Pro Tools is extremely demanding. Especially when you are a plugin fanatic like me. Many would say that you must build a dedicated PC to even run Pro Tools without pulling your hair out. But that simply isn’t true. Yes, in a studio, a dedicated PC/Mac with a powerful set of hardware will go a long way and will give you extra space to play with CPU-intensive plugins on a low buffer, but laptops these days can come closer to that level of performance than ever before.
But everything comes at a cost. Expect to spend ~$1400 for a good laptop for music production. If that’s beyond your budget – I’ve found a few cheaper options that offer good enough performance to run even complex projects.
In this post, I’ll lay down the requirements for the best laptop for Pro Tools and then I’ll finish strong with a list of Top 9 laptops for music production. Short and sweet.
And oh boy, did I spent too much time on this article… But enough complaining, let’s get this post rolling.
What am I looking for in a laptop for Pro Tools?
Let’s start off by taking a look at the official system requirements:
- Intel® Core i5 processor
- 8 GB RAM
- 15 GB
- USB Port
Mind you, these requirements were released for a desktop PC. Right off the bat, since Desktop i5 ~= Laptop i7 processor (and sometimes even worse), we’ll need i7 series CPU. And that’s a minimal requirement! 8 GB of memory is a bare minimum to run Pro Tools, but I and Avid themselves recommend to get at least 16 GB. Meanwhile, 15 GB of disk space and USB-port are irrelevant requirements.
Sadly, Avid does not provide much information on what would make a great PC for Pro Tools. This is a very common problem with requirement sheets – not enough information on how the system should scale and on what components money could be saved.
To address this, I’ll break down my personal requirements for the best Pro Tools laptop one-by-one.
Major requirements for a Pro Tools laptop
I’ll start with major requirements for Pro Tools. They will be your bread and butter and you should invest in these key areas whenever possible. They’ll save you time for years to come. Ignore them at your own peril #wordOfTheDay.
Major requirement Very good processor
I’m sure you know how important a processor is for these kinds of tasks. But for Pro Tools, single core performance is more important than the number of cores/threads. That’s because audio chains cannot be “shared” mid-way between several CPU threads. In short, that means that the longer chain from synth/sample to your ears – the more stress is put on a single core.
Right now, in the laptop I mix with, I have a Core i7-3630QM which is comparable to the more recent i7-5500U and i7-6500U CPUs. It does its job very well and I’m glad that 2 years ago I bought a laptop with this processor. But it has its limits, especially when I have a habit to pre-master in my initial mix. Additional plugins especially at the end of the mastering chain put a lot of strain on the processor and that’s where I have to start dropping down quality settings and turning off oversampling which is not ideal.
Recommended Intel Core i7 mobile processors for Pro Tools:
|5500U, 6500U, 5700HQ, 6700HQ||These processors offer 4 cores (2 threads each). They’ll offer great performance for every dollar. If the project is organized neatly and the most demanding tracks are pre-rendered, there should be very few problems with these processors. They’re still very good, that’s what I’m trying to say.|
|4720HQ, 4900MQ, 6820HK||In contrast to the CPUs above, these go above 3.5 GHz for that additional single core performance that will make all the difference for longer plugin chains.|
If you’re on the fence between spending extra ~300$ for a better CPU, ask yourself – how many plugins you tend to use, how heavy is your mastering chain and how heavy are your send chains? If in all cases your answer is “moderate” or even “a bit on the heavy side” – you might as well save that money on other audio equipment. But if you answered, at least, one with “heavy”/”very heavy” – sooner or later you’ll start hearing underruns.
Major requirement A ton of memory
Unless you’re on a very tight budget, you should opt in for 16 gigs of RAM or more. There’s nothing much more to know about it. DDR3 or DDR4 – doesn’t matter much (DDR4 memory still has more latency which measurably reduces its working frequency advantage).
The only real question is – do I need more than 16 GB?
I’d say that you don’t. Or at least, not necessarily. Honestly, there’s only that many plugins/samples you can load until other hardware will start throttling leaving your 32 gigs effectively useless. Unless you have some ridiculously memory-intensive software running in/beside Pro Tools – 16 GB should be enough.
But if you can pushing your budget over 2500$ and you need an absolute best laptop for Pro Tools – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go for 24 or 32 GB of memory.
Major requirement A lot of (fast) storage
First, we’ll need a Solid State Drive for OS, Pro Tools and our VSTs.
So do we even need an HDD? I think you know the answer to this question more than I can. It all boils down to – how large is your samples’ library. Reserve ~300 GB for OS, Pro Tools, and VSTs. And then, do the math. Practically, any SSD under 500 GB will need an assistance of an additional regular hard drive disk.
