Computers

Best Laptops for Photo Editing

Photo editing pushes laptop capabilities right to the edge. Top-quality work demands a high-resolution, color-accurate display, and a fast processor. But the rigors of traveling with photo gear plus a computer make small, lightweight machines with long battery lives a real plus. Similarly, storing thousands of high-resolutions calls for a large hard drive, while peak performance is only possible with an SSD.

When we last looked at the best options in the market, there were some clear leaders. We’ve now updated our list, with new and improved models that have come on the market over the last six months. In particular, Kaby Lake chips, updated GPUs from Intel and Nvidia, and faster SSDs have arrived. There are also more high-resolution screen options, including some OLED versions. If you are in the market and photo editing is a top priority, one of these laptops is likely to suit your needs.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (2nd gen) and Yoga 920

The Thinkpad X1 Yoga delivers a lot of punch, including stylus support, in a sleek package

The Thinkpad X1 Yoga delivers a lot of punch, including stylus support, in a sleek package

I’ve lumped these two machines together because they are similar, but also offer some tradeoffs depending on your needs. Both machines are have 14-inch displays, support a stylus, and can fold back on themselves in classic Yoga fashion. Both qualify as Ultrabooks and weigh in at about 3 pounds, with support for up to 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and a fingerprint reader. Both units also feature excellent keyboards and TrackPoints, and do pretty well on ports, with USB 3.0, USB-C, and Thunderbolt support.

After the above, there are some differences. The X1 Yoga has the option of an amazing 2560×1440 OLED display that is about the best I’ve ever used for watching movies or showing off images. The Yoga 920 doesn’t offer an OLED option, but you can get it with up to a 4K IPS panel. The X1 Yoga also only comes with a dual-core 7th generation i7 (i7-7600U), while the Yoga 920 can be configured with a quad-core 8th generation CPU (i7-8550U). Video outputs are also slightly different, with the 920 featuring DisplayPort over USB-C and the X1 Yoga having a more traditional HDMI port.

Neither unit has an SD card slot, unfortunately, although the X1 Yoga does have a slot for a microSD in the back. However, the slot is hard enough to access that you’ll probably wind up with a card reader anyway.

Microsoft Surface Pro (newest 2017 version)

If you want a lightweight solution that doubles as a graphics tablet the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is a good fit

If you like to use a tablet or stylus for your image editing in your studio, and want to have access to the same capability on the road, the Microsoft Surface Pro may be ideal. It’s powerful for its small size, and features a pressure-sensitive active stylus while also offering a reasonable keyboard. You’ll probably also want to pair it with a Bluetooth mouse like the Microsoft Arc Touch. Microsoft removed the model number from the most recent version, so don’t confuse the new Surface Pro with the original version that also carried that name.

By itself, the 1.7 pound unit certainly won’t give you the same big-screen experience of larger laptops, but its 12.3-inch screen is sharp and high-resolution. While the base model comes with an i3, you can bump up to an i5 or i7 for more power. You’ll also want an external card reader to use with your camera, but with up to 1TB of internal SSD, you may not need an external drive to keep your images while you travel. When you’re in one location for awhile, you can use the mini DisplayPort to drive an external monitor–or even do what I do and travel with a portable USB-powered display. The entry level version is now $ 800, with a loaded model costing up to $ 2,700 with an i7, 16GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD. You’ll need to purchase a keyboard cover and stylus on top of that, unless you already have them.

Apple MacBook Pro 15 and MacBook Pro 13

Apple's newest Macbooks feature a nifty Touch Bar and increased hard drive options

Apple’s MacBook Pro has long been a favorite among professional photographers. A big part of it is, of course, that it runs the same macOS many of them run on desktop computers. But it was also an early pioneer of ultra-high resolution LCDs with a large color gamut, and a relatively compact, stylish, design. However, many PC vendors have caught up in features, and surpassed the now-aging MBP models in raw performance. Apple has made some recent improvements, including adding a Force Touch trackpad, faster SSDs, a fingerprint reader, and improving the battery life–although the lack of an SD card slot remains a sticking point.

The current version of the MBP 13 with Retina Display starts at $ 1,500, while the 15-inch Retina model starts at $ 2,400. As is typical, photographers will more likely be interested in the higher-end configurations, which are $ 2,000 and $ 2,800, respectively. The new models have higher price points than before, but with beefier specs. You can now get up to a 1TB SSD in the 13-inch model, and a 2TB SSD in the 15-inch. With 30MP and up cameras becoming common, and 4K video widespread, these larger hard drive options are a welcome addition. The 15-inch version comes with a discrete Radeon Pro GPU to help maximize image processing performance. The 13-inch models rely on an integrated GPU, although those have gotten substantially faster over the last couple years, so you may not miss having a separate discrete GPU. Both versions feature up to 7th-generation Core i7 CPUs–dual-core for the 13-inch, and quad-core for the 15-inch.

