A LiveBook on the test bench at Rain Headquarters, photographed for CDM.

One of the things that attracts me to computers: choice. So it’s worth noting that you do have choices when looking to laptops, PCs included. (This sounds like those lame “We know you have a choice in your travel plans” announcements you get on airplanes. Unlike those choices, though, these are genuinely different – thankfully.)

So let’s cut straight to the chase: there is a choice between Mac and PC, and there are choices on PC that keep it competitive (to say nothing of Linux). If you’re looking for a rig that runs PC-only tools like FL Studio, and you want more hardware choice to get there without being locked into a Mac, Boot Camp, and an extra Windows license, you have options.

Rain Recording has just introduced a revised pro laptop offering. You may have seen the announcement around, but I did get to talk to them while they were developing this, so I want to offer my own, semi-biased reflections. Rain is a custom system builder focused on music and audio applications. They and a handful of vendors like them do test their configurations with actual audio software, which isn’t generally the case with bigger PC laptop makers. And they offer music and audio-specific support, beyond even what Apple can offer.

Now, that said, I have to say I haven’t actually been that blown away by what custom builders have been able to do in the laptop space. The problem is, builders don’t have the kinds of options with laptops that they do with desktops; traditionally, you’ve needed huge manufacturing scale to get many choices. Even a lot of big brands get someone else to make their machines, so custom builders really face an uphill battle with limited barebones systems. Rain and others have put together some interesting systems, but at a price premium and generally lagging some of the hardware options on the mainstream laptops. For that reason, many PC users have chosen to stick it out with “commodity” machines and try to navigate to the ones that do music well.

The current LiveBook, though, is the first that I think really makes a custom builder competitive – and it’s the first I’ve started to covet for my own desk. It’s pricier than some mass-market machines out there, but it is competitive, and with far more of a guarantee for audio performance and reliability.

  • Processors are now available up to 3.06GHz on the Centrino 2 “Montevina” – so it’s about as current as you can get architecturally
  • Prices start at US$1999 – and that’s already a pretty fully-loaded machine
  • The body is all-aluminum and offers a laser-etched case
  • The GPU is no slouch: NVIDIA 9600M GT 512M standard, with a healthy 1680×1050 resolution on the 15.4” monitor (which I think is about perfect – any higher is hard to see, any lower cuts down on real estate)
  • Lots of ports: three FireWire 400 ports (with the standard ExpressCard plugged in), one eSATA, a card reader, HDMI and VGA out, and two USB 2.0 ports
  • Fast, audio-ready drives: up to 320GB 7200RPM (there’s also now a solid-state option, but I prefer conventional hard drives for their price/performance/capacity ratio)

This issue of specs has already started a debate, even among Mac users. And that’s the world we live in: PC buyers are considering Macs, and at least a handful of Mac users are seriously considering PCs. (At the very least, it’s not uncommon to find people with both.)

From the angry thread about FireWire missing in the (non-Pro) MacBooks, one MacRumors reader points to this very Rain LiveBook. Here’s what I’d put in the pros column:

  • eSATA is very useful for high-speed storage (you could add it to the MacBook Pro, admittedly)
  • The Rain has a TI chipset for its ExpressCard-provided FireWire, which has been more stable for audio performance – even on Mac OS
  • Rain has up to 8 GB RAM, and with 64-bit Windows you can use it
  • Blu-ray is an option
  • You get a dedicated numeric keypad, which is a big boon for shortcuts – think Sibelius on the road, for instance (the notation editor relies on the numeric keypad for quick input)
  • For some, Mac OS is the big draw – but for others, Windows is, depending I think largely on the apps you want to run if not everything you use is cross-platform

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Apple machines stay really competitive. The I/O gripes aside, the new machines are pretty remarkable. And you lose a lot going to Windows from Mac OS – Core Audio and built-in inter-app and over-network MIDI, for instance. On the other hand, I’m perfectly happy running FL Studio, SynthMaker, SONAR, Vegas, and Sound Forge on my Windows laptop and not having to use Boot Camp on a Mac to get there, and with solid ASIO drivers, I can get terrific performance from Windows. I don’t personally agree with the conventional wisdom that makes people just “default” to either choice – I think the choices are interesting.

Specs aside, Rain really does test every configuration with audio software, and they think about the impact of specific drivers and components. That’s not so much of an issue on the Mac, but part of the variability of quality on the PC has absolutely been about certain configurations and driver issues causing problems. You can get audio software pre-installed from Rain, you can call Rain about audio questions, and they’ll even install Windows XP for you, if you like. (I’ve been to New Jersey and seen Rain’s facility and talked to their testers. Another vendor offering similar services is California-based PCAudioLabs – they’re also worth checking out; I’ve heard nothing but good things from people using machines from both makers, which says something, too.)

This comes back to the question of what your ideal configuration would be. If I had my dream machine on this LiveBook, I’d have a couple more USB2 ports on the LiveBook, and DVI or mini-DisplayPort plus TV out for video. But it is a nice-looking system. Rain will certainly be hearing my feedback, and they do offer a fair number of custom options.

Interestingly, ASUS and Intel have teamed up to do a site where they get communities voting on what they want from a laptop, called WePC.com. It’s the opposite of Apple’s design process – though I suppose, arguably, it could result in The Homer Effect. (Episode of the Simpsons in which Homer designs a car and gets something … well, overdesigned. But Homer didn’t know anything about cars. Odds are, as a computer musician, you actually do know what you want and need.) Anyway, just so we’re heard, do go vote for audio stuff.

The bottom line for me: I don’t think we always benefit from someone else choosing what we need.

It’s really not worth debating which laptop choice is better, because there’s not an answer to that question. Laptops – even Macs – are bundles of literally thousands of detailed hardware decisions, and I’ve never seen two users doing exactly the same thing with their machines. That means it’s almost impossible to get a machine that’s absolutely perfect, anyway; it’s more about finding the right compromise. And OS arguments t
end to devolve into meaningless debates. The actual internals of what makes operating systems work is so technical and involved, it would take a lot more than a few lines to talk about with any accuracy.

But it’s not about which is better; it’s which is better for you. So, instead, I’ll ask: got a laptop you love, Mac or PC? In the market for a new machine, economic downturn be damned? Which one are you thinking? And what would your perfect machine look like – within the realm of possibility?

Disclosure: I recently bought a cheap ASUS (pronounced ah-SOOS) laptop to replace a sudden failure of a machine. (I got an M51Sn-C1; more on that later.) I own a MacBook which I use pretty heavily, too. I’m writing stories for Rain. Heck, I just generally like computers – and I’ve got some gripes for every OS and hardware maker out there. So, like you, I’m biased about everything because I live and create on these machines – more hours than I sleep, I think.