How to Choose Your Next Photo Laptop

If you are in the market for a new laptop (a.k.a. notebook) computer, you are not alone. More photographers than ever are choosing laptops in addition to a desktop computer, or making a laptop computer their primary computer. A few reasons for making a laptop a primary computer are as follows: major processor performance boosts in recent years; decreased weight; increased storage capability; higher RAM limits; better screens and enough specs and features to make most photographers’ head spin. Plus, due to the nearly constant updates to applications, security patches, and applications like iTunes, it’s often just easier to use the same computer at home, in the studio and when traveling. Another option, thanks to recent advances, is to keep a high-powered laptop or desktop at home, while a lightweight, yet still powerful machine is taken on the road for card downloads, backups, image viewing, etc.

Cost|cost
Battery Life|battery
Screen Options|screen
Graphics Card|graphics
Video|video
Processor|processor
Hard Drives vs. Solid State|drives
Card Reader|reader
Optical Drives|optical
RAM|ram
Trackpad & Keyboard|trackpad
Size & Weight|size

In this article I will cover a wide range of features to consider when choosing a laptop computer for downloading, storing and editing images. Although I won’t address video specifically, in virtually all cases, a system that is powerful enough to churn through 10-30+ megapixel Raw digital camera files at lightning speed will also handle video editing and compression well. After more than 15 years of doing commercial and fine-art film and digital photography (including high-res image editing), I’ve seen dramatic improvements in laptop computers, and my goal is to help you choose your next computer by sharing my views and opinions based on personal experiences as well as reviews that I’ve read and that I will link to where appropriate. Also, please note that this is not a “roundup” of all the laptop computers and specs known to man – that would take much more space. However, as I go through many of the different aspects of laptop computers to consider before making a purchase, I will mention some specific models to help illustrate the features I cover.

Features, Specs, and Some Thoughts: Let the Fun Begin!


Cost:

Every computer has a price tag, and for most people, this is an important consideration. The good news is that competition in the laptop market has made it possible for people to purchase a laptop computer with considerable power (for example, an Intel i5 processor), a good amount of RAM (4-6 GB), a sizable hard drive (about 500 GB), and a good size screen (14-16 inches diagonal) for under $600. Of course, you can get much more power and more features if you are willing to spend more. One way to reduce the price of a laptop computer as much as $300 or more is to purchase a refurbished model, which I highly recommend as long as the machine retains the original warranty from the manufacturer so that it can be returned if it is DOA (dead on arrival), or if problems arise soon after it is put into service.

An extended warranty is generally an excellent investment, especially if the cost of the warranty does not exceed about 15% of the purchase cost per year (though you may be willing to pay more). Always check to see if the extended warranty also covers accidental spills or drops; some allow for a one time claim if this happens, others will specifically indicate in the terms of the agreement that coverage will not apply if a user dropped or otherwise caused damage to the machine. Before buying any warranty coverage, also consider whether you’ll need to ship the laptop somewhere, and whether you’ll need to pay for shipping in either direction. Having a service center or dropoff location nearby may tip the scales toward one particular brand or third-party warranty service provider. Also find out how long you may be without your computer. Though common with projectors, it’s rare to find a warranty agreement that has a provision to lend you a replacement laptop while yours is being repaired.

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Battery Life and Battery Options:

Batteries are magical. They allow us to take our laptop computers just about anywhere. But unfortunately, unless we hook them up to solar panels or windmills (and have a good supply of sun or wind), they get depleted when not plugged in, and often much faster than we would like. All manufacturers give specs on battery life for specific models at a certain brightness level. In my experience, laptop battery life specs are almost always higher than what you will experience in real-world use when downloading and editing photos, browsing the web, and using Bluetooth, WiFi, etc. Two of the main reasons are that display brightness is often kept relatively low when the official tests are done, plus the batteries are brand new. Photographers generally set brightness to at least 50% (and often 100% when in a brightly lit room or outdoors depending on the laptop). If you’ve used a laptop computer for over a year, you will probably notice a decrease in the amount of time the computer will hold a charge.

If you plan to spend a lot of time away from a power outlet, consider a laptop computer with a removable battery so that you can quickly swap out a fresh battery when needed. Many Windows-OS laptops have this option, but unfortunately for Mac OS users, this is not an option on any of their current models. However, you can purchase an external battery pack made specifically for Mac laptops that can provide a significant amount of additional power without adding much weight. One of the most popular options for Mac users is the HyperJuice line of battery packs from Sanho Corporation.

Depending upon how you purchase your laptop, you may be presented with a range of battery choices. This is very common when configuring a laptop on a site that allows considerable customization, such as Dell.com. Batteries with more cells will generally hold a charge for a longer period, but the cost may not make them worthwhile. If you plan to be on a plane for hours without a power outlet, the extra investment may make sense. However, if available, a spare battery may be a better option.


Screen Size, Resolution, Color and Gloss Level:

A laptop’s screen is very important if you want to use it for any photo editing or viewing. Although some just use their laptop to dock to an external monitor, many use their laptop screen for viewing and/or editing images on a frequent basis. Screen size is obviously important, and there’s always a balance between portability and screen size. I personally cannot work comfortably for extended amounts of time in Lightroom or Photoshop on a laptop that is less than about 16 inches diagonally. Resolution also plays a role. I would recommend having at least 1680 pixels across as a native resolution. My MacBook Pro 17 inch laptop has a native resolution of 1920×1200 pixels, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (released in June, 2012) has a 2880×1800 native resolution. However, all of those pixels comes with some potential “issues.” Many applications (including some browsers) have not been updated to accommodate the higher resolution screen, which can lead to pixilation/image display quality issues on screen depending on the application and your display settings.

