Desktop, Tabletop, or Laptop?

USB, PC Card (PCMCIA), and FireWire devices, with their interconnectivity and ease of use, have clearly had a tremendous impact on the computer-music

USB, PC Card (PCMCIA), and FireWire devices, with their interconnectivity and ease of use, have clearly had a tremendous impact on the computer-music marketplace. What may not be so apparent, however, is the extent to which those technologies have called into question the model of the traditional desktop system as the only viable option for computer-based musicians. Smaller, less expensive, and quieter tabletop models connected to USB and FireWire peripherals can often perform well enough to meet many musicians' needs without internal expandability. Laptops are becoming nearly as powerful as desktop systems and offer the advantage of portability. Combine a laptop with USB, FireWire, and PC Card devices, and you often have the equivalent of a good desktop.

Furthermore, computer companies are being encouraged to move away from the traditional desktop model altogether. Intel's Legacy Removal Roadmap is a plan to systematically remove or replace traditional computer technologies with better alternatives (see Fig. 1). Its ultimate goal is the complete removal of user-accessible internal devices. Apple is already traveling down that path with its iMacs and Cubes, and even its desktop Power Mac G4 models have jettisoned much of legacy technology's baggage, unlike their PC counterparts (see Fig. 2).

With all that technological change in the air, computer-based musicians may have to reconsider what kind of a setup they need for a properly functioning computer-music system. But that isn't a task for the distant future; it's one of more immediate concern because it will certainly affect how musicians shop for their next systems. For starters, they must determine which computer will best serve their needs: desktop, tabletop, or laptop.


With roomy multislot cases, desktop computers are by far the most expandable in terms of devices and interfacing formats. For example, you can install PCI cards for a variety of purposes, such as interfacing for digital audio and SCSI. You can even take advantage of peripherals normally designed for laptop computers by adding a PCI-to-PC Card adapter to a desktop computer. In addition, most desktop systems now include USB ports, and an increasing number of systems boast FireWire ports as well. Even if a desktop computer doesn't provide FireWire or USB ports, you can easily install a PCI card to add those options.

Moreover, the typical desktop computer is housed in a case that can hold and power several internal peripherals, such as hard drives and CD-RW drives. Because internal devices generally cost less than their external counterparts, a desktop computer can save you money when it comes to expanding your system with new peripherals.

Desktops are the only systems that provide the potential for dual-monitor support, which lets you extend your screen view horizontally or display multiple windows across two monitors. Desktops are also the only systems that offer the potential for dual-processor support. That will become more important as musicians using high-end computers incorporate software — such as Cakewalk's Sonar digital-audio sequencer, newer versions of Steinberg's Cubase VST and Emagic's Logic Audio, and Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge — that takes advantage of dual processors for improved performance.

On the other hand, desktop computers have some major drawbacks. Their expandability can be as much a minus as a plus. For example, even with the Plug and Play capabilities in Windows, it can be difficult to determine whether you have enough system resources to add a device or whether a new device can actually function with the available system resources.

Also, Windows-based desktop systems are still loaded with legacy technology that few computer-based musicians need. For example, many new motherboards include at least one ISA slot, despite the near universality of PCI cards. Although USB mice, keyboards, modems, and printers are widely available, most desktop computer motherboards include separate PS/2, keyboard, serial, and parallel ports. Those unnecessary connections take up a good portion of the system resources, not to mention physical space that could be used for other purposes. You can go into the BIOS setup and disable most ports to create an internally legacy-free computer; even so, the physical connections, which are part of the motherboard's cost, are still present.

Desktop computers are also notorious for the noise they can make — a serious disadvantage in a music-studio environment. Eliminating troublesome fan and drive noise can be difficult and expensive. It may involve something as simple as positioning the CPU under the desk to help minimize the noise, or it may require more drastic action, such as enclosing the CPU in an equipment closet or a specially built cabinet.

Desktop systems are difficult to transport too. They are heavy and bulky, even when housed in a rack-mount case. Furthermore, you must consider the extra burden of taking along a monitor, which usually has no rack-mount housing. A keyboard, mouse, and mouse pad must also be accounted for. In the past, lack of transportability meant that you couldn't easily use your most powerful computer in a remote location. One solution is to use a device such as a modular digital multitrack (MDM), but that requires the expense of additional interfacing capabilities with the computer and extra time to transfer audio material from one medium to another once you're back at the studio.