We could start a whole new topic on RAID setups, but if you know you need them (and most don’t need RAID) – write that down.
Two more pieces of advice:
- when in doubt – buy a laptop with at least 2 storage bays/slots
- prefer SSDs over PCI-Express (usually over M.2) – they won’t make a world of difference but they should help out a bit when loading huge lossless samples
Major requirement Ports for audio interfaces and external displays
We’ll need connections for basic peripherals, audio interfaces, and external displays. Basic peripherals depend entirely on the sheer number of USB ports. Nowadays, you’ll always find at least 1 (and often more) USB 3.0 ports that will save you a lot of precious time when working with external drives and USB sticks.
Most new audio interfaces come in USB-flavour. The sheer ubiquity of USB-ports pushed manufacturers to restructure their hardware for USB connections which work differently to its main competitor in this sphere – FireWire. USB sends data in packages while FireWire/Thunderbolt can send data through the cable in a stream-like fashion. Why am I dropping these knowledge bombs? The difference in data transfer makes USB and FireWire/Thunderbolt hardware practically not interchangeable.
That’s why the best laptop for Pro Tools should have a Thunderbolt which is backward compatible with FireWire standard through an adapter and plenty of USB ports. In fact, the latest USB 3.1 Type C standard has addressed this issue by supporting data streaming which essentially makes it a Thunderbolt or FireWire socket.
Sadly, PCI-Express sockets have been wiped out from the laptop market for some time now. If you demand a PCIe connection – you’ll be seriously limiting your options.
In short, USB 3.1 C – great, ThunderBolt – good, USB 3.0 – OK.
There are 4 types of display connectors – DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI and VGA (D-Sub). The last 2 are rarely found on laptops due to their size and limitations. Unless you’re working with an old projector – there’s no reason to search for these ports. The only relevant connections are HDMI and DisplayPort.
DisplayPort is superior to HDMI in almost every way – it supports higher resolutions and refresh rates. But since 60 Hz is enough for non-visual work, a single DisplayPort (or latest revisions of HDMI) can be used to connect multiple displays.
To make it clear what we are aiming for:
|Ports||Connect up to||Found in|
|Best case scenario||DisplayPort, HDMI 2.0||2 large displays||High-end 15″ and 17″ laptops|
|Good scenario||DisplayPort and HDMI||1 large and 1 smaller display||High-end 15″ and mid-range 17″ laptops|
|Minimum||HDMI||1 small/large display||Almost any new laptop|
Minor requirements for a Pro Tools laptop
Minor requirement Battery Life
Do not expect to be able to work with Pro Tools for more than a 3-4 of hours when not-plugged-into a power source. Unless you’re drafting some melodies or chopping some samples, Pro Tools will quickly drain your battery down to 0.
But a good battery will give an additional role for your laptop – you’ll be able to use it while you’re not at home or in a studio without worrying that it will shut down in the next hour.
Good battery life is always a bonus, especially when traveling. But it shouldn’t be the main way you’ll work on music and that’s why I only consider it a minor requirement compared to CPU, RAM, and SSD.
Optional requirement Dedicated graphics card
Pro Tools won’t find any use for a good graphics card. I once tried using GPU on some reverb plugin, but to limited success.
So, it is an entirely optional addition to a PT laptop since it does no good for it. But it can be crucial if you’re also working with visuals or you enjoy gaming from time to time.
But if you’re certain you won’t need a fast graphics chip – just ignore them. Lack of a dedicated graphics card can make your laptop more silent (as GPU fan doesn’t have to spin) and make it last longer while on battery.
My recommended laptops for Pro Tools
We’ll start off from the cheapest laptops for Pro Tools and we’ll climb our way up to the best of the best.
Best budget laptops for Pro Tools
The cheapest laptop in this guide and it already has 16 GB of RAM and half a terabyte of SSD? Umm, what a glorious feeling. And they said PCs have stopped moving forward.
Even though Acer Aspire is mind-blowingly good for a budget laptop, I’d argue it’s about as low you can go when shopping for a Pro Tools laptop.
It is one of the lighter 15.6″ laptops out there with a slightly above-average battery runtime (6h 30min of surfing the net). And the screen is also a not an issue, which is rarely the case for ~$800 laptops. It is bright has a good contrast. Its colors are not as vibrant as some of the laptops within 100$, but that’s a very minute complaint when working with audio.
By adding a 500 GB SSD, Acer pushed this laptop significantly above any other in this range. This budget laptop comes with what was only found in $1,300 laptops just a year ago.
Acer Aspire for Pro Tools
Firstly, it has an Intel Core i7-6500U processor, which is fast enough to deliver good performance when you push buffer size all the way to the right on ASIO driver panel. It should be enough to drive ~20 tracks with a medium amount of plugins and spare usage of sends and a moderate mastering chain.