Many people purchase laptops with the intention of using them for presentations, or to attach them to a computer monitor or flat screen TV. The main problem you may encounter with a laptop that has a resolution over about 1680 pixels wide is when you plug it into a projector that projects at a lower resolution (for example, an XGA projector, which generally means a maximum resolution of 1024×768 pixels). In order to mirror your screen to have the same information projected on the screen, your laptop’s screen will generally become somewhat stretched and/or blurry. This is because you are no longer viewing images and text at the native resolution of your screen.

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Projectors that are labeled WXGA, WXGA+, WSXGA and WSXGA+ support higher resolutions that will allow you to project more pixels on the screen while reducing or eliminating the blurriness on your laptop. When you connect to a projector, it’s a good idea to test a few different resolution options in your displays control panel (Windows)/System Prefs (Mac). When you choose an external monitor, the same concerns should apply, but it’s not as important if you will be “spanning” the content (using them as independent displays). If you are mirroring, it is best to find an external monitor or use a flat-screen HD TV with the same or a very similar native resolution to the monitor or TV. For example, a “1080p” HD TV pairs very well with a laptop that has a native resolution of 1920×1200 or 1680×1050. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with its 2880×1800 pixel Retina display has a Displays control panel that looks very different from other Macs (a photo of the Displays panel can be seen below).

Based on my limited testing at an Apple Store with a MacBook Pro with Retina display, scaling the display to look more like a lower-resolution display (1920×1200 was the main resolution I tested) retained very high quality text on the overall display, which is not the case with most other laptop computers when a lower resolution is selected. This page on Apple’s site goes into detail about the Retina display settings and how to make adjustments, including a shortcut for viewing additional resolution options when connecting an external display or projector. http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5266?viewlocale=en_US&locale=en_US

The color quality of a display is very important to most photographers, especially if you plan to make color critical decisions. This is generally best done in person in a darkened room or store in which the lighting is well controlled. For example, most Apple Stores and most Sony Style stores I’ve visited are well suited for testing laptop screens. I would use a standard image such as the one on this page on my website: http://www.andrewdarlow.com/calib/ctest_adobergb.jpg. Ideally, it should be downloaded and opened in Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom or other colorsync-aware application. The image has a greyscale across the bottom, as well as some photos of landscapes and people. If you can run a calibration on the screen (Apple and Windows have a built-in calibration utility), you can quickly see whether it is worth bringing home. If you’ve just bought a new laptop, a hardware calibrator from Datacolor (Spyder brand) or X-Rite (i1 brand) is well worth the investment to help ensure that you are getting the most you can from your displays (you may also be able to rent a hardware device from a photo retailer).

The decision to purchase a laptop with a glossy or anti-glare display is another important consideration. I frequently use a calibrated and profiled 17-inch MacBook Pro with an anti-glare display to do color critical work, and I much prefer the anti-glare screen to the glossy screen that Apple offers. I also own an Asus 15 inch laptop with Windows 7 (Model K53E-1BSX). The laptop’s glossy screen drives me crazy due to its reflections (even in low light), and poor viewing angles (brightness and/or contrast changes visually as I move my head side to side or up and down). I’m planning to test an anti-glare film sometime in the future (feel free to suggest your favorite anti-glare screen film in the comments section below).

Other photographers I know prefer the glossy screen on Apple MacBooks and MacBook Pros over Apple’s anti-glare screens, and I’ve noticed that the finish on glossy screens varies dramatically between manufacturers, so testing is necessary in different lighting conditions to make an informed decision. I had an opportunity to also test out a Sony F-series 17 inch laptop with an anti-glare screen, which looked very good. I also recently noticed some Samsung laptops with anti-glare screens in my local Best Buy store. The Dell Latitude E6220 (12") and Dell Latitude E6420 14" are two other anti-glare screen options.

Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display has far less glare than the glossy screens on all other MacBook Pros while retaining very good contrast and color saturation. It also has an excellent angle of view for less variation when moving your head from side to side, or when viewing the screen with one or more people by your side. I recommend testing angle of view on any laptop you are considering, especially if you will be angling the screen toward your head instead of placing it on a stand and using an external mouse and keyboard like you would with a traditional monitor (see the photo below for an example of one way to use a laptop like a desktop computer).

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After looking at about 10 different Mac laptops at an Apple Store, I have come up with a good way to test the reflectance of any display in any retail environment. Set the screen to display all black (there are a few ways to do that, including putting the laptop to sleep and setting the desktop to pure black). Then just angle the screen toward the lights in the ceiling. If they reflect back onto the screen similar to a mirror, the display is highly reflective. If the lights look like very blurry suns (Apple’s MacBook Pros with anti-glare displays fit this description), then the display will give you much less glare. Two examples of displays that are in-between “anti-glare” and “glossy” displays (based on my unscientific testing) are the MacBook Pro with Retina display as well as all of the MacBook Air laptops (at least the ones being sold as of June, 2012).

Also consider the conditions in which you plan to work; if you can control all the light around you at all times (no bright lights behind you or falling on the screen), you may prefer a laptop computer with a glossy screen due to the increased shadow depth (Dmax) that glossy screens tend to offer compared with anti-glare screens.


