Best laptop for design and art 2017: we test Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft’s best models to find the best … – Digital Arts Online
High-quality art and design requires hardware to match. These are the 6 best laptops for designers and artists across graphic and digital design, UX, 3D and CG – powerful, light and stylish laptops and laptop/tablet hybrids. In this feature we’ll discuss the different types of laptop available to designers and artists – whether you want something small and light you can draw on or a full-spec, ultra-powerful laptop that will deal with 200-layer Photoshop files or intricate 3D models with ease.
As a creative pro, you want it all from a laptop. You want the performance that will allow you create your best work in Photoshop, InDesign, Sketch, Maya or whatever your favourite design or art software is – but you also want a thin, light device that you can easily move from desk to meeting to coffee shop to the train to work as your projects demand (or as inspiration strikes)
You certainly don’t want to have to lug around the ugly tombstone-like notebooks that we were forced to use in the past if you wanted something powerful enough to run Adobe’s or Autodesk’s applications. And thankfully you don’t have to, as the latest generation of Mac and PC laptops for designers and artists from the likes of Apple, Dell, HP and more are trim and elegantly styled – having divested themselves of the components that used to bulk them out like DVD drives and heavy hard drives. It’s also the case that processors for laptops are no longer massively less powerful than their desktop equivalents (unless you want to splash out for a dual-processor desktop workstation such as the Apple Mac Pro, Dell Precision T7910 or HP Z840).
Unless you need one of those beasts on your desk for your day-to-day work, most of these laptops can be configured to be your everyday computer (attached to a monitor and perhaps more storage on your desk).
We’ll start with general buying advice on how to choose and configure the perfect laptop. Below this we’ll pick out the best models (or skip straight to the best laptops list).
Best laptop for designers: Design
There are four types of laptops that manufacturers sell aiming at creative pros, but we’ve stuck to the most important two here: 13-inch laptop/tablet hybrids and thin/light 15-inch laptops (there are also more-traditionally sized 15-inch laptops and 17-inch behemoths).
Over the years, we’ve come to realise that a 15-inch screen is the sweet spot that balances being able to see enough of your work to create comfortably while still slipping neatly into a satchel that you don’t mind taking with you every day.
Traditional 15-inch laptops are still available, and have some advantages over their thin/light cousins – they support up to 64GB of RAM rather than the 32GB maximum of most thin/light models, a couple of faster processors and can sometimes allow for more or larger storage. These can also be cheaper than thin/light models.
If you want the largest screen size, laptops with 17-inch screens are available – which often have even more storage options and have more ports, with Ethernet built in for fast networking (smaller models will usually use external USB or Thunderbolt adapters).
Unless you have the physique of Atlas, both these and traditionally sized 15-inch models are too bulky and heavy for most of us to carry around on a regular basis – so the choice is between a thin/light 15-inch laptop and something smaller.
A 13-inch screen is usually too small to work on – even with modern hi-res screens you can’t see enough of your work to work comfortably – but it’s something we’re willing to compromise on for something as light as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4. However, using a combination of a stylus, our fingers and the attached keyboard is good enough. This – and models like it – isn’t anywhere near as powerful as even a thin/light 15-inch laptop, but it can be better if you have a desktop for your day-to-day work and want something that’s just so easy to travel with in a small bag.
So what makes the perfect laptop for a designer or artist?
Here we’ll provide overall buying advice for what to look for in a laptop suitable for a creative pro. If you prefer, head straight to our choice of the 6 best laptops for designers and artists.
Best Laptop for Designers: Screen
Most of the laptops we’ve included here have a HiDPI screen (called a Retina Display by Apple) – though you may have to select these as an option when buying as many also offer standard HD screen optoins. These displays have such a high-density of pixels – at resolutions from Apple’s 2,880 x 1,800 to the 3,840 x 2,160 of Dell’s and HP’s models – that your applications have to double the size (in pixels) of everything in their interfaces so they’re usable without you squinting or having to click with extreme precision just to hit OK in a dialog box. Most of your key creative apps do this, though there are still a few holdouts (we’re looking at you, Adobe Bridge on Windows).
