Hammerfall DSP System
Notebook Tests - Compatibility and Performance

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Introduction

There are quite a few more or less serious audio solutions for 'lugtops' at the moment, but none of the manufacturer's give any practically relevant information about compatibility and performance. Once again, RME is the solitary example and presents the results of their field tests in public. After all, we are interested in you buying a notebook functioning at all and for audio especially - and not investing your hard-earned money in misconceptions from Dell or Asus - as we did... :-(

However, our time is precious too and the design engineers are totally busy. Therefore, we had to avoid lavish tests à la 'that many tracks are possible in playback/record at what latency' - there simply isn't enough time to do it. Moreover, the results vary considerably with fragmentation of the hard disk and configuration. We thus limit ourselves to a general compatibility with the Hammerfall DSP System and the lowest possible latency, those two being the most important issues. The highest number of tracks is probably less critical for newer notebooks, since it is normally possible to record or playback 26 channels at the same time. Record and playback of all tracks at the same time requires a fast notebook with a fast hard drive - even this is not unusual anymore nowadays, and therefore even two card operation is no problem for a proper notebook. More detailed information about the performance of today's notebooks, and also a lot more highly interesting information (you won't find anywhere else...well, you know...) can be found in our Tech Info series HDSP System: Notebook Basics.

Please understand that the table cannot be complete. We will continue to test further notebooks and add them to the list, but we don't intend to buy model XYZ just because we get twenty requests to test it. According to our experiences up to now, notebook manufacturer's are not willing to send us test devices. And without doubt, we will be receiving requests like this, because once again it shows that the entire PC specialized press totally fails when it comes to audio. An example is the multiple test winner Dell Inspiron 8000, of which no journalist has yet noticed its fan drop-out bug, as well as many further notebooks, of which the CardBus slots doesn't allow any PCI bursts. No wonder, when a device is judged solely for the frame rate of Quake...but for audio those problems mean total uselessness!

The entire table is available in two versions:

What can this table do for you? First of all it gives an overview of the components used in current notebooks, thus allows price and feature comparisons. It can even serve as a buyers' guide. Even if the listed notebooks are not available in your country it will be a valuable help for your buying decision. Unfortunately the table also shows, that even the best components (fast hard drive, speedy graphics etc.) don't guarantee excellent audio performance, especially in the low latency area. So with notebooks not listed in the table you must check this on your own.

Additionally this table shows that the Hammerfall DSP System basically operates with any notebook we have so far tested - we like this, too :-)

Our conclusions, comments and verdicts are based on high limits, and we do have good reasons to do so. The notebook industry not only sells their hardware at insolent prices, they are also advertised as 'desktop replacement' - a ridiculous statement for most of them. Additionally heavy crackling and dropouts in low latency operation is nothing more than the manufacturer being slipshod - and there is absolutely no reason to accept those effects for whatever reason.

Links to the manufacturer's, a small glossary and explanations on abbreviations in the table can be found at the bottom of this page.

Our comments...

...reflect our personal opinion, sometimes also our own experience with a manufacturer. The test results for compatibility and latency however, are truly objective and can be repeated and verified at any time. A description of the test procedure can be found at the bottom of this page.

Apple Titanium Power Book G4

Apple's new Powerbook shows the IBM compatible where the hammer hangs (as we say in Germany), at least in terms of latency and drop-outs. Although the computing power isn't as high as Apple wants you to believe, and the price makes you dizzy, 1.5 milliseconds is possible without glitches. What else do you want...

Asus A 1300

The Asus notebooks tested by us (see also Medion MD9467) stand in stark contrast to the quality usually delivered by Asus. While regularly showing reference quality for mainboards, the notebooks are full of outdated technique and dissatisfying features (small displays, SiS Shared Memory etc..) But real crap is the Ricoh CardBus controller. No matter if this chip is buggy or not being properly configured by Asus - fact is: it doesn't perform PCI bursts. With the remaining minimal PCI throughput, the Hammerfall DSP can only use up to 7 playback devices (14 channels), more is not possible without heavy drop-outs and distortion. We can only warn against this notebook.

Baycom Worldbook II

This notebook is principally suitable for audio. Its main drawback is the SiS chipset with Shared Memory graphics, which in practice slows down the overall performance to just about half CPU speed.

Compaq Armada E500

Despite the 1 GHz CPU this model did not convince - it acted more like a sleeping pill. With reasonable features and 6 ms under Win9x we would have expected more. Also the hard disk access posed problems, even with DMA activated each single access caused severe clicks and drop-outs. Unfortunately, we had this notebook only for a very short time and so could not make a fresh and new installation of Windows. We'll perform another test as soon as possible.

Compaq Presario 1800-XL481

Outstanding features, best components, and with 6 ms under Win9x very low latency - the Compaq is well suitable for audio.