Graphics Card:

The graphics card inside a laptop computer is a very important piece of equipment. It “draws” the pixels you see on your screen, and depending upon the on-board memory and other factors, it will display data up to a specific resolution and with a certain number of colors both on your laptop’s screen as well as an external monitor or projector. If you plan to use an external monitor (discussed in more detail below), your graphics card must be able to support the monitor’s resolution. Fortunately, the majority of mid- to high-level laptop computers can display up to 1080p (about 1920×1080 pixels) and millions of colors on an external widescreen monitor or TV. Even many 12 and 14-inch laptop computers can display a second screen at a much higher resolution than its native screen will allow, which means that you can set up a two monitor arrangement using the operating system (not “mirrored” due to the lower screen resolution on the laptop’s screen) and it will feel like you are working on a desktop computer. I recently encountered this scenario with a client who purchased a Dell U2412M 24 inch monitor; it was a joy to work in Lightroom, viewing the main Lightroom Modules on his 24 inch screen, and using a 14-inch Dell Latitude E6420 laptop as a second screen inside Lightroom for thumbnails/grid view. He could just as easily used his laptop to monitor e-mail, surf the web, etc. while dedicating the 24-inch monitor to Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.

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The question often comes up regarding whether to purchase a laptop with a dedicated (separate from the motherboard) or integrated graphics card (part of the motherboard). Due to advancements in processors, RAM limits, better hard drives/SSD (solid state drives) and faster graphics cards, the best advice I can give is to look at tests/benchmarks for the laptop(s) you are considering based on the types of things that you plan to do with your machine. 3D games and graphics are what really tax graphics cards. If you are not a serious gamer or 3D video producer, you may not see any difference with an integrated card for processing stills and even video.


Video Out:

Getting images, video, etc. to display from your laptop may be very important to you. If so, definitely look for HDMI or DVI out, keeping in mind that DVI can be converted to HDMI. Thunderbolt, an Apple-branded form of DVI has the ability to send video and data out of one cable. Even USB can be used for video out in some cases. Most laptop computers today can interface with a number of external display devices, from 60 inch LED TVs to projectors. VGA out was the standard for years, and most projectors still use this interface. However, DVI and HDMI out, which generally produce sharper images, have gained popularity. HDMI is making the biggest gains because of the number of flat-screen TVs on the market. When looking for a laptop computer, take a close look at the output options, and realize that an HDMI out port on a laptop can easily be converted to DVI for computer monitors, and a DVI out or mini display port out (common on Mac laptops) can be converted to HDMI with a special cable. One of my favorite places to find converters for A/V equipment is monoprice.com. Apple’s MacBook Pro (15 -inch) with Retina display is the first Mac laptop to offer HDMI out.


Processors:

The heart of any laptop, and one of the main contributors to how fast photos can be edited, is the processor (or processors). As megapixel counts have increased, there has been a major jump in laptop processing power, with dual- and quad-core chips common in many laptops. Currently, Intel’s Core i3, i5 and i7 processors are being used in the majority of higher-end Mac and Windows laptop computers sold today. i7 is the fastest of the three, and you may be surprised at how many flavors there are of each. Here’s a list of just the ones that HP currently has available for one of their laptop lines; it’s enough to give even a computer geek a headache!:

Intel Core i7-2960XM (2.70 GHz, 8 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2920XM (2.50 GHz, 8 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2860QM (2.50 GHz, 8 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2820QM (2.30 GHz, 8 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2760QM (2.40 GHz, 6 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2720QM (2.20 GHz, 6 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2640M (2.80 GHz, 4 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2630QM (2.00 GHz, 6 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2670QM (2.20 GHz, 6 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i7-2620M (2.70 GHz, 4 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i5-2540M (2.60 GHz, 3 MB L3 cache)
Intel Core i5-2520M (2.50 GHz, 3 MB L3 cache)
Source: hp.com

My recommendation, if you have the choice, is to purchase a laptop with an i5 or i7 processor. As of this writing, Intel’s third generation i7 (Ivy Bridge) processor is starting to appear in both laptops and desktop computers. To determine real-world speed results in areas that matter (like Photoshop or video compression tasks), there are quite a few places to turn. For Macs, my first choice would be Macworld.com. For Windows, I would recommend www.laptopreview.com. You can often save hundreds of dollars by choosing a laptop with a processor that’s just one “click” under the fastest, highest-rated option. Also, don’t let the GHz (gigahertz) numbers fool you. Higher GHz numbers by themselves do not mean better performance. The number of cores, cache size and other specs also play important roles.


Hard Drives vs. Solid State Drives:

Just a few years ago, solid state drives (SSDs) were not even a consideration for 99% of users due to their relatively small capacity and cost per gigabyte. But today, solid state drives (the same technology found in the SD and CF cards we use in our cameras), have slowly been finding their way into laptop computers. Apple’s MacBook Air computers are a very good example; all of them contain solid state drives. Advantages of most solid state drives over most hard drives include: faster startup and shutdown; faster copying and pasting; faster application launching; less power usage (longer battery life); and less susceptibility to damage (especially when dropped). However, SSDs vary in performance between models, and they are considerably more expensive than hard drives. Here’s an excellent article by Ian Lyons about whether hard drives or solid state drives are faster when working with Lightroom catalogs: http://www.computer-darkroom.com/blog/will-an-ssd-improve-adobe-lightroom-performance/. Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the first MacBook Pro to ship with a Solid State Drive (no hard drive option) and no Optical Drive (for CDs/DVDs).

