Today, we’re going to teach you all you need to know to buy the best laptop for photo editing. First, we’ll go over all the information you need to know, so you can make an informed buying decision.
Afterward, we’ll give you our top three selections (each in different budget ranges), each of which will be covered in detail.
By the end of this article, we hope that you’ll have all the information you need- and if you don’t, feel free to leave a comment with any questions left.
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 the 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 too deep, it’s important to ask: what are you doing?
Image 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 personal 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 PC.
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. Absolutely not. These are minimum, 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, 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 pathetically 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 DDR4 RAM will do the job. But for particularly intense productivity scenarios, 16 GB of DDR4 RAM may be necessary.
In summation, you’ll really need:
- A multi-threaded 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…well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. What is less self-explanatory are the prominent panel types on the market, and the 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 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.
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.
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 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.
Our Picks: Best Laptops for Photo Editing
Below, we’re going to go over our three top picks, each for a different budget range. We’ll provide each pick with a detailed explanation, so you can decide which is right for you.
Budget Pick – Dell Inspiron 13 7000 13.3 Inch
If your price range is around $500 or so but you’re still serious about photo editing, our first pick would be the Dell Inspiron 13 7000.
This is a 13.3-inch 2-in-1 laptop with a fairly decent AMD’s quad-core Ryzen 5 2500U CPU embedded, which also includes AMD Vega 8 graphics.
All the raw CPU and GPU power you need for basic image and photo editing is present here, and the 2-in-1 form factor makes this a particularly compelling pick for on-the-go work, especially since it’s a touchscreen.
This screen isn’t the best in the market or anything, but it is a solid IPS panel with decent color accuracy and viewing angles.
While the color accuracy is decent, the color gamut is a bit limited- if you work with a lot of bright and vivid imagery, you may want to save up for a higher-end pick. As good as the display is for the price range, we recommend some calibration before you get to work.
Where this laptop shines for its price range is in its form factor and its specs. While we wouldn’t recommend this laptop if you’re a seasoned industry professional, this is a great pick if you’re willing to do extra work calibrating the display and are a beginner/freelancer who simply can’t afford a higher-end model.
The CPU/GPU specs, combined with the 8GB of DDR4 RAM, 256 GB SSD, and the form factor, make this a great beginner’s machine. But if you’re a professional, we recommend aiming a little higher.
Value Pick – Gigabyte AERO 15 Classic 15 Inch
Now for the value pick, where things start getting pretty good.
This is the Gigabyte AERO 15 Classic. It’s a standard 15-inch laptop with an excellent 1080p IPS display, boasting both superb color accuracy and wide color gamut support.
While you don’t get a foldable form factor or a touch screen, you get a display that’s good enough out-of-the-box for professional photo editing. That X-Rite Pantone certification speaks for itself.
In addition to the great display, you’re also getting some fairly solid tech specs for the money you’re spending. You get an Intel Core i7-9750H, which runs 6 cores and 12 threads at up to 4.5 GHz.
You also get a full 16 GB of DDR4 RAM, and an Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti graphics card. From a tech specs standpoint, you’re already well beyond anything you may need for basic photo or image editing. With these specs, you could start rendering and editing video!
There are some nice extras here, too- mainly a wide assortment of extra ports and per-key RGB backlighting on the keyboard. Our favorite extra feature would have to be the Intel AC Wi-Fi, which translates to far better speeds and reception on compatible wireless networks.
On top of it all, you get a 512 GB NVMe SSD. This is faster than a standard SATA-based SSD, and should make your PC feel as responsive as a lightning bolt.
There aren’t really many downsides worth noting here. Unless you specifically want a 2-in-1 touchscreen for your image work, there’s nothing to complain about with this laptop. If you demand the 2-in-1 form factor, take a look at our alternative Value Pick or our Top Performance Pick.
Don’t care about specs and want a 2-in-1 form factor in this price range? Get the Lenovo Yoga 720 instead
Performance Pick – Acer Predator Triton 900 17.3 Inch
This is the real no compromises machine, but it will come at a price.
The Acer Predator Triton 900 is a 17.3 inch behemoth of a laptop, and is essentially a desktop replacement machine. If you’re eager to leave behind the world of 1080p displays and mid-range graphics specs, then the Acer Predator Triton is there for you.
Let’s talk about the screen first. It’s a multi-touch IPS display with superb color accuracy. It’s on a hinge that allows it to be rotated forward and back as much as you like…enough, in fact, that you’re even able to turn this laptop into a 2-in-1 in all but name.
If you prefer a touch interface for image editing but don’t want to sacrifice anything in terms of tech specs or display fidelity, this is the laptop for you.
Also, we almost forgot to mention: this isn’t just a 17.3 inch IPS display. This is also a full 4K display, which makes it superb for picking out finer details in photographs and images without needing to zoom in.
It has full 100% coverage of the Adobe RGB color gamut, which means it’s more than well-equipped for the image work that you’ll be doing with it.
All of that is just the screen and the form factor. The specs take this laptop from superb to ridiculous.
The Intel Core i7-9750H is the same 6-core, 12-thread chip featured in the Laptop above.
However, it is now in a much larger laptop with a more powerful cooling system. This means it should be able to reach its turbo frequency of 4.5 GHz more often, especially if you choose to supplement this beast with a cooling pad.
The RTX 2080 inside this laptop is where things get real. As far as we can tell, this isn’t a cut-down Max-Q version of the RTX 2080- this is a full-fat graphics card, or as close as you can get with a laptop.
If everything scales properly, that should give this laptop approximately 67 percent more raw graphical horsepower than our Value pick. This is sheer overkill for still image editing, and a true powerhouse for video editing and other GPU-accelerated tasks.
Finally…you have a 1TB NVMe SSD, and 32 GB of DDR4 RAM. Aside from the CPU, this is pretty much what would happen if you took the Gigabyte Aero 15 and decided it should have twice the capacity. You’re going to be hard-pressed especially to use the full capacity of the RAM available to you.
If you’re a professional and you just want the best, then the Acer Predator Triton 900 is our top pick. The raw horsepower, the form factor, and the display fidelity are all there.
The utter lack of restraint corresponds to the price point as well, but we’re sure that for some of you…that doesn’t matter.
If it does, that’s what the earlier two picks are for.
That’s about it! Still having trouble picking the right Laptop? Happy to help you in the comments!