Today, we’re going to teach you all you need to know to find the best laptop for photo editing.
Let’s hop in.
What You Need From A Photo Editing Laptop
Whether you’re editing photographs you took yourself or working with graphics & images from other sources, it’s important to understand exactly what you need from a photo editing laptop you buy.
This goes beyond basic tech specs like your screen resolution and CPU cores- there are specific things you need to take into account that common consumers do not.
First: Understand What You’re Doing
Before we dive in too deep, it’s important to ask: what are you doing?
Photo editing is the obvious use case here, so we’ll be more specific: what else are you doing? Are you also working with video? If you’re a remote worker, are you also doing other productivity tasks on your laptop, unrelated to photo editing?
Do you have needs unrelated to your work tasks, like gaming and media consumption?
No informed buying decision can be made in a vacuum. You need to be aware of both the options available to you and the other things that you’ll be doing with your Laptop.
The required processing power for sufficient image editing isn’t really that high, for instance – but if you’re also a professional whose work involves heavy web usage, then a bare-minimum system with weak internals and low memory will get in the way.
Keep these thoughts in mind as we progress further into the article.
Recommended Tech Specs
According to the current Adobe Photoshop requirements page, what you need to run Photoshop is extremely tame.
A 64-bit CPU running at 2 GHz or faster? A 1024 x 768 resolution display? OpenGL 2.0 compatibility? OpenGL 2.0 is a standard from 2004, over a decade ago!
Pretty much every modern PC meets and exceeds these requirements, especially modern laptops. So, just about any laptop will do the job here, right?
No. These are minimum, and not recommended, requirements. And even with Adobe’s official recommended requirements, there’s a lot being left out: a lot that will have a heavy impact on your experience.
For instance: modern CPUs are comprised of multiple cores. Before the advent of dual-core processors in the early 2000s, a CPU was understood to be a processing unit with a single core, and a thread attached to that core.
Additional cores essentially serve as additional processors in their own right, with corresponding threads seen by the operating system.
However, not every core has only one thread. With CPUs that use SMT (Simultaneous Multi-Threading), you can have two threads tied to a single core, which effectively doubles the number of effective “processors” seen by the operating system.
When programming an application, it’s easiest to optimize around a single thread. Many applications, especially legacy applications, are built to function in this way.
More modern applications, though, especially productivity-centered applications like a photo editing software, are built to utilize multiple threads.
Put together, all of this means that productivity applications will function faster when you’re using a multi-core or multi-threaded CPU. Unless the individual cores are extremely weak, you’ll experience a much faster workflow when using processors like these.
Multi-threaded processors are also more well-suited for heavy multitasking, which you may find yourself doing often as a professional user.
Another thing you’ll need is RAM. Plenty of RAM, and at a good speed, too.
For ideal performance in most scenarios, 8 GB of RAM will do the job. But for particularly intense productivity scenarios, 16 GB of RAM may be necessary.
In summation, you’ll really need:
- A multi-threaded (multi-core) CPU with fast individual cores (Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors will do)
- 8GB or more of DDR4 RAM
For other tech specs and system requirements, keep going. These will require their own sections.
When people talk about screens, the most common specs tossed around are size and resolution. While these are certainly important, these are not actually your top concern as a professional working with images.
What you need above all else is accuracy. Specifically, color accuracy. Many laptops ship with screens oriented at gamers and media consumers.
They’re focused on providing vivid, saturated color and lightning-fast responsiveness…but not the accuracy that you, a professional, need from your system.
Here are the four specs you need to be concerned about, in order of importance:
- Color Accuracy
- Screen Resolution
- Screen Size
- Viewing Angles
Color Accuracy and Viewing Angles are most heavily impacted by panel type, while screen resolution and screen size are generally determined independently of other specifications.
Panel type refers to the type of hardware screen panel that is built in. There are three prominent panel types on the market, and there are major differences between the three.
We’ll list them below:
- TN panel – The cheapest and most common panel type. Very fast responsiveness, but fairly poor color reproduction and viewing angles. Well-suited for budget users and competitive gamers, but dreadful for professional color work.
- IPS panel – The most expensive panel type, but also the most color-accurate one. Viewing angles and color reproduction are best on IPS panels above all others, and generally an IPS panel is what you’ll want if you’re doing professional color work. IPS does come with a few downsides of its own, though- most relevant in this context being “backlight bleed”, which can make dark scenes look bad.
- VA panel – An in-between standard. The main appeal of VA over something like IPS would be a great improvement in dark scenes, since backlight bleed isn’t a concern with this panel type. Viewing angles will suffer, though, as will color accuracy in most scenarios. As a professional, VA is only recommended as a secondary display for viewing completed content, or those who work near-exclusively with dark scenes.
Generally, you’ll want to aim for an IPS panel with a high color accuracy rating of at minimum 100% sRGB coverage, and ideally 90% or more DCI-P3 and Adobe RGB coverage, though these are harder to come by.
