We tested the most powerful and stylish models to find the best laptop for designers and artists.
Whether you’re looking for a laptop to use alongside a desktop or as your main computer wherever you are, this is our expert pick of the best laptops for design – whether graphic, UX or any other form of digital design. They’d also be pretty good for artists who don’t want a tablet or 2-in-1 that you can draw directly on, or 3D artists and animators – though if you use high-end suites such as Maya you’ll want to check out our forthcoming guide to the best mobile workstations that are certified for such apps.
Unlike many other stories you might read on the web purporting to tell you which is the best laptop for designers and artists, we’ve extensively tested and benchmarked each of the models we’ve chosen – and a lot more that didn’t make the list too.
Here we’ve focussed on models that offer the best combination of power and portability, which in our experience means a 15-inch model. We have also looked at 14-inch models for those on a smaller budget, but only one of those laptops has made our ‘best models’ chart below. 13-inch models generally aren’t powerful enough, 17-inch models are too bulky to carry around unless you really require the extra performance and storage capacity that they offer.
Below we’ll get into a detailed discussion of how to choose the correct configuration – but if you just want a recommendation, this is what we suggest:
- If you mainly design in Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, Sketch or Adobe XD: a Core i7 processor with an H suffix, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and a Retina or 4K screen.
- If you create graphics in Photoshop or Illustrator, edit video, or create simple animations: a Core i7 processor with an H suffix, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe SSD, an AMD Radeon Pro 555X or Nvidia GeForce 1050i graphics chip, a Retina or 4K screen, and a Thunderbolt 3 ports to connect fast storage.
- If you work with very complex Photoshop files, edit 4K or work in After Effects – or just want the biggest, baddest laptop out there: a Core i9 processor, 32GB RAM, a 512GB or 1TB PCIe SSD, an AMD Radeon Pro 555X or Nvidia GeForce 1050i graphics chip, a Retina or 4K screen, and a Thunderbolt 3 ports to connect fast storage
- If you’re on a tight budget: a Core i7 processor with an U suffix, 8GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and a capable HD screen. Avoid budget models with shoddy screens.
And if you prefer you can skip straight to our benchmarks and list of best laptops.
Most 15-inch laptops are available with a choice of HD (ie 1,920 x 1,080 or 1,920 x 1,200) or 4K (3,840 x 2,160) displays. Always go for the 4K screen if you can afford it. Not only can you see your work in four times as much detail, modern application UIs are designed for higher-than-HD resolutions – and on HD screens you can find the panels and toolbars taking up a lot of the screen (at least if you’re used to working on the higher resolution display, whether on desktop or a laptop).
In general, as the ‘premium’ display option, 4K screens on laptops aimed at designers and artists offer better colour reproduction. They can output a wider gamut of colours – most HD displays can output only around 75% of the Adobe RGB colour space (as used by most of that company’s apps). Instead HD screens aim for 100% of sRGB, a much smaller colour space, so you’ll see fewer shades and less-smooth gradients for example. Some 4K screens can output a full 100% of Adobe RGB – and they’re generally more colour accurate too. We test both using a DataColor Spyder5Elite colour calibrator, and while
Some models offer an optional touchscreen – or if you take the 4K screen option it’s a touchscreen. These aren’t for drawing on as with tablets or tablet PCs, they’re for making broad gestures – scroll, pan, zoom, which are easier than trying to do using the trackpad when a laptop is on your lap, and particularly useful in circumstances where you haven’t got much elbow room, such as trains, planes and certain coffee shops. Whether you’ll find one useful depends on how often you’ll need to use it away from your desk.
All of the laptops we’ve looked at here have Intel CPUs. Despite AMD’s recent resurgence in performance and popularity for desktop PCs for gamers and some creatives from specialist system builders, the major brands we’ve focussed on here are all Core- (or Xeon-) based. Even within the Core range, picking a processor can be tricky. The latest generation of chips is the 8th, though laptops with 7th-gen chips are still available. Go for a laptop with a 8th-gen chip if you can, as these can be around 50% faster than 7th-gen chips.