The benefit of these screens is that you can see up to twice as much detail as older HD-resolution screens – so you can view 3,000-pixel wide artwork at 100% rather than 50%, see HD video at 100% in your playback window within your editing software, see more detail in intricate vector artwork or graphics (or in 20mp photos), or just see how your designs or graphics will come out on the HiDPI screens that are now standard on smartphones and tablets.
Seeing more detail gives you a more accurate representation of the edits and marks you make – so the results will be better.
Many of the laptops here have a touchscreen – either as an option or as standard. Opinions are divided as to whether they are good or bad. Some creatives love them: they make non-precise controls – scrolling, zooming, clicking on buttons – much easier and quicker through gestures, especially in confined space like the train seat I’m in right now writing this. Others hate them, as they drain the battery much quicker than a traditional screen.
From my own experience, I found that when you get used to having a touchscreen – and it happens quickly – you find not having one to be frustrating (and embarrassing, when you attempt to swipe on a colleague’s laptop with a traditional screen).
Another important aspect to a top-notch screen is its ability with colour. The better the colours are represented on your screen, the better you can judge how you work will appear (even if the environment it’s viewed in isn’t colour-controlled). There are two main aspects to this: the colour gamut and colour accuracy.
The colour gamut is, essentially, how many different shades of colour a screen can output. This is usually expressed as how many of the colours within of a particular colour standard a monitor can output – whether smaller colour standards such as sRGB or larger ones likes Adobe RGB (the important one for most designers as this is used within Adobe’s Creative Clouds apps including Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) or DCI-P3 (used for digital cinema projection, so less important to creatives than Adobe RGB).
A good laptop screen can output 100% of sRGB. A great one can output between 90 and 100% of Adobe RGB (some desktop monitor manufacturers label their displays as having more than 100% of Adobe RGB, which means it can output all of the colours within the Adobe RGB standard and then some).
Colour accuracy is critical for designers, especially if you’re working for a colour-focussed brand. Accuracy is usually measured in Delta-E – a value of how far off total accuracy a monitor is (so higher Delta-E is worse). A Delta-E of 1 is the minimum the human eye can distinguish between, so an average value of 1 or lower is perfect. A good pro desktop monitor generally has a Delta-E of under 2.5, whereas a good pro laptop’s screen will be below 5. Your average business laptop’s screen could be as high as 10.
Delta-E alone isn’t a measure of quality. It has to be judged alongside the colour gamut as a monitor with a smaller gamut will generally have a lower average Delta E – as it has fewer colours it needs to get right.
Best Laptop for Designers: Pen
All of the hybrid models that we’ve looked at here – Lenovo’s ThinkPad P40 Yoga, and Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 – ship with a stylus for drawing and other precision-based actions. In terms of comfort and balance, none of Lenovos or Microsoft’s pens are as good as Apple’s Pencil or the Wacom pen that comes with an Intuous tablet – but they are good enough to feel natural after you get used to them.
Best Laptop for Designers: Processor
Creative applications require a powerful processor – so you can instantly discount any laptop with one of the relatively weak Intel Core M processors (as found in the non-pro Apple MacBook, Microsoft Surface and Lenovo Yoga range). AMD currently doesn’t get a look in with pro-level laptops – though the may change with its forthcoming Ryzen chips – so you’re looking at either mobile versions of either Intel’s Core i5, Core i7 or Xeon E3 chips.
The current, 6th generation of these Core and Xeon chips are based on an architecture codenamed Skylake, which offers moderately better performance and much less of a power drain on your battery than the older components, the 5th-gen ‘Broadwell’ and 4th-gen ‘Haswell’. Laptops based on Broadwell are still on sale though – as are Haswell-based models as some manufacturers skipped Broadwell as quad-core chips using that platform arrived late, not too long before the Skylake platform was due.
The Core i7 processors are more powerful than the i5 – but more expensive and drain your battery more quickly. Mobile Xeon E3s have only been around since the summer of 2015. Based on the same architecture as pro-grade Xeon chips found in high-end desktop workstations, these aren’t necessarily more powerful than Core i7 chips – but the platform that underpins them does give you access to EEC RAM (see below) and Thunderbolt 3 from the motherboard. Unlike with desktop Xeons, you can only have one of them in your laptop, which is probably for the best as you’d need a trunk on wheels to transport a dual-Xeon laptop around.
Unless your needs are modest, we’d recommend a Core i7 or Xeon processor – as what you’ll lose in battery you’ll gain in productivity.
