Top 6 Best Laptops for Designers 2018

July 31, 2018

6:09 am

Designers need powerful and portable laptops with long battery lives to run programs such as Photoshop or Adobe Premiere Pro while running between pitching meetings or working on-the-go. We pick out the best laptops for designers, plus explain the specs and budget you’ll need to consider.

Above all, buying a laptop for design work isn’t cheap. If you’re going to break the $1,000 mark (or even the $2,000 one) it’s essential to know you’re buying a laptop that won’t let you down. Our best laptops for designers combine powerful specs with attractive looks and thin, portable frames.


Tech.co’s Best Laptops for Designers 2018:

    1. Apple MacBook Pro – Still the best laptop a designer can choose
    2. Microsoft Surface Book 2 – Microsoft’s attempt to best the MacBook Pro, comes very close
    3. Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 – A return to form for Dell: Powerful, compact and good-looking
    4. Samsung Notebook 9 Pen – Feature-packed, but lacking storage
    5. Lenovo Yoga 920 – Extremely portable with a unique design makes it a good outside bet
    6. HP Spectre x360 15 – A great choice, but fails to really knock our socks off

How to Choose a Laptop for Graphic Design

To make sure your laptop can handle design programs, you’ll need a powerful processor – Intel and AMD are the only two brands making laptop processors . For design work, you should accept nothing less than an Intel Core i5 processor (with i7 being preferable), an AMD Ryzen or AMD FX chip.

You’ll also want a decent amount of RAM – 8GB at least, but 16GB is a good bet these days. Designers will also want a dedicated graphics card – we’ll explain why in a later – so if you’re eyeing up a laptop that doesn’t list one in its specs, look elsewhere.

A larger screen can also be helpful – there’s no point in peering into a tiny display when you’re designing a multi-million dollar ad campaign. Think 13-inch as a minimum, with 15-inch being preferable.

These are very demanding specifications and you shouldn’t be surprised by prices over $1,000 or even over $2,000.

Apple MacBook ProApple MacBook Pro

  • Starts at $2,177
  • Display 15.4-inch, 2880×1880 resolution
  • Processor 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7 or 3.1Ghz Intel Core i7
  • RAM 16GB
  • Storage 256GB SSD or up to a 2TB SSD
  • Graphics Card AMD Radeon Pro 555 or Intel HD Graphics 630

It had to be the MacBook Pro, didn’t it? The ubiquitous choice for coffee shop workers and creatives everywhere, the MacBook Pro packs incredible power and class-leading screen displays into a sleek, metal frame.

MacOS has long been preferred to Windows in the design world. It’s a cleaner operating system that’s less prone to crashing under high workloads and can easily run multiple, power-hungry programs at once.

One downside to the MacBook Pro is the scarcity of port options it offers. You’ll be getting four Thunderbolt 3 ports (which are compatible with USB-C connections) meaning you’ll likely have to bring along a bulky dongle to connect with the more widely used USB-A ports or HDMI cables.

If you really want to stretch your budget, you can push for a MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar feature along the top of the keyboard, though this is more of a “nice to have”, rather than an essential. Be warned, the MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook lines may look slim and pretty, but they’re underpowered for creative work.

Microsoft Surface Book 2Microsoft Surface Book 2

  • Starts at $1,726
  • Display 13.5-inch, 3000×2000 resolution
  • Processor 8th gen Intel Core i7
  • RAM 16GB
  • Storage From 128GB up to 1TB SSD
  • Graphics Card NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050

Originally positioned as Microsoft’s MacBook-killer, the Surface Book 2 is now in its second generation. It’s retained the reversible and removable touchscreen from the first-gen model, meaning you can use it as a tablet or as a traditional laptop. The Surface Book 2 also adds some newer components (including an 8th gen i7 processor) into its slick, but slightly utilitarian chassis.

You can configure the Surface Book 2’s components to your liking, but we wouldn’t recommend anything less than an i7 processor and at least a 256GB SSD for creative design work.

The Surface Book’s touchscreen does offer some advantages over the non-touch MacBook Pro – it’s great for sketching or annotating documents or images using Microsoft Ink. The optional Surface Pen irritatingly costs an extra $99, but it’s more precise than your humble index finger and allows some neat tricks such as shading.


