The Misery of the Audio Laptop and the 1394 Chipset

As many of you already know, I really don’t like Mac much. In fact, I really think that they’re elitist and snotty and consumer oriented. It’s pretty common to hear, “If you want to do business, get a PC, if you want to be creative and work on media, then get a Mac.” This has always driven me crazy because I have long been a PC-audio guy. I like the fact that there’s more choice and that more engineers are working on software problems and improvements than on the Mac platform.

I now have a definitive statement that goes against my previous beliefs:

The off-the-shelf Mac laptops are better than off-the-shelf PC laptops for working with mobile audio.

Here’s why: it’s the Firewire or 1394 Chipset. In order to do mobile audio these days, you pretty much need to use firewire interface. Only one chipset works well with audio and video firewire gear: The Texas Instruments 1394 Chipset. The Ricoh (used in Dell notebooks) sucks hard. It’s good if you don’t care how fast data is transferred. If you do care and you’re concerned with latency, getting drop-outs and glitches in your recorded audio or getting tons of digital errors, then DON’T BUY A DELL NOTEBOOK!

In fact, getting a PC with a TI 1394 Chipset is pretty difficult. First you have to find a sales person that knows what a chipset is and then you have to find out which one they use. My guess is that the TI chipset is more expensive (because it actually works), so none of the major manufacturers use them. As of this writing, I understand that some of the high-end HP notebooks do you the TI 1394 chipset, Mac does and a bunch of audio configured laptop manufacturers. From what I have read, the best of these specialty audio laptop manufacturers is ADK Pro Audio.

Here’s what happened to my mobile set-up:

I purchased the Dell Inspiron 6400 laptop with a Intel Dual-Core 1.6Ghz, 2 GB RAM to use with Cakewalk’s Sonar 6.2.1 and a MOTU Traveler. The first problem was that the 6400 had a really hard time even recognizing that the Traveler was patched in. Then I experienced all kinds of drop-outs, digital glitching and crashes later. I had a number of mobile recording sessions that I had to comp because the audio quality was so bad.

I originally thought that the problem was with the Traveler, so I returned it and replaced it with a Presonus FireStudio. The FireStudio caused a full-system “Blue Screen of Death” Crash. Nice huh? I started to think, maybe the problem isn’t with the audio hardware. Maybe the problem is with the laptop.

The problem is that Dell uses crappy Ricoh 1394 chipsets. They’re so crappy that they don’t even acknowledge that they use the Ricoh chips. They call them “generic.” Here’s some of the web sources that I found describing the problems and how to fix them (maybe):

Sonar 6 with FireStudio: making it work [http://www.presonus.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2071]

MOTU FireWire audio interfaces and PCI/PCMCIA FireWire card chip sets [http://www.motu.com/techsupport/technotes/fw-chip-on-pci-and-pcmcia-
cards/view?searchterm=]

Which laptop brands use Texas Instruments firewire chipsets? [http://www.gearslutz.com/board/music-computers/126877-laptop-brands-
use-texas-instruments-firewire-chipsets.html]

Firewire issue affecting all the Dell Core Duo notebooks:
[http://forum.notebookreview.com/showthread.php?t=73829&page=46]

wikiHow: How to Buy a Laptop Computer for Audio Recording
[http://www.wikihow.com/index.php?title=Buy-a-Laptop-Computer-for-Audio-Recording]

Right now, I am planning to get my MOTU Traveler back, disable the on-board 1394 Ricoh Chipset and purchase and ExpressCard Firewire Card with the TI Chipset.I will let you know how it goes…

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