On the topic of hard drives, they are not all created equal; look closely at the drive’s stated RPM (5400 and 7200 RPM are most common). 7200 RPM drives will generally access and write data faster than 5400 RPM drives, which means faster application startup and performance. Many assume that 7200 RPM drives will run hotter and consume more energy, but from what I’ve read, heat and energy use generally does not vary much between the two. Like many things, drives need to be compared side-by-side to make a proper determination. Also look for laptops that allow you to have two drives (or even three) drives inside. Two drives provides a compelling backup option, or even a RAID array for faster disk writing or more data security. The king of multiple drive options (and options in general!) has to be AVA Direct. Their custom gaming laptop configuration options are just mind-boggling: http://www.avadirect.com.

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One of the easiest ways to use a solid state drive is via the ExpressCard Slot on a laptop (most higher-end laptops have them). The advantage of this setup is that you will then have a minimum of two onboard drives. There are two ExpressCard Slot sizes (34mm and 54mm). Expresscard/54 (54mm) cards can accommodate both slot sizes. This site has much more information on the topic: http://compreviews.about.com/od/general/a/ExpressCard.htm , and this page has information about specific ExpressCards and how well they work with specific Mac Laptops and Operating Systems: http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/feedback/express34_card_reports.html.

Media Card Reader:

Many laptop computers sold today have media card readers built-in. The most common card slot is for SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, and some have other media card slots. This is a very useful feature because it avoids the need to carry a USB or FireWire (IEEE-1394) card reader with you. If the built-in card reader does not support your media card, you can often buy an adapter that will work with it. Another option, if you choose a laptop without a card reader, is to purchase a reader that plugs into a laptop’s ExpressCard slot, which brings up the next set of features to consider when purchasing a laptop computer.

Optical Drives:

Until just a few years ago, optical CD/DVD drives were a staple on laptop computers, but they are starting to disappear, primarily to save space and allow for thinner profiles. More and more software is downloaded via the internet, so fewer people need optical drives. I personally have a collection of commercial DVD movies that I like to watch on my MacBook Pro from time to time, and I also have hundreds of CDs and DVDs with backed up data on them, so I prefer to have an optical drive. It’s easy to see whether the computer you are researching has a CD/DVD or Blu-ray player/burner capability. Blu-ray burning capability is a major advantage in my opinion. Gone are the DVD days of 4GB per disk. Blu-ray disks can now hold up to 128 GB of data, and I’ve seen external USB Blu-ray burners for under $100.

RAM:

I won’t go into the whole “too rich, too thin, too much RAM” saying, but at least in the case of RAM, it’s true! The more RAM you can install in your laptop, the better, and RAM is probably the least expensive upgrade you can make to an existing laptop computer that can have a significant effect on performance. Every time I’ve increased the amount of RAM in my computers or my client’s computers (especially from 2 to 4 GB), the boost in image editing speed in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, iPhoto and Lightroom has been significant.

Now that I’ve set the stage, three questions are probably on your mind: How much RAM is enough?; Should I buy RAM from the company where I purchase my laptop?; and Which RAM should I buy if I have multiple options?

Re: how much RAM, I would recommend a minimum of 4 GB, but since virtually all Mac and Windows laptop computers are running a 64-bit operating system that allow more than 4 GB of RAM to be addressed by Photoshop and other imaging applications, I would recommend 6-12 GB as long as that fits within your budget. Re: buying RAM from the company where you purchase your system, I would look closely at pricing, as well as how easy it is to get into your computer to replace the RAM yourself. In the past (especially with Apple laptops configured on Apple’s online store), buying 3rd party RAM offered a significant savings over purchasing RAM from the Apple Store. Re: which RAM to buy, I would recommend buying from a source that sells a lot of RAM for your specific type of machine, and that has a 100% refund policy if the RAM is defective or does not perform as stated. For Macs, I’ve used and recommend the RAM from macsales.com, but many other retailers also provide good products and service.

Wireless Capabilities:

For a photographer who wants to have access to the internet, wireless capability is essential. The most common built-in wireless option for getting online is WiFi (802.11 in different flavors). When shopping specs, if you want to be able to achieve very fast wireless data speeds, 802.11n is good to have. However, with the popularity of cell networks that allow users to connect virtually anywhere a cell phone works, other options are now common, including built-in cell network capability, aka mobile broadband. If it is not available as a built-in option, external USB or ExpressCard options are available. Since 2010 Intel has also made WiDi available for laptops, which allows you to send high-res wireless signals directly to a TV with the use of a $50-100 box that plugs into most flat-screen TVs. Bluetooth is another wireless option that is standard on the majority of current laptops being sold today. Bluetooth keyboards, mice, presentation “clickers,” headsets and other devices exist that help us cut cords.

