This article was last updated in September 2017
When it comes to choosing laptops for creative work, art or graphic design, digital painting or 3D modeling, there are a few considerations.
This article is split into two parts. The first part looks at what the specifications mean, and the second part looks at the different laptops available currently in the market.
If you're an art student looking to get a new laptop for school, or an professional looking for a workstation, the list below should help you save some time.
My background: I'm an artist/designer/journalist working at a newspaper. Over the years, I've used slow, fast, powerful and crappy computers (still do), and work on both Mac and Windows platform.
The most important thing is to find out if the software you use is supported on Windows or Mac.
Not all applications are cross platform. For example, Autodesk 3ds Max runs only on Windows. Final Cut Pro runs only on Mac. Thankfully, most of Adobe's graphic applications are supported on both Windows and Mac.
Just to be sure, you check with the software's website for their minimal supported system specifications. That should give you a good starting point from which to choose your computer's specification. Generally speaking, laptops nowadays are quite powerful even for the entry level ones.
Storage - This happens to be the bottleneck of any machine. It's best to get SSD (more expensive) so that your system can load fast, save and open files fast. Some laptops offer both solid state drives (SSD) and the slower spinning hard disk drives (HDD) which gives you the best of both worlds - you can install the OS on the fast SSD and store your huge files on the spacious but slower HDD. Most 13-inch laptops have only one slot for storage drives. When it gets to 15-inch, there are some that offer more than one slot for storage drives, which means you get to choose both SSD and HDD.
RAM - This is memory used to store temporary work, e.g. Photoshop layers you have yet to save, the many applications opened in the background but not in use, your many browser windows. Note that your OS uses RAM too. 8GB RAM is the very least you should get. It's best to get 16GB. RAM is affordable and this is not the area to save significant money.
Graphics card - If you're just creating 2D work, you can save money by not getting a high-end graphics card. A high end graphics card allows you to move around a highly detailed or textured 3D model with no lag. For the purpose of this article and the laptop comparison further below, when I mention that a graphics card is mid-range, it means it's suitable for 3D work for a relative large number of polygons in wireframe mode and may lag when it comes to previewing textured mode and moving around. High-end graphics card can handle detailed textured 3D scenes and move around without lag.
Processor - Either duo or quad core processors. Not many applications use quad core processors effectively yet. If you need to render 3D or videos regularly, definitely go for a quad core.
Since it's a laptop, portability is going to be a concern. If you bring your laptop around often, it might be better to get a lighter one. But seriously speaking, performance laptops are not going to be light.
Screen size and resolution
Screen size and resolution will affect your productivity. A resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels should provide ample working space and still be able to show menus, control palettes. Next consideration is screen size. A larger screen will enable you to see details clearer (if the resolution is high enough) and make it easier to click on the menus and control palettes. I suggest at least a 15-inch screen with 1920 by 1080 resolution.
Nowdays, there are screens that offer much higher resolution than 1080P. E.g. 4K screens at 3840 by 2160 resolution. If you want a high resolution screen, make sure that the software you're using supports it or the user interface, e.g. menus and buttons, are going to appear tiny and almost unusable. Do your research in respective software format. E.g. Adobe CS5 and CS6 menus are buttons are tiny and incredibly frustrating to use.
It's best to get an IPS panel that will provide the widest viewing angle. In another words, you'll be able to see the same colour no matter the angle of the screen. For the laptop comparisons below, if there's no mention of IPS, it means I wasn't able to find any information regarding the type of panel.
It's also good to get a matte screen instead of one that's glossy. Glossy means you'll get reflections. I prefer matte. It's just a personal preference.
If you're into print production or need colour accuracy, need to compare design on your screen against a physical printout, then get a laptop that supports as close to 100% Adobe RGB as possible. The laptops have good IPS screens with decent colours and viewing angles, however they don't come close to 100% Adobe RGB.
If you do not need the level of colour accuracy required for print production, you can just go for sRGB screens which still have more than satisfactory colour reproduction. 100% sRGB screens cost less than 100% Adobe RGB screens.
If you have the budget for laptops with 100% Adobe RGB screens, check out this list
Graphic applications can be processor intensive and use up a lot of battery power. Of course it's best to have a laptop with longest lasting battery life but in the real world, you're likely to be plugging into a power supply.
Note that 4K resolution screens will use up more power as well.
Alright, here are the laptop choices.
Lenovo ThinkPad P-series (Released 1Q 2016)
The P-series Thinkpad laptops are the portable workstations offered by Lenovo. It used to the the W-series. I wish they would stop messing around with the letters as it gets confusing fast.
