Musicians have always longed to break free from the studio. Face it: Few things are less inspiring than sitting down at your music workstation day after day, staring at that same wall in that same claustrophobic room full of gear, touching up your pale studio tan and thinking that someday you might see the light of day. So why tie yourself down to one spot when modern technology can set you free? The past couple of years have seen extraordinary improvements in mobile computing, and today's laptops are every bit as capable as their desk-bound counterparts. The tech wizards at Alienware are well aware that audio and video producers around the world are itching to free themselves from their studio shackles, and they've introduced the MJ-12m 7700 in their bid to snatch the title of top portable production powerhouse from longtime favorites like Apple's PowerBooks.
The MJ-12m 7700 proves that you can certainly have it all in a laptop computer — as long as you're willing to pay the price in size; weight; and cold, hard cash. It's huge, and the price as configured for this review is a wallet-searing $3,733, but you definitely do get what you pay for. Just be sure to start a separate savings account for back surgery if you plan on carrying this thing around on a regular basis.
Alienware has a reputation for making some of the fastest PCs on the market, and when I found out that the company was taking aim at the growing market of mobile audio professionals, I was hot to get my hands on its flagship laptop. When I pulled the MJ-12m 7700 out of the box, I was immediately impressed — not only by the rubberized grips and trademark Alienware logo but also by the sheer size and weight of this “portable” computer.
The MJ-12m 7700 is on the large end of a class of laptops known as “desktop replacements.” Desktop replacements are portable computers that can hold their own against traditional desktop units, typically offering high-powered processors and souped-up video cards, and the 7700 offers some of the best on the market. The main drawback to desktop replacements is that they're big, and the 7700 is no exception. In fact, as laptops go, it's truly gargantuan, tipping the scales at a back-breaking 12.5 pounds and narrowly defying the commonly held notion that laptops weigh less than desktop computers. Throw in the brick-size (seriously) power adapter, and you have a travel weight of about 13 or 14 pounds. You might want to invest in a wheeled bag if you plan to carry this one around a lot.
If you were thinking that a machine this huge must have plenty of room for ports and connectors, you were right. The folks at Alienware have decked this baby out with enough I/O to run an entire studio. The backside of the laptop has a DVI video port along with legacy parallel and serial ports, as well as a modem and gigabit Ethernet jack for network connectivity. The left side of the unit contains the balance of the laptop's I/O, offering four USB 2.0 ports, two 4-pin FireWire ports, audio connectors and one Type II PC Card expansion slot, as well as media slots for CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SD cards and more. There's even an IR port for short-range communications with other computers or peripheral devices like cell phones.
Wi-Fi junkies will be happy to hear that the 7700 ships with built-in 802.11 functionality, so you can connect it to the nearest hot spot without any pesky cables. The sole drawback to the 7700's wireless connectivity is the lack of built-in Bluetooth. The manual claims that it's an option, but I didn't see it anywhere on Alienware's site, and it would have been nice to pair up a Bluetooth mouse to really get the full desktop experience.
THE REAL DEAL
Most portable PCs these days use Intel's new Pentium M to save on heat and battery life, but the 7700 packs nothing short of a full-fledged, genuine Pentium 4 — the same processor you'll find in top-flight studio workstations. Base models ship with a 2.8GHz chip, and Alienware offers upgrades in 200MHz increments all the way up to Intel's premium 3.8GHz CPU. Desktop processors are designed to run in controlled environments with wall-socket power and plenty of breathing room in the chassis; the portability and small form factor of laptops offer neither of these luxuries, and to mitigate this problem, the 7700 packs a bevy of fans that run nearly nonstop to keep things cooled down. The noise may be an issue for quiet-freaks who demand total silence from their PCs, but during normal operation, the fans didn't kick into high-speed mode often enough to disrupt my audio work. In spite of all this forced-air cooling, the 7700 does get seriously hot, especially during heavy use.
