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Which is the best laptop for photo editing?

Last week’s column covered the needs of a history student, who wanted a laptop costing up to £500. Professional photo and video editors typically go for the most powerful machines they can afford, with prices ranging from about £1,500 to £3,000. Cheaper machines can do the job, but reducing processing times from, say, 30 minutes to three minutes makes a huge difference to workflows. In providing more time for experiments, fast PCs can actually lead to better results.

Note that a good desktop will always beat a good laptop. Desktop PCs can run hotter, faster processors than laptops. They can also handle more memory, bigger hard drives and faster graphics cards, and they are easier to upgrade. It might be better to buy a really good desktop and a cheap laptop. A refurbished ThinkPad X1 Carbon would be a good portable option with a good quality screen.

Photography students typically use Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, mainly Photoshop and Lightroom. These run on both PCs and Macs, so you have a choice.

In general, I recommend that people stick to what they know, because it takes a long time to become proficient in a new operating system. However, it would be worth knowing how many of your fellow students use each system. There are advantages to being part of the majority.

Touch or not?

Touch-screens are handy for fat-finger navigation, but they don’t add anything for photo-editing purposes. Some photographers like to use high-resolution pens – as supplied with Microsoft Surfaces and Apple iPad Pros – and some like Wacom tablets, but many others just use mice. I think it’s a personal choice.

If you really want a pen, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is your best bet. You can get an extremely portable system with a great screen, an Intel Core i7, 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD for a student price of £1,329.30. You will need to add a Type cover, and I’d recommend buying a good USB keyboard and a Bluetooth mouse as well. In fact, you should add those to any laptop used for sustained work.

Pick a Mac

Professional photo editors often buy the top-end 15in MacBook Pro, but it’s not really worth £2,699 for student use. (Ask your university about student discounts.) However, switching to a 13.3in MacBook Pro involves sacrifices. The processor drops from a 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 to a 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5, the 512GB SSD drops to 128GB, and the screen resolution drops from 2880 x 1800 pixels to 2560 x 1600 pixels.

If you go for a 13.3in MacBook Pro, you should pay £180 to double the RAM to 16GB, because the integrated graphics will consume main memory. That increases the price to £1,429. However, it’s not worth paying an extra £270 to upgrade the Core i5 to a dual-core Core i7, which would bring the price up to £1,699. You should switch to the 15in MacBook Pro with a 2.2GHz quad-core i7 for £1,899 instead.

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The major limitations with the 13.3in MacBook Pro include the lack of a dedicated graphics card, the lack of a quad-core processor option, and its inability to handle 32GB of memory. There’s also the annoyance of having four Thunderbolt 3 ports, so any peripherals you already own – such as USB hard drives – will need adaptor cables. However, it does get you a usable MacBook for less than £1,500 instead of £1,900 or £2,700.

Note that a three-year AppleCore Plan for the 13.3in MacBook Pro costs £229, and £329 for the 15in.

In passing, £1,429 also happens to be the price of a 21.5in iMac with a Retina 4K display, 3GHz quad-core i5-7400, 16GB of memory, and Radeon Pro 555 graphics with 2GB video memory.

Also, Apple sometimes has good deals on refurbished Macs.

Dell XPS

According to the Wirecutter website, “the Dell XPS 15 is the best laptop for most creative work, especially photo and video editing. The XPS 15 has the most powerful processor and graphics card – and the best out-of-the-box colour accuracy and widest colour gamut – of any Windows laptop we tested. Plus, it has fast 4K rendering speeds, all the essential ports, and a good keyboard and trackpad. It’s also light and portable for when you’re on the go.”

I like the XPS 15 a lot, and recommended it last November in another answer, Which Windows laptop could replace a MacBook Pro? It was the first 15.6in laptop with a tiny bezel and feels more like a 14in design.

The Wirecutter reviewed the XPS 15 with a 4K 3840 x 2160-pixel screen, which costs £1,849 in the UK: the same as cheapest 15in MacBook Pro.

There are cheaper versions of the XPS 15, but they have 1920 x 1080-pixel non-touch screens. Removing the Ultra HD display removes the machine’s main attraction for photo editing.

If you opt for power over pixels, an XPS 15 with a quad-core i7-7700HQ processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card with its own 4GB of fast memory, a 256GB SSD, Thunderbolt 3, USB3 and HDMI ports, and 24-hour on-site support costs £1,449 (order code cnx95602). This model only has 8GB of main memory, but it supports up to 32GB. Dell sells memory separately, but you can buy it from Crucial or another supplier and plug it in yourself.

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If you buy an XPS 15, extend the on-site service to three years for £55.21 (usually £129.43).

Dell XPS 13 might be a better compromise in delivering more pixels and less power. Like the 13in MacBook Pros, these machines have dual-core processors and integrated graphics. An XPS 13 with a 3200 x 1800 touch screen and an i5-7200U costs £1,299 (cnx93604). One with an i7-7560U costs £1,449 (cnx93616). Again, you can add RAM later.

Other options

Wirecutter’s “budget pick” is the HP Spectre x360, which I also covered last November. This is a hinged machine so it also works as a tablet. This year’s improved version includes a 4K (3840 x 2160) touch-screen, a dual-core i7-7500U processor with 8GB of memory, GeForce 940MX graphics with 2GB of memory, and an Active Pen for £1,499.

Otherwise, try searching for cheap deals on Asus ZenBooks at several sources, because these usually have screens that provide good colour rendering. A UX501VW would be good. Most cheap computers don’t cover the standard sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces to the level you’d want for photo editing, which is where MacBooks generally win.

Notebookcheck has a list of some of the best laptop displays, which includes a few ZenBooks.

Another alternative would be to buy a colour-accurate external monitor such as the Asus PA249Q, though you’d just be spending the money you’d saved on a laptop.

Both Windows and MacOS include utilities to calibrate screens. In Windows, search for “Calibrate display colour” then use the monitor controls to adjust the results by eye.


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