Within the 8th-generation there are Core i3, i5, i7 and i9 models – with the i5 and i7 being split between models that end U and H/HQ/HK. U processors have two to four cores and draw less power than H-series chips (and offer lower performance) – so are found in smaller laptops. If you’re looking at a 13- or 14-inch laptop, chances are it’ll have one of these – and for the performance creative apps demand, an i7 chip will deliver it.
H-series chips have four to six cores at higher base speeds than U models, so are more powerful at intense, multi-threaded tasks (like running creative apps). You’ll likely want an i7 chip, but if performance really matters and you have the budget, an i9 chip will give you faster clock speeds and more cache for ultimate capability.
(A note on speeds. Chips have a base speed and a ’Turbo’ speed. If the tasks your apps are performing don’t use all the cores, your computers can push up the speed of the cores that are being used. This is found across processors and the main thing is to check whether the speed being quoted by a vendor is the base speed or an ‘up to’ Turbo speed.
If you want to tell what generation and type a processor is, look to the first digit after the hyphen and the letters at the end: so a Core i9-8950HK is an 8th-gen, H-series Core i9. A Core i7-7600U is a 7th-gen. U-series Core i7. Vendors generally tell you the number of cores, but a quick Google of a product name gives you this info too.
To complicate things further, some high-end laptops use mobile versions of the Xeon chips found in workstations – so vendors often refer to them as mobile workstations (however, you can buy mobile workstations with Core i7 chips. See what I mean about complicated). In themselves, these don’t offer any additional performance over Core chips – the top rated Xeon E-2186M as used in the HP ZBook Studio has essentially the same specs as the Core i9-8950HK used by Apple’s top-spec MacBook Pro 15-inch: 2.9GHz, six cores and 12MB L1 cache. The real difference is that the Xeon gives you access to ECC RAM (and you’d expect the Xeon to be more reliable).
RAM is essentially how much information your computer’s short-term memory, and affects how much applications can deal with at once without having to go to your storage. We’d recommend 8GB is the minimum if you’re on a tight budget, with 16GB the standard amount for most design applications. If you use apps that make heavy use of RAM, for example After Effects, which uses RAM to preview your comps, then you may want to have 32GB. Some high-end models offer 64GB, but this can be prohibitively expensive.
Faster RAM drives better performance. The best laptops use 2666MHz, DDR4 RAM – while older or smaller laptops often use 2133MHz, DDR3 RAM.
Most laptops have two slots for RAM modules. Unlike in the past, you don’t have to place modules in pairs – so for 16GB RAM you could use a single 16GB DIMM module rather than two 8GB, allowing you to upgrade to 32GB in the future by buying a single 16GB module. However, using dual DIMMs gives you better performance than a single DIMM – as there are essentially two pipes into your RAM rather than one. If you’re tempted by a single DIMMs, ask yourself if you’re likely to upgrade the RAM before you upgrade your laptop to a newer model.
Mobile workstations offer ECC RAM, which is more stable over long periods – for example if you do long renders or encodes on your laptop.
Most 15-inch laptops have a single drive, usually at capacities up to 1TB. Some offer up to 2TB, but that’s usually a prohibitively expensive upgrade. 256GB is too small, as with the OS and your apps installed, you’ll have little room for your work. 512GB is the best choice for most users.
Usually you’ll have a choice of SATA or PCIe drives (sometimes called NVMe, which actually refers to a tech they use). Drives that use a PCIe connector to the laptop’s motherboard can be over five times than SATA connected drives. Drives are also 2.5mm or M.2 – the former being the blocks you’d think off when you imagine a hard drive, while M.2 drives look more like RAM modules – thin sticks with their circuits showing. 2.5mm drives are always SATA, while M.2 drives can be SATA or PCIe – some vendors use M.2 to mean a PCIe drive, but don’t get caught out.
Some models offer up to two hard drives – either a PCIe drive and an 2.5-inch SATA SSD or two PCIe drives. If you work with 4K video or animation – and have the budget – having two PCIe drives makes a lot of sense for the additional performance, where you have them set up as a system/apps drive and a media drive, or striped together in a RAID 0 configuration for the maximum throughput. This is how Apple can offer its MacBook Pro with 4TB storage, as all of its configurations have two drives striped together.
