and even supporting 32bit plugins), maybe intelligently load-balancing the processing between two threads or processes then using shared memory (as JACK does) to combine the two