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How to Choose the Best Laptop for Graphic Design

Looking for a laptop to use for graphic design can be a challenge, and different than purchasing a laptop for general use or gaming. You want a laptop that's light enough to be portable but powerful enough to do complicated work.

Before getting too far in the decision-making process, consider the kind of work you do and your budget. If you do complex 3D work you will need to be on the upper end of all the specifications. If your work is mostly 2D, you can be at the mid to low end of the range.

The most important specs to look at for graphic design are the operating system, CPU, the memory or RAM, the storage drive, the display type and size, and color accuracy. 

Mac® vs. PC

The first question is whether you want to work with a Mac or a PC. Most software, even for graphic design, is produced for both iOS® and Microsoft® Windows® platforms. Of course, you'll want to make sure that your files are compatible with the software and operating system used by any company you work with.    

A laptop for graphic design work

Mac advantages are that their displays tend to be very color accurate with good display quality. Because Macs have dominated the graphic design world for a long time, there is some specialized graphic design software created only for iOS. This is steadily becoming less true, however, as PCs ramp up their graphic-design friendliness. PC advantages include the ability to run more general software, an advantage if you
will also be using your laptop for business or personal work. Lately, Apple® has been removing ports from their devices. This gives the products a sleek, streamlined look, but can be frustrating when plugging in multiple accessories. PCs are more upgradeable than Macs, with the ability to initially configure or upgrade more components. This ability can enable you to upgrade only an outdated or failing component, without replacing the entire laptop.  

CPU

The CPU, or processor, controls the functions of the computer. For graphic design, you need a fast, powerful processor to run complex design software. The top brands change quickly, but generally you need a quad-core or extreme series processor for graphic design.

In addition to the CPU, it is important to look at the computer's graphics ability. A computer can have either a graphic chip integrated on the processor, or a separate graphics card. Previously, integrated graphics chips were very basic, not able to do much more than display spreadsheets and web pages. In the past few years, however, integrated graphics chips have improved considerably. Unless you do a lot of 3D designs, an integrated chip is usually enough to run most graphic design programs. Using an integrated graphics chip instead of a dedicated graphics card will save you some money. If you have the budget or tend to work in complex applications with a lot of textures, you'll need to look for a laptop with a separate graphics card.

Memory

Memory, or RAM, holds the data the computer needs to access on the fly, such as all the information in the file you're currently working on. If you typically work with multiple applications open, or if you work with very large files, you need more RAM to provide seamless switching between applications and scrolling through complex files. Try to get as much memory as you can in your laptop. If the configuration does not include enough RAM for your needs, you can buy and add memory easily.

Learn more about how much RAM you need.  

Crucial memory (RAM)

Storage drive

Storage drives can be either a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid state drive (SSD). Hard drives, although they tend to be cheaper and have more capacity, can be problematic in laptops. Solid state drives are lighter, faster, and more durable than hard drives. Most laptops are sold with solid state drives, but computers can be retrofitted with SSDs if they didn't happen to come with one.

Learn more about SSDs and HDDs.

Crucial solid state drive

Display size and type

Because graphic design is a visual medium, you want the best monitor you can afford. Generally, a 13-inch monitor is too small for graphic design work. You should try for at least 15 inches. 17 inches is better for working, but could be cumbersome to carry. You'll also want a HiDPI (called Retina HD® by Apple) screen. These screens have a higher density of pixels, allowing you to see more detail. The lowest end screen for effective designing would be 1920x1080 pixels.

Many laptops now come with an option to use the monitor as a touchscreen. Some of these can also be used as a tablet, as well. If you want to use your laptop as a tablet, you'll have to get a touchscreen. If not, some people can find the touchscreen problematic, especially with fingerprints.

Laptops that convert to tablets are more and more common. Using a tablet can be effective if you want to draw or otherwise use a different input device for your designs. If you don't ever need to do that, however, the extra expense might not be worth it.

If you do choose to use a pen as an alternate input device, look around at the one you like the best. That might dictate the laptop you buy. There are no bad pens, just different.

Color accuracy

Color accuracy and a wide color gamut are very important parts of the monitor, as well. Generally, you want to ensure that the monitor you're looking at has at least 100% of Adobe® RGB. If color isn't your focus, you can get away with a monitor that has 100% of sRGB. Color accuracy is usually measured by Delta-E, an indication of how far from complete accuracy the monitor is, as a result, a lower number is better. Try to get a monitor with a Delta-E score below 5. Of course, Delta-E cannot be considered by itself, it needs to be compared to the color gamut. A monitor with a smaller color gamut will have a better (lower) Delta-E score as it has fewer colors to get right.

Which laptop is best for graphic design, depends on what you do, design-wise, what your budget is, and what applications you run. There are a lot of good laptops out there for graphic design, it's just a question of finding the one that's right for you. 


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