Photo editing pushes laptop capabilities right to the very 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 in 2013, there were some clear leaders. We’ve updated our list, with some of the champions returning in updated versions, and a few newcomers elbowing their way onto the list.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the best laptops for photo editing, but if you are in the market, one of these is likely to suit your needs.
Apple Macbook Pro 15-inch with Retina display
- Price: $1999 and up (15-inch)
Our 2013 first choice continues to be the most popular among professional photographers.
For photographers, the best reason to consider a MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display is that you’ll get one of the best displays available in a well-built chassis. Unlike other brands that are always fiddling with their display quality and suppliers — making comparison shopping difficult — Apple has been relentless about improving the color gamut and fidelity of its laptop displays, while improving resolution. The MacBook Pro’sRetina display is as good as it gets for looking at and editing photos.
The quad-core Intel Core i7 featured in the 15-inch model provides plenty of horsepower for editing, and the integrated SSD does the same for the OS. The 2.2GHz model features a 256GB SSD, but serious photographers will probably want to spend the additional $500 for the 2.5GHz CPU, discrete Nvidia graphics, and 512GB SSD — bringing the price tag up to $2500. Perhaps the only downside is that the SSD — at a maximum of 512GB — may not be large enough for all your images, so expect to have to add an external hard drive for large projects. Many pros who use the MBP travel with a pair of Thunderbolt external hard drives, one for storing images and another as a backup.
If portability is a priority, then the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (the lightest laptop we found that supports 16GB of RAM) is also excellent, but editing tools like Photoshop and Lightroom will be fairly cramped on the smaller display. I hesitate to recommend the newest MacBook because of its lack of ports.
Dell XPS 15
My personal choice, the Dell XPS 15, has been updated with an even more sleek and higher-performance model, with better battery life and a touch screen. Pound for pound, the XPS 15 is now a match for Apple’s MacBook Pro 15. The only thing holding it back is Windows. Even Windows 8.1 with the latest version of Adobe’s tools can’t match Apple’s power management, and fumbles high-resolution support.
My XPS 15 is the second machine I’ve ever bought from Dell — with my old XPS 15 being the first. Having used the new one all over the world for over a year as a professional photographer and tech journalist, I’m really happy I spent the money upgrading to the newest model. It’s lighter, sleeker, features improved battery life, and has an even better display –including touch which comes in surprisingly handy. The upgraded 2.2GHz fourth-generation quad-core Core i7 chip and Nvidia graphics card chew through large image editing projects almost like a desktop. The new model can be ordered with up to 16GB of RAM, and either a 1TB hard drive or 512GB SSD — with fully-loaded versions running about $2,500, competitive with similarly-kitted MacBook Pro models. The only trick is to realize that if you get the version with the discrete Nvidia GPU, it comes with a larger battery that takes up the space normally occupied by the main hard drive. That means you’re limited to an mSATA SSD. By default that caps your drive size, but I replaced the smallish SSD in my unit with a 1TB model so I have plenty of room.
The XPS 15 has plenty of connectivity options, including three USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot. For video it has HDMI and mini DisplayPort. However, Dell has dropped the VGA connector and Ethernet, so make sure and carry adapters if you do a lot of presentations on legacy projectors or need a hard-wired Ethernet connection. Battery life is improved over previous versions, but still isn’t as good as Apple’s. If I’m not running any applications that use the GPU, I can get at least 4 hours — 5 or 6 if I try to conserve. Fire up Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other application that uses the GPU and battery life is nearly halved. In fairness, those applications have a similar impact on MacBook battery life.
The Dell has also got great sound, so good that I often don’t carry my portable speakers for when I do slideshows in small venues. The backlit keyboard is a joy to type on, and the machine has been rock solid. I’ve got Windows 8.1 on it now, which takes good advantage of the touch screen. If you have MacBook Pro envy, but want to run Windows, the Dell XPS 15 is your best bet. Both machines are about 4.5 pounds, with Retina-quality displays, great design, and high-price tags to match.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft has been trying to convince us for several years that its Surface Pro tablets can do it all — provide a great tablet interface on a fully-capable laptop. While the Surface Pro 3 is still too heavy to make it a great handheld tablet, the excellent active stylus from N-trig, combined with a much larger color gamut display and a kickstand that accommodates tablet-style use make it an excellent choice for photographers on the road.
The SP3’s strengths start with the display. At 2160 x 1440 pixels, it has plenty of resolution for its 12-inch screen size, and covers a best-in-class 97 percent of the sRGB color gamut. It is not the brightest display in a lightweight laptop, but for photographers the addition of an excellent, pressure-sensitive, active stylus should more than compensate for that. The unit is available with a choice of i3, i5, or i7 CPUs — with an i5 or i7 recommended if you are going to do a lot of photo editing.
For Windows users who want a sub-2-pound device they can take on the road to do photo editing, the only stumbling block in picking an SP3 may be the price tag. The i7 version with a 512GB SSD and 8GB of RAM will set you back about $2K. Remember that you also won’t get anywhere near the claimed 9-hour battery life once you fire up a power-hungry application like Photoshop or Lightroom. As with most ultra-portables, you also give up expansion capability. You’ll need to live with the SSD and RAM that comes with the unit, although it does offer a microSD slot, as well as a mini DisplayPort and a USB 3 port for expansion. When I take one on the road, I use it with a Bluetooth mouse, freeing up the USB port for a card reader.
Large-screen laptops are getting harder to find, but if performance is your highest priority, and you can live with a large, heavy machine, the Alienware 17 delivers desktop-replacement graphics speed from an amazing array of discrete GPU options combined with a 17.3-inch anti-glare 1080p display. The unit houses a top of the line 2.8GHz fourth-generation Core i7 processor and can be purchased with 16GB of RAM. Almost unique among laptops, there are also some possibilities for overclocking the CPU.
Dual drive bays allow for both a high-performance SSD and large-capacity traditional hard drive. All this capability does come with some costs. The unit can price out at nearly $3K fully configured, and at 8.3 pounds, it is one of the heaviest laptops on the market. Photographers who also need high-performance video editing or 3D effects will appreciate the unit’s massive graphics performance the most. The 1080p display is starting to pale compared to higher-resolution alternatives, however the 17-inch size helps make it easy to see icons and menus.
It used to be that there were 17-inch laptops aimed at multimedia professionals, like the MacBook Pro 17, and Dell XPS 17, but now large-screen lovers may have to look at massive “gaming” laptops like this one or the models from Razer. If video editing has become a big part of your workflow as a photographer, you should also read our article on the Best laptops for video editing.
Asus Zenbook UX301
Since our last round-up, the Asus Zenbook UX301 has been updated, and provides a solid Windows alternative to the MacBook Pro 13. It is an effective laptop for performance-hungry road warriors who want a sleek ultrabook. Featuring a 13.3-inch multi-touch display at resolutions ranging from 1080p up to a Retina-esque 2560×1440 pixels (1920×1080 is available as well), and processor options up to an i7, the only place where it falls a little short is its maximum 8GB of RAM.
Originally called the Zenbook Infinity, the UX301 ships with Intel’s integrated graphics. For buyers that want to go all out the UX is available with a 512GB RAID0 SSD array that will offer more than sufficient storage and serious throughput. At 2.6 pounds, this lightweight performer also gets high marks for its roomy, backlit keyboard and range of options.
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, 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 very similar models crowding the sub-four-pound SSD-powered Windows laptop space. Unfortunately, laptop makers seem to be making it increasingly difficult to compare the actual specifications for their units, and 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. 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.