This article was updated on 24 March 2015.
Here's artists' guide to buying computers and laptops.
This is not a geeky guide. I'll not be running benchmarks and timing test.
The general trend nowadays is that processing power is generally exceeding software requirement needs. Put simply, it means whatever computer you buy, it should run your software without much problem, unless you're running specialised software, e.g. 3D rendering software.
This guide is to help you optimize your purchase by recommending what you should get depending on the type of work you create.
By the way, I work for a small newspaper which uses Windows computers in the office but I've a Mac at home.
What are you going to do on the computer?
That's most important question to ask.
Yes, I know you do art but what type? Vector? 3D? Comics? Digital Painting? Animation? Do you need to carry your computer around?
What you do determines what you buy. You don't want to spend too much money on a maxed out computer for power you don't need.
Alright, let's look at the parts and what they mean to artists.
RAM is used to store temporary data. When you draw something on screen, e.g. typing, that something is stored temporary in the RAM before you actually save your file.
The amount of RAM determines how much art you can put on screen before you save. If you run out of RAM, your computer will slow down. It slows down because it has to switch to storing that temporary data on screen to the slower hard drive.
More RAM helps increase the number of undos you can save.
4GB of RAM should be sufficient for light graphics work, e.g. not too many graphics applications running at the same time. 8GB RAM is recommended in general for graphics work. Note that RAM is also shared with other software and the operating system (OS).
RAM is cheap. It's well worth the money.
Hard drive speed
Hard drive (or harddisk) is used to store your permanent data, your graphic files, the PSDs, AIs, TIFFs, PDFs, whatever. It's much slower than RAM at storing and reading data. So it directly affects the speed at which you work, in little ways which can accumulate to huge time wastage. The OS is also stored on the hard drive, which explains why it takes a while to start up.
Hard drives come in many speeds. 7200RPM, 15,000RPM, 5400RPM. RPM is how they measure hard drive speed. Typically desktop computers will come with 7200RPM, laptops with 5400RPM.
If the speed are not listed on computers you're buying, ask a salesman, or get the model number of the hard drive and look up on the Internet.
You should get at least 7200RPM.
Besides those hard drives measured in RPM, there's also the SSD hard drives. They are like RAM but can store permanent data. They are way faster, but also more expensive.
If you can afford it, is to get an SSD, maybe 120GB to run your OS and applications and daily work. Get a cheaper larger external storage, such as the Western Digital External Storage (I use a few of them).
Hard drive speed is the bottleneck of any system. If you have limited funds, I would suggest upgrading the hard drive to SSD over upgrading to more RAM (but get at least 4GB RAM).
Since you'll be installing your OS, if you have a fast SSD, you'll save a lot of time on the booting time, each time.
Hard drive space
Hard drives are relatively cheap nowadays. How much space you need depends on the size of your typical work files. Five 200mb Photoshop files will take 1 GB already.
A 1TB (1000GB) hard drive should be enough.
If you can, get an extra for backup purposes. Hard drive can break down. When that happens, you'll lose all your work — professional disk recovery is insanely expensive. If you're getting a desktop, go for an internal drive. For laptops, go for an external hard drive — not many models allow you to fit two hard drives, even so it might make your computer too hot to work on.
Just to repeat my recommendation. If you can afford, get a SSD internal drive, and an external drive with large capacity for backup. Personally, I use SSD with several external drives as backup.
If you're really on budget, get at least a 7200RPM hard drive. In the long run however, you'll definitely get your money's worth with a SSD.
At least a dual-core processor if you want to be comfortable. Anything more is because you need the processing power, especially for 3D rendering.
Get at least a dual-core processor, probably 2Ghz dual-core.
Nowadays most computers come with quad-core. Not many applications utilize quad-cores, but they are good to get if the price difference isn't too much over the dual-core. That's because the OS can use assign the processors to OS functions, and some processors to the software, and when there's no sharing of processor, you get better response.
Unless you're doing 3D modeling, you probably won't require a high end card. 2D digital painting, vector work or layout don't really require that card to calculate 3D data. Generally speaking, the graphics card that already come with your computer should suffice.
If you use a particular 3D software, you should check out the graphics cards recommended by the software company. Each 3D software might have their own little quirks when running on non-recommended graphics card.