Dell XPS 15 2-in-1Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

 

  • Starts at $1,699
  • Display 15.6-inch, 1920×1080 or 3840×2160 resolution
  • Processor 8th gen Intel Core i7
  • RAM 8GB
  • Storage 128GB SSD to 1TB SSD
  • Graphics Card AMD Radeon RX Vega

Dell claims its XPS range of laptops is built to be the best – and even a quick glance at the XPS 15 2-in-1 will attest to this. This is the top-end of Dell’s range, packing all of the latest components and tech into a tiny package.

The XPS 15 2-in-1 feels closer in size to a typical 14-inch laptop, but it packs a full 15-inch screen with hardly any bezel and a slim frame. In fact, it measures less than two-thirds of an inch deep at the thickest point.

But don’t think that its slender frame, power-hungry i7 processor and AMD graphics card will lead to a short battery life. Dell claims a remarkable 15 hours and 53 minutes with the 1080p display. The XPS 15 2-in-1 weighs less than four-and-a-half pounds, so it’s unlikely to give you back pain on the way to your next pitch.

Considering the i7 models of the XPS 15 start at just shy of $1,700, it’s not ideal that you have to pay another $150 for an upgrade to a 512GB SSD – we’d expect more storage at this price.

Samsung Notebook 9 PenSamsung Notebook 9 2018

  • Starts from $1,299.99
  • Display 13.3-inch, 1920×1080 resolution
  • Processor 8th gen Intel Core i7
  • RAM 8GB
  • Storage 256GB SSD
  • Graphics Card Intel UHD Graphics 620

Samsung’s 2018 version of the Notebook 9 is the newest laptop on this list, only coming to market in February. As such, it packs in all of the latest features available to Windows laptops, including a fingerprint scanner, Windows Hello facial ID login, stylus support (hence the ‘pen’ naming) and an HDR-ready display.

It’s the littlest laptop on this list, with a 13.3-inch display. But, it still squeezes in two USB-C ports, a USB-A port and an HDMI port. It also has a neat outdoor mode that nearly doubles the brightness from 350 to 500 nits (that’s a good thing!) to permit easier outdoor working.

Unfortunately, the Notebook 9 Pen is limited to just a 256GB SSD for storage – we’d expect a bit more, or at least a choice at this price point. So, you’ll need to be very judicious with file storage, carry around an external hard drive or invest in a cloud storage provider to atone for the Notebook 9’s lack of storage.

Lenovo Yoga 920

  • Starts at $1,299.99
  • Display 13.9-inch, 1920×1080 or 3840×2160 resolution
  • Processor 8th gen Intel Core i7
  • RAM 8GB or 16GB
  • Storage 512GB or 1TB SSD
  • Graphics Card Intel UHD Graphics 620

The Lenovo Yoga 920 comes in an unusual 13.9-inch screen size and has a unique “watchband” style hinge to connect the rotating screen to the keyboard – you’ll certainly stand out between the lines of MacBooks in the coffee shop.

Don’t think it’s all style and no substance, however. The hinge also houses the WiFi antenna and the laptop’s air vents, allowing for a completely flat and smooth design.

The Yoga 920 tips the scales at a just over three pounds, and given its mere half-inch thickness, this is a great laptop for use on the go. The battery life almost matches the Dell model, above, with Lenovo claiming 15 hours and 30 minutes use with the 1080p display.

However, with this laptop’s remarkably slight frame and impressive components, something had to lose out – the ports. You do get a USB-A port (unlike the MacBook Pro) but only two USB-C ports.

HP Spectre x360 15

HP Spectre x360 15

  • Starts at $1,330
  • Display 15.6-inch, 1920×1080 or 3840×2160 resolution
  • Processor 8th gen Intel Core i7
  • RAM 16GB
  • Storage 1TB spinning hard drive plus 128GB SSD
  • Graphics Card Intel UHD Graphics 620

HP claims that the Spectre x360 “transcends” expectations. A big claim, but this is a very impressive laptop from HP’s ‘prosumer’ sub-brand. It isn’t quite as slender as Dell or Lenovo’s offerings, but the x360 throws in a stylus for free, unlike the Surface Book 2.

