Choosing a New Laptop for Photo Work

There's an old adage in the computer business that says to choose your software, and let that drive your choice of computer. For a long time, that was true. And then, for a while, it wasn't -- computer hardware had gotten pretty far ahead of software, and so pretty much any computer could run almost any software you wanted.

ON1 Photo RAW, coming this fall to a computer near you...

Today, the applications are catching up again, and pushing the envelope of what hardware can do -- especially if that hardware is more than 2-3 years old or more. This is especially true with portable computers (laptops, notebooks, tablets, etc.), and doubly so when the software you want to run is graphics intensive. The newest versions of applications like Photoshop or DaVinci Resolve want, in addition to high-end Intel CPUs, specific graphics processors and the latest OpenGL drivers as well. Gone are the days when you could easily buy an off-the-shelf machine from Staples or Best Buy, or even order up a Dell and expect that it's going to last you for 5-6years. Even ON1 Software's forthcoming raw processor ups the ante on system requirements.

Which brings me to the meat of this post. My main laptop has reached the end of its useful life as a photo editing machine. It is a 5 year old Intel Core i3 machine after all, and wasn't really intended for photo editing when I bought it. It was intended to be an audio workstation. As such, I paid little attention to the graphics card, which is an integrated Intel HD Graphics chip, sharing RAM with the main system. And speaking of RAM, the old machine is limited to a max of 8GB. Anything that requires a modern graphics subsystem either complains loudly, crashes when opening images, or fails to run at all. Video editing? Forget about it!

And so, we return to the mantra of letting software choices drive hardware decisions.

In a perfect world, I'd put $3,000 or so into my pocket and head to the Apple Store to buy a fully loaded 15" MacBook Pro with the Retina display and call it a day. Although, as you'll see a little later on, even the MacBook Pro, long the "holy grail" of laptops for photo and video editors, may not be the best choice going forward. Fortunately, Microsoft have done a very good job with the Windows 10 operating system -- it's stable and efficient. For those used to Windows 7 or other previous versions, it's much different. Get used to it, though, as it's here to stay, and it really is a much better operating system than any previous version of Windows.

The Basics

There are three things that can benefit any application, so we'll cover them quickly.

All software will run best on the fastest processor you can get. For laptops, that's generally going to be something like an Intel Core i7 6700HQ Skylake, a true quad-core processor that, in laptops, seems to be available at about 2.6GHz. For most tasks, it's way overkill, and the dual-core i7 6500U is an excellent choice as well. In fact, according to CPUBoss, for in most day-to-day computing, there's no real advantage to the quad-core processor -- yet.

Generally speaking, lots of RAM is a good thing, too. But what exactly is a lot of RAM? I'm going to get some argument here, but in all honesty, most photo editing software will be happy with 8GB of system RAM, even if you are using a few plug-ins, at least for now. While some video editing software will run better with more RAM, almost all audio production software will. So, if you're planning on doing video editing, but are going to start out with 8GB RAM, make sure that you can upgrade the RAM to at least 16GB or even 32GB down the road. And, when you do expand the memory, buy from a reputable source, such as Crucial.com, or from the manufacturer of your laptop.

A large, fast hard disk is never a bad thing. 1TB should be considered a minimum, and while not included on many laptops, a 7,200RPM spindle speed is preferable. If you can find a machine with an M.2 128GB or 256GB SSD, that's better. Putting the OS and software (and your Lightroom library, if you're using it) on the SSD will make a positive impact on performance. Of course, if all the storage is SSD, that's even better. Modern SSD drives are pricey, but they're blazing fast. The only drawback to SSDs for all of the storage is that an flash memory can only be written to a finite number of times. Fortunately, current SSDs will last for many years of continuous use. Again, choose a well-respected brand, like Crucial, Samsung, PNY, or SanDisk.

Screen and Graphics

With the basics out of the way, we need to turn our attention to the display. This is where, frankly, things get tricky. Just a few years ago, most photo and video software would work very well with almost any "better" graphics processor. Intel Iris or Intel HD, AMD, or NVIDIAgraphics processors were all well supported. Over the past couple of years, however, there seems to have been a shift to supporting NVIDIA, with support for Intel and HD graphics lagging behind. In fact, some modern video software won't work with anything except NVIDIA. This is where my earlier comment about the MacBook Pro comes into play -- the MacBook Pro currently uses either Intel or AMD graphics. In most laptops out today, your choices will probably be the GeForce GTX 940M, 950M, 960M, 970M and, most recently, the 980M. For most users, the 960M will be plenty of power.

The graphics processor support is crucial for newer software to perform well, as it hands off certain image processing tasks to the graphics chip, and uses the main CPU for control, memory and disk management, and some other tasks. If the software you want to use doesn't support the graphics chip in your computer, it can't pass the graphics processing off. At best, this will negatively affect performance, or certain functions won't work. At worst, the software won't run at all.

