Here’s a question sent in by one of our readers, Elaine. “I have been searching [for a laptop] for months and am in a bit of a muddle having asked lots of people what they use. The main reason will be to use it for photography.” Elaine went on to explain that she had a budget of £800 – so what is the best laptop for photo editing?
Best laptop for photo editing: which graphics card?
Elaine has been reading reviews, asking friends and going into shops, and emerged with a long check list that included a “good dedicated graphics card” with at least 2GB of memory.
Why would you want this? Most non-gamers don’t need a dedicated graphics card, but it comes in useful for certain Photoshop features. Certain features such as filters and sophisticated effects work best with a dedicated graphics chip, rather than the integrated graphics on most laptops.
It also makes sense because Adobe Camera Raw uses “a compatible graphics processor” to speed up operations. However, if you’re buying a modern laptop with an Intel Core processor then it should still benefit from acceleration via the integrated graphics.
That said, Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom (a big favourite with photographers) and other photo-editing packages will all still work without dedicated graphics, just a little more slowly.
So, it isn’t vital to buy a laptop with a dedicated graphics chip but it helps. With a budget of £800, you’re really looking for an Nvidia GeForce MX150, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 (or 1060) or AMD Radeon chip.
Best laptop for photo editing: screen size and resolution
Let’s tackle screen size first. Elaine is caught between 13in and 15in laptops: “It will largely stay at home and will be my only home device and so that has been my quandary: I want a great screen but also a comfortable size to work with!”
That rules out 17in laptops, and we’d also say 12in would be too small for detailed work. However, as part of an elimination process it isn’t great. You could make an argument for 13in, 14in and 15in screens.
Resolution is another key factor. If you’re editing photos, you want the image to look detailed when you zoom in. This is where smaller can be useful: a Full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080) looks fine on a 13in or 14in panel, but starts to appear a bit fuzzy on a 15in screen if you move too close.
So, if you’re buying a laptop with a 15in screen, ideally you’re looking for a higher resolution machine. However, that could prove tricky at this budget so we’ll put it as a nice-to-have.
Best laptop for photo editing: screen specifications
Then we come to screen quality. Here, you’re hoping that the reviews you read have put the screen through some technical tests rather than just “it looks great!”. That’s because, if you take photography seriously, you want colours to look the same on-screen as when you get them professionally printed. If your screen isn’t colour accurate, it’s press print and hope.
For true accuracy, you’ll probably need to invest in a separate monitor that makes proper claims about such things. For now, the key indicators are reviews, manufacturer claims about sRGB and Adobe RGB gamut coverage, and ideally a Delta E measurement. You’re looking for 90%+ coverage of those two colour gamuts and, as a “nice to have”, a Delta E of less than 2.
We won’t get that in a laptop costing less than £800, and bearing in mind that Elaine describes herself as an “enthusiastic learner” rather than a professional this is one area where you’ll have to make a sacrifice.
Curiously, the other measure Elaine had noted down was a contrast ratio of 1,000:1. Contrast ratio is kind of useful as a measure of quality (if it was 500:1, be worried), but I wouldn’t rule a laptop out if it had a measured contrast ratio of 900:1.
Best laptop for photo editing: the processor (or CPU) and memory (or RAM)
When it comes to the processor, you just need to make sure you’re avoiding a budget choice. Ones to avoid: AMD Athlon, Intel Pentium, Intel Celeron. Also avoid any Intel Core chip that has a “Y” in its model name, as this is tuned for battery life rather than the speed Elaine craves.
Intel’s chain of speed goes Core i3 (fast), Core i5 (faster), Core i7 (fastest), and in general the Core i5 is a good compromise choice. Look out for phrases such as “eighth generation”, which is the latest chip. The seventh generation is fine, too, so don’t be put off if you spot a bargain.
AMD’s Ryzen chips are also good choices. AMD uses a similar naming scheme to Intel, so Ryzen 3 is good, Ryzen 5 better, Ryzen 7 the fastest. Given the budget, we’d lean to Ryzen 5 as a good compromise. The other good thing about Ryzen chips? They have a far better built-in graphics chip, so you’ll benefit from those accelerations we mentioned earlier.
Memory is much simpler. We’ll rule out 4GB because serious photo editing will be hampered by this, so 8GB is our minimum. It’s also our most likely choice: 16GB of memory is likely to push the price too high. That said, if you’re chosen laptop could be upgraded to 16GB in the future then that’s a nice feature.
Best laptop for photo editing: storage
The biggest choice you’ll have to make is between a hard disk drive and a solid state drive (often shortened to SSD). If Elaine’s budget was £500 or under then we’d be willing to compromise here, but you’ll never regret buying an SSD. Not only is it much faster than a hard disk, it’s also much more reliable and lighter.