Over the next few months we’ll start seeing laptops with Intel’s 7th generation of chips, codenamed Kaby Lake. These will likely be only moderately more powerful than the current generation – but should drain a laptop’s battery less. The first of these will likely be the Dell Precision 5520.
Best Laptop for Designers: RAM
Most pro laptops based on the 6th-gen Intel Skylake platform support up to 32GB of RAM, though older models based on Broadwell top out at 16GB. Skylake also lets you use faster 2,133GHz DDR4 RAM, whereas Broadwell uses 1.6GHz DDR3 memory.
Laptops with a Xeon chips support ECC RAM, which is more stable and accurate than standard RAM for complex calculations – such as the rendering of 3D and video projects.
Having 32GB of RAM in your laptop is pricey, adding up to £200 to its cost – but 8GB is too small. 16GB will be the right amount for most creatives – unless you’re working on projects with hundreds of layers or complex CG or VFX. Most laptops wills offer you the choice of a single 16GB module or two 8GB sticks. The former will allow you to upgrade later without throwing away your RAM, but two modules gives better performance as there’s two channels to access it rather than one.
Best Laptop for Designers: Graphics
Less capable laptops generally have graphics capabilities built in using Intel’s Iris platform – but you’re likely going to need more GPU power than that. Even if you work entirely in 2D, most of your design, art or editing tools will tap into the graphics processor to give some much-needed extra oomph to working with large numbers of layers, filters, effects, images or whatever makes up your project – as well as final output.
Most of the laptops here have what are called ‘workstation-class’ GPUs. Nvidia’s are called Quadro, while AMD’s are moving from the FirePro brand to Radeon Pro. These are more reliable and more tuned for creative tasks than mainstream GPUs like AMD’s Radeon or Nvidia’s GeForce chips – and they are certified to work with your tools (which can be important if you work with high-end 3D tools like Maya or real-world design tools such as Autodesk Inventor or Solidworks).
1GB of RAM is the minimum amount of RAM your laptop’s GPU should have. 2GB is better and we’re starting to see newer models with a whopping 4GB of graphics RAM.
Best Laptop for Designers: Storage
While you can get 2.5-inch hard disk drives (HDD) for your laptop, a solid state drive (SSD) is essential for your needs as a designer or artist. HDDs make launching your software and accessing your project files much slower, so they’re a false economy.
Standard laptop SSDs – which connect via a SATA port on the motherboard – are available in 256GB, 512GB and 1TB versions. However, the price goes up exponentially – so if you can live with 512GB rather than a 1TB, this can save you a lot of money.
SATA vs PCIe
For maximum performance and storage, many pro laptops let you also fit a small (but very pricey) M.2 SSD. This attaches to the laptop’s motherboard via a connection that supports PCI Express (PCIe), so instead of 500MBps of data throughput you get 1,500MBps – three times faster.
M.2 SSDs are also available in 256GB, 512GB and 1TB – so it’s possible to get 2TB of storage in your laptop with a 1TB M.2 SSD and a 1TB SATA SSD, though that would add about £500 on top of having a single 512GB SSD.
Best Laptop for Designers: Ports
Thin and light laptops don’t have much room around the outside for ports – but you need them to essentially turn your laptop into a desktop when it’s on your desk: plugging in your monitor, keyboard, mouse, storage, network, speakers and phone for charging
At least a couple of USB 3.0 ports are essential – as is Thunderbolt for connecting fast storage, an external display (through a Thunderbolt to DisplayPort adapter) and/or an Ethernet adapter for faster networking. Some laptops offer newer Thunderbolt 3 ports, which offer twice the data throughput than the Thunderbolt 2 offered by some models (xx vs xx). This can seem more for future-proofing than anything else – as there aren’t any storage devices offering Thunderbolt 3 yet – but some manufacturers offer Thunderbolt-based docking stations, so the extra bandwidth is useful if you’re going to connect storage, monitor/s, Ethernet and USB devices to your laptop through a single port.
Most laptops here also include HDMI, which is useful if you need to connect to a project to present in meetings or client pitches, and an SD Card slot for photos from your SLR.