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Ports (USB 2, USB 3, Thunderbolt, etc): Like RAM, most would agree that you can’t have too many USB ports. USB ports are used for a wide variety of peripherals, from scanners to mice to hard drives to printers. USB ports are also often occupied by iPhone/iPad cables and media card readers. The difference between USB 2 and 3 can be significant when it comes to data transfer speeds over devices that can read and write data over a USB 3 connection. Many Windows laptop computers are available with USB 3 ports, but only the newest MacBook Pro laptops (as of June, 2012) have USB 3 ports. One of the main advantages of USB 3 is the lower cost of hard drives, cables and other peripherals compared with Apple’s Thunderbolt technology. According to a test by Macworld magazine with an external Thunderbolt RAID drive and a MacBook Pro, a battery of Photoshop operations were completed in half the time compared with USB 2. This page has an overview of many different tests, as well as specific Thunderbolt hard drive reviews: http://www.macworld.com/product/946079/promise_technology_pegasus_r6_with_thunderbolt.html

Regarding other data ports, FireWire 400 (IEEE 1394) and 800 (IEEE 1394b) can offer a significant performance/speed boost over USB 2. Also, if you have a video camera that uses the FireWire connection for live viewing (think webcam), or for capturing data from DV tapes, etc., it can be very useful. Depending on the actual drives used, hard drives connected via Firewire 400 are about 15-30% faster than those connected via USB 2 when reading and writing files, and drives connected via FireWire 800 are about 50% faster than USB 2 drives when reading and writing files. That can make a real difference when you have a large number of Aperture or Lightroom files on an external drive (necessary in many cases if you have a large Aperture or Lightroom library). Portable FireWire 800 drives are available, which is another reason to consider a laptop with FireWire 800. eSATA is another connectivity option that performs about as well as FireWire 800. Some laptop makers offer a dedicated eSATA port, and others combine eSATA with USB. Though current models may have changed the configuration, some Dell XPS 17 laptops have three USB 3 ports as well as a dedicated eSATA port.

Fan Noise:

This may seem like a trivial item, but some laptop computers can be quite loud even when the processor is not taxed, which can be distracting. Sometimes, the only way to know for sure is by working on a computer in person or reading a review. In the case of the MacBook Pro 17-inch laptops I’ve owned, the fan generally goes on only when doing batch exporting of many photos or video encoding. If your computer is running too hot, and if you want to control the fans manually, a free Mac application is available called smcFanControl (http://www.eidac.de/).

Trackpad and Keyboard:

A laptop computer’s trackpad and keyboard are both very important tools for most users. Computer mice and tablets like those made by Wacom can be very useful replacements for a trackpad, but they require some extra desk space and separate you more from the keys. I use my MacBook Pro’s trackpad a lot for editing photos in Lightroom as well as Photoshop, though I prefer a mouse or tablet for Photoshop. Multi-touch gestures, such as using two fingers to scroll can help save a lot of time, and most Mac and Windows laptops I’ve seen and used have built-in multi-touch capabilities. Personally, without a multi-finger scroll option, I would pass on a laptop because I’ve become so accustomed to the feature.

If you don’t like the feel of a particular laptop’s trackpad or keyboard, you can usually tweak the settings and even rearrange some of the keys. If that doesn’t help, you should look elsewhere since so many editing commands are done with the keyboard and modifier keys like Command, Option, Control, etc. And on that topic, definitely try a few key commands in your favorite image editor to make sure that you are comfortable with the overall layout. If you really dislike how the keys feel, or feel as though a key will pop out at any moment, pass on it.

And one of those things that I now “need” and miss dearly when it’s not present on any laptop computer I use (or a desktop for that matter) is a backlit keyboard. Many laptops are being equipped with backlit keyboards, and I find them to be extremely useful because when I do color-critical retouching or printing work my lighting is quite low, and I get a headache if I can’t clearly see the keys.

Some laptops now have spill-resistant keys, though I don’t recommend testing how well they work with your favorite smoothie or coffee drink! Here’s a quick personal story on this topic: The motherboard on my Dell laptop was fried when my young son knocked over a cup of water onto the keys about a year ago. The machine was more than two years old and I had no coverage for it. Luckily, it originally cost less than $600 refurbished, and it was time for an upgrade. If I had thought ahead, raising the laptop up on a printer/laptop stand and using an external mouse and keyboard would have eliminated this problem, while keeping the computer keys clean. That’s a $30-50 investment that you can make if you and/or family members mix beverages or food with laptop computing.

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An Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch-wide laptop with anti-glare screen is shown placed on a printer stand, with an external mouse and keyboard. This setup has a number of advantages: the screen can be placed so that your eyes are at the same height as the center of the screen, plus the screen can be perfectly straight (better for color calibration and accuracy); liquid spills are unlikely to cause damage compared with having the laptop directly on a table; an external keyboard allows for better posture (compared with a trackpad); and an external mouse is easier for most people to use when retouching.

Weight and Thickness:

Weight and thickness are both factors to consider, especially if you plan to bring your laptop computer with you when traveling. A relatively new category of very thin, lightweight, yet powerful laptop computers with 11-15 inch screens has emerged called “Ultrabooks.” I mention these because they are generally very capable for photo editing, even with large files (100 mb+). Their main drawbacks are as follows: fewer ports for USB and other devices, less storage due to their use of SSD drives, and smaller screens compared with most laptops. A few examples to help better describe this segment are as follows: Acer Aspire S, Apple MacBook Air, HP Envy 14 Spectre, HP Folio 13, Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, and the Lenovo IdeaPad U410. Apple’s MacBook Pro (15 -inch) with Retina display, at just under 4.5 pounds and less than 3/4-inch thick, is also being called an Ultrabook by many.

I’ve created a few categories below based on price, with some suggested models. I have not personally test-driven all of the laptop computers listed below, but I have looked closely at their specs, and in many cases, I’ve tested or own a similar model.