The P50s is considered low-end but still powerful. If you have the budget, go for the P50 or P70 for the quad-core processors and more configurable.
Note that there 3 screen options to choose from, 15.6-inch FHD, 15.5-inch (2880x1620) and 15.6-inch 4K. There's an anti-glare filter that's not totally matte.
Here's quick comparison.
|Processor||Up to Intel Core i7-6600U (dual 2.6Ghz)||Up to Intel Xeon E3-1505M (quad 2.8Ghz)||Up to Intel Xeon E3-1575M (quad 3Ghz)|
|Screen||15.6 inch IPS||15.6 inch IPS||17.3 inch IPS|
|Resolution||1920 x 1080||1920 x 1080||1920 x 1080|
|Graphics card||NVIDIA Quadro M500M 2GB||NVIDIA Quadro M1000M 4GB||Up to NVIDIA Quadro M2000M 4GB|
|RAM||Up to 32GB||Up to 64GB||Up to 64GB|
|Storage||Up to 512GB SSD||Up to 1TB SSD||Up to 1TB SSD|
|OS||Windows 10 Home||Windows 10 Professional||Windows 10 Professional|
|Price||Click to check||Click to check||Click to check|
Surface Pro 2017 (Released 2Q 2017)
Microsoft Surface Pro 2017 is a huge improvement over the SP4. I know many website say that it's an incremental upgrade, but not to me.
First, Microsoft has done away with the fan for the Intel i5 model. SP4 was noisy because the fan kicks in often, even when the processor is not under heavy load. Now that the SP 2017 has no fan, it's silent.
Secondly, the battery life has improved significantly. Getting 10 hours of non-stop use at acceptable brightness is no longer a dream. SP4 had battery life that's below competition -- I'm talking about 4-6 hours depending on so many factors. If you're thinking of getting SP4 now that the older version is cheaper, don't do that. Get the SP 2017 for the longer battery life. Short battery life will become even shorter and that would be incredibly inconvenient.
Ports included are a USB-A port, a mini DisplayPort, Surface Connect port and a micro SD card slot. These are the same ports from SP4. There are many tech websites saying that USB type C port should have been added. I don't think so because many peripherals still use the standard USB-A port.
Below are the different configurations:
- Processor: Intel Core m3-7Y30 (1.0 to 2.6 GHz), Intel Core i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) and Intel Core i7-7660U (2.5 to 4.0 GHz)
- RAM: 4 - 16GB
- Storage: 128GB to 1TB SSD
Note that the Intel Core i7 model has fans in the system.
My personal recommendation would be to get the model in the middle, the one with Intel i5, 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, which to me represents the best value for money.
The downside of SP 2017 would be its small screen size of 12.2-inches, but you can connect to an external monitor via the miniDisplay Port. The other downside is actually the price which is actually not too bad but the Surface Pen (US $100) is no longer included, and if you need the keyboard cover, that's another $100 or more.
I used to recommend the Precision workstation series of laptops but on second thought, the XPS should be a more appropriate option for most artists and designers. The exterior of Precision and XPS laptops are very similar. The main difference is the Precision laptops are more configurable. With Dell XPS, you only get to choose from the specs that Dell has picked for you, which is really not a bad thing. If you require intense 3D modeling and rendering, I still recommend the Precision laptops because of their Quadro graphic card. Check out my review of the previous Precision 5510.
Dell XPS is one of the better laptops from Dell in terms of build quality, design and specifications. I mean the laptop looks good and is certainly very powerful.
- Processor: i3-7100H (dual 3.0Ghz), i5-7300HQ (quad 2.5 - 3.5Ghz), i7-7700HQ (quad 2.8 - 3.8Ghz)
- Screen: 1080P matte, 4K glossy touchscreen (100% Adobe RGB)
- RAM: Up to 16GB
- Storage: 256GB
- Graphics: Intel® HD Graphics 630, GTX 1050
- Weight: 2kg
I personally recommend the 15.6-inch model (9560) for the larger screen over the smaller XPS. The new model 9560 has switched to using Intel Kaby Lake and GTX 1050 graphics card. Do not get the dual core model. Get the i5 quad core model.
Dell XPS has a nice selection of ports included:
- 1 Thunderbolt 3 (USB type C)
- 2 USB 3.0
- 1 HDMI
- 1 SD card reader
- 1 Headphone and microphone combo jack
These laptops are quite heavy and start at 2kg which is actually quite standard for 15-inch laptops.