Best Laptop for Designers: Keyboard/Trackpad
Unless you’re always going to be using your laptop on a desk or table, an accurate trackpad with a nicely responsive feel to it is essential. But while you’re a visual creative, I can’t stress the importance of a comfortable keyboard enough – for when you’re writing long pitches or just tapping lots of responses into Slack, you don’t want to be slowed down by constant mis-keying.
Best Laptop for Designers: Battery
Both component makers like Intel and Nvidia, and laptop vendors themselves, have been making a concerted effort to improve the battery life of laptops – though in some ways we’ve never needed this less. From coffeeshops to train carriages, power points to plug our laptops (and tablets and phones) into are much more prevalent than they used to be.
What a longer life really means is that we work for longer (or watch movies) in outdated environments such as most economy-class flights – and we can leave our powerpacks in the office or at home more, which are useful but no longer the major differentiator between laptops that is once was.
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
Base price: £1,975.50 plus VAT
Price of model reviewed: £2,775 plus VAT
Screen size: 15.4-inch
Configuration of model reviewed: 2.9GHz Core i7 (4th-gen), 16GB 1866MHz DDR3 RAM, 1TB PCIe Flash storage, AMD Radeon Pro 460 graphics chip with 4GB RAM, 2,880 x 1,800-pixel screen, 1.85kg
Buy from Apple
Buy from John Lewis
After using the MacBook Pro for a month – and a huge range of laptops aimed at designers and artists over the years – I have come to suspect that it’s not really aimed at creatives. It has the look of something designers would use, and so will appeal to businesspeople who want to appear creative or stylish in meetings – though the smaller Surface Pro 4 is also popular with these types of people as it’s also good-looking, is easier to travel with and can run the likes of Excel and PowerPoint just as well as the MacBook Pro. But too much has been sacrificed in pursuit of elegance aesthetics and being the smallest and lightest. I’d happily have traded a few extra cm or g for USB ports, for example.
The Touch Bar is very much the poor cousin of a proper touchscreen, the lack of ports is very much style over substance – and let’s not forget that it’s both late and about to be superseded. We expected more from you, Apple.
Read our full Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review.
Dell Precision 5510
Base price: £1,128 plus VAT
Price of model reviewed: £2,326 plus VAT
Screen size: 15.6-inch
Configuration of model reviewed: 2.8GHz Xeon E3 (6th-gen), 16GB 2133MHz, DDR4 ECC RAM, 512GB SSD, Nvidia Quadro M1000M graphics chip with 2GB RAM, 3,840 x 2,160-pixel touchscreen, 1.8kg
Buy from Dell
The current best laptop for designers and artists is Dell’s Precision 5510. It’s slim, light and attractive – though its design says ‘power’ rather than the MacBook Pro’s gentler style. Its performance backs this up – it’s super powerful, though the higher-specced ZBook Studio G3 (see below).
Its Skylake-based Xeon processor is around 20% faster than the best laptops we saw using the previous-generation ‘Broadwell’ chips. And it’s still faster than the much-newer MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
The touchscreen is exceptional: detailed, accurate, bright with a wide colour gamut and responsive to the touch. This last fact is also true for the keyboard and trackpad.
The only thing that would put you off buying a 5510 is that an updated version – the 5520 – due next month with 7th-generation Kaby Lake CPUs and more powerful graphics. Learn more about the Dell Precision 5520.
HP ZBook Studio G3
Base price: £1,195 plus VAT
Price of model reviewed: £2,029 plus VAT
Screen size: 15.6-inch
Configuration of model reviewed: 2.8GHz Xeon E3 (6th-gen), 32GB 2133MHz, DDR4 ECC RAM, 512GB M.2 SSD, Nvidia Quadro M1000M graphics chip with 4GB RAM, 3,840 x 2,160-pixel touchscreen, 2kg
Buy from HP
The ZBook Studio G3 is HP’s equivalent to the Dell Precision 5510 – offering the same choice of components in what from afar looks to be a similar-looking chassis. However, once you sit down with it you notice it looks and feels a lot more plastic and, well, cheap than the 5510.
Our review unit is a higher configuration than the 5510, featuring 32GB of RAM, a 4GB version of the Quadro M1000M graphics chip and super-fast M.2 storage (which HP calls its Z Turbo Drive) – so it’s no surprise that it performed better in our tests. However, it performed just as we’d expect from the specs – and a similarly configured Precision 5510 would likely deliver the same results.
