Choosing the Right Hardware for Graphic Design
The system requirements for graphic design can vary with what you do and where you do it. Understanding your hardware options will help you get the system you need for the right price.
What will you be doing?
The best computer configuration for graphic designers depends on what kind of design work is involved, and other considerations, such as budget, portability, and file compatibility. The first step is to really think about what kind of work you'll be doing, how much you can spend, how portable you need to be, and what kind of file output you need.
Mac® vs. PC
One decision you'll have to make is the platform for your computer. Previously, Apple® computers were the premiere choice for graphic designers, with some software available only for iOS® software. That has largely changed in recent years, and most mainstream software is available for multiple platforms.
The upper end of Apple products are, for the most part, pre-configured to be good for graphic design. But in some cases, they are not upgradeable, and if they are upgradeable, only the memory and storage drive can be changed out.
PCs can require more up-front work to make them work for graphic design, but the components can, in most cases, be selected so you get exactly what you want. PC components can be swapped out as something better comes on the market. It's much cheaper to have to buy only a few components per year, rather than a completely new system every few years. Learn more about PCs and Macs.
File compatibility is the real issue. If your clients are using a particular format, it's usually best to go with the same format. Although most finished products can be exchanged with no problems, if files need to be passed back and forth, it will be easier if you start with a common system.
Desktop or laptop?
The next decision to make is whether you want a desktop or laptop computer, or both. The portability of a laptop sometimes has a trade off on screen size and interchangeability of components. A desktop is frequently faster and more powerful, but obviously not portable. Having both is the best of both worlds, but there is extra work to make sure that files are on the correct machine and that software is kept compatible on the two devices. And two computers might not fit in your budget.
Read our guide for deciding if you need a desktop or a laptop.
The storage drive can be a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid state drive (SSD). You can use multiple drives of different types in one system. Learn more about the differences between HDDs and SSDs. SSDs open files faster, which can make a difference if you're opening large files regularly.
If you are planning on getting a laptop, consider getting an additional external drive. You can store files for completed projects on the external drive, preserving them while freeing up the drive on your laptop for your current files.
For your working drive, you'll want at least a 512 GB SSD or a 750 GB HDD. This is a minimum, if you work with multiple large files you will want to get even larger drives. For a hard drive, pay attention to the speed of the drive, as well. The speed is expressed in RPMs (revolutions per minute) and indicate how fast the drive spins to find the file you want. Faster is better. You want at least a 7200 RPM drive.
If you will be doing a lot of video work and using a desktop computer, consider a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) setup. This is multiple drives set up to work like a single drive. It can be very helpful when working with extremely large files.
GPU and VRAM
A GPU (graphics processing unit) can be integrated into the processor, or a separate unit. For all but the most basic graphic design, a dedicated GPU is a good idea. Learn more about dedicated or integrated graphics cards.
If the GPU you've selected has an option between a desktop or workstation unit, choose the workstation unit, they tend to be more robust.
A dedicated graphics card will have memory on it, usually called VRAM (video random access memory). Any kind of memory acts as a short-term bank for the files you currently have open. More VRAM is generally better, a minimum for complicated work is 1 GB.
The processor or CPU (central processing unit) directs all the other computer components. For graphic design there are two specifications that are important; the number of cores and the speed of the processor. In general, you'll want a quad core processor with a speed of 1 gigahertz (GHz) as a minimum.
Memory or RAM (random access memory), is separate from the VRAM, which is used exclusively by the graphics card. RAM is used by the processor to store information for the files you are currently using. This allows you to switch among multiple files and programs. A minimum amount of RAM is 16 GB. If you're planning to use Adobe® Photoshop®, add more memory. See this list for recommended amounts of RAM.
Most computers can be upgraded to add or replace memory if you find that new applications require more RAM than you originally purchased.
The final components to look at are peripherals you connect to the computer. Any computer you consider should have both wired and wireless connectors. Being able to connect in multiple ways makes your equipment more adaptable. This is especially important if you are traveling to client sites and don't always know what will be available. For home use, you might find it easier to get monitors for your laptop, and of course, you'll need monitors for a desktop computer. For external monitors, get at least a 20-inch monitor with the highest pixel density and resolution possible. Pay special attention to the color accuracy. VA (vertical alignment) or IPS (in-plane switching) monitors have higher color accuracy.
For a laptop, get the biggest screen you can transport regularly. Generally, a 15-inch monitor is the smallest to effectively work on graphics files.
With these minimum guidelines you can find a computer that fits your work and budget.
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