Laptops are such an important part of most digital DJs' set-ups, so it's maybe not surprising that the confusion about which is the best one to buy is second only to the eternal "what controller is best?" debate.
But the truth is that nowadays - unless you want to hack and tune your laptop to overclocked heaven, turning it into a custom production / sampling / broadcasting powerhorse - most modern laptops will do the job. DJing software is not, in reality, particularly demanding against today's specs.
However, that doesn't mean all laptops are equally suitable for DJing. Because DJing is a specific function, done in a pretty extreme environment and with particular types of equipment plugged in to the laptop, there are still considerations that have nothing at all to do with hard drive size, memory or processor speed - and DJs routinely buy laptops without thinking about them. So today we're going to look at some of these other considerations.
(Oh, and by the way, if you want to know our recommended minimum tech spec for a DJ laptop, it's 2GB RAM; Intel processor, Core 2 or better; and a hard drive with a few GB free space on it. Seriously, for 90% of DJing purposes, that'll have you covered. Stop worrying about it.)
Our little-considered factors when choosing a DJ laptop
- Screen size - The laptop relays important information to you. If you can't see it because the screen is too small, you'll never be comfortable DJing with it. I stuggle a little with my 13" MacBook Pro screen, and would ideally prefer a 15", for example, because for my less-than-perfect eyes, everything's just a little too small on a 13" screen. Remember, laptops are really designed to be sat right in front of, not stood back from and glanced at like us DJs do. Bear this in mind, especially if you're a glasses wearer like me
- Number of USBs - If you have an external sound card, a pad controller, and a DJ controller (not a particularly rare set-up), you're going to need three USBs. Some PCs only have two, so it's USB hub time for you. Things start to get complicated here, but you can prevent the issue by predicting how much DJ equipment you are likely to want to plug into your laptop, and buying one with sufficient USB sockets in the first place
- Screen resolution - Screen size is one thing, but actually screen resolution is vital, and often overlooked. Most 13" laptops are 1280 x 800. That is OK for Serato, not too bad for Virtual DJ, but actually quite poor for Traktor, which does not make particularly good use of screen real estate. Move up to 15" and while some remain at 1280 x 800 (so good for glasses wearers like me - see point 1!), other resolutions come into play like 1440 x 900, for instance, that give you more space to play with - but of course everything gets "smaller" again. Bear in mind that you can always set a bigger screen to display at a lower resolution if you want to
- Solid state or normal hard drive? - People go on about making sure your laptop has good quality components so it stays reliable, but the truth is that the only thing ever likely to fail on a laptop is the hard drive. In fact, it is definitely going to fail - it's always just a case of when. Unless, that is, you have a modern solid state hard drive (or "SSD"). These have no moving parts, so are extremely reliable against traditional hard drives. They cost more and are available only in lower capacities, but for reliability, they're unbeatable. Worth considering if you can afford one big enough for your needs
- Screen brightness - This specifically applies to those DJs who play daytime gigs. If you do, you'll know that laptops and sunshine really don't mix. It can become fiendishly difficult to see the screen at all in bright daylight or sun. In my experience, MacBooks have nice bright screens compared to most PCs, but it's definitely worth lining the laptops up in the shop and turning the brightness on full to check which performs best. Also bear in mind that some DJ software now offers "daytime" settings (Serato ITCH and djay both have this option) which will aid the pool party / sunset / barbecue DJ
- Battery life - Two reasons. Firstly, it's truly liberating to whip your laptop out miles from any outlet electricity, plug in some battery speakers, and DJ. After all, what's the point of having all your gear in a backpack if you can't DJ anytime, any place, anywhere every now and then? Plus, the ability to sort, cue point and analyse your music on a plane, for instance, can mean the difference between being prepared for a gig and messing it up. But secondly, sometimes you forget your power lead (it's happened to me), or you can't plug in or other such emergency - with decent battery life, it needn't be the end of the world
- Size and weight - A laptop may not seem like it weighs too much, but add it to a DJ controller, its own power pack, your headphones, a few cables, and now add on the weight of the bag you put it all in, and it starts to become an issue. If you travel with hand luggage on planes, the limit can be as low as 10kg. Just bear in mind what it weighs and the dimensions if you are a regular economy traveller, or you carry your gear by hand to gigs, because you'll thank yourself for the consideration later
- Build quality - We've already identified that apart from the hard drive, it tends to be that "components are components are components", but that doesn't mean you should dismiss build quality entirely. A cheap plastic case with poor hinges and catches won't last as long as a well designed and put-together laptop. You may drop the thing, it may take knocks as you're setting it up and tidying away, and so there's definitely a link between build quality and reliability. Use your instinct here - if something looks so flimsy that you're scared to open and close it, it probably isn't a good choice for DJing
The good news in all of this is that because you probably started laptop DJing using the laptop you already had, you already know your preferences with regards to some of these things, which means you're not starting from scratch when it comes to time to upgrade.
The other thing, of course, is compromise - you won't ever find a laptop that does everything 100%, because some of the qualities listed above go against each other. You can't have a big screen in an ultra-lightweight laptop, you can't have a cheap 1TB solid-state drive, and so on. What is right for you will depend how much importance you attach to each option, which is why it's impossible to recommend a one-size-fits-all laptop. Nonetheless, I hope you're now better prepared to make a smart decision.
What do you consider to be the most important thing when choosing a DJ laptop? Have we missed something out? Please share your thoughts in the comments.