It has the basic set of ports: 2 USB3, 1 USB2, HDMI and VGA connector for older monitors. That puts a few limitations on the general workflow. Firstly, you’re limited to 2 external displays, but if you have 3 external monitors, why are you buying a laptop under $900?? OK, let’s come back to the topic. Lack of USB 3.1C (Thunderbolt III) connector leaves all FireWire/Thunderbolt audio toys out of reach – but these days you can build a very solid audio stack with just USB ports. Though, there’s only 3 of them, so you’ll have to make them count.
HP Pavilion comes in 2 sizes – 15.6″ and 17.3″. Both are very similar: same processor, same amount of memory, storage, screen type and resolution and the same set of ports. The only major differences stem from their size. Pavilion 17″ weighs a pound (0.5kg) more and it lasts a bit less while on battery due to its larger screen.
In contrast to Acer Aspire, HP Pavilion models come with a noticeably faster CPU but with slightly dimmer and less vibrant screen.
HP Pavilion for Pro Tools
Both HP Pavilion models are a better choice over Acer Aspire if you need a bit more muscle “under the hood” and you’re OK to have a ~hour less of battery time and an average screen.
Sadly, it can support only 1 external screen due to older (but still the most common) HDMI 1.4 version. To get similar hardware with more connectivity options, you’ll have to go beyond $1000.
Best mid-range laptops for Pro Tools
This Apache laptop excels in 2 criteria – storage and ports. Unfortunately, it sacrifices IPS panel but still manages to keep the display on par with the ones that have it. That’s probably because it has a “Wide-Angle” panel, which sounds like a cheaper non-licensed version of IPS.
It doesn’t weigh more than an average 15-inch laptop. And that’s an achievement by itself for a gaming laptop packing a dedicated graphics card. Though it’s easy to see how they managed to keep it light – battery last only 3.5 hours with some light office-type usage.
MSI Apache Pro for Pro Tools
First off, just like previous laptops, it comes with 512 GB Solid State Drive. But this time, there’s a 2 TB (!!) hard drive to keep all your audio samples and other static media. That by itself could mean you won’t need an external drive to store all your uncompressed audio which is a big plus.
Now, let’s talk about ports. MSI Apache brings a nice set of connectors when talking about displays and audio equipment.
HDMI and DisplayPort together can be used to connect up to 5 Full HD 60Hz monitors if your monitors support DisplayPort v1.2. Since I haven’t found any claims that this laptop supports MST for multiple monitor output – there aren’t any easy solutions for older displays. So, likely you’ll be limited to 2 or 3 external screens.
Meanwhile, USB 3.1 Type C connector is a great addition to the laptop. Sadly, it comes without Thunderbolt controller and cannot be used for Thunderbolt/2nd Display Port connection (or at least that’s not specified).
The highlight of this model is its
It is also a bit lighter than most 15.6-inch laptops and has an above-average battery life of nearly 6 hours while browsing the net. The screen is just about where it should be – good contrast and color space and average brightness.
ASUS ZenBook Pro for Pro Tools
Performance wise, it is just as good as MSI GE62 Apache – it even laws the same gaming-oriented graphics card if you’ll need it.
However, its lightness and some of extra battery life can be attributed to a lack of the 2nd hard drive that MSI model had. Because of that, an external SSD might be needed if you have a large sample collection. Luckily, there are 3 USB 3.0 ports that will ensure great read/write speeds.
Finally, Thunderbolt. The USB 3.1C port comes with Thunderbolt III controller and can be used to drive Thunderbolt and FireWire devices (if you’re OK with a few additional adapters). Thunderbolt can also be used to drive external displays (adapters, adapters, adapters…) so you’re not stuck with the 1 that HDMI can provide.
Absolute best laptops for Pro Tools
I’ve been listing only 15.6″ and 17.3″ laptops (and there’s still a few to come). Now it’s time to give some love for this beastly 12.3-inch laptop that packs the punch of a 15-inch machine.
It is very important I make this clear – the price listed here was found during a sale which might have ended by the time you’re reading this! In fact, it went up by 50 bucks just while I was writing this guide.
You might be wondering what VAIO is – it was a top of the line Sony laptop brand until Sony decided to focus its resources elsewhere and sold this laptop line to manufacturers in Japan. And they have done some great work!
Also, it has one of the best shared-memory graphics cards out there (comparable to Nvidia GTX 930M/940M) which is good enough for basic video editing and gaming at low resolutions and low-to-medium quality settings.
Crazy good performance in a very little frame? What could go wrong? Well, battery life is lacking. It lasts up to 4 hours browsing the net and that limits its potential as a semi-tablet.