Dell Inspiron 4000

Another Dell notebook with a superb price point. The 4000 uses the mobile BX-chipset, and offers both high performance and long battery-based operation thanks to a 850 mobile PIII CPU. ATI graphics card plus SXGA display (the latest 14" generation), fast 20 GByte hard drive and less than 3 kg weight: this looks like a winner.

Dell Inspiron 8000/8100

Dell's top models shows the best bang for the buck of all notebooks tested. Especially the new 8100 including Intel's fast Tualatin processors (M) finally delivers full desktop performance, thanks to the 133 MHz memory speed. 3 ms latency even with greater projects are no problem when using Windows 2000/XP.

Gericom Millennium III

Notebooks are also a matter of taste: the Gericom Millennium III has a somewhat edgy and little elegant case. In terms of performance and audio operation however, it was the measure for all other notebooks for quite some time: fewest clicks even under Win9x, optimum behavior under Win2k, BX chipset, ATI graphics card and 1400 display on top: what else do you want...

Gericom Supersonic (FIC A440)

The world's first notebook with a 1 GHz processor, and VIA chipset with 133 MHz FSB - and the world's biggest disappointment in terms of performance. Thanks to a lame chipset and Shared Memory graphics, the 1 GHz is in practice as fast as a PIII 500 desktop system. This (and further goodies like the inoperative internal modem) was also discovered by the computer magazines, leading Gericom to lower the price from more than DM 5000 to DM 3888 within 3 months. Unfortunately, comparatively lame GHz-slings have almost become the standard. Regarding audio operation, the Supersonic has good properties in principle, especially under Win2k it really takes off thanks to 256 MB RAM and a fast hard drive. You only have to avoid dual screen operation, as the performance then drops even below 500 MHz...

Gericom WebBoy

Thanks to SiS chipset and Shared Memory graphics, the WebBoy offers only half processing power in practice. But the bad communication between BIOS and operating system counts worse, leading to heavy clicks even without any action. ASIO below 23 ms is not possible without errors - thus the notebook not recommendable.

Hewlett-Packard OmniBook XE3

The OmniBook shows good performance thanks to a BX chipset and extra graphics card. 6 ms can already be used under Win9x. But as the table clearly shows, the included hardware components are not really outstanding (Celeron, 13" display.)

IBM ThinkPad A22m

After IBM having lowered its price significantly the A22m becomes a highly recommended laptop. Fewest clicks even under Win9x, optimum behavior under Win2k, a stunning TFT display and many more details are the base for a successful operation as DAW.

Maxdata pro 400M

The Maxdata offers principally good features and reasonable value for money. Unfortunately, ASIO below 12 ms is not possible without errors. Besides, our CardBus card was not initialized correctly when booting Windows, it would only work after a new installation of Windows ME. For $ 2.230, other notebooks offer better audio performance.

Medion MD9467 (Asus L8400K)

This notebook, which was sold as a special offer in Germany at Aldi (a food discounter), offers a BX chipset and outstanding features for a comparatively low price. Unfortunately, Asus have used the Ricoh controller here as well and there is the same effect as in the A 1300: it doesn't perform PCI bursts. With the remaining minimal PCI throughput, the Hammerfall DSP can only work inefficiently. Even worse, switching on/off the fan causes a dropout, thus working reliably under 46 ms is not possible at all. We therefore have to warn against this notebook.

Sony Vaio PCG-FX105K

For the first time Sony is using the mobile version of Intel's i815 chipset. With all in all good features, also for audio use, the Vaio shows top form: 3 ms under Windows 2000 can hardly be beaten. And this is achieved despite the usage of the Ricoh controller, which as noted totally fails in the Asus machines! A pity though, that Sony is using the i815's internal graphics. This Shared Memory graphics is working much better than the ones of the VIA and SiS chipsets, but the notebook is somewhat slowed down by 100 MHz FSB anyway. An additional graphics card is available in other, else very similar, Vaio models.

Sony Vaio PCG-FX405

Another debut from Sony: this notebook with 1 GHz Athlon CPU shows top performance. CPU- and memory throughput are on the same high level as the components used. Under Windows 2000 the Sony achieves a click-free latency of 3 ms - but only as long as the hard disk is not involved. Due to a very low PCI throughput, the Hammerfall DSP can only use up to 7 record devices (14 channels), more is not possible without heavy drop-outs and distortion. Therefore we can only warn against this notebook.

Targa Visionary

The Targa suffers from a BIOS/OS communication even worse than the Dell: also without fan, there are glitches up to 23 ms, which make ASIO/MME under 46 ms impossible - and the notebook thus not recommendable.

Toshiba Satellite 3000-514

The Satellite 3000-514 with Pentium III 1 GHz M processor and 133 MHz SDRAM comes close to a perfect mobile DAW. The only point of criticism that we found: it is available with 14" (1024) TFT only. On the other hand it's pretty cheap compared to others. Highly recommended...