It also features a combination hard drive, unlike the other laptops in this list. This means you have a copious 1TB traditional spinning hard drive plus the faster boot and load speeds of an SSD. It’s a better value approach than paying over the odds for a large 512GB or 1TB SSD.

The Spectre also comes with a cornucopia of ports compared to its rivals, with a Thunderbolt 3, a USB-C, a USB-A and an HDMI port. So, if you aren’t quite ready to commit to a dongle-led future but don’t fancy a chunky workbook, this might be your perfect laptop.

 

Laptops for Designers: Specs to Look For

When buying a laptop, particularly premium models, the vast array of specs and features can be a bit overwhelming. Here’s a quick jargon-buster to help you choose like a pro:

Screen size

Measured in inches, this is the size of your laptop’s screen from corner to corner across the diagonal. Laptops with a larger screen size are going to be physically bigger and heavier when you’re carrying them, or resting them on your lap – typically anything bigger than 15.6-inches is going to be a bit of a handful.

Some laptops try to slim the bezels (the edge around the screen) or change the aspect ratio to make the overall device smaller, but of course, this can only go so far.

For high-quality graphics or design work, it pays to have a bigger, more detailed screen. It’s also worth paying attention to the resolution – this is the density of pixels (individual colours on a computer’s screen that make up the images we see on screen) and simply, the bigger the numbers, the better the screen will look. 1080p screens are Full-HD and 3840p screens are 4K (Ultra HD).

Processor

If you think of your computer as a car, the processor is the engine – it provides the raw grunt that lets you accomplish all your tasks, from looking at cat videos while procrastinating on YouTube, to creating incredible content on Photoshop or Premiere Pro.

As you’re likely to be using power-hungry programs for creative work, it makes sense to pay more for a powerful processor. After all, the less time you spend waiting for your computer to catch up, the faster you’ll finish working. You might also see processors referred to as CPU (central processing units) or, simply, chips.

AMD and Intel are the two names in town when it comes to processors. These days, there’s little distance between the two brands, and both put out some high quality processors for top-end laptops.

RAM

Continuing the car analogy, if the processor is the engine, then RAM is your computer’s gearbox – it makes the processor work more efficiently, rather than furiously spinning away in vain. RAM stands for random access memory – it helps your computer navigate its way through your files and tasks.

Again, the more RAM your computer has, the faster you’ll be able to get your jobs finished. Also – don’t confuse memory, meaning RAM, with storage, which is your hard drive or solid state drive.
Storage
We’re really labouring this car analogy now, but it’s too late to turn back – storage is the size of your trunk. An MP3 song might only take a few megabytes (one MB is equal to one million bytes), whereas a feature-length HD movie might need 8-15 gigabytes (one GB is equal to one billion bytes).

There are also two types of storage used in premium laptops: spinning hard drives, or solid state drives (SSDs). A spinning hard drive is older, but not obsolete tech – they tend to be cheaper and have more storage space than SSDs of the same price. They also literally spin around, creating noise, friction and heat.

SSDs on the other hand, are newer – and more expensive – than spinning drives. They have no moving parts, helping the computer to read and write data much faster. With an SSD, your laptop will boot up more quickly, and run and open programs more smoothly. The only downside is you get much less storage space with an SSD.

Graphics card

We’re going to have to abandon the car analogy now. Graphics cards, or GPUs, are similar to processors, but work in a slightly different way. Computers see everything in a series of mathematical equations, and processors are very good at working through complex, but ultimately straightforward equations with one possible outcome – such as opening a program once you click on its icon.

However, graphics cards are designed to be better at working through less straightforward equations – typically, but not exclusively, representing things on-screen. Some cheaper computers eschew a discrete graphics card in favour of letting the processor manage all the tasks – but for the work you’re going to be doing, you’ll need a dedicated GPU.

Again, the more expensive the GPU, the quicker it will be able to work through the tasks you give it.

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Tom Fogden is a writer for Tech.Co covering everything from website builders to mobile phones. He also loves soccer, probably too much.

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