What if you’d like a 14-inch laptop? Well, there’s one well-received laptop from a brand that you probably never heard that #laptopHipster – Eluktronics P640RE. It has a 1 TB SSD (and there’s a model with 2 TB!!), HDMI, 2 Display Ports and 4 USB 3.0 (but no 3.1C). And of course, like any laptop I’d recommend – it has great hardware (i7-6700HQ, 16 GB RAM). Sadly I couldn’t find definitive battery life benchmarks. But I can estimate that its battery runtime should be very underwhelming considering the 3-cell 45WHr battery and some customer reviews. So it’s easy to carry but it won’t last long when it’s not plugged in.
VAIO Z Canvas for Pro Tools
It is very fast – Quad-core processor going up to 3.4 GHz in just under 13 inches? Crazy. It’s like a cheaper version of Microsoft Surface Book.
The good news about it is that has both – HDMI and Display Port. That allows you to connect to 2 external displays or more if you’re into buying adapters. The bad news is that it has only 2 USB 3.0 ports and no Thunderbolt. Therefore, this laptop seems the best when you need a lot of horsepowers to compose/mix on the go but there are better options if you want a studio-ready laptop.
If you go for a 1 TB SSD version, that should be enough for a reasonably large plugin/audio collection. But even 500 GB is just as much as the largest MacBook Pro can offer.
If you need raw power, you couldn’t care less about laptop’s weight or that it lasts only a few hours on battery – I’ve got something you’ll love.
First off, it’s even faster than all the laptops before it – right now, the 6820HK processor is one of the best in the laptop world. Of course, there’s 16 GB of memory with plenty of storage and a gaming-class graphics card.
The screen is quite good – IPS panel, good brightness (avg. 310 cd), contrast (1050:1) and ~85% sRGB coverage. There’s no need to get anything better when working with audio.
MSI Dominator for Pro Tools
HDMI, 2 Display Ports, 1 USB 3.1 C (Thunderbolt 3 compatible) and 6 USB 3.0 ports!
The processor is matched by 0.5 TB PCIe M.2 SSD and 1 TB HDD. In short, this a sick combination of letters and numbers.
The 2 obvious drawbacks are battery life (3 hours) and weight (8.4 lbs/3.8 kg). Sorry, you cannot have it all at this price point. But if you don’t need it all – this GT72 has the muscle to drive very demanding Pro Tools projects.
DELL XPS for Pro Tools
This 2016 XPS model is not as fast as the bulky gaming-grade machine above but it’s still fast enough for very complex projects with 20-30 tracks and moderate-to-heavy plugin usage. If you’ll start adding plugins to the mastering track, you’ll need to increase buffer to 1024/2048 samples, but that’s not a problem for composing and mixing.
Dell makes some compromises to the best hardware and a large battery into a slim case. These compromises come at a cost of system ports. There are only 2 USB 3 ports and 1 HDMI. The whole situation is saved by USB 3.1C (with Thunderbolt 3 support). Dell provides a USB C dock for additional HDMI, VGA, Gigabit-Ethernet and regular USB 3.0 connectors. This leaves it capable of either multiple displays or Thunderbolt III (which is also supported).
This laptop has one of the best screens in the world, it’s very light (for 15″) and it has a great long-lasting battery. It is the closest thing to a MacBook Pro, without being one and bringing its own strengths to the table.
What did you expect? Apple MacBooks are great for any type of creative work. Even considering its sheer hardware, MacBook offers a very similar value for dollar compared to PC brands. I couldn’t believe it until I compared all the specs and independent benchmarks with other laptops.
If you’re familiar with Mac OS and this is your price range – getting this MacBook Pro is almost a no-brainer. The only decision you have to make is whether to buy it now or to wait until Apple (hopefully) announces something better in the coming months.
MacBook Pro for Pro Tools
Right now, this is the ONLY MacBook I’d recommend for Pro Tools. Other MacBooks fall short in either their storage size, connections selection or general performance. This MacBook Pro has a good set of ports – HDMI, 2 Thunderbolt II, 1 USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0 ports. They will suffice in most cases as Thunderbolt can be used to for FireWire hardware or to connect additional displays.
Don’t forget to refresh your knowledge by reading Avid’s guide on optimizing Pro Tools performance to make sure you’re utilizing your laptop to the best of its ability.
Lastly, a good laptop won’t make you Max Martin overnight. It’s just a tool like any other. But there’s a reason why the best use the best tools. And now, you will too. Damn, that sounded cheesy.
I hoped this guide helped you, even if you didn’t fancy my recommended laptops. If you find anything better – let me know. Apart from that, don’t hesitate to leave a response below if you’ve got any questions. Also, don’t forget to check guides on FL Studio and other DAWs.