Toshiba Satellite 4600 Pro

Toshiba's 4600 Pro also includes a full feature set, good performance and complete audio compatibility. Although its processing power is a bit lower than that of the 3000-514 (only 100 MHz SDRAM), its still fast enough in most cases. Speaking of audio (latency/number of channels) it got all points we had to give.

Tulip Vision Line bn

The Taiwan based company FIC produces for various companies and brands. The Gericom Supersonic (FIC A440) appears in several variants on the market, here as the Tulip Vision Line with a 933 MHz CPU. And behaves exactly as the Gericom Supersonic - see above.

How were the tests performed?

At first, the notebook was tested in its state of delivery. Usually you can find dozens of highly unnecessary tools on the Taskbar after booting which are being launched automatically by Autostart or 'Run' entry in the Registry. Although we recommend removing them immediately, only one application has proved to be problematic in our latency tests up to now (Synoptics Touchpad, see Notebook Basics - Background Knowledge and Tuning.) Then the CardBus card was put in. Now the driver installation should start automatically thanks to Plug and Play and install the Digiface drivers. This has been the case with all notebooks up to now. Afterwards, Nuendo 1.51 was installed and the notebook re-booted.

The Digiface was fed a digitally generated 50 Hz sine wave to the SPDIF input. In Nuendo, monitoring of the channels 25/26 was activated (no ASIO direct monitoring!.) The sine is now going into Nuendo via the card and is being put out unaltered via the software with the latency of the buffer setting. Monitoring was done directly at the analog output of the Digiface.

The low frequency humming tone (50 Hz) is much less annoying than a 1 kHz sine, glitches are clearly audible. Now, various latencies were tested and checked for glitches for at least one minute each. After this, the special test software Idlemess (see below) was run in order to test the stability also under work load. The CPU is being challenged strongly with this, the fan thus starts soon (in some notebooks, the fan is running all the time.) Thanks to the low frequency sine the fan's noise is very audible and can be noticed easily. Up to this point, the test runs completely without hard disk activity. Therefore a 24 track project was played back finally in order to make sure that the hard disk subsystem was not causing glitches. Depending on CPU and hard drive, the latency had to be increased a little sometimes.

When we had the time and opportunity, we performed the tests also under Windows 2000, so that the same notebook can be compared with different operating systems. It showed immediately that nothing but Windows 2000 should be installed on audio notebooks (except for Apples....) For more see Notebook Basics - Background Knowledge and Tuning.)

A word regarding the software used: Nuendo is our low latency reference at the moment. Cubase will work (under this simple test) identical, and Logic is also a very good low latency bench tool. All these three programs are highly optimized, and will get disturbed by other processes very seldom, even at 1.5 ms This can be shown well with Idlemess. The application, this years' April Fools joke from the German magazine c't, is nothing but a configurable CPU load with graphics display. The amount of load that can be set ranges from zero to a complete blocking of other threads. It is thus an ideal tool for testing the immunity of an ASIO host. While Idlemess causes clicks (drop-outs) in other applications, Nuendo can not be disturbed even at full range. At the same time, the high CPU load leads heating up the CPU quickly, the fans can be switched on and off easily within short intervals.
 

Glossary
 
XGA: Graphics resolution 1024 x 768
SXGA: Graphics resolution 1400 x 1050
UXGA: Graphics resolution 1600 x 1200
Shared Memory: Instead of having its own hardware memory the graphics chipset uses a part of the main memory (RAM)
PCI Bursts: Very fast data transfer in form of blocks. Up to 130 MByte/s
SpeedStep: Allows to use lower CPU clock to lower power dissipation and increase battery life
FSB: Front Side Bus. Connection between main memory (RAM) and CPU
Wh: Watt hours. Capacity of the battery, calculated from voltage times current hours (V x Ah.)

Links to Notebook manufacturer's
Acer: www.acer.de
Apple: www.apple.com
Asus:  www.asuscom.de
Baycom: www.baycom-notebooks.de/notebooks/
Dell: www.dell.de
FIC: www.fic.com.tw/default.htm
Gericom: www.gericom.com
Hewlett-Packard: www.hp.com
IBM: www.ibm.com
Maxdata: www.maxdata.com
Samsung: www.samsung.com
Sony: www.sony.com
Targa: www.actebis.com
Toshiba: www.toshiba.com
Tulip: www.tulip.com
Twinhead: www.twinhead.com

Copyright © Matthias Carstens, 2001-2002.

All entries in this Tech Infopaper have been thoroughly checked, however no guarantee for correctness can be given. RME cannot be held responsible for any misleading or incorrect information provided throughout this manual. Lending or copying any part or the complete document or its contents is only possible with the written permission from RME.

 

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