We’ll list the common standards of color accuracy below and what they’re used for, in case you’re confused:
- sRGB – Standard RGB color space used by most electronics.
- NTSC – Standard color space used by televisions.
- Adobe RGB – Expanded color space used for printed materials. Make sure you have a high Adobe RGB color rating if you’re producing content that you intend to print out.
- DCI-P3 – A high-end color space standard- essentially, the next frontier for future PCs, smartphones, and other digital devices.
Screen resolution is fairly straightforward: the higher, the better. Higher resolution displays and images to match them will have more fine detail, which is important for any kind of image work.
With screen size, it’s mostly personal preference and vision. The standard screen sizes for laptops are 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch. For professional use and multi-tasking in particular, though, 17-inch will give you the best screen real estate. 13-inch is too small for many, especially working in such visually demanding workloads.
Storage Needs: Size and Speed
In PC storage, there are two main types of storage drives: HDDs and SSDs.
An HDD, or hard disk drive, is named for the spinning disk inside its enclosure. Data is written to and read from this disk, and the overall speed is limited by RPM (rotations per minute). Smaller HDDs tend to have lower RPM- in the case of laptops, usually 5400 RPM instead of the desktop standard of 7200 RPM.
An SSD, or solid state drive, is named for its lack of moving parts. It’s “solid” in the sense that there is no spinning disk or moving parts.
All data is written to and read from flash memory on the drive, which enables far faster speeds than anything a mere hard drive would be capable of.
Even SSDs using the same SATA connection standard as an HDD will reach multiple times higher speeds, and this gap can widen even more if the SSD is using a PCI Express or NVMe connection.
Hard drives are generally much less expensive per gigabyte, while SSDs are much more expensive per gigabyte. It becomes a question of quality or quantity, for most users.
So, which is better for photo editing?
You may think an HDD is enough for photo editing…and you’d be right. Single images, even uncompressed images, aren’t so large that opening and editing them will take any longer than with an SSD.
But…there’s the rest of the PC to consider, too. Things like your startup time, how long it takes to launch your applications or load your assets. Especially for PC boot times, an SSD is massively faster than an HDD.
Also, since you’ll be editing your Images and then storing them as PSD files (or similar), those files can become very big. PSDs or TIFFs with multiple layers in high b-it depths? They can easily reach hundreds of megabytes and even gigabytes.
An NVMe SSD will considerably speed up loading and saving such files.
The aforementioned price discrepancy is also much less egregious than it used to be, meaning you can still get a pretty decent amount of storage at a fair price.
If at all possible, we recommend using an (M.2) NVMe SSD for your photo editing laptop. Or, really, any productivity machine. The speed and responsiveness of an SSD is extremely useful for these scenarios.
If you find that you need more storage space, opt for external or cloud storage. You can also opt for laptops that use a hybrid storage solution– a small SSD and a large HDD, for the best of both worlds.
Keep your OS and apps on your SSD in this scenario, and use the HDD for storing your image and project files.
Build Quality and Portability
Build quality refers to a few different things, but the best way to describe it is the “sturdiness” and feel of your components. For instance, something built with steel or glass is going to feel a lot better to the touch than something built with plastic and also enjoy more durability in case of an impact or bend.
Devices like Ultrabooks (and the Macbooks they take inspiration from) are built from sturdy, high-quality materials, which gives them a better feel than a cheap, mostly-plastic laptop, despite usually being smaller and thinner.
This can also apply to things like keyboards- some keyboards may feel squishy and unresponsive, while others may feel clicky and tactile.
Unfortunately, build quality and feel are difficult to assess without having the machine in your hands. We’ll be picking our selections carefully to ensure that they have acceptable build quality, which is especially important for professionals.
Machines with poor build quality have higher failure rates, and are just generally less enjoyable to use, especially for extended periods.
Portability is another question entirely, and one that requires us to consult the laws of space and thermodynamics.
Wait, don’t run away! It’s simpler than you think!
Simply put, you have to find a balance between performance and size when it comes to laptops. Larger and heavier 17-inch laptops may be particularly compelling for productivity, but it may be harder to find space for them in your working environment of choice.
You’ll likely need a larger bag for carrying them around, too.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a 13-inch laptop seems to have ideal portability for a professional on the go…but unless you have truly 20/20 vision, chances are the screen real estate simply won’t be enough for serious working sessions.
You’ll also come across the issue of reduced performance, and that’s where thermodynamics comes into this…
Electronics generate heat. The smaller the space they generate heat in, the sooner they will fail. The faster a given component at a certain efficiency level, the more heat it will generate.
This makes machines that are small and have the best performance on the market pretty much impossible to make, because the cooling required for that performance is simply not possible with some form factors.
This is where a downside creeps in for ultra-thin laptops. You can cram an Intel Core i7 into that little chassis if you want, but if it isn’t getting the cooling it needs, it will thermal throttle.