About $500 (Windows)

Asus K53E-BBR9 Refurbished
DELL Inspiron 15R-N5110
Acer Aspire TimelineX AS3830T-6870
Dell Inspiron 17R Core i5-2430M Dual-Core 2.4GHz 8GB 640GB (refurbished)

About $1000 (Mac)

MacBook Pro 13-inch: 2.4 GHz

About $1000 (Windows)

HP Envy 15
Sony VAIO F Series VPC-F232FX/B – Core i7 2.2 GHz
HP Pavilion dv6t Quad Edition series
ASUS G74SX-XT1 (12GB RAM, 500GB HDD, Blu-ray)

About $1500 (Windows)
Dell XPS 15z (full 1080p display)

About $2000 (Mac)
MacBook Pro 15-inch: i7
MacBook Pro 17-inch: i7 refurb
MacBook Pro with Retina display

About $2000 (Windows)
Alienware AM18X-9318BK (18.3")

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Andrew Darlow is a photographer, author and digital imaging consultant based in the New York City area. For more than 15 years he has conducted seminars and workshops at photo-related conferences and for photography organizations, including the American Photographic Artists (APA), Arles Photo Festival (Arles, France) and the International Center of Photography (ICP). His editorial and fine-art work have been featured in numerous exhibitions and magazines, including Photo District News, Popular Photography, Professional Photographer and Rangefinder magazine. Darlow is editor of The Imaging Buffet, an online resource with news, reviews, and interviews covering the subjects of photography, printing, and new media. His book, 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers (Course Technology, PTR) was chosen as the winner in the “Photography: Instructional/How-To” category of The National Best Books 2008 Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. His newest book is Pet Photography 101: Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Dog or Cat (Focal Press).

Original text ©2012 Andrew Darlow.

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    • Interesting article... 

      I'd add a comment on display quality. One should be aware that 99% of the laptops come with really crappy TN type LCD panels with mere 6-bit image depth.

      Viewing angles are limited, and brightness (gamma) changes a lot especially when viewing even slightly below the central point. 

      Colour accuracy is poor. A calibrator may help a bit, but this may make the low-bitdepth issues even worse (banding in the near-uniform highlights like skies). And calibration can't help much if the display looks dull / washed-out (small gamut) - so tweaking colours on a such calibrated TN panel will likely result in oversaturated colours on a proper display. Glossy TN displays (TruBrite etc) tend to show a bit more vivid colours generally, but they're beyond any good calibration just as well. 

      The exceptions to this (the remaining 1%) are laptop displays with different, mostly IPS, panels, preferably with RGBLED backlight. They are rare, usually this is an expensive option. Not all MacBook displays belong to this category. Check review sites like Anandtech or Tomshardware if you're looking for a display you can approximately trust.  

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    • Hi Sem:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that most laptop displays do not have as much gamut (as many colors that can be displayed) as quality IPS displays. However, it's amazing how much laptop display technology has advanced, and with more people using laptops in more places, and replacing desktops with laptops, more people will be relying on laptops for judging color, sharpness, etc. Almost as important is how one calibrates and profiles their displays, and many of today's laptop displays can be calibrated and profiled with outstanding results. 

      The new Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (introduced in June, 2012)  has a very high quality display based on my hands-on test with it in an Apple Store, and I regularly use my 17-inch MacBook Pro w/ anti-glare display for color critical work when I don't have it hooked up to a high-end external display. The key is to test out a prospective machine before making a purchase.

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    • Excellent , informative article.Congratulations.

      Your answer to above comments is not proper to the point. 

      Pl tell : why laptop LCD screens  colors change with change in angle of view while  this problem is not so severe with desktop LCDs even cheap ones.

      NITs play important role in screen brightness of laptop I could not find their mention in your article.

       

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    • There are a few important aspects to a (current) laptop purchase that you seem to have ignored.

       

      Chassis and frame, as well as display back.  Specifically the differences between plastic covers/display panel backs, and frame rigidity.  For anybody who transports a laptop regularly, that is a critical issue as it pertains to long term durability - With large (>15.6") display screens, this is more important, as flex in the LCD panel typically causes it to rub against the keyboard, disfiguring the screen (scratches and rub marks are extremely distracting during photo work).

        While most UB, and all(?) Macs have an Al case and display back, most avg. windows laptops (especially cheaper ones) have plastic ones.  With a large, glossy (ie. bad) display the display problem gets worse. - furthermore, case flex - especially combined with batch processing (which IME can last for 8+ hrs at 100%CPU usage)- can kill your CPU quickly (because the thermal pad develops hot spots where it is loose, and the CPU can cook itself if not cooled properly... BTDT

       

      Another issue is PCIe expansion slots.  While an mSATA SSD can physically fit in them (and most laptops have at least one (my last two laptops have had 3 ea.), and hopefully at least one free, unless the slot has a PCIe-mSATA enabled PCIe slot, any memory you plug in there is going to be only a 'cache' for your existing disk.  If you purchase a laptop w/ an mSATA enabled port, you can put the SSD as your boot drive, and use the 'traditional' 2.5" drive as an interchangeable storage drive (w/ sizes up to ~1TB)  - makes for an extremely (and securely) effective road warrior setup + it's fast!

