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Using laptops for photo editing – how to choose the best hardware


When talking about photo editing workstations, most people usually imagine a desktop PC with a big monitor or even a multi monitor setup attached to it. It’s true that the absolute best way to go for serious photography is a powerful tower and high quality IPS displays, but for 95% of the work, a laptop can be more than enough.

Traditionally, laptops were less powerful and had lower quality displays than what you could get on a desktop setup, but that’s no longer the case. Mobile hardware is powerful enough even for heavy duty work, and with ultra-high resolutions and IPS screens becoming more common, you can get some amazing results when using laptops for photo editing.

Choosing the best laptop for digital photography

The trick is in paying attention to the details when choosing the best hardware for the job, and with today’s multitude of choice, that has become extremely easy. When it comes to working with photos (especially large ones), every component is important, but the two things you absolutely can’t skimp on are the display and the processor. These are the only parts that you will heavily depend on and which can’t be easily or cheaply replaced – everything else can be upgraded as you go.

The best display size and resolution

Since you want to work with graphics, the display is practically the most important part of a laptop, and you should pay careful attention to what you get.

Display size is one of the most contested things if you look for advice on various photography forums – some say you need the largest screen you can get, while others say you can get away with a 11.6 inch display.

I guess it’s an individual choice, but I’d recommend going with a 17.3 inch display – sure, it will be a heavier and probably more expensive machine, but it’s a noticeable step up from 15.6 inches when you work with graphics every day (your eyes will thank you for it), and the laptop will likely be able to accommodate higher end hardware, more ports and in a lot of cases, a second internal drive, which will no doubt come in handy.

You need to get a Full HD display, not only because of the higher quality picture, but also because lower resolution panels are the cheapest of the bunch, and they often have a very bad color gamut, as well as brightness and contrast issues (like backlight bleeding and bad viewing angles).

A higher resolution would be great, but it’s not absolutely necessary – the laptops featuring them are also quite expensive right now.

The panel manufacturer

When looking at a traditional TN panel (the standard technology that most laptops and monitors use), you should pay attention to the manufacturer – AU Optronics and LG panels have the highest quality, while Samsung and Chi Mei/Innolux often have some issues (although Samsung has improved a lot lately). You should avoid panels from lesser known companies altogether to save yourself time and money.

The easiest way to view the panel manufacturer on Windows is to go into Control Panel -> Device Manager -> Monitors, select the display and click on Properties -> Details -> Hardware IDs. You should be able to see the panel number, which often has the manufacturer in it, but if not, a quick Google search will reveal it.

Obviously, if you can get a laptop with an IPS screen, it would be the best choice – IPS screens are able to display a much wider range of colors, and they have better viewing angles, too. This is what Apple uses on their MacBook Pros, which are considered the golden standard for creative work on the go.

The main issue is the price, but if it’s close to your budget, you can even save on other components if you can get an IPS screen.

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The processor and RAM

The performance of your laptop when working with graphics is affected by pretty much every major component, but the main ones are the processor and the RAM.

When it comes to the processor, I highly recommend you go with a quad core Intel Core i7 – nothing else matches them in performance, and thankfully, even the lower end models (like the i7-3720QM, i7-4700MQ or the i7-5700hq) are good enough even for heavy editing.

While the low power i7 processors (models ending with a “U”, like the i7-5500U) can do the job, I do not recommend them for any serious work – they are mostly used in Ultrabooks and lower end laptops, and they are often paired with a small heatsink, which also leads to heat issues.

You should get as much RAM as possible – 8GB is the minimum I recommend for photography work, with 16GB being a very welcome upgrade. Thankfully, it’s really easy to upgrade the RAM on most laptops, and you can get 2x8GB sticks for quite cheap nowadays. The RAM speed is not all that important, even 1333 MHz RAM can do the job just fine – it would be much better to get an SSD instead of paying for higher frequency RAM.

The hard drive and GPU

Speaking of which, a hard drive may be good enough for most tasks, but an SSD will make things much faster. The best way to go would be to get an SSD and a HDD – it’s easy to do if you have a laptop with two hard drive bays, but if you don’t, you can swap out the optical drive for a HDD caddy – worst case scenario, you can buy an external enclosure for the optical drive. An external HDD is fine, but only when using USB 3.0, and even an internal drive connected directly to the SATA port is preferable.

And last, but not the least – the video card. Despite what a lot of people believe, GPU acceleration is quite rarely used, and even the integrated graphics on the i7 processors can do the job. Nevertheless, even a low end dedicated GPU will be beneficial, since it will reduce the load on the processor (allowing it to run at higher TurboBoost speeds) and the RAM (no need to share the main RAM with the GPU).

Don’t forget to calibrate

Once you set up your laptop, you’ll most definitely want to calibrate the display!

Even the best screens can often be non-calibrated, which is why it’s often pointless to judge the quality of the display by just looking at it.

Calibration does wonders for most displays, especially if you can get a hold of a good calibrator. If not, you should still calibrate it by hand (or should I say, by eye) to get more accurate colors on your display.

Conclusion

Using laptops for photo editing is no longer a taboo even for seasoned professionals – in fact, a lot of traveling photographers have already switched to a fully mobile setup. With a laptop and a tablet, for example, you can even have a nice multi monitor setup wherever you go, which can make things a lot easier and make you more productive.

Just make sure you get the best hardware you can for your budget and you’ll be good to go as soon as you unpack the laptop and install your editing software!

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