How to Choose Your DJ Laptop
‘Why do I need a DJ laptop anyway?’
It’s a good question, because while ‘laptop DJing’ (having a laptop right there with you when you DJ) is pretty common nowadays, it’s by no means the only way of DJing. Maybe you just want to use CDs, which is another common way of DJing. Or maybe you’re fancying DJing from your iPad. Or maybe you’ve spotted a ‘no computer required’ DJ system, using USB pens or drives to hold your music that you plug into it, and you fancy DJing in a manner similar to that.
You still need a laptop.
Or, to be more accurate, you still need a computer. And let’s face it, for most people nowadays, ‘computer’ means ‘laptop’. (If you’re adamant that, come what may, you are never, ever going to take your laptop DJing with you, then by all means use a desktop computer instead, but for the rest of this chapter, I’m going to say ‘laptop’.)
So why do you need one? In short, in order to prepare your music for DJing with. Because unless you intend only to play vinyl, using old-fashioned record decks, your music is going to be digital, and that means you need a laptop to deal with it. even if you want to play CDs and just CDs, you’re going to need to obtain music digitally in order to burn your own, which means you’ll need a computer (and one with a CD burner, too – something that’s not standard nowadays).
At the very least, you’ll be using your laptop for logging in to online music stores to purchase tracks, which you’ll then download, organise, and prepare for DJing with, even if you then transfer that music to CD or USB drive to plug into your DJ gear or export it to your iOS or Android device to DJ from thereafter. And if this is genuinely all you think you’re going to be doing with your laptop, the good news is just about any old one will do as the work you’re going to have it doing isn’t ‘mission critical’ (i.e. if it lets you down, you won’t have 500 people on a dancefloor to answer to).
But if, like many DJs, you choose to do your actual DJing using DJ software, your laptop will stay with you all the way, running that software as you do your thing. In this instance, depending on the kind of DJ gear you’re using (if any; it is possible to DJ from a laptop on its own), your laptop acts as your decks and sometimes your mixer too (and your music library, to boot). Sure, you may have DJ hardware plugged in to offer you something more ergonomic than the computer keyboard, but make no mistake, it’s the laptop that’s doing all the work. So you’re going to have to pay a bit more attention to this vital part of your set-up.
Should I buy a new laptop or use the one I’ve got?
The good news is that if you already own a laptop and you bought it within the last five years, it will almost certainly be good enough to get going with. All modern laptops can run the software needed for anything a DJ is likely to want to do, so in reality it’s likely any laptop you own will be able to be pressed right into service as you learn to DJ. If in doubt, every DJ software manufacturer has a page on their website listing the minimum specifications needed for their software to work, so check before you buy.
When it’s time to buy a laptop for DJing with, though, there are a number of considerations, some of which might not be what you expect. Here they are:
- Get something sturdy – DJ laptops tend to have rough lives. They can get knocked and bumped, stuff spilled on them, hot and damp in sweaty clubs and cold and damp in the boots of cars. And they really need to keep going, because a failed laptop mid-gig is not fun. So something sturdy and well-built is important.
- Get something with a big, clear screen – Depending on your eyesight, buying anything with a screen smaller than thirteen inches is likely to be an error. DJ software is notoriously busy, and trying to keep an eye on it on a smaller screen is difficult. Don’t just consider the screen size, but consider the resolution, too. If you have bad eyesight, you may find a large screen set to a relatively low resolution suits you better than a smaller screen with a high resolution. And consider the brightness of the screen, especially if you plan to do any daytime DJing, where the sun can quickly turn a dim screen into a practically invisible one.
- Get something with enough USB sockets – DJs tend to want to plug things into their laptops, like DJ controllers, audio interfaces, mobile phones (to charge them while gigging), or USB drives. Some DJ set-ups may need you to have two or even three USB sockets just to get up to speed. And you never know how your needs are going to change. Two USB sockets is an absolute minimum; three is better. It is possible to buy USB hubs (go for a powered one) which can expand the number of USB sockets you have while keeping everything reliable as you plug more and more gear in, but it’s best to have at least the number you think you’ll need in the first place.
- Make sure you have enough memory and hard disk space, and go for SSD if you can – Memory will make your DJ software zip along, with faster loading and processing times and smoother running when you’re DJing. As far as your hard drive goes, not only are solid state drives, or SSDs, significantly faster than traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), but, since they have no moving parts, they are also more reliable – an important consideration in the DJ booth (see ‘Get something sturdy’ above). If you’re looking for numbers, 8GB of memory and 256GB of hard disk space as a minimum would be a good start; some professional mobile DJs, who need huge music collections in order to fulfil all types of weird and wonderful audience requests, have much bigger hard disks.
Mac or Windows?
This is a debate that rumbles on and on and will probably never be definitively won by either side. The truth is that both platforms can do the job well, and both can let you down. Because DJing is such a mission critical application, and because Macs have a great track record of reliability, DJs have taken to Macs in their droves, knowing they are likely to do the job without a grumble. But even so, among 10,000 readers of Digital DJ Tips who took part in a recent survey, users were still divided right down the middle on this one.
If you can afford it, you may choose to go for a Mac, but if you want to use a Windows computer for whatever reason (can’t afford a Mac, already own a Windows device, prefer Windows to Mac oS), don’t be put off. A good Windows laptop will serve you just as well, and you’ll get the same spec for slightly less money. But what is true is that there are many cheap Windows laptops available which are awful, not because they’re running Windows, but simply because they’re made of cheap parts. They break down easily, have poor screens, and are too delicate for a life on the road. There’s no such thing as a cheap Mac, something that Apple detractors will gleefully point out to those whom they see as paying a premium for the name.
But to go back to where we started, while you’re learning to DJ in your bedroom, who cares? If it runs the software, use whatever you’ve got. There’s plenty of time to worry about Mac vs Windows when it’s time to buy something new. Actually, what’s far more important than the laptop brand is the type of DJ software you choose to run on it. That’s what we’ll cover in the next chapter.