       

      The biggest downside to nearly ALL Ultrabooks (for photogs) is that they use mSATA SSDs SOLELY for hard drive, so any decent amount of storage upgrade you do is limited to external solutions (and if you are a photog, you NEED to upgrade your storage capabilities!) - for that reason, if you are a photog, as sexy as an UB is, if it doesn't have a 2.5" HDD slot (and many don't!) it's a bad choice unless you want to rely on an external (ie. 'gets lost') drive.

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    • Hi Thakur:

      Thank you very much for your kind words. Many hours went into research for the article, and I did my best to present the features that I primarily look for when purchasing a new laptop computer.

      Regarding your question about why laptop LCD screen colors shift more than most flat-screen displays, I mentioned that one reason for that is because laptop screens are often tilted up at an angle as opposed to them being at eye level (I included the photo of a laptop on a printer stand with an external mouse/keyboard to show a good way to avoid this problem). Of course, that won't help much if you are on location somewhere without a stand or ext. mouse/keyboard and need to get some work done. I've seen laptop displays (especially the new 15 inch MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display) that have nearly as good viewing angles compared with LCD/LED displays. Even when placed at a perfect angle, there will still probably be more shift when you move your head from side to side with laptop displays compared with good quality LCD flat-screen displays or HDTV. One reason is because there is much less room for the lamps/backlights, and the front covering (glass or acrylic) is not usually as high quality on a laptop computer compared with a desktop. There are probably a few other reasons as well, but an engineer may need to chime in to share some thoughts :).

      Re: NITs, (here is a good overview of nits and display brightness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candela_per_square_metre ), it would be nice if all companies published numbers that could be used to judge the quality and overall brightness/color/contrast of a display, but in my experience, it really takes inspection of a screen in person (or via a review) to determine whether it is appropriate for one's workflow. Many laptop screens are natively bright enough, but they have problems displaying good highlight and shadow detail at the same time while still displaying a good contrast range, even after being calibrated and profiled.

      Andrew Darlow

      Freelance Writer, Photo.net

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    • Hi Marcus:


      Thank you for your comments. Regarding chassis and frame, I think build quality is important, and I assumed that is something people will investigate, much like they do when buying a car. I do mention that it is a very good idea to "test-drive" a laptop at a store before making a purchase (in part so you can see how well it holds up and how well it's built). I also mention that SSD drives are generally less susceptible to damage. 

      If there are issues with keyboards causing marks on a screen, you may be able to see it in the floor model, but it's possible that the issue will only manifest itself with time spent in a laptop bag. One of my former laptops was a PowerBook G4 with a strong aluminum frame (I still have it), and it has many visible marks on the screen because of the issue you describe with keys pressing against it (I have never been able to remove the marks). What I've found is that Apple corrected that issue with the MacBook Pro line, and I'm very happy that they did. But I also have a plastic-body 15-inch Windows laptop (mentioned and photographed in the article), which has a perfect screen despite being in a bag and being carried around for many hours. 

      What I'm getting at is that it's difficult to make specific comments about specific issues like keys affecting a screen due to the many different types of materials used, as well as the design of every laptop. That's where the suggestions for warranties come in, which was an important part of my review.

      Re: CPU heat, that's another area that will vary dramatically, especially if the manufacturer errs on the side of safety and ramps up the fans when the processor starts being utilized a lot. Even then, it may or may not have an effect on the body or lifespan of the machine.

      Re: PCIe expansion slots, the information you provide is very interesting, and I agree that booting from an SSD with an extra drive (or two) inside a laptop is a great feature. The word UltraBook is just a word, so I didn't want to say specific things about UltraBooks and internal/external drives. It's important to look at the specific specs so that an informed decision can be made. It's great to not have to rely on any external drives for ext. storage, and if you have multiple drives inside a laptop, that opens up many possibilities. That's why I highlighted options like the ExpressCard options for storage (and possibly for boot drives but that will depend on a number of factors) as well as the many options from AVA Direct. I also mentioned USB 3 and Thunderbolt for those who want to use external drives.

      All the best,
      Andrew Darlow
      Freelance writer, Photo.net
       

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    • I am very happy with my MacBookPro 13" and it is easy to carry when you travel. At home it is connected to Samsung HDMI monitor.
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    • I'd like to add that PC users need to go with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 (or whatever is current a year from now). More and more imaging software is being updated to 64-bit native. With digital image files getting larger and larger, if you don't need it now, you will...

       

      I also recommend a solid-state hard drive. I think it's a very poor plan to keep your imaging files on a laptop HD. I've got two 2TB external drives (one at my office and one at my home) to keep my imaging files backed up. I clear the laptop HD as soon as I've backed up to the external HDs. The SSD is fantastic if you're doing a demo and need to boot up quickly. Also, it cuts the time to open the monster sized image processing software.

       

      I think that 8GB of RAM is a great cost/benefit point. I use DxO Optics Pro to process files that average around 25MB and, with 8GB of RAM, my desktop and laptop process each image (RAW conversion with some modifications) in 4 to 8-sec.

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    • Hi David:

      Thanks for your suggestions. I think they are excellent, and I think that the main thing holding most people back from jumping on the SSD bandwagon are as follows: 1. The lack of SSD options on stock models; 2. The variety of SSD options (leading to confusion) if you do it yourself; and 3. The cost per GB compared with hard drives. Do you have a favorite SSD or a few that you would recommend for DIY'ers?

      All the best!

