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Laptop vs. Desktop: Which is Better for Graphic Design?

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.    

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 This ability can enable you to upgrade only an outdated or failing component, without replacing the entire laptop.  

Performance

What you are doing with your computer makes a difference in deciding between a laptop and a desktop. All computer components give off heat as they operate, and heat dissipation is more difficult in laptops. As a result, laptop components don't run as fast as desktop components in an effort to prevent heat being created. For example, laptop CPUs (processors) typically have 50-60% of the performance of desktop CPUs. Generally, desktop computers can be upgraded with more RAM, as they have more slots available. If you have a dedicated GPU (graphics card), laptop GPUs have a speed 70-80% of desktop GPUs. Desktop GPUs are generally of higher quality, as well.

The next question to ask is if you always need desktop-level performance from your graphic design computer. You will generally notice the CPU and GPU slow downs only when rendering or editing video or processing photos.   

Graphics processing unit (GPU)

Desktop computers also usually come with more memory (RAM) slots available. Usually these slots are not filled, but it's easy to add more memory. You can also upgrade the memory in a laptop computer, but a laptop typically doesn't have as many available slots.

Find out how much RAM you really need for common graphic design software.

Durability

Desktop and laptop components have comparable robustness. However, it is easier to swap out components in a desktop if one part is failing or is no longer adequate. Desktops also have more configuration options available without having to customize or change out parts yourself.

Monitors can be an issue with durability. Desktops allow you to choose the size of your monitor and swap it out for another one. Laptop monitor size is limited by the size of the laptop, although you can attach an external monitor if you're not traveling.

Generally, laptops are configured with solid state drives (SSDs), which are more durable in a computer that could be dropped or bumped, but there are other advantages to SSDs. Desktop computers can be configured with either kind of storage drive and can be upgraded after the fact.

Find out what the SSD advantages are.

Crucial solid state drive

Location

The most important difference between desktops and laptops is the portability of laptops. If you travel between sites or clients, and need to bring your work with you, a laptop is your only choice. If your budget permits, you can have the best of both worlds and have both a desktop and a laptop. 

Other options

If your budget won't allow a desktop and a laptop, there are other options. 

If you need the portability of a laptop but also need more storage space than the laptop will allow, you can attach an external storage drive to your laptop to store files you access less frequently.  

 

An external hard drive

If you need portability, but only for one or two files at a time, there are tablet and notebook computers that can handle a limited number of larger files, sometimes only for viewing. Some tablets also have the ability to run drawing software. How you use your computer, how hard you use your computer, and where you use your computer, along with your budget, will dictate whether you need a desktop or a laptop for graphic design.

Which desktop to choose for Graphic Design

If you're looking for the best desktop computer for graphic design, you know the choices can be confusing. The type of work you do, as well as your budget will influence your decision. A decision to make is whether you want to use a Mac® or a PC. Although Apple® used to be the only thing for graphic designers to use, the need to integrate with other parts of a company that use PCs has become important. Most design software can be used on both iOS® and Microsoft® Windows® platforms.

Because Macs use an integrated monitor, Apple can control the display quality, which tends to be very high with accurate colors. There are still a few pieces of design software created only for iOS. PCs, on the other hand, allow you to connect to any display, which allows more flexibility when choosing a monitor. PCs have worked hard to become more graphic-design friendly, and there are a lot of options to upgrade components. PCs can also integrate more seamlessly with a company's existing general software.

Which CPU?

The processor, or CPU, coordinates the other computer components. Look for speed and power in a processor, generally a quad-core or extreme series CPU is needed to run complex design software.While you're looking at the processor, check on the graphics ability. Computers can be equipped with either a graphic chip integrated on the processor, or a separate graphics card. In the past, integrated graphics chips were not very powerful, able only to display web pages and standard documents. As more and more people are using photo editing software and other, more advanced graphics, integrated graphics chips have improved. If you do a lot of 3D designs or extensive video editing, an integrated chip can run most graphic design software. This will save you some money. If your budget allows or if you work with very complex software, look for a discrete graphics card. 

Read more about integrated and discrete graphics cards.

How much memory?

The computer uses memory, also known as RAM (random access memory), to call up information on the fly and to display the file you're currently working on. If you work with very large files such as video clips, or if you typically have multiple software programs open at the same time, more memory will help you switch between programs and display complex files. Get as much RAM as possible in your computer. If the configurations offered do not include enough memory, it's easy to buy and install more memory.

Find out more about recommended memory amounts for graphic design software.

Which display?

For graphic design, you want to get the best monitor your budget will allow. When looking at monitors, focus on the pixel density. Generally, you'll want HiDPI (called Retina HD® by Apple), HiDPI have a higher density of pixels, which then display more detail. The minimum pixel density for graphic design is 1920x1080 pixels.

Color accuracy is also very important in a display. Color accuracy is composed of two items, gamut and Delta-E. Gamut is how many colors are displayed, Delta-E is a measure of how far from accuracy the monitor is. For Delta-E, a lower number is better, aim for a monitor with a Delta-E score below 5. Of course, if the color gamut is very small, the monitor could have a very low Delta-E score, but not meet your needs. Ideally, a monitor should have a gamut of 100% of Adobe® RGB.

Which laptop to choose for Graphic Design?

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. 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. 

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. 

 

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.  

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.

Display type and size

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.

Conclusion

Use this information with the knowledge of what kind of programs you'll be running, what general business applications you need to use, what kind of compatibility with your clients' systems you need, and what your budget is to find the best graphic design computer for you. Which laptop or desktop 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 computers out there for graphic design, it's just a question of finding the one that's right for you. 


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