How to Buy a Laptop for Editing Photos, Videos, or Other Creative Tasks


Lori Grunin/CBS

Are you baffled by the multitude of laptop, desktop and tablet options thrown at you as a generic “creative” or “creator”? Marketing materials rarely distinguish between the widely varying needs of different businesses; Marketers essentially consider anything with a discrete GPU (a graphics processor that isn’t integrated into the CPU), regardless of its low power consumption, suitable for all sorts of creative endeavours. It can get really frustrating when trying to sift through a mountain of choices.

For one thing, the wealth of options means there’s something for every type of job, suitable for every creative tool, and at a multitude of price points. On the other hand, it means you run the risk of spending too much on a model you don’t really need. Or more likely underspending, and ending up with a system that just can’t keep up, because you haven’t properly assessed the trade-offs of the various components.

One thing hasn’t changed over time: the most important components to worry about are the processor, which typically handles most of the final quality and AI acceleration for a growing number of smart features. ; GPU, which determines the smoothness of your on-screen interactions as well as some AI acceleration; the screen; and the amount of memory. Other considerations might be the speed and stability of your network, since a lot of stuff comes up and down from the cloud, and speed and storage capacity if you’re dealing with large video or render files.

You still won’t find anything particularly affordable for a decent experience. Even a basic model worth buying will cost at least $1,000; like a gaming laptop, the extras that make it worth its name are what set it apart from a general-purpose competitor, and those always cost at least a little more.

How do I determine what I need?

Check your software requirements

To use certain advanced features, speed up certain operations or comply with certain security constraints, certain professional applications require workstation-class components: Nvidia A or T-series or AMD W-series GPUs rather than their GeForce or Radeon equivalents, Intel Xeon or processors AMD Threadripper and ECC memory (error correcting code).

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Nvidia has loosened the reins of its division between its consumer GPUs and its workstation GPUs with an intermediate Nvidia Studio. The Studio drivers, unlike the GeForce Game Ready ones, add optimizations for more creative-focused apps rather than games, which means you don’t necessarily have to shell out as much money.

MacBook Pros now support the native M1 processor for most important applications, including software written to use Metal (Apple’s graphics application programming interface). But a lot of software still doesn’t have both the Windows and macOS versions, which means you should choose the platform that supports all critical utilities or specific software packages. If you need both and your budget is not very limited, consider buying a fully equipped Macbook Pro and run a Windows virtual machine on it. It’s an imperfect solution, however.

Base specs on the app you spend the most time in

Companies offering professional applications usually provide advice on the recommended specifications for running their software. If your budget forces you to compromise on performance, you need to know what to invest more money in. Since every application is different, you can’t generalize “video editing uses more CPU cores than GPU acceleration” (although a big, fast SSD is almost always a good idea). The requirements for photo editing are generally lower than for video, so these systems are likely to be cheaper and more tempting. But if you spend 90% of your time editing a video, it might not be worth saving.

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

I can make a few generalizations to help you narrow down your options:

  • More and faster CPU cores – more P cores if we speak The new 12th generation Intel processors – translates directly into faster final quality render times for video and 3D and faster ingest and thumbnail generation of high resolution photos and video. Intel’s new P-series processors are purpose-built for creative work (and other CPU-intensive work).
  • More and faster GPU cores as well as more graphics memory (VRAM) improve the fluidity of much real-time work, such as using the secondary display option in Lightroom, browsing timelines for video editing, working on complex 3D models, etc.
  • Always get 16 GB or more of memory. Frankly, this is my general recommendation for Windows systems (macOS runs better on less memory than Windows). But many graphics applications will use as much memory as they can fit their dirty little bits into; for example, I’ve never seen Lightroom use less than all of my system’s available memory (or CPU cores) when importing photos.
  • Stay with SSD storage and at least 1 TB of it. Budget laptops may have a slow-spinning secondary disk drive to cheaply fill the amount of storage. And while you can get away with 512GB, you’ll probably need to erase files on external storage a little too frequently.
  • Get the fastest Wi-Fi possible, which is for now Wi-Fi 6E. A lot has split between cloud and local storage, and even if you don’t intend to use the cloud much, your software may force it on you. For example, Adobe really, really wants you to use its clouds and is moving an increasing amount of your files to the cloud only. And if you accidentally save that 256MB Photoshop file in the ether, you’ll wake up rudely when you try to open it next.

Do I need a 4K display or 100% Adobe RGB?

Not necessarily. For very detailed work – think of a wireframe or CAD illustration – you might benefit from the higher pixel density of a 4K display, but for the most part you can get away with something lower ( and you’ll be rewarded with slightly better battery life too).

Color is more important, but your needs depend on what you’re doing and at what level. Many manufacturers will save money with a 100% sRGB display, but it won’t be able to reproduce many saturated colors; it’s really a lowest common denominator space, and you can always buy a cheap external monitor to preview or proof images as they will appear on cheaper screens.

For graphics that will only appear online, a screen with at least 95% P3 (aka DCI-P3) coverage is my general choice, and they are becoming quite common and cheaper than they used to be. If you’re trying to match colors between print and screen, then 99% Adobe RGB makes more sense. Either will display beautiful, saturated colors and the wide tonal range you might need for photo editing, but Adobe RGB leans more towards reproducing cyan and magenta, which are important for the impression.

A display that supports hardware-stored color profiles, such as HP’s Dreamcolor, Calman ready, Dell PremierColor, etc., provide more consistent colors when using multiple calibrated monitors. They also tend to be better, as calibration requires a tighter color error tolerance than typical displays. Of course, they also tend to be more expensive. And you frequently have to upgrade to a mobile workstation for this kind of functionality; you can use hardware calibrators such as the Calibrite ColorChecker Screen (formerly X-Rite i1Display Pro) to generate software profiles, but they are more difficult to use when color matching across multiple connected monitors.

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