      Andrew

      Freelance Writer, Photo.net

      Editor, ImagingBuffet.com

       

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    • Perhaps I'm incorrect in this assumption, but I was/am under the impression that DVI outputs do not provide audio. Thus a DVI/HDMI converter would leave the display source (HDTV) without an audio feed. I use an ASUS laptop with HDMI out to my AV receiver, when I'm watching streaming video on my HDTV. I have not tried the DVI/HDMI conversion but I believe it would require a separate analog audio feed, significantly complicating things.

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    • Hi Charles:

      Thank you for your comments. Some laptop DVI ports can output audio as well as video. It just depends on the specific component. It's nice to see HDMI out becoming more common on laptops since inexpensive (and long) HDMI cables are very easy to find. If you've hooked up a laptop to a big-screen HDTV, it offers many interesting options. 

      The Apple Mini DisplayPort and ThunderBolt ports can be confusing since they are the same size, and in the past Apple Mini DisplayPorts could not transmit audio, but recent models allow both video and audio to pass through. The key with any Mini DisplayPort to HDMI/VGA/DVI is to buy the correct convertor without trying to convert it again (from DVI to VGA, for example). I learned this the hard way, and ended up purchasing three separate Mini DisplayPort converter cables for my 17 inch MacBook Pro (6,1 is the specific model). One for HDMI (primarily for when I use an HDTV) , one for DVI (primarily for when I use my projector) and one for VGA (primarily for when I use someone else's projector).

      Hope that helps,

      Andrew Darlow

      Freelance Writer, Photo.net

      Editor, ImagingBuffet.com

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    • A well written and thorough article. It would even be better if there are more suggestions for different users, in particular for the first time laptop buyers. Here are two examples for on the road usage (and of course there are many more):

      - for local short presentation (for customers, etc.), and no need for smallest size, lightest weight, long battery life, speed, heavy lifting computation apps like PS, large storage, etc.

      - for long trips, needing smallest size, lightest weight, minimal PS work (?), but large storage, etc.

      And how about Netbooks?

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    • Hi Robert:

      Thank you for your kind words regarding the article, and for taking time to make a few suggestions. My goal with the article was to outline what specs to consider when purchasing a laptop that has enough power to allow someone with a digital camera to enjoy the experience, whether they are just browsing through RAW and/or JPEG images shot with 10-25 megapixel cameras, or whether they are working on files in Lightroom, Photoshop or other applications. Terms like "Netbook," "Ultrabook" or "Desktop Replacement" are all just words that can mean different things to different people, so I try to stay away from those terms, and focus on specs.

      I mentioned a number of specific products throughout the article, and more than 10 specific models at the end, starting at about $500 and going up to about $2000. Once you have an idea as to which operating system you prefer, I would then look at the list as a starting point. I would also look closely at the external ports, such as on-board USB 3.0 ports, since external drives are almost always important for any laptop owner who takes a lot of digital photographs. 

      This page on cnet.com has a fantastic table that compares read/write performance for many USB 2 and USB 3 external hard drives: http://reviews.cnet.com/external-hard-drives/wd-my-passport-portable/4505-3190_7-35178076-2.html

      Hope that helps,

      Andrew

      Freelance Writer, Photo.net

      Editor, ImagingBuffet.com

       

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    • There's been a steady trickle of ThinkPad models with IPS displays, first from IBM, now from Lenovo. Some models of the T42p, T43p, and T60p had gorgeous IPS displays with full sRGB gamut.  The current X230 can be ordered with an IPS display, as could the just-discontinued X220.  The ThinkPads are still tough mechanically, but the firmware (BIOS, etc.) quality isn't what it used to be.

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    • I may have missed this in another comment above, but many of the new Macbooks cannot be upgraded (memory, storage).  This includes all models of the Mac Airs and the Macbook Pro with Retina Display.  For those units people should buy the maximum memory/storage they believe they will need.

      The normal Macbook Pros remain highly upgradeable.

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    • Hi Cork:

      That is a great point, thanks for sharing. Laptop upgradability is important to many people. That's not to say that aftermarket companies won't pop up that will get around limitations, but costs then can be very high. The good news is that with fast connections like USB 3 and Thunderbolt showing up on many laptops, external hard drives and SSD drives can produce results that make them usable for high-end image and video editing.

      All the best,

      Andrew

      Freelance Writer, Photo.net

      Editor, ImagingBuffet.com

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    • Re: Displays... I've found it difficult to use any off the shelf displays for print quality work due to the fact they are so contrasty. Nothing one can do with calibration can change that fact due to the inherent limitations of their design. This isn't an enormous limitation to using an off the shelf solution (laptop or iMac) but it should be taken into consideration. These screens look like FujiChrome film when you were used to Kodachrome. This is even more true with gloss screens, so a recommendation for no glare... more emphasis on the mid-tones in the screen because of decreased overall contrast range.

      Re: Outputs... be aware that some dvi and or hdmi outs do not include an audio channel. What a bloody pain. The macs do as of 2011 I believe, but not sure about PC solutions. Probably worth considering this issue as you are going to be using this device for years to come and if you ever want to stream to external monitor/TV any video finding all the various cables and adapters can be a real pain.

      Re: Outputs... the type of output you choose may also affect the resolution of any external monitor you choose to use regardless of what it's resolution is. This is getting to be less of an issue, but still quite painful.

      Both of these points should be taken into account in deciding whether to stay put with your current output system, esp. if you are interfacing with external devices, or go with the newest, often not backwardly compatible, outputs that may mean you have to upgrade externals.

      LD

        

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