Photo editing pushes laptop capabilities right to the edge. Top-quality work demands a high-resolution, color-accurate display, and a fast processor. But the rigors of traveling with photo gear plus a computer make small, lightweight machines with long battery lives a real plus. Similarly, storing thousands of high-resolutions calls for a large hard drive, while peak performance is only possible with an SSD.
When we last looked at the best options in the market last year, there were some clear leaders. We’ve now updated our list, with new and improved models that have come on the market over the last 12 months. If you are in the market and photo editing is a top priority, one of these laptops is likely to suit your needs.
Dell XPS 15
My favorite laptop for image editing continues to be the Dell XPS 15. Each year, Dell makes it lighter, smaller, and more powerful. Currently, you can get a base model with a 7th-generation Core i3 and 8GB of memory for $ 1,000, but most will want something beefier. A top-of-the-line Core i7 unit with 16GB of memory, a 512GB PCIe SSD, Nvidia GTX 1050M GPU, and upgraded with a UHD touch screen, is a fairly reasonable $ 2,150 — about 20 percent less than you would have paid for similar functionality in the previous generation. Upgrading to 32GB will only cost you a modest $ 200, and the same for the upgrade to a 1TB SSD.
The unit has a good selection of ports, including HDMI, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, and an SD card slot. Starting at 4 pounds, the latest XPS 15 is about the lightest laptop you can find that can pack this much punch, and with a nearly Adobe RGB color gamut.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
If you like to use a tablet or stylus for your image editing in your studio, and want to have access to the same capability on the road, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 may be ideal. It’s powerful for its small size, and features a pressure-sensitive active stylus while also offering a reasonable keyboard. You’ll probably also want to pair it with a Bluetooth mouse like the Microsoft Arc Touch.
By itself, the 1.7 pound unit certainly won’t give you the same big-screen experience of larger laptops, but its 12.3-inch screen is sharp and high-resolution. While the base model comes with an i3, you can bump up to an i5 or i7 for more power. You’ll also want an external card reader to use with your camera, but with up to 1TB of internal SSD, you may not need an external drive to keep your images while you travel. When you’re in one location for awhile, you can use the mini DisplayPort to drive an external monitor — or even do what I do and travel with a portable USB-powered display. The entry level version is now $ 800, with a loaded model costing up to $ 2,600 with an i7, 16GB of memory, and a 1TB SSD.
Apple MacBook Pro 15 and MacBook Pro 13
Apple’s MacBook Pro has long been a favorite among professional photographers. A big part of it is, of course, that it runs the same macOS many of them run on desktop computers. But it was also an early pioneer of ultra-high resolution LCDs with a large color gamut, and a relatively compact, stylish, design. However, many PC vendors have caught up in features, and surpassed the now-aging MBP models in raw performance. Apple has made some recent improvements, including adding a Force Touch trackpad, faster SSDs, and improving the battery life, although the lack of an SD card slot remains a sticking point.
An update is expected in June, so if you want a Mac laptop for photo editing on the go, it may be best to wait and see what the new version looks like. In the meantime, the current version of the MBP 13 with Retina Display starts at $ 1,500, while the 15-inch Retina model starts at $ 2,400. As is typical, photographers will more likely be interested in the higher-end configurations, which are $ 2,000 and $ 2,800, respectively. The new models have higher price points than before, but with beefier specs. You can now get up to a 1TB SSD in the 13-inch model, and a 2TB SSD in the 15-inch. With 30MP and up cameras becoming common, and 4K video widespread, these larger hard drive options are a welcome addition.
Asus ZenBook UX510-4K
Asus has carved out a niche with its stylish and powerful, although often pricey, ZenBook laptops. Its current flagship model, the Asus ZenBook UX510-4K, is potentially a dream for photographers. At just over 4 pounds, it’s similar to the Dell XPS 15 and Apple MBP 15 in weight, and has an incredibly sleek look. You can load it up with a Core i7 CPU (although still only available with a 6th generation version), Nvidia GTX 960M GPU, and 16GB of DDR4 memory.
While the ZenBook has fallen behind some of its competitors, as the CPU and GPU aren’t the latest models, the 15.6-inch display is one of the highest-resolution out there, at a full 4K (3840 x 2160), and covers 100 percent of the sRGB gamut. One interesting feature is Eye Care mode, that reduces harmful blue light by up to 30 percent — although not something you want to try when you’re doing color correction of images.
The largest SSD you can get for the unit is 512GB, but DIYers might be able to inexpensively upgrade the 1TB hard drive with an additional SSD. I did that to my photo editing laptop using a Crucial MX300 SSD and saw a dramatic increase in speed for both image filing and editing. For ports, you get the increasingly-common USB-C, as well as USB 3.0, HDMI, and an SD card reader. It also comes with a backlit keyboard, which has become an absolute must-have feature for me.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
The fifth generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is the lightest and most powerful yet. Packing up to a 7th generation Core i7 with vPro, HD display, and ultra-fast NVMe SSD for storage, the newest version also supports up to 16GB of memory — one drawback of older models was limited memory support. Staring in June, Lenovo plans to offer a Quad-HD display as an option.
In addition to various management features that will appeal to anyone purchasing laptops for a large organization, the X1 Carbon now includes a fingerprint reader. That may not sound exciting, but I have one on the keyboard for my Surface Pro, and I like the added convenience. I miss it when I go to log in on my other computers. You get all of that in a 2.5-pound package.
Lenovo hasn’t skimped on ports, either. The newest X1 has 2 Thunderbolt and 2 USB 3.0 ports in addition to HDMI and RJ-45. Its card reader is only microSD, though. In exchange for the slightly smaller screen (14-inch) than many of the other models we suggest, and lack of a discrete GPU, you get a much lighter and thinner laptop. The new X1 Carbon starts at just over $ 1,100, but prices can run up to $ 2,000 when fully configured. Oddly, the newest model doesn’t have an option for a touch display. I’d expect the Touch model to also be updated at some point.
Don’t fret if we missed your photo editing favorite
It was hard to pick out just a few machines from the dozens of excellent laptop models out there. For many, apparently small features like backlit keyboards, multiple USB 3.0 ports, choice of DisplayPort, HDMI, or VGA output, or battery life can easily change which model is right for your particular needs. This is especially true with Windows ultrabooks — with literally dozens of similar models crowding the sub-four-pound, SSD-powered Windows laptop space.
Unfortunately, some laptop makers are also making it harder to compare the actual specifications for their units. Manufacturers often completely neglect to state maximum RAM capacity, base CPU speed (they seem to like bragging about the higher Turbo Boost speed instead), or drive RPMs. Hopefully, though, the models we’ve described can serve as a baseline for your shopping so you’ll know what’s available and what some of your alternatives are.
If you have a very-high-end photography workflow, that involves a lot of multi-layer Photoshop images, and are okay with lugging around something larger, also take a look at our best laptops for engineers guide for ideas.
If you have a different laptop you love for your photo editing work, let us know about it in the comments.
Now read: The top laptops for everyone