The Laptop: Evolution or Revolution?
On one hand, our laptops are awesome portals into our entire music collection and the hub for our DJ setup, commanding sound waves with increasingly powerful software. On the other they’re clunky, we associate them with spreadsheets and email, and they literally put a wall between the crowd and us. The laptop’s enjoyed both major evolutions and revolutions in the past five years – is it due to bow out soon or will it continue to be an integral part of our setups?
First things first, the DJ booth hasn’t been the laptop’s friend for long. As little as five years ago (with Scratch Live 1.4, for carbon dating purposes) I encountered resistance from both sound system engineers and peers who learned I was intending to plug in a computer to the mix; a buffer under run, or worse a crash, was the main thing the sound guys were concerned about but the sheer clunkiness of a laptop in the refined industrial setting of the DJ booth was what provoked the ire of fellow DJs. They are, of course, right; hunching over a qwerty keyboard is a shallow experience compared to confidently thrusting turntable and CD deck controls. Manufacturers know this, too – DJ equipment manufacturers are trying to get the focus of the DJ back onto their gear, and computer manufacturers are constantly trying to improve the aesthetics and the ergonomic experience of using a laptop. We’re in that odd stage of technological development where we’re hurtling towards a fork in the road at breakneck speed, and it’s just not clear which way’s best to go – a perfect time, then, to attempt to look at the pros and cons of what seem to be the main approaches.
LAPTOP? WHAT LAPTOP?
Pioneer’s approach to the laptop is as a music management, not performance tool. Using Rekordbox software to prepare files for use in their new generation of CDJs – as well as their CDJs and mixers linking up and playing nice with each other – means that simply plugging in a USB stick to a CDJ2000 is all that’s needed to access cues, loops, and mixer settings, and a much more traditional, focused DJ experience can be had.
Stanton are similarly on board with the idea that the ever louder sound of progress means that we don’t have to rely on laptops anymore with their SCS.4DJ, a true all in one system that runs a custom Linux based operating system in the box and thus allows for ultimate portability.
The two methods come from slightly different ideologies: Stanton are focusing on the personal instrument, Pioneer on setting a standard so that a DJ can arrive at a club with simply the digital equivalent of his record box. If Pioneer’s standard was open then we’d be much more excited, but entering the Cult of Pioneer is very much a requisite to the whole idea working, which is a bitter pill to swallow (not because Pioneer equipment is by any means bad, but simply because migrating from one closed standard that at least moves with you – your favourite DJ software – to one that can’t be guaranteed at a venue, seems like devolution). A combination of these two approaches, where extra effects and controllers can simply be plugged into mixers, might be the ideal situation for the future.
- Not having a computer in sight.
- Saying goodbye to setup time.
- Dedicated control mapping.
- Lack of customisability.
- Required investment in a brand.
- Losing features we’re already used to.
TABLETS: THE BEST MEDICINE?
Touch screen tablets are getting power injected into their tiny frames on an almost daily basis. We’ve already seen Algoriddim’s Djay turn the iPad into a hub ready for a controller with Numark’s iDJ Live, and whilst that’s more a proof of concept the new generation of tablet speed is approaching what was a respectable amount of clout for a full sized laptop a few years ago.
Getting your favourite DJ software to run on a tablet, thus relegating the laptop to the office, seems like a no brainer – right? We’d never advocate the replacement of your entire kit list with an iPad, but in conjunction with a controller there’s massive potential – Apple have shown with GarageBand that touchscreen music controls can work really well on the iPad (not to mention iTunes’ library management) and if there’s not a touch tablet R&D team beavering away at Serato and NI I’ll eat my hat.
- Super portable size and weight.
- Computer and controller in one.
- Breaking down the checking email look.
- Fragile feeling.
- Lack of power, for now.
- Connectivity limitations.
(CLAM) SHELL SHOCKED, OR HERE TO STAY?
Of course, manufacturers know that there are inherent issues with the laptop – size, weight, an increasingly strong desire to poke the screen in lieu of waving a mouse cursor around – and they’re continually finding ways to refine the time honoured clamshell design rather than completely reinvent the wheel. Quad Core i7 processors, the computing equivalent of a V16 fighter pilot engine (probably… note to self: make less uncertain similes), are now a reality in your lap; what really interests us, though, is the new designs. The netbook concept was ingenious but a little bit ahead of its time, and now that Apple, king of ergonomics has come out with the new Macbook Air my mouth is practically watering at the simplicity and tiny footprint of the 11” version. If anything it feels too elegant for the rough and tumble of a DJ’s life, but as received wisdom trickles down to PC manufacturers the good ole clamshell might have life yet… especially if they can mix the old and new.
Acer’s Iconia could be ‘the new’. A really novel idea, instead of a standard keyboard and display, the Iconia has two touch screens in its clamshell. It’s the possibilities more than anything that we’re excited about, though, as whilst Windows 7 has pretty good touch gesturing, DJ software is still designed for mice, keyboards, and controllers. We’re undecided as to whether this is a vision of the future, although at least a single touch screen is surely a given for laptops in the near future.
- Rugged reassurance of a clamshell design.
- Power wise, the traditional form factor’s still king.
- The last word in customisation and configuration.
- A laptop is a laptop, and laptops have an uncannily ability to command your gaze.
- Feeling like it’s there because it has to be.
- Sharing them with our ‘normal’ life, word processing and all.
So, the laptop. There’s no doubt that it’s not going to be gone by next month, or even next year – but surely it’s always been a stop gap for us DJs between the age of simple electronic decks and mixers and the all singing all dancing, embedded operating system hardware of the future… Right? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.