What our test ZBook Studio lacked however was a touchscreen, but likewise that’s an option you can add if you wish.
So in the end, we have to recommend the 5510 over the ZBook Studio just because the 5510 has better aesthetics.
Lenovo Thinkpad P40 Yoga
Base price: £1,259 plus VAT
Screen size: 14.1-inch
Configuration of model reviewed: Intel Core i7-6500U (2 core, 2.5GHz) processor, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and an Nvidia Quadro 500M graphics card with 2GB of its own RAM, Nvidia Quadro M500M graphics chip with 2GB RAM, 1,920-x-1,080-pixel touchscreen, 2kg
Buy: from Lenovo
Buy: from Amazon
Lenovo’s ThinkPad P40 Yoga wants to be everything that most designers and artists would want from a creative computer you take with you: a full-spec laptop that can run all of your usual desktop apps – from Photoshop and InDesign to After Effects and Maya – that’s also a tablet you can draw on. To change from one mode to the other, you flip the laptop’s screen around the hinge and, voila, you have a tablet that you can draw on with the small pen that pops out the side (or the bigger, optional pen that’s more like the Surface’s).
The P40 Yoga is more powerful than either of the Surfaces – but not by much and it has some major flaws too, and not just that it has an aesthetic only an accountant could love. It’s not a rival to truly full-spec laptops – but if you want a tablet/laptop hybrid that’s two-thirds the price of the Surface Book, this is a great choice.
Read our full Lenovo Thinkpad P40 Yoga review.
Microsoft Surface Book
Base price: £1,082.50 plus VAT
Price of model reviewed: £1,874 plus VAT
Configuration of model reviewed: Intel Core i7-6500U (2 core, 2.5GHz) processor, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Nvidia graphics (when base attached), 12.3-inch 3,000-x-2,000-pixel touchscreen, 1.516kg/1.578kg (without/with base)
Buy from Microsoft
Microsoft’s Surface Book is the best of the hybrid laptop/tablets. It’s easier to take with you than Lenovo’s P40 Yoga – and better looking too – and offers faster performance, a higher-resolution screen and a much better keyboard than the Surface Pro 4.
The Surface Book is essentially a tablet with a plug-in keyboard that turns it into a laptop. The keyboard part also includes a graphics chip, so you’ll see much higher performance in creative tools that draw extra power from the GPU (which is most these days from Photoshop to Premiere). The only downside to this is that you can’t have drawon it like a tablet with the performance boost from the graphics chip – as you can’t flip the keyboard round the back as you can with the P40 Yoga.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Base price: £624 plus VAT
Price of model reviewed: £1,082.50 plus VAT
Configuration of model reviewed: Core i7 (6th-gen), 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel Iris graphics, 12.3-inch 2,736 x 1,824-pixel touchscreen, 786g
Buy from Microsoft
The Surface Pro 4 is more like a tablet than a laptop. Like the iPad Pro, there’s a specific stylus for it – albeit one that’s more like a biro than Apple’s Pencil. It also weighs between a third and a half that of a laptop – and you can throw it in a tote bag rather than a satchel or rucksack. But unlike the iPad Pro, you can run the full versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, Corel Painter, SketchBook Pro, Premiere Pro or Cinema 4D on it – though we’d shy away from running something like After Effects or Maya on it). Read our iPad Pro review.
If you value portability over performance, but need to get further towards a finished design that you can on an iPad Pro, check out the Surface Pro 4.
Best laptop for designers and artists: Benchmarks
Cinebench’s real-time 3D test runs a relatively simple animated 3D scene in Maxon’s Cinema 4D modelling, animation and rendering software. Results are in frames-per-second, so longer bars are better.
Cinebench’s rendering test outputs a static scene. Results are in Cinebench’s proprietary units, and longer bars are better.
Due to inconsistencies, we’ve removed our After Effects tests until we’ve had a chance to reevaluate the results.
SPECwpc is a Windows-only benchmark based around creative tools such as Maya and Blender, as well as the IOmeter hard drive speed testing tool. It provides a good overall guide to the performance of a laptop or workstation for video editing, animation or VFX creation.
Results are in SPECwpc’s proprietary units, and longer bars are better.