Tabletop systems — such as the Sony VAIO Slimtop LCD, Compaq iPaq Desktop, and Apple Power Mac G4 Cube — offer several advantages over other computers, and they're often the least expensive (see Fig. 3). Most tabletop models generate little or no noise, and they typically have a smaller footprint than desktop computers, which can be important if you're working in a limited space. What's more, tabletop computers often use the same processors that single-processor desktop systems do, so you don't have to sacrifice power for compactness.

On the other hand, tabletop computers are not as internally expandable as desktop systems. That will become less of an issue as FireWire and USB peripherals begin to dominate the market for add-ons. Even so, external peripherals have two important disadvantages. First, as mentioned previously, external peripherals are often more expensive than their internal equivalents because the case and sometimes a dedicated power supply add to the unit's cost. Second, external peripherals bring the potential for increased fan and drive noise, which could negate the advantage of a noiseless system — part of a tabletop model's appeal to computer-based musicians. On the positive side, it may be easier to house the offending external devices in a small enclosed environment than it would be to segregate a noisy desktop computer in a soundproof cabinet.

Computer-based musicians may find it difficult to choose the right tabletop system for their needs because so many companies are configuring different tabletop systems for low-cost markets. On the PC side, system design is often compromised because too many manufacturers are unwilling to eliminate legacy options from their systems or incorporate the best new technologies. For example, Compaq's iPaq Desktop comes in legacy and legacy-free models, but neither includes FireWire ports. Gateway's Essential 800c model includes five USB ports but no FireWire connection. Sony's VAIO Slimtop LCD includes two FireWire ports, but one is a 4-pin connection.

Apple is the most legacy-free of all manufacturers. It now includes USB and FireWire ports in all of its iMacs and iMac DVs. The more powerful Cube, with its G4 processor (the iMacs use a G3), also boasts FireWire and USB ports, though the Cube doesn't include an integrated monitor as the iMacs do.


Many musicians feel that a laptop is really the only computer they need for music production, and that opinion is becoming more popular. Laptops are portable and, to a large degree, self-contained systems. With a laptop, you don't have to worry about external keyboards, pointing devices, or a separate monitor. What's more, laptops can run on batteries for limited periods of time, which makes them well suited to remote recording or music-production projects, and some models offer an optional CD-RW drive. Best of all, laptops are extremely quiet.

The expansion capabilities of laptop computers are constantly improving. Every laptop sold today has at least one USB port. The new Apple Titanium PowerBook G4 and Sony VAIO laptops also include FireWire ports. Nearly every laptop computer, with the exception of Apple iBooks, contains at least one PC Card slot, and many models supply two. That essentially offers most laptop users the same expansion capabilities found in desktop systems. For example, you could add a PC Card multichannel audio card to your laptop system. If you don't have a FireWire port, you could easily add a PC Card-to-FireWire adapter, which would let you add a fast external FireWire drive to the system. It's even possible to add PCI slots to laptops with a PC Card adapter and a tower case from Magma.

Laptops are not without their disadvantages, though. First, they are the most expensive computers to buy initially and to expand later. For instance, expanding memory or upgrading an internal hard drive often costs twice as much as it does with a desktop system. You usually can't upgrade the processor or add internal devices as you can with a desktop computer.

In addition, a laptop's display often constitutes half of the replacement cost of the unit itself, which is further troubling considering that the monitor is often the weakest link in a laptop system. Monitor failure is mainly due to bending and warping of the screen that results from improper handling. The risk is serious enough that insurance brokers market separate policies for laptop monitors.

Laptop monitors also have smaller displays than most desktop systems do. However, keep two things in mind. First, people usually sit closer to laptop monitors than they do to desktop or tabletop systems; that can offset the discrepancy in size. Second, laptop monitors are getting larger. A case in point is Apple's new Titanium PowerBook, which has a 15-inch viewing area, as do several current PC models.


If you transfer hardware and software from an older system to a new one, you may experience some compatibility problems. Mac users should read “Desktop Musician: Surviving the Upgrade Path” in the March 2001 issue to examine some solutions to potential pitfalls.

PC users have several issues of their own. For example, despite the advantages of FireWire, many PC systems are not yet packaged with built-in FireWire ports. Even though adding a FireWire port to a system is relatively inexpensive (about $80 for a PC Card FireWire adapter and even less for a PCI FireWire card), doing so takes up a PCI or PC Card slot as well as system resources. Although that's less of an issue for desktop systems with several PCI slots, it may be a serious concern for laptop users with only one PC Card slot. Moreover, it may not be an option at all for tabletop users, depending on their system's expansion capabilities.

