Looking for the best laptop for designers or the best desktops and tablets for creatives? I’ve culled these recommendations from products we’ve tested that stand out for their design, performance and features for painting, drawing, designing, rendering, video and photo editing as well as other creative tasks.
The latest development in creative hardware was Apple’s big reveal of itsand ( ). They’re slated to ship in the fall, but I suspect they’ll slip to later in the year. If you’re asking yourself, “should I delay buying until the Mac Pro is available?” my preliminary answer (given that we know nothing about the pricing beyond the base configuration) is “no” for most people.
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If you do heavy-duty, high-resolution video editing and have a big budget, then you might want to wait. But expect to pay more than the $6,000 base configuration, because that comes with a Radeon Pro 580X card, a baffling inclusion in a such an expensive system; it’s the same graphics that’s in the iMac (not even the iMac Pro) and likely there just because Xeons lack integrated graphics. Plus, the base configuration only has a 256GB SSD, which is barely enough to install Adobe Creative Cloud (an exaggeration, but you get the point).
On the laptop side, 15-inch OLED panels, which offer a bigger DCI-P3/UHDA-P3 gamut and higher contrast than other technologies, have begun shipping: I’ve currently got theand in for testing, so stay tuned.
While OLED and recent 100% Adobe RGB panels are great developments for color-focused work, none offer the type of hardware calibration mobile workstations do. They’ll come with preset software profiles, and though you can use hardware calibrators such as the X-Rite i1Display Pro, software profiles are more difficult to work with when matching colors across multiple connected monitors. This is true for even the new gaming-systems-cooked-for-creatives such as .
Laptops with Intel’s H-seriesprocessor are also available now, so you don’t necessarily need a 10-pound luggable to get fast laptop performance. While Intel’s chipsets with integrated Thunderbolt 3 and updated integrated graphics are supposedly coming later this year, we don’t yet know when they’ll make their way into higher-end systems. They’re targeted at lightweight, long battery life models, at least initially.
There are so many variations of the performance mix individuals need for power-hungry applications, so it’s not only hard to limit suggestions to a handful of certain specs, it’s even harder to recommend specific configurations for each. (And note that I’ve got no budget picks here, but will probably add them in a future update.)
So here are a few rules of thumb that should help you make your decisions:
- Check your software requirements. Some applications require workstation-class components, such as Nvidia Quadro chips rather than GeForce, to access some advanced features. For example, Adobe Photoshop doesn’t support 10-bit color without one (you may think you’ve switched it on but it’s not operational). Unfortunately, that also increases the price.
- Base the specs on the application you spend the most time in. If your budget demands that you make performance trade-offs, you need to know what to throw more money at. Since every application is different, you can’t generalize to the level of “video-editing uses CPU cores more than GPU acceleration,” though a big, fast SSD is probably a good idea.
- For desktops, think about going boutique. If you’re not a victim of corporate purchasing standards, getting a custom-built system with longer battery life may be the way to go, though expect to pay a premium. Companies like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm and Maingear, for instance, are known for their gaming desktops but they build workstations as well. They also offer processors and graphics cards you generally can’t find from more mass-market manufacturers, such as an 18-core Core i9, 32-core AMD Threadripper or Nvidia Titan RTX. Plus, they’ll overclock those parts for you. Some also personalize the cases with custom artwork which should appeal to your artistic sensibility, help you decide what components you’ll need for the software you run and provide more personalized tech support.
- If you do color-critical work, focus on buying a laptop with hardware calibration. A display that supports color profiles stored in hardware, like HP’s Dreamcolor models, will allow for more consistent color when you use multiple calibrated monitors. They also tend to be better, as calibration requires a tighter color error level than usual.
As long as you’re OK with tablet apps rather than desktop applications and don’t need the flexibility of a full operating system, the iPad Pro has the power and battery life for a lot of the sketching, photo and video-editing capabilities you need. It can also feed into desktop apps for the rest.
It has a great Retina display for color work, and a fine-feeling pencil for sketching. Apple improved the design over earlier models as well, letting you wirelessly charge the Apple Pencil just by attaching it through a magnetic strip on the tablet for longer battery life. It also swapped the Lightning connector for a more flexible USB-C version.
Apple recently announced that it was splitting the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad with the next version, scheduled for the fall; at that time the iPad Pro will get iPadOS, which introduces capabilities that will make it a lot more useful for creative work. These include a file system which will support the ability to connect to cameras (and thumb drives) for browsing and downloading and the ability to use the iPad as a second screen via Sidecar — a screen with Apple Pencil support.
Drawbacks: The Pencil 2 and keyboard add to the cost of what’s already a fairly expensive proposition. The company’s new iPad Air, which has similar chops to the original iPad Pro and supports the original Apple Pencil but is faster and starts at $499, may be an attractive — and cheaper — alternative. You may not be able to use some of the iPadOS features, though, because it has a Lightning, not a USB-C connector.