Dell XPS 15 Touch (2017): Still a WinnerThe latest Dell XPS 15 features a nearly edge to edge display

Spoiler Alert: The newest version of the Dell XPS 15 is once again my favorite laptop for photo editing. I’ve just bought my third XPS 15, this time the 2017 Touch edition. Featuring an optional 4K display that covers 100 percent of Adobe RGB, a Kaby Lake quad-core Core i7, an Nvidia 1050 GPU, a 1TB SSD, and up to 32GB of RAM, it has just about everything a road warrior photographer could want. It hasn’t really gotten any lighter over the last year, as it is still over 4 pounds, but it is a little smaller and sleeker. While starting configurations of the machine run as little as $ 1K, configured as above will run you just over $ 2K.

The only things I could see regretting are that it doesn’t have the Kaby Lake Refresh chips yet, and there’s no stylus support. Also, you pay a heavy price in battery life for the 4K display and discrete GPU. Don’t count on more than 4 hours of reasonable use, so it isn’t the ideal option if you’re mostly on the go without a power plug. It’s also overkill if you don’t need a quad-core CPU or high-end GPU. For straight ahead benchmarks, some of the dual-core models in this roundup are just as fast. But if you want high-performance 3D graphics, Photoshop processing, or video rendering without a full-on gaming laptop, this model delivers. If you are willing to wait, I’m sure there will be an update early next year, or the not-yet-available HP ZBook x2 offers Kaby Lake Refresh and an active stylus, although it is larger and heavier.

The unit has a good selection of ports, including HDMI, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, and an SD card slot. Starting at a little over 4 pounds, the latest XPS 15 is about the lightest laptop you can find that can pack this much punch, and with the aforementioned 100 percent Adobe RGB color gamut.

Three generations of Dell XPS 15 laptops

To provide some perspective on progress in this category, the above image shows three generations of Dell XPS 15 laptops. Over the last 4-5 years they’ve shrunk significantly, weigh 1.5 pounds less, and pack nearly twice as much power under the hood. The display has also jumped from a gamut similar to sRGB to one that is almost identical to the much-larger Adobe RGB color space.

HP ZBook x2

The HP ZBook x2 looks to be a creator's dream portable

The HP ZBook x2 looks to be a creator’s dream portable

HP has spared nothing in designing the ZBook X2 for creatives of all kinds. It has the latest and most powerful CPU (up to i7-7600U) and a workstation class GPU (Nvidia Quadro M620), but still weighs in at less than 5 pounds. There aren’t any review units to look at yet, but the 4K, 100-percent Adobe RGB, DreamColor display promises to be gorgeous. Somewhat unique for a high-end machine, not only does it support a full-featured Wacom stylus, but is a 2-in-1 so you can remove the keyboard and use the tablet flat or with the kickstand to prop it up.

HP has built some pre-packaged bundles for particular uses, such as Photographer, Digital Artist, and Video Editor. HP has also provided some customizable keys alongside the screen, so you can further accelerate your workflow.

  • Price: $ 1,749 and up, pre-orders start November 21st

Don’t fret if we missed your photo editing favorite

It was hard to pick out just a few machines from the dozens of excellent laptop models out there. For many, apparently small features like backlit keyboards, multiple USB 3.0 ports, Thunderbolt, stylus-support, high-resolution display, choice of DisplayPort, HDMI, or VGA output, or battery life can easily change which model is right for your particular needs. This is especially true with Windows Ultrabooks–with literally dozens of similar models crowding the sub-four-pound, SSD-powered Windows laptop space.

Unfortunately, some laptop makers are also making it harder to compare the actual specifications for their units. Manufacturers often completely neglect to state maximum RAM capacity, base CPU speed (they seem to like bragging about the higher Turbo Boost speed instead), or drive RPMs (or interface used in the case of SSDs). Hopefully, though, the models we’ve described can serve as a baseline for your shopping so you’ll know what’s available and what some of your alternatives are.

If you have a very-high-end photography workflow, that involves a lot of multi-layer Photoshop images, and are okay with lugging around something larger, also take a look at our best laptops for engineers guide for ideas.

If you have a different laptop you love for your photo editing work, let us know about it in the comments.

Now read: The top laptops for everyone

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