If you do purchase a PC system with a built-in FireWire port, make sure it's a 6-pin port — two such ports are preferable. Some systems, such as Sony's VAIO Slimtop LCD, have one 4-pin and one 6-pin FireWire port. Four-pin ports, which are intended mainly for digital video and still cameras, don't supply the power needed by most FireWire devices, such as hard drives and audio interfaces. Most digital cameras will work with 6-pin ports and will often include a 6-pin-to-4-pin adapter cable.

One final PC issue is hardware copy protection. Steinberg and Emagic use dongles for copy protection; Steinberg uses the parallel port, and Emagic uses a 9-pin serial port. Although both companies use USB copy-protection keys on Mac systems, neither company plans to use USB dongles on PC systems in the near future. That may be a problem for laptop users who want to use Logic Audio, because an increasing number of laptops no longer include serial ports.


USB, FireWire, and PC Cards have already done much to influence the types of devices we add to our systems. Increasingly, those interconnection standards will blur the lines of demarcation among desktop, tabletop, and laptop systems. Will that trend ultimately sound the death knell for traditional desktop computers? I don't think it will anytime soon, but that fate seems to be looming if the Legacy Removal Roadmap is to be believed. (For more on the future of USB and FireWire, see the sidebar, “Bozos on the Bus.”)

Regardless, desktops are not in danger of dying out soon, because they are the only systems that provide dual-monitor and dual-processor support. Those features are must-haves for power users running digital-audio sequencing programs with host-based effects plug-ins and virtual instruments. Likewise, those wishing to use hardware-based audio systems — such as Ensoniq's Paris, Digidesign's Pro Tools, or even DSP-based software-synth PCI cards such as Korg's OASYS or Creamware's Pulsar — will want to stay with desktop systems. (Note that some products, such as Symbolic Sound's Kyma System, offer desktop and laptop interfaces.)

But not everyone needs, wants, or can afford that kind of power. Tabletop systems are ideally suited for those who don't need a top-of-the-line system but still want a computer that will handle their production needs well into the future, without costing too much in the present.

Laptops are the ideal option for those who don't need megabuck power systems but do need powerful portability. Laptops can also be a vital link between high-end desktop installations and field work, and if both systems are configured properly, they can even share devices. That can more than offset a laptop's initial high price. Laptop computers can serve as complete workstations in their own right, competing well with tabletop systems and some desktops.

Ultimately, many users will want to use both stationary and portable systems. USB, FireWire, and PC Cards help make that goal easier and more cost-effective. Although those interconnecting technologies have helped blur the line separating desktops, tabletops, and laptops, they haven't erased that line just yet.

Zack Price, after years of creating MS-DOS file names and deciphering vanity license plates, is now busily developing his principles-of-limited-information theory.


Now is a time of major transition and uncertainty in the computer market. With a speed of 480 Mbps, USB 2.0 is 20 times faster than USB 1.1, and its speed rivals FireWire's. Although USB 2.0 is available on some PCs, Microsoft will not support it in its upcoming release of Windows XP, despite the partnerships of many major PC manufacturers to develop USB 2.0. Microsoft's decision could put a damper on upcoming USB 2.0 developments, such as potentially faster USB audio devices. On the other hand, those companies could use their combined influence to force Microsoft to support the standard later.

Microsoft's decision directly affects not only the future development of USB 2.0 but also the new Card Bay protocol developed by the PCMCIA Manufacturers Association. Card Bay is a new PC Card that uses the high-speed serial bus protocol of USB 2.0 or FireWire rather than the parallel bus of PCI. Card Bay developers focus on wireless communications and memory applications, but where that standard will lead in the digital-content-creation market remains to be seen. Card Bay is at an early enough stage that ultimately it could be based exclusively on FireWire. Many Card Bay developers, however, also have a strong interest in USB 2.0. That could retard the development of portable Card Bay devices or create a new standard that will divide resources between Apple and PC manufacturers, because their underlying technologies compete.

FireWire2, with an 800 Mbps transfer rate that is double the current FireWire standard's, is also due by the end of 2001 or early 2002. However, no company whose systems include built-in FireWire ports plans to upgrade its firmware to support FireWire2. That means users will have to buy another PCI card or PC Card to upgrade — if they can.

Does all that mean users will also need to get new FireWire or USB devices right away? Fortunately, no. The new standards will be backward compatible with all current USB and FireWire devices.