The 7700's 17-inch-wide screen is truly stunning. The laptop can be configured with either a WXGA+ or WSXGA+ screen, but for audio production, don't bother with anything less than the 1,68051,050 resolution offered by WSXGA+. The majority of sequencers and other audio applications benefit big-time from this additional space, so it's easily worth the extra cash to upgrade. The crystal-clear display is powered by either an nVidia GeForce 6800GO or an ATI Radeon X800 video card. Both feature 256 MB of video memory and pump out razor-sharp text and graphics without breaking a sweat, with plenty of power left over to drive an external LCD via the DVI output on the back of the computer.
STORAGE TO SPARE
The 7700 packs a wallop when it comes to crunching numbers and pushing pixels, but there's a lot more to a beefy audio workstation than a souped-up processor and a pretty screen. The fastest CPU in the world isn't going to help if you're multitracking with hard drives that can't hold their own. Fortunately, the MJ-12m 7700 is packing serious heat in this area. The unit I tested shipped with not one, but two 60GB, 7,200 rpm drives installed, both on a next-generation Serial ATA bus. The simple fact that this notebook chassis can support more than one hard drive puts it in a class that few competitors can touch. There is, however, one special feature that sets this hefty powerhouse apart from all others: onboard hardware RAID. If you've been working with studio PCs for a while, you'll no doubt be familiar with RAID. Short for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, RAID is the holy grail of fast and reliable storage, the standard that allows you to group multiple physical hard drives together and treat them like one big disk. Hardware RAID is virtually unheard of on laptop computers, and its presence on the 7700 places it at the top of the heap when it comes to laptops.
Even if you never come close to filling the 7700's massive RAID array, you'll no doubt want to burn CDs and DVDs of your finished tunes. The 7700 has more room for optical storage than most will ever need, with a dual-layer 85 DVD+/-RW drive as standard equipment. If you make a lot of demo or mix CDs, there's even room for a second optical drive — add another burner, and cut the time you spend making discs in half.
The 7700 boasts tech specs that are second to none, so it's no surprise that the machine handled with ease every audio application I threw at it. Steinberg Cubase SX 3 ran every bit as smoothly as one would expect from a true desktop computer. Ableton Live 4 performed equally well, with nary a hiccup as I sliced and rearranged audio and MIDI clips on the fly and heaped plug-in upon plug-in on my project. Stanton FinalScratch 2 was easier than ever to use on the 7700: The increased screen width enabled me to see even more of the upcoming audio waveform — a big plus — and offered extra space for ID3-tag information.
Maxing out the disk and processor is difficult on the 7700. The 3.6GHz processor in my test machine chewed through complicated arrangements with ease, and thanks to the RAID 0 array, the disk meter in Cubase barely moved at all during playback. And RAM-based instruments like Spectrasonics Stylus RMX work beautifully with the 7700's massive RAM capacity. All in all, this laptop performs like it was tailor-made specifically for audio production.
More than any other laptop that I have ever used, the MJ-12m 7700 is genuinely worthy of the title desktop replacement. Whatever audio applications you run on the desktop computer in your studio will run every bit as well — if not better — on the 7700. The sole drawback to this laptop is its lack of powered FireWire. With more bus-powered FireWire audio interfaces hitting the market every day, it's an irritating oversight that mars an otherwise perfect laptop. Aside from that sole complaint, Alienware has crafted a knockout machine. Pair the 7700 with a quality audio interface, and you have a truly incredible music-production tool that rivals the best studio computer. Alienware's MJ-12m 7700 is an unparalleled production and performance tool.
MJ-12m 7700 > $3,733 (AS CONFIGURED); $3,079 (BASE)
Pros: Blazing-fast performance. Hardware RAID array. Option for multiple optical drives. Outstanding wide-screen, high-resolution display. Upgradable video card.
Cons: Incredibly heavy and bulky. No powered FireWire ports.