“Best” is a relative term. It just is. What’s best for me, may not be the best for you and what’s best for us may not be the best for another person. It all depends on what we need a laptop for.
Yes – music production – I know, but under what circumstances? Do you need a center for your home studio?
Do you need it for a live DJ set? Do you need it for a quick portable studio?
Do you work with samples or do you record more?
Do you prefer a PC/Windows environment or a Mac/OSX one?
That’s a lot of questions and a lot of things to consider, but I’ll break it down and simplify it as much as possible.
Buying a laptop for music production is similar to buying an audio interface, so you should approach it the same.
What you buy is what you have, with little room for improvement. You have brands, they have their product lines/series and each series has its models.
To help narrow your search I will offer a “general public opinion” list of brands and what to consider, but ultimately you will have to check the model spec sheets and pick which suits you best.
Alright, so what specs do I need to consider? Glad you asked! Let’s make a list:
1. Mac or PC / OSX or Windows?
The big one! There are so many Mac vs PC debates going on with price and stability. Let me clarify it for you. Yes – the Mac is more reliable and more stable. However, a Windows PC can be just as stable if you know how to tame it. A possible place to look could be at a 13.3 ultrabook which would suit your music-making needs. Think of it as a pet. If it’s misbehaving, you can pay for obedience school or you can train it yourself.
Bottom line: If you’re not computer savvy and need stability then go for a Mac. It is known that the MAC is more stable than Windows but still has fewer possibilities for upgrading. Also, take into account whether you already have a dedicated PC or laptop for audio production, as work transfer between a PC and a Mac can get troublesome.
2. How much CPU power do you need?
Choose carefully, since you won’t be able to upgrade this. If you run a lot of VSTs, plug-ins, and even multiple applications simultaneously, you will need a lot. Go for at least an i5. Otherwise, you’ll be satisfied with anything that’s available today.
3. What about RAM?
Unlike the CPU, you can often upgrade RAM. As for how much you need, most recommend 8GB. If you use a lot of sample libraries, then you need a lot – at least the 8GB, but 16GB will have you covered. If you don’t, you can get by with only 4GB.
4. SSD or regular HDD?
Since you can attach an external hard disk via USB this may not be so important. Still, take it into consideration, since you may need that extra USB port for something else. Everyone recommends an SSD because it has faster writing speeds, which is great for recording multiple simultaneous tracks or lots of file transfers.
An SSD will offer less space than a regular HDD though. Keep that in mind if you’re going to store all your media files on this laptop since the bigger space SSDs can get really expensive.
5. Does screen size matter?
If you’ll be doing a lot of production work, arranging, and playing with tracks and plug-ins, then you will need the space for it. Go no less than 15″ if you’re using the laptop for actual production work (17″ would be much better, but pricier).
However, if you need a laptop just to transfer files and hook up your gear (like if you’re recording on location or doing some DJing with the material you sorted out at home) then it’s better to go smaller for portability. 13″ will be enough, or you can even go for those ultra-portable 11.6″ models.
6. I need long battery life, right?
This is another case of live vs. home circumstances. If you’re taking the laptop out, then you need more battery life. If it’s your studio center at home, then you’ll keep it plugged in often and it’s not so important.
7. Does it fit in the bag?
Laptops are made to fit in a bag, but you may want extremely portable ones if you carry them around often, along with a lot of other gear. If it’s just for transferring work from home to location and vice-versa, then you’ll have an easier time with a smaller model.
8. Other suggestions for live conditions
There are two added features you should look at if you’re going to take your music production laptop out often – a matte screen and a backlit keyboard. Screen glare will become a real issue with sunlight or lighting and a matte screen will fix this. Likewise, at night or in unlit conditions you won’t see your keyboard at all, so a backlight helps. Just keep that in mind.
9. Last, but not least: PORTS!
You need USB ports to hook up your gear. You will want to have at least one USB 3.0 port and hopefully, there will be one or two more available. Of course, the lack of ports is easily fixed with a USB hub.
Some put emphasis on having a FireWire port too, but with the new speed of USBs, it’s becoming less of a thing. Just make sure you can plug in your audio interface and any gear you use.
Now for the long-awaited list of brands (with pictures)! Since you can find a ton of information on each, I’ll keep it simple and straight to the point.
UPDATE: In 2017, Apple announces the new iMac Pro, the most powerful Mac ever released, with huge computing power, which is likely to become the best choice for pro musicians and producers in the years to come.