Laptops for Photo Editing — Do I Recommend it?

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published in the "Computer & Technology Help for Photographers" group on Facebook of which I am an admin. This article has been updated and rewritten since it's original publish date.
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Laptops for Photo Editing | nickdjeremiah.com

The short answer is: "I DO but also DON’T recommend laptops for photo editing."

For a quick summary. If you MUST have the ability to take the laptop with you on shoots or to continue work on the go, but can’t afford to also have a desktop. Then you can get a laptop, but it MUST be connected to an external monitor at your desk every time you work on your images. This isn’t a recommendation. It is a necessity!

Here is why:

The Screen's Angle of View

Each and every time you open the display, your colours and contrast will change because the angle of what you’re viewing has changed. So, unless you make some sort of jig or use an alignment tool to guarantee the angle of the screen is the same, you aren't going to be very consistent from shot to shot or batch to batch. Have a Cat or Children? A simple bump or rub from them can screw up the laptop's Angle of View. Even if you "know" that you have never touched the screen. There are no guarantees.

Laptop Screens are Usually Very Glossy and Bright

Laptop screens are meant to be viewed in a variety of environments and in all sorts of lighting, from an Airport to Coffee Shop to your Home and beyond. They are great for web browsing, watching a movie, writing e-mail, balancing your cheque book (who even does that anymore?), etc. basically everything else BUT NOT PHOTO EDITING.

You NEED a Calibration Tool!

Your colours are going to be a whacked until you get a baseline and get calibrated. THEN you will have to compare them to your prints. Since laptops change so quickly, they are "orphaned" a lot quicker than desktops. Meaning driver updates or compatibility issues with your calibration tool likely won't be fixed or addressed. The only laptops that I have seen get good reviews for being decent out of the box is the MacBook Pro from Apple. Now, what if your response is, "But my last laptop was fine and it lasted 7-10 years…" or "My Prints matched my laptop's screen pretty well (on my old laptop) …" or something along those lines. My response: YOU GOT LUCKY!! Don't bank on it happening again. As display panels change, so do the way they reproduce colours. Manufactures are always looking to cut costs and keep power consumption low on laptops, so the displays could be better…or more than likely worse with each newer model.

Horsepower is Another Issue

They are designed with low power consumption in mind so they aren't always the fastest. Heat…Heat is the enemy. The faster or harder something runs, the hotter it gets, the longer things take to complete, and things to lock-up and hesitate on a normal basis. So, if you are doing a lot of batching, that could have been an issue. Now comes for the upgradeability issues and hardware limitations. RAM usually can't be upgraded more than 16GB and hard drives tend to be slow, again for lower power consumption. Video Memory (part of the GPU) is often shared with the RAM so the ability to power very large resolutions that drive 27" displays is non-existent. Meaning, you can't just simply go out and buy whatever display that you wish, you'll need to pay attention to the maximum resolution that the laptop can produce for an external display. Laptops that have their own dedicated memory are a little better powering the larger displays, but most people don’t request them, so those models are a bit harder to find and usually cost a lot more.

Keyboards and Trackpads are Usually Terrible

It's an eye-opening experience when you physically go to a store and try some typing and use a trackpad. Keyboards are quite cheap these days and I can almost guarantee you, a mouse will be hooked up to a laptop for photo editing. So that kills some portability right there. The MacBook Pros from Apple are the only laptops I am aware of that have an incredible trackpad and keyboard.

Reliability

Laptops often only last about three years before they become "Too Slow" or start locking up or just downright fail on you. Three years is the average these days. So where do you get them fixed? At least with Apple and Sony, they have Apple and Sony Stores. OEM Batteries aren't cheap either. They average about $150 or more to get a replacement. Time-frame, batteries seem to last 1.5 years on the average. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more. Of course, you have companies bringing out serious gaming laptops and the MacBook Pros from Apple all tend to last 4-5 years without repairs needed.

 

 

As you can see, there are lots of compromises with laptops. They are designed for portability, not heavy use or to truly replace a desktop. As a general rule of thumb, you want to be on a 5-7-year span with replacing computers. Laptops, you want them to last at least 4-5 years (Don’t buy it if you can’t get a minimum of 3 years warranty). So, if you are going down the laptop route, expect to pay close to or above the cost of an iMac or decent Windows Workstation PC.

Here’s a General Costing:
$1700 for a high-performance laptop ($2300 AUD)
$600+ for a decent external display ($800 AUD)
$400 for a couple of EHD's ($550 AUD)

— We are up to $2700. OK, so you spend less, say $1000 on a laptop (you can’t get into the Apple eco-system for less than $1300). That’s $2000. OK, so you only buy one EHD instead of two. That’s $1800. You are about at the price of a really decent desktop, whether it's a Windows Box or an iMac.

— Now if you have made it this far and are still determined to purchase a laptop, please use this very loose guide:

— Buy the Biggest and Best you can afford. There is no such thing as not enough RAM, CPU Power or hard drive Space. A realistic budget should be around $1500 ($2000 AUD) to start with. Again, if you buy a $500 laptop, only expect it to work 18 months until you are buying a new one.

— Laptops that have their own dedicated video memory are preferred. Not only from a performance perspective, but so you can power an external monitor and support resolutions on a 24" or 27" display (Apple’s 15” MacBook Pro is the only option if you’re going Apple).

— Which brings me to my next point: PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND GREEN, USE AN EXTERNAL DISPLAY TO VIEW AND EDIT PHOTOS ON. By doing so, you will have a much better screen that should be IPS-Based.

— Calibration Tool: Chances are, you will need to purchase or upgrade to a model that will allow you to calibrate two screens, one for the laptop, one for the display. Keep in mind that you will never get the two screens to match perfectly. Get them close? Yes...but not match perfectly.

As for what model, we couldn't tell you, at least for a consumer-priced laptop anyway. Even if we did find one with all of the required specs, that model will be replaced by another in about 3 months. That is the normal time-frame for off the shelf laptops. If you can get one custom built, go that route. You will spend more than $500, but you will get a better machine and have better support, plus be able to dictate what you want under the hood.

Well, that's all for now. This article is the 3rd Draft, which has been modified considerably, but there will most definitely be updates in the future.

 

I hope this article has been an interesting and informing read. If you have any questions or comments to make, comment below. Also, if you’d like to receive an email every time I publish a new post, you can subscribe to my mailing list below.


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