And if you want to play games besides art, check the list of recommended graphics cards for the game.
Graphics card on laptops can't be upgraded after purchase so choose your laptops wisely. If you don't need to play games, you can save some money here.
A DVD burner can burn 4GB of files that you can easily send to your clients.
Sometimes computers come with bundled software that are "free" (as advertised) or heavily discounted. They are not really free because you pay for everything you get.
However if you have the chance to not buy them, especially Microsoft Office, don't buy them. You can find a lot of opensource (equivalent to free and legal) software that have similar functionality. Heck, even Photoshop has an opensource competitor like GIMP.
Computers don't usually come with art software so you'll have to buy them. The two licenses you should note are education and commercial. The cheaper education licenses are for learning purposes. Commercial licenses are for artists who want to make money off their work.
Get an LCD monitor with a high resolution, with lots of pixels. The more pixels you have, the more things you can display on screen. For example, a 1920 by 1200 resolution screen (about 24 inch) can display almost two web pages side by side.
I would recommend at least 1600 pixels wide (about 20 inch) which will give you enough work area as well as space to put the palettes and other controls.
Glossy or non-glossy will depend on your personal preference. I recommend glossy.
Get IPS panels for your monitor. They have better colour reproduction, colour accuracy, wider viewing angles and can display more colours. Do not get TN panels for graphic work.
I recomend Dell IPS monitors. I've used several models over the years and they are really quality monitors and worth the money.
There is not much difference but I'm sure marketing departments will say otherwise. At similar specifications, how different can Brand A be from Brand B?
What's important is the service and warranty plans that come with the computer. Computers can break down and it's really a luck issue. Do they have a local service center where you can bring it in? Do they have technicians who on-site servicing? Does the warranty cover all parts and services? These are the questions you should ask, and more so if you're asked to buy extended periods of warranty. Amazingly, sometimes extended warranty terms are different from 1st-year warranty terms.
Windows vs Mac
On the Internet, you'll see a lot of people saying more creative people use Macs or prefer Macs or something along that line. These people have no evidence to back up what they say. The reason for that association is because Macs started the desktop publishing era in 1985 (source: wikipedia). That era really ingrained in people the idea that creative people work with Mac, but seriously, there are also tons of artists who work on Windows.
Today, Macs and Windows are comparable in functionality. What you can do on Windows, you can also do on a Mac, unless you require some super specialized software that has no Mac equivalent. If your software has the same name, e.g. Photoshop version whatever, their files still work with on either platform.
Macs are typically more expensive, when compared based solely on specifications. One big difference is the operating system. Macs uses Mac OS, without which will make it as cheap as the cheapest Dell. The workflow between these two OS is slightly different, like how they manage files, find stuff, move things around. Differences might not be as great as you think. Both are user friendly, especially now that Windows 7 is out.
The best way to decide is to head down to an Apple store to get a feel.
Personally, I use a Mac at home and really love it. There are no viruses and no problems with stability, which many of my Windows friends say about their system also. The real winner here is the lack of maintenance you have to do, basically none. If there's anything wrong, it's always the hardware. For Windows computers, it's hard to troubleshoot if you don't know if it's a hardware or software problem.
The other reason for the Mac is because there are no games — no distraction. And if you really need Windows, you have Boot Camp software which will help you install Windows onto your Mac.
Laptops vs Desktops
The only reason you'll want to get the laptop is for the mobility. I emphasize the word "only" because I see many people being seduced by the higher specifications of desktops. There's franking no comparison here — you can't carry your desktop around freely as you would a laptop.
Always remember what you're buying the computer for.
Go to a shop to get a feel of the weight of the laptop you'll be carrying frequently. 15 inch laptops aren't light but they offer more screen resolution which is really useful. Or you can grab a smaller laptop and get an extra LCD monitor for more resolution. Many people do that.
Having backups is important. I always make sure I've duplicate copies of all my files at any single time. That means I have a few additional external hard drives. Sometimes I have external drives to backup external drives. They are cheap so it's a good investment, a good insurance against data loss or destruction.
Building your own
If you are tech savvy enough, you can try assembling your own computer. But for the most part, I would recommend getting an assembled set. It saves time and is more convenient.
Just comment if you have any questions.