The downside is storage capacity. You can buy a £600 laptop with a 2TB hard disk, whereas you’ll be lucky to get bigger than a 256GB SSD if you’re spending £800 or less. But that’s okay. Elaine’s scenario is for a home-based system, so if she buys an external hard disk (such as this 1TB Seagate disk on Amazon) then it both expands her storage and provides a backup for data stored on the laptop.
We are starting to see more laptops with hybrid drives: these will be 1TB or 2TB hard disks with a 16GB SSD “built in”. It largely solves the speed problem, but will still be bulky and less reliable. We’d stick to SSDs.
Best laptop for photo editing: touchscreen? Convertible?
We’re entering the final straight. Elaine could choose from a conventional “clamshell” laptop or go for a convertible design, where the screen flips around 360 degrees and means you can write, annotate and doodle on-screen. This can be useful in photo editing, and Adobe software is now tuned to work in touchscreen mode, but it’s a nice-to-have rather than a vital inclusion.
Best laptop for photo editing: weight?
Even though Elaine states that her laptop will only be used around the house, with occasional trips outside, I recommend you choose a laptop that weighs under 2kg. It just makes it more pleasant to use.
Best laptop for photo editing: recommended features
That leaves us with these guidelines for our recommendation:
- Core i5, Core i7, Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 processor
- 8GB RAM or more
- 256GB SSD or larger (but willing to go down to 128GB)
- Dedicated graphics card such as Nvidia GeForce MX150, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 or AMD Radeon
- Weighs less than 2kg
- Minimum 13in screen, maximum 15.6in
- At least Full HD resolution
Best laptop for photo editing: specific recommendations
Now for the tricky bit: recommending specific laptops. This isn’t something I like to do unless I’ve got my hands on a machine for a proper review, but I know that Dell, HP and Lenovo all make solid and reliable machines. In fact, there’s barely anything between them for reliability.
I’ve broken them into four categories based on screen size, with one bonus “convertible” category.
Best 13in laptop for photo editing
Lenovo IdeaPad 720S, £750
The IdeaPad 720S comes in various configurations, but the one we’re interested in costs £750 from Currys and includes an AMD Ryzen 7 processor, a dedicated AMD Radeon RX Vega graphics card, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. It also weighs only 1.14kg.
We know from reviews that Lenovo includes decent screens on its IdeaPad range, so we can be fairly confident that it will be fine.
Note that John Lewis also stocks this configuration of the IdeaPad 720S, but it’s currently out of stock.
Best convertible for photo editing
HP Envy x360 13.3in, £649
We’re having to make a sacrifice on the size of the SSD with this Envy, because it only includes a 128GB drive. That’s not great, so you would definitely have to invest in that external drive, but bearing in mind all the other things you’re getting for £649 it’s great value. AMD Ryzen 5? Check. Radeon Vega GPU? Check. Good quality Full HD display? Check.
Currys calls this a “limited time deal”, but you may be more tempted by the 256GB version from John Lewis for £790 – especially as JL doubles the warranty from one year to two years. Note you can also currently buy the 128GB version direct from HP for £649 (discounted from £799 with the e-voucher SALE150).
Best 14in laptop for photo editing
Lenovo IdeaPad 530S, £649
There isn’t as much choice when it comes to 14in laptops. While we’re tempted by this Acer Swift (£649 from Currys) it only has integrated graphics. Instead we’re choosing the Lenovo IdeaPad 530S, also from Currys, which includes a fast AMD Ryzen 7 2700U processor, AMD Radeon graphics, a Full HD 14in display and 256GB SSD.
Note that the IdeaPad 530S comes in numerous configurations, so check the spec before you buy.
Best 15in laptop for photo editing
We looked at a number of sub-£800 15in laptops to see if any could tempt us, but all had one flaw or another. The biggest problem proved to be screen quality; for example, we were put off from the Dell Inspiron 15 5000 because the screen isn’t good enough for photographers. Likewise the HP Pavilion 15.
The only laptop that came close was this Lenovo IdeaPad 330S, but we have concerns over battery life and would like to get a sample in to properly test its screen before recommending.
Elaine, we hope that helps. It just goes to show how difficult it can be to choose a laptop for a particular task and at a set budget. Whichever you choose – Elaine, and anyone else reading this article – we hope you enjoy it. Let us know how you get on – and if you’re a photographer with recommendations, please let us know in the comments.
One last thing…
If you’re not dead set on a laptop, £800 is just about within budget for an Apple iPad Pro. Most modern cameras will have Wi-Fi to beam photos to the device, the screen on the iPad is as sharp and as colour accurate as any laptop’s, and the power and quality of iOS editing apps is improving all the time. Affinity Photo, for instance, is almost as good as full-blown Photoshop.
It might be that the best choice isn’t a laptop after all…