If you work mainly in a ‘2D’ application such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Sketch, you may wonder if your laptop needs a separate 3D graphics chip from AMD or Nvidia, or whether you can go for the cheaper option of the Intel UHD graphics built into the processor/motherboard. The answer depends on whether your 2D application can tap the graphics chip to power complex 2D tasks such as vector artworks with thousands of vertices, Photoshop documents with hundreds of layers, or encode video or animation (if that’s part of our job). If so, a discrete graphics chip is a must – if you work primarily in InDesign, Sketch or XD, Intel’s graphics is enough.
If you use a 3D suite such as Cinema 4D, you should get the most powerful graphics chip you can afford – and look to adding more 3D performance when at your desk through an eGPU (unless you’re using your laptop alongside a powerful desktop).
As the chassis of 15-inch models have got thinner over the past few years, we’ve seen a tendency to reduce the number and type of ports. The MacBook Pro is the epitome of this, offering only four Thunderbolt ports. The thinking behind this is that so much connectivity is done wirelessly, there’s less need for ports – and you can just use an adapter when on the move or a docking station at your desk.
Anyone’s who found that they’ve left their adapter behind when trying to connect to a projector – whether HDMI or a even a USB-dongle-based wireless system such as our office’s Barco setup – has experienced the frustration that this brings.
So we still give extra marks to laptop vendors who give you USB and HDMI ports. Connections you only use at your desk – ethernet for moving or editing large files across your network, DisplayPort for connecting high-end monitors – are fine to require adapters or docks for though.
Mac vs Windows
While there are still some aesthetic and UX differences that make MacOS the superior OS over Windows, for most creatives there are no real differences between the two as applications are nearly always identical on both platforms. Photoshop is Photoshop, Illustrator is Illustrator, whether you use them on a Mac or Windows laptop – and only real difficulty in transferring from one to the other is training your fingers to find Cmd rather than Ctrl, or vice-versa, and where the “ key is.
There are a few exceptions to this. Some applications are only available for the Mac – most notably Sketch – and some for Windows.
Here are the specs for the models we’ve tested here. Full reviews of each are below the benchmark graphs, with live pricing detailing where to get them for the best price.
- Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch: Intel Core i9-8950HK (8th-gen, 2.9GHz, 6-core), 32GB RAM, 2TB NVMe SSD, AMD Radeon Pro 560X graphics with 4GB RAM, 15.4-inch screen, 2880 x 1800 resolution.
- Asus ZenBook Pro 14: Intel Core i7 (8th-gen, 1.8GHz, 4-core), 8GB RAM, 512GB NVMe SSD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics with 2GB RAM, 14.1-inch touch screen, 1920 x 1080 resolution.
- Dell XPS 15: Intel Core i9-8950HK (8th-gen, 2.9GHz, 6-core), 32GB RAM, 512GB NVMe SSD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti graphics with 4GB RAM, 15.6-inch screen, 3840 x 2160 resolution.
- HP ZBook Studio G5: Intel Xeon E-2186M (8th-gen, 2.9GHz, 6-core), 16GB RAM, 1TB NVMe SSD, NVidia Quadro P1000 graphics with 4GB RAM, 15.6-inch screen, 2880 x 1800 resolution.
Here we’re using Puget Systems cross-platform Photoshop CC 2019 benchmark, which completes a series of actions, filters and other tasks. Some of these are GPU-accelerated, some are not.
Here we’ve used the Cinebench benchmark, which is based on Cinema 4D. We’ve used the released-in-2013 Cinebench R15 test for a wider spread of results, as well as the brand new Cinebench R20 – which provides a more accurate representation of how modern applications will run on the laptop.
Both the R20 and R15 Render tests render a scene using the laptop’s CPU alone, so are indicator of its core performance. The R20 ProRender test uses both the CPU and GPU for rendering, so gives an overall performance score that depends heavily of 3D power. The R15 OGL test runs a scene in real-time, tapping the graphics card rather than the CPU.
Here we measured the gamut and accuracy (average Delta-E) of each laptop’s display.
