Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


It doesn't take a desktop PC to use multimedia applications or even to create multimedia projects of your own. Modern notebook computers are more than powerful enough to run multimedia applications; editing video, creating art, editing audio, and authoring DVDs are all possible with a portable machine. In fact, a midrange notebook can be a multimedia studio that rivals any desktop.

Your notebook may already have the horsepower to run these applications. If it doesn't, you can certainly expand your portable's capabilities. If you're considering purchasing a notebook specifically for multimedia, make sure the model you choose is properly equipped and provides room to grow as your multimedia needs do.

Whether you are upgrading an existing system or buying a new one, there are special considerations to keep in mind when turning a notebook into a multimedia powerhouse: limitations and benefits that don't affect desktop users.

Know Your Notebook

The first step in outfitting your portable computer for multimedia is to know what hardware it currently has and its expansion limitations. Notebook computers often sacrifice expandability for portability, so you probably can't upgrade that baby to 2GB of RAM and a 500GB internal hard drive. Also, a notebook doesn't have PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots to fill with video cards, frame-grabbers, and other such tools. But it certainly does have room to grow, perhaps via PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association; PC Card, for short) cards, USB (Universal Serial Bus) and FireWire ports, and additional RAM.

Remember that the capabilities and expansion limitations of each model are different. Check the manual or the manufacturer's Web site to find out the maximum amount of memory your notebook, or the one you are considering, can take. Multimedia applications tend to be RAM-hungry, so consider upgrading memory to the limit of the hardware and your budget. 1GB of RAM is plenty for many multimedia applications. Depending on the software you'll be using, you may not need that much.

Also check the manufacturer's Web site to find out about upgrades specific to your model. Many notebooks have a handful of upgrade options that are available only from the manufacturer, such as docking stations (which may increase the number and type of expansion ports on your notebook) and unusual adapter cables. Being aware of these options will let you expand your portable PC to its fullest capabilities.

Some upgrades, such as replacing an internal CD-ROM drive with a CD-RW (CD-rewriteable) or DVD burner, may require a visit to an authorized service center. On the other hand, upgrading your RAM may be something you can do easily yourself, depending on the notebook model.

Remember that you're not tied to the manufacturer for all upgrades. The prices that PC manufacturers charge for upgrades are often on the high side. Although you may not be able to buy a docking station or obscure video upgrade card elsewhere, it is likely that a third-party seller has better prices on generic upgrades like RAM and internal hard drives.

External Expansion

Even if your notebook is maxed out on the inside with a huge hard drive and plenty of RAM, there is room to grow on the outside. PCMCIA, USB, and FireWire ports provide plenty of expansion capabilities. (Of course, the drawback to external expansion is that each additional gadget that you carry around makes your portable computer somewhat less portable.)

For instance, an external video digitizing device connected to the FireWire port can turn your notebook into a movie-editing studio. An external hard drive, connected to the USB or FireWire port, can provide storage space for a vast amount of graphics, video, and audio files. Similarly, an external DVD writer can turn your little notebook into a movie-burning machine.

Your notebook may also have a PCMCIA slot that you can use to add a variety of peripherals, such as a network adapter or modem.

Storage

For multimedia work and play, you'll need plenty of hard drive space. Multimedia applications tend to be huge space hogs, and the projects that you create with them can be even larger. For storage, you might want a large internal hard drive, or a small internal drive coupled with a massive external one. Internal notebook drives usually top out at 60GB or 80GB, so if you need more than that, a combination of internal and external storage is the way to go.

Hard drive speed is another consideration. Internal drives usually spin at a relatively slow 4,200rpm or 5,400rpm in order to save power and keep the notebook running cool. Many multimedia editing applications work best with faster drives--7,200rpm or faster--which, again, is the domain of external drives.

A new interface is beginning to appear on new, high-end notebooks. SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) is a speedy storage interface that can be used for both internal and external devices. Thanks to high bandwidth and low power consumption, SATA is well suited to multimedia applications on notebooks. But the technology is young, so external SATA storage options aren't as numerous or as inexpensive as FireWire and USB 2.0.

Displays

When editing video or authoring DVDs, it is helpful to have as much screen space as possible. For a desktop user, it's no problem to add an extra video card and a second (or larger) monitor. But a notebook's small LCD (liquid-crystal display) may not provide the screen real estate you need to get the job done.

When you're shopping for a notebook to fulfill your multimedia ambitions, consider one with an external monitor port. Notebooks that support external monitors may support "mirroring," in which the external monitor shows the same image as the notebook's screen. But some notebooks also offer an extended desktop mode, which lets you put different windows on each screen; an extended desktop is more useful when you need plenty of workspace in an editing application. You probably won't want to cart a monitor around while you're on the road with your notebook, but that extra screen space will be welcome when you're back at home.

Audio Upgrades

Sound is an essential part of the multimedia experience. Every notebook includes a built-in sound card, the majority of which provide sound of reasonable quality. But notebook speakers are notoriously bad; most notebooks come with small speakers that produce tinny (at best) or indecipherable (at worst) tones. (And, as a cost-cutting and space-saving measure, some have no speakers at all.) Fortunately, adding speakers or headphones is easy. There are typically two ways to connect speakers or headphones: via the speaker/headphone jack or the USB port.