If you get the laptops from Dell, you have the options of buying additional years of warranty on top of the standard 1 year.
Zbook Studio G4 (3Q 2017)
HP Zbook Studio G4 competes with the Dell Precision at the high end market. Whatever the Dell Precision offers, you can find it on the HP Zbook Studio G3 also.
The main highlight is how configurable it is.
- Processor: Intel i5-7300HQ (quad 2.5Ghz) to Intel i7-7820HQ (quad 2.9Ghz), Intel Xeon E3-1535M v6 (quad 3.1Ghz)
- RAM: Up to 32GB
- Storage: 2x internal storage for up to 1TB SSD each
- Graphics: Nividia Quadro M1200 4GB RAM
- Ports: Ethernet, 3x USB 3, SD card reader, 2x Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type C), HDMI, headphone jack
The other thing I like is it has a 15.6-inch 4K matte screen with 85% Adobe RGB gamut support. While the colour gamut cannot match glossy screens, it is great for a matte screen.
If you have the budget, go for Dell Precision or HP Zbook Studio G4. Both are very solid top of the line workstation laptops.
Apple Macbook Pro with Retina Display (Released 4Q 2016)
There are 13-inch and 15-inch Macbook Pro models and the price range mentioned above are for the 15-inch models. The 13-inch screen may be too small for graphics work.
- Processor: Dual 2.0Ghz to Quad 2.9Ghz
- RAM: Up to 16GB
- Graphics card: Intel Iris Graphics 540, Intel Iris Graphics 550, Radeon Pro 450, Radeon Pro 455
- Storage: Up to 1TB Flash storage
- Weight: 1.37 - 1.83kg
- Screen: 15.4 inch, 2880 by 1800 pixels
- Warranty: 1 year warranty with optional 2 extra years with Applecare purchase
The Macbook Pro that came before the 4Q 2016 released was already quite good in terms of performance. The new Macbook Pro, in my opinion, offered only incremental improvement that's not worth the extra price that Apple is charging.
The screen is great and is now brighter at 500 nits but I've never seen anyone use monitors at their maximum brightness. Colour accuracy and viewing angles are great. The screen resolution of 2880 by 1800 is also sweet because details will appear sharp.
Macbook Pro 2016 has the new Touch Bar feature which is nice to have but it's just a different way of doing things, and does not mean you will save significant time using it.
Main downside of the Macbook Pro 2016 is they have replaced all the old ports with USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. This means you'll may adaptors to connect to your external monitor, phone, SD card, scanner and other devices.
As with Apple computers, the most important thing to do before buying is to check if the software you're using is supported on the Mac OS, and for 3D programs whether they are supported by the graphics card.
If this is the first time getting a Mac, note that files created by an application can be opened in the same application running on Windows. E.g. Photoshop for Mac files can be opened by Photoshop for Windows.
In my opinion, Macbook Pro 2Q 2015 is represents greater value for money. It's only slightly slower but significantly cheaper. And you get to have all the commonly used ports. The future may be USB Type-C, but that future is not here yet so it's probably still better to stick with something accessible. For all friends who ask me for advice, I always ask them to save the money and get the 2Q 2015 model if they can find it at a good price. Try the refurbished section on Apple online store. Use the money you save to get the 2 additional years of AppleCare.
If you're going to be editing 4K video, then it makes more sense to get the Oct 2016 Macbook Pro for the really speedy SSD storage. Older Macbook Pros will choke when editing 4K.
Razer is an interesting company. In the incredibly competitive computer industry, it has somehow managed to build a strong reputation that of making quality and beautiful laptops. In terms of industrial design and engineering, their laptops almost have the quality to match Apple's Macbook Pros, except Razer Blades run Windows.
- Processor: Intel i7-7700HQ (quad 2.8Ghz)
- Storage: Up to 1TB SSD
- RAM: 16GB
- Graphics: NVidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
- Ports: 2x USB 3, 1x USB Type C, HDMI
- Screen: 1080P Matte (91% sRGB), 4K glossy touchscreen (100% Adobe RGB)
- Weight: 1.86kg
While Razer is known for making gaming laptops, the Razer Blade is definitely more versatile enough to handle graphic design work.
As you can probably see, there are lots of options.
My preference for choosing a laptop would be to have at least SSD for storage, an IPS panel with at least 1080P resolution and at least 2 years of warranty.
As usual, check out more reviews on Amazon. All the links are provided for above.