A big 17-inch screen with an 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 in a slim Max-Q design, this is a powerful system that weighs less than six pounds — and since Nvidia hasn’t released any mobile Quadro RTX chips yet, the gaming-oriented GeForce GPUs are your only option for portable cutting-edge graphics. Unless you settle for less power on the road and plug into an external GPU at the office. Asus’ is one of the fastest of the Max-Q 17-inch models we’ve tested. If you don’t need the GPU power as much as the CPU and screen size, you can drop to the RTX 2060 configuration and save some money.
Drawbacks: It’s expensive, heavier than some of the competition, and there’s no Core i9 configuration option, which means you’re gaining better real-time operational fluidity by sacrificing rendering speed. Because it’s the consumer GPU, you may not be able to take advantage of some advanced features that are limited to workstation GPUs in 3D software and no 10-bit color in graphics applications. The battery life isn’t great and the touchpad is in an odd position on the right side.
The MacBook Pro’s IPS display is one of the best, if not the best, of consumer laptops with respect to color accuracy and gamut. It’s also pretty well-rounded when it comes to performance. Plus it’s got plenty of USB-C and Thunderbolt ports.
A lot of photo-editing software now supports the Touch Bar for contextual operations such as flagging and labeling, which may help speed you through your workflow.
Drawbacks: While the Retina display had a pretty high-resolution screen for its time, it’s fallen behind 4K. I normally don’t recommend 4K on a 15-inch Retina display, but my one exception is for photo editing, where you really want to see the details.
The Touch Bar isn’t universally loved and can be more of a roadblock than a fast lane compared to keyboard shortcuts. Nor does it have built-in SD card reader, so you’ll have to tote one with you.
A convertible version of the also-excellent XPS 15, the two-in-one offers the same great display but adds tablet flexibility you might want for drawing and sketching as well as the convenience of flipping the screen for presenting to clients.
The Precision 5530 is the workstation equivalent, with the same excellent display options and design, but incorporating better security and more powerful options, including a Core i9 or Xeon CPU and up to 32GB RAM. The Radeon Vega WX GL graphics aren’t very powerful, but they are workstation-class and it has a 4K, broad-gamut and color-accurate touchscreen display.
Drawbacks: The 5530 doesn’t support ECC memory.
The Surface Pro 6 offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and full Windows 10, plus it supports the Microsoft Dial, which can substitute some functions when you don’t have access to the keyboard for your shortcuts. There’s also an option to use the sRGB color space instead of the default make-colors-pop setting.
If you plan to use it for painting rather than sketching, don’t skimp on the processor when you buy. Go full Intel Core i7 to get the better CPU and more storage if you can afford it. Complex brushes, color mixing and textures can slow you down if you don’t have enough processor power.
Drawbacks: At 12.3 inches, it’s portable but small, especially if you want to use the Dial. It can also get expensive, and you’ll have to pay extra for the pen, Dial and keyboard.
It’s a bit low on ports, too — if you need to present your work, you may need a dongle for HDMI, though there’s a mini DisplayPort to connect to a monitor, and it lacks USB-C.
With the Surface Studio, you’re paying for flexibility: the big, 28-inch broad-gamut touchscreen display that you can lay flat for different viewing angles and draw on with a pressure-sensitive stylus. The Microsoft Dial’s an extra perk if you like a fourth input device when you work (in addition to mouse, keyboard and stylus). The system was updated in 2018 with discrete graphics, to a GeForce GTX graphics card, the 1070.
Drawbacks: Pressure-sensitive stylus technology has evolved in the past couple years, and it still only offers last-generation Nvidia GPUs and relatively slow mobile CPUs. It’s very expensive for that, especially given that this generation is an investment. Plus, Microsoft has intimated that it plans to release the display as a standalone in 2019, which means you could attach it to a more powerful system.
This is the only detachable mobile workstation that can be configured with a 4K UHD DreamColor, 4,096-level Wacom EMR pressure-sensitive display. A workstation Nvidia Quadro GPU means it can run certified applications. Plus, it doesn’t skimp on connections.
The only serious portability competitor the ZBook really has is the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, which is much heavier. So if you can “suffer” with a “paltry” 4,096 levels of sensitivity (compared with the Wacom’s 8,192 levels) and slightly slower performance, the ZBook model is much better all around for portability. It has a great design, including a comfortable detachable keyboard that automatically reconnects via Bluetooth when you remove it.
The matte display covers 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut and does so with excellent accuracy and built-in profiles. Plus, the chemically etched display adds a little more friction, making the stylus feel more precise and natural compared to the typical glossy surface.
Drawbacks: You’re limited to the one, single-button stylus so it’s no good for many 3D professional graphic designers. If you can’t compensate by reprogramming the QuicKeys on the sides of the tablet, this model might not work for you. Plus, it’s relatively heavy, and while the battery life is good for its components, it won’t get you through the day.
As for color, the 8-bit+FRC (10-bit simulation) display only covers about 70% of the P3 gamut. Also people have complained about light leakage at the edges of the display.
Originally published Feb. 17 and updated frequently to reflect changes in the marketplace.