Along with the graphics chip, screen type, resolution, and video RAM is an important consideration. Most newer software requires a minimum 1920x1080, or Full HD resolution, otherwise known as FHD or Full HD. That's plenty for any photo editing, but "4K" or UHD resolution may be better for video. The amount of graphics memory is also important. To a point, again, the more the merrier. Realistically, however, 2-4GB of video RAM is fine for most image processing. For HD video editing, 4GB video RAM is generally okay, though 8GB is better. UHD video editing really requires 8GB or better.

Other screen considerations include the screen surface. A matte finish shows less glare and reflection, but reduces contrast and is more prone to color shifts when viewed off-axis. Glossy displays have better contrast and generally can be seen at a wider viewing angle, but reflections and glare are more prevalent, and they show fingerprints more. Touchscreens can also be convenient, but are most often only available with glossy screens.

There are three common laptop screen sizes for Windows laptops today: 13.1", 15.6", and 17.3". Each have their obvious advantages and disadvantages. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to see what you're doing. But, of course, a larger screen makes for a larger computer to lug around.

Form Factor

As long as there have been portable computers, there have been different "form factors". The first portables resembled portable sewing machines. These machines quickly gave way to various folding designs. The now ubiquitous "clamshell" style laptop was actually patented by a company called GRiD Systems in the mid-1980s.

Today, most portable computers are clamshell designs or possibly tablet computers, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro. Lately, a new brand of computer called a 2-in-1 or convertible combines the laptop and tablet into a single machine. The price is, of course, higher than either a laptop or tablet. While they also tend to be a little less powerful than a laptop, they can be quite convenient.

The Final Analysis

So, what's the bottom line? Is there a best laptop for photo and video editing? Honestly, no. But I have found a couple of machines that run a close "second best".

ASUS Zenbook Pro UX501VW-DS71T 15.6" Laptop Computer - $1499.99

The Asus Zenbook Pro features include:

  • Intel Core i7-6700HQ Processor 2.6GHz
  • Microsoft Windows 10 64-bit
  • 16GB DDR4 RAM
  • 512GB Solid State Drive
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M 2GB GDDR5
  • Memory Card Reader
  • 802.11ac Wireless
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 15.6" 4K UHD IPS Glossy Display
  • SD card reader
  • USB3 ports
  • HDMI port

In addition to very good specs, the Asus Zenbook has a great keyboard and a large, responsive trackpad. Of all of the laptops I've looked at, this was the most usable. There are, however, a three compromises. The dedicated graphics memory is limited to 2GB, and while there is 16GB of main memory, it's not expandable beyond that. And, while the storage is a speedy SSD drive, it's limited to 512GB. Of these compromises, the 2GB of graphics memory is biggest limitation. Photo editing will probably not be adversely affected, but video editing will be limited to only a few streams of HD video, and 4K video editing will probably not be possible. With all that said, it's not an inexpensive machine, but of all the machines I've seen, it is my favorite.

Toshiba Satellite S55T-C5166 15.6" Laptop Computer - $899.99

The Toshiba Satellite features include:

  • Intel Core i7-6700HQ Processor 2.6GHz
  • Microsoft Windows 10 Home 64-bit
  • 16GB DDR3L-1600 RAM
  • 1TB 5,400RPM Hard Drive
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950M 4GB DDR3
  • Memory Card Reader
  • Intel Dual-Band Wireless-AC 7265
  • Bluetooth
  • 15.6" Full HD TruBrite LED-backlit Touchscreen Display
  • 3 USB3 ports
  • RJ45 10/100/1000 LAN port
  • HDMI port

Technically, this is a better computer than the Asus, but it gets my vote as "second best" for three reasons. First, the keyboard isn't great, and the trackpad is comparatively terrible. Mostly, "clicking" is difficult. Pointer control is fine. Second, the hard drive, while spacious at 1TB, it's a slow 5,400 rpm drive. The drive, of course, can be replaced with a faster drive, or an SSD if desired. The third concern is that rumor has it that Toshiba is pulling out of the US computer market. If true, this could make future servicing an issue. If this were a desktop computer, I wouldn't give this a second thought, but it's much harder to service laptops as you can't just drop in a generic replacement part for a major component. With all this said, I still think this machine offers an excellent value. When I looked at the computers this past weekend, I would have purchased this machine if I had the funds immediately available.

Both of these machines are available at Micro Center, and if the location I visited is any indication of the company as a whole, I can whole-heartedly recommend buying from them -- I certainly plan to once I get the funds together for this upgrade.

So, there you have it. My take on buying a new laptop for photo and some video editing. As always, your mileage may vary.