Battery life test
For this test, we set the screen brightness to 120cd/m2 and played an HD movie on loop until the battery was drained.
Here are our pick of the best laptops for designers and artists, with links to full reviews where available. Our site also automatically searches a wide range of retailers to find you the latest, best pricing for each model.
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch 2018
Apple’s MacBook Pro has been a popular choice for designers and artists since it was first launched in 2008 – it’s almost synonymous with our professions. It’s the best-designed model we’ve looked at here from an aesthetic perspective, but not a practical one with its frustratingly singular approach to ports – a mixture of positive and negative that permeates throughout.
The screen is the most colour-accurate of any we’ve looked at, but it can only output 87% of the Adobe RGB colour space where the Dell and HP model’s displays nudge 100%. It’s matte for less glare, but it’s lower-resolution than the 4K screens on offer elsewhere. There’s also no touchscreen option – instead you get a small strip of application-specific controls along the top of the keyboard called the Touch Bar, which are supported only by a few major creative apps such as Photoshop and Apple’s own tools.
The MBP 15-inch’s performance is on a par with other models featuring 2.9GHz, 6-core chips – though it did lag behind a little in our Photoshop tests, let down by the relatively weak graphics chip. Conversely, it came top in our battery life tests, lasting 40% longer than its nearest 15-inch rival.
There’s a lot to like about the MacBook Pro, especially if you’re a long term Mac user, but it’s not as innovative as it once was.
Read our full Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch 2018 review
Asus ZenBook Pro 14
The Asus ZenBook Pro 14’s unique feature is an additional touchscreen that lives in the trackpad. This ’ScreenPad’ can act as a second HD monitor, or let you trigger application specific controls for the likes of controlling music playback, or you can just use it as a normal trackpad – switching quickly between modes by pressing F6. It’s genuinely something new, but it’s too small and too limited to be much use.
Instead, the ZenBook Pro is best considered as a powerful budget laptop – it’s less expensive and offers better performance than 13-inch models such as the MacBook Pro 13 or XPS 13. It can’t keep up with the 15-inch models we’ve looked at here, but you get a lot more power than you’d expect considering it’s half the base price of some of them.
Read our full Asus ZenBook Pro 14 review
Dell XPS 15
The Dell XPS 15 offers the best combination of style, performance and price. For the same price as a base model MacBook Pro you get the fastest processor available for a mainstream laptop, a full 32GB of RAM, 1TB storage and a 4K touchscreen – and if you want a full workstation-class version, there’s one too, called the Precision 5530.
In our tests, the XPS 15 was second only to the much-more-expensive HP ZBook Studio in Photoshop – and took the lead in the new Cinebench R20 test. The battery life was a little disappointing compared to the MacBook Pro and ZenBook Pro.
The screen is capable of outputting almost the full Adobe RGB colour space, but it was the worst of the models we’ve looked at here for colour accuracy. However, it still has an average delta-E of less than 3 – so it’s still excellent, just less excellent than others.
Even the little details of the XPS 15 stand out. There’s a full set of ports including Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0, and the keyboard is the most comfortable to type on.
HP ZBook Studio G5
The ZBook Studio is a sleek, powerful mobile workstation, so has a workstation-class graphics chip – in this case the NVidia Quadro P1000 – and our review unit has a Xeon processor and ECC RAM. As a such it’s as reliable and robust as its form suggests: there’s a seriousness to the ZBook Studio’s design, eschewing the soft curves of other models for austere straight lines with clipped corners reminiscent of high-end architecture.
The use of workstation-class components doesn’t make it any more (or less) powerful than models that use Core chips – and one issue is that the P1000 graphics chip in our review unit is somewhat underpowered considering the rest of the specs. A P2000 would have been a better fit, considering that this is more of a laptop for creatives working with 3D, animation and video than graphic design .
Our other complaint is that the battery life was considerably lower than either the MacBook Pro or XPS 15.
The Dreamcolor screen, however, is exceptional. It was almost as accurate as the XPS or MacBook Pro’s displays, but could output almost all of the Adobe RGB colour space. HP also provides a full set of colour management tools (though you’ll have to buy your own hardware such as the Spyder5Elite).
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