When PC components get too hot, they “throttle” their own performance in order to protect themselves, and this causes issues with ultrathin laptops in particular.
So, here is our advice for an ideal portability/performance balance:
- If you want the best performance and productivity, get a 17-inch laptop with high-end components and reasonable thickness for keeping those components cool.
- If you want the best portability without majorly impacting performance or productivity, opt for a thinner 15-inch laptop with mid-range specs that can get the job done.
Photo Editing, fortunately, isn’t all that demanding on the hardware.
If you want to extend the life of any laptop you buy, you should also consider investing in a laptop cooling pad in order to protect your components.
Heat inevitably degrades components over time, even if it’s kept at healthy levels by the system- cooler is always better for performance and longevity!
Extra Hardware Features
Last but not necessarily least, let’s talk…extra hardware features!
Specifically relevant to image editing and on-the-go professionals, we feel, are “convertible” form factors and touchscreen support.
A convertible laptop is a laptop that you can fold in on itself and use as a tablet. These are almost always touchscreen laptops as well, and for those who prefer doing image editing with a stylus or their fingertips will find this particularly useful.
Touchscreens are…fairly self-explanatory. If you do get a laptop with a touchscreen, though, you’ll want to make sure that it’s a multi-touch screen, that way you get the finest control possible.
Single-touch touchscreens aren’t good for much more than very basic stylus or tap functionality, but multi-touch allows for things like pinch-to-zoom and gesture controls.
As far as laptop cameras go…frankly, we can’t find a photography-capable camera on any laptop.
Some would debate about smartphone photography capabilities, especially high-end smartphones, but for the most part…if you need to use a camera, get a proper camera.
For professional use, there’s no replacement. Laptops can do a lot of things at once, but provide truly pro-level photography is not one of those things.
Best Laptop for Photo Editing – Summary
That was quite a bit of tech talk, and I’ll summarize the part recommendations below for easy reading:
- Laptop Size: 13″, 15″, 17″. 13 is often too small, 15 is optimal, while 17″ can be too big for mobility reasons, but is great if it stays on a desk
- Processor (CPU): Should have a multi-core CPU with 4 or more Cores. For best performance steer clear from from CPUs with a “U” in the CPU Name and go with “H” CPUs as they perform better. (example: AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS is fast, 5700U is slower)
- Memory (RAM): Get at least 8GB of RAM, 16GB is better
- Storage: Get a Laptop with an (M.2) NVMe (PCIe) SSD or a SATA SSD. Don’t rely on slow HDDs.
- Graphics: A Graphics Card isn’t important for Photo Editing. Laptops with integrated iGPUs are fine. If you want more performance, look for a Laptop with a discreet GPU.
- Screen: Photo Editing requires high color accuracy. Get a screen with at least 100% sRGB coverage, and preferably 90%+ DCI-P3 and Adobe RGB coverage.
Best Laptop for Photo Editing – Recommendations
Because we’ve been critically reviewing Laptops for years now and know how fast the Laptop landscape can change, we’ve created the below 3-step recommendation tool that’ll show up-to-date recommendations that fit your available budget.
Select “Laptop“, set your budget and click “Show Laptops“.
The Laptops above are updated regularly.
Is a tablet or a Laptop better for Photo Editing?
If you value efficiency, a Laptop will always be faster for photo-editing. A tablet can be practical for editing photos on the go, while standing, but as soon as you have a desk or are sitting, a Laptop with proper input-devices will increase your efficiency tenfold.
Do I need a 4K Laptop for Photo Editing?
Editing photos on a 4k Laptop screen can be practical, as you see more details even when zoomed out. If your edited images are below 4K resolution anyway, or you work on crops, social media images and similar media, then a 4K screen is not necessary.
Is a Graphics Card important for Photo Editing?
A Graphics Card is not important for Photo Editing. Although there are some tasks and effects within Photoshop and other Photo Editing software than are accelerated by a performant GPU, an iGPU or lower-tier dGPU is sufficient for most Photo Editing tasks.
Is 100% sRGB good for Photo Editing?
While 100% sRGB color spectrum coverage is good for photo editing, it is quite easily achieved by a lot of monitors and Laptop screens. High Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 color coverage is a better indicator for superior Laptop screens than sRGB.
Is Windows or Mac better for Photo Editing?
Both Windows and Mac are equally capable of supporting a Photo Editor’s typical workflow and editing pipeline. Great Photo Editing software exists for both Operating Systems and with Apple recent release of powerful hardware, performance is comparable as well.
Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Which Operating System accommodates you more?
Is a 13-inch Laptop too small for Photo Editing?
A 13-inch sized Laptop is borderline for Photo Editing. Photo Editing is a very visual workload, and the more screen real estate you have, the better.
You’ll be able to see more details on a bigger screen, can display more windows and User Interface elements on screen, without having to switch between views too often, which eats into your productivity considerably.