Twilight of the Desktop Computer?

Twilight of the Desktop Computer?

Craig Anderton

Laptops always used to be like the little brother who was eager to help with the chores, but couldn't actually do all that much. While fine for running spreadsheets and word processors, or filing sales reports from the road, no one considered a laptop as viable for music production or video editing. But that's changing, for multiple reasons.

First, laptops now have serious CPU power. Due to shrinking chip geometries that have gone from 90 to 60 to 45 nanometers, today's CPUs are efficient enough to work in laptops, while running cooler and offering more power thanks to multi-core technologies.

Second, RAM—an essential part of laptops, as data can be shuttled in and out of RAM with more efficiency than a hard drive—is now plentiful and inexpensive. The days of laptops with 128MB of RAM are long gone; laptops with 2GB of RAM are not uncommon, and Vista's ability to use 64-bit addressing shatters the RAM limit inherent in 32-bit operating systems.

However, what's really made laptops useable as pro audio and video machines is the incorporation of high-speed buses (specifically USB 2.0 and FireWire) that essentially turn a laptop into simply a CPU/RAM "brain" with ports; you then "accessorize" the laptop as desired. For example, there are USB/FireWire audio interfaces with great specs, capable of handling 24-bit files at a 96kHz sampling rate, that fit easily into a laptop bag (in fact, one USB guitar interface is about the size of a cigar).

And you may not even need an audio interface: USB mics, once pretty much thought of as "toys" for tasks like podcasting, are now moving to higher-end performance. When doing narration for a video I was editing on a laptop, one mic with a USB out was all I needed. Even guitars now have USB and FireWire outputs that can go directly into a computer, with plug-in signal processors capable of emulating the sounds of guitar amps and effects…so you don't need to bring those, either.

Can't record enough tracks into your laptop's 5,400 RPM drive? Then accessorize with an external 7,200 or 10,000 RPM Firewire drive. Need a bigger monitor for video editing? Use the laptop's S-Video or Firewire output. Even the weak link of mobile recording—the speakers—is no longer so weak. Small near-field monitors keep sounding better, as do headphones. They may not fit in your computer bag, but they will fit in your suitcase easily.

So as you ponder you next computer purchase, you may not need a separate desktop and laptop any more because it's likely that a laptop can do it all. While traveling, bring some select peripherals that deliver the quality you need; back in the studio, feed the video out to a big-screen monitor and patch in to bigger interfaces.

What's more, if anything happens to the laptop, just get another one and plug your collection of peripherals back in (after all, you backed up your data on an external drive…right?)—no worries about cards and motherboards. Are desktop computers an endangered species? Check back in a few years, and we'll know for sure. But it's clear that today's high-end laptops can do what all but the best desktop computers can do.

Craig Anderton is Editor-in-Chief for, and Executive Editor for EQ magazine. He's lectured on technology and the arts in 10 countries, 37 states, and in 3 languages.