Speakers. Speakers that connect to the speaker jack are widely available and can be inexpensive. Models that connect via USB may provide higher quality sound and work on notebooks without a speaker jack, but are typically more expensive.

Practically any speakers will work with your notebook, but you'll probably want to use ones that are designed to be portable. See the "Have Speakers, Will Travel" sidebar for a look at several portable speakers.

If you want more than the basic two-channel sound output that most notebooks provide, there's room to grow there, too. An external sound device, such as the Sound Blaster Extigy from Creative Labs ($150; http://www.creative.com), can connect to your notebook's USB port, boosting it to 5.1 channels with analog and digital output--enough to run a rocking surround-sound system. It also includes microphone and line input jacks for digitizing audio.

Headphones. Headphones may be a better choice than speakers when you're doing your multimedia work in a public place. Headphones can provide excellent sound quality while keeping the sound private. If you frequently travel by air, noise-canceling headphones, such as Bose QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling headphones ($199; http://www.bose.com), provide a bonus: the ability to mask the airplane's ambient noise.

When you're working with multichannel audio, a stereo audio source might prove too limiting. Head-phones aren't necessarily limited to two channels. Surround-sound headphones approximate the output of a surround-sound speaker system. Two popular choices are the Zalman Theatre 6 Surround Sound Head-phones (around $60; http://www.zalman.co.kr/english/product/ZM-RS6F.htm) and the Sony MDR-DS5100 ($499.99; search at http://www.sonystyle.com).

Video & Audio Capture

For video editing, the ability to import moving images is essential. A video capture device takes the output from a video camera, VCR, or other source and digitizes it, turning it into a file on the PC.

If you have a video camera with FireWire output and a notebook with a FireWire jack, you already have all the hardware that you need. Otherwise, a USB or FireWire port is all it takes to connect to a video capture device.

The interface used will in part determine the quality of the video. Some video capture devices use USB 1.1, which does not have enough bandwidth to transfer video at the highest quality. On the other hand, a FireWire or Hi-Speed USB 2.0-compatible device, such as the Adaptec VideOh Media Center USB 2.0 Edition ($200; http://www.adaptec.com) or the Dazzle Digital Video Creator 150 ($150; http://www.pinnaclesys.com) will maintain the best quality for digitizing video.

If you're working with audio, you'll probably want the ability to digitize sound. Your notebook may have a microphone or line-in port, which should be all you need, along with the appropriate software, to import audio. If it doesn't have a sound input jack, a USB-connected audio input device will do the job. (Both USB 2.0 and the slower USB 1.1 provide enough bandwidth for high quality audio.) The iMic from Griffin Technology ($40; http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/imic) is one such gadget, providing microphone- and line-level input jacks, so your PC can digitize audio from a cassette tape player or other analog audio source.

Keep in mind that you may not need both video and audio capture products if you work with both media, because video capture devices digitize audio, as well as images.

Now You're Wired

Now that your notebook is properly outfitted to utilize your favorite graphics, video, and sound applications, load it up with software and use your portable computer as it's meant to be used. Find a park bench or peaceful, sunny spot, boot up your notebook, and enjoy your mobile multimedia experience.

Sidebar: Have Speakers, Will Travel

You won't normally find surround-sound, subwoofer-enhanced speakers attached to a notebook. First of all, most notebooks are only equipped for stereo output. Secondly, if you're carting around huge speakers, that portable PC suddenly isn't so portable, is it?

Fortunately, several manufacturers have stepped up to the plate with speakers that are designed for toting along with your notebook. Some offer sound that's much better than the squawks produced by a typical notebook's tiny built-in speakers.

Creative Labs TravelSound speakers ($70; http://www.creative.com) are small, light, decent-sounding speakers. With 2 watts per channel, they're also the loudest speakers that we tested. They can be powered by four AAA batteries or by a standard electrical outlet. The left and right speakers are just 4 inches apart, but a wide stereo effects option can be used to enhance the stereo separation.

The Sony SRS-T100PC ($95; http://www.sony.com) connects via a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connector rather than an audio jack, so it will work with a notebook but not other gadgets like portable MP3 players. The computer powers the speakers, so no batteries are necessary. The speakers have a unique telescoping mechanism that lets you quickly mount them on the sides of your notebook's screen. With an output of 0.6 watts per channel, the audio quality is good.

Sonic Impact SI-5 ($50; http://www.si-5.com) flat panel speakers are about the size of a CD case. When you're not using them, they clip together for easy storage. In use, you can set them up to 2 feet apart. The 2-watt per channel sound is loud but has poor bass response, making some music sound tinny. You can use four AAA batteries, AC power, or the computer's USB port to power them.

Because they're relatively small, none of these speakers can match the rich sound of a good set of desktop PC speakers. But for on-the-go convenience, portable speakers are a sound choice.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz