It’s Black Friday / Cyber Monday weekend here and I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people on which computer, laptop, or monitor they should get. So I thought I’d write down a few general thoughts. Keep in mind there is no way to spec out the perfect computer and tell you exact specs on what you should get. But hopefully this helps point you in the right direction or maybe keep you from getting something you may regret in a year.
DISCLAIMER: Please Please Please…. do not message me asking for more details on this topic. Because of the subjective nature around computers and specs, and because there are literally hundreds of thousands of combinations of computers, screens and monitors I won’t be able to respond to any questions on “Should I buy this…”, or “Can you elaborate on this…”. Thanks in advance! 🙂
Laptop vs. Desktop (or Tablet)
Okay, the first thing to ask yourself is laptop or desktop? Remember, no matter which photo editing app you use (Adobe, ON1, Luminar, Capture One, Topaz, etc…), you are involved in one of the most intensive things you can put a computer through. Your normal web browser or email app is nothing compared to the resources a photo editing app requires.
A laptop is portable and I’d ONLY go with this option if you absolutely need portability. If not, my recommendation would be to get a Desktop computer. A max’d out laptop (in most cases), will never be as fast as a desktop. And in a few years, your laptop will start to feel very slow, and is typically not as upgradable as a desktop.
Me personally, I do all of my editing on an Apple iMac (2017 version). I do have an Apple MacBook Pro (2016 version) and it holds up okay. But remember, I need to be portable. Running an online business is 100% my livelihood, and I need a laptop because I do teach on the road, travel, work remotely, etc… I need to have a computer with me all the time.
What about a tablet? We just aren’t there yet and don’t think you’re going to get the same experience from a tablet. I know there’s those tablet/laptop hybrids and again… buy at your own risk. You’ll never get the performance you’re looking for.
Apple or Windows?
I won’t go in to this other than to say it just doesn’t matter. Don’t think either one will be faster than the other, or better for photographers or anything like that. Many will disagree, but you wanted my opinion so there it is 🙂 I will say that on average, you can get a better spec’d out PC for the same money vs. an Apple product. But for me personally, I’m an Apple user and I don’t see myself switching in the future. For me, the extra money is worth the experience I get, but I know many great photographers that are PC based. When that photo gets shown on Social Media, a website, or printed on the wall NOBODY can tell you which operating system it came from. Like I said… it just doesn’t matter. And if you think it does matter then there’s probably a website you can argue that on – but this ain’t it 😉
PS: Yes, I know Apple has some new fancy technology coming out. I hear it’s great, and super fast – but just remember… if you buy one now you’re a beta tester. You’re an early adopter and be prepared for hassles in the near term. Just sayin’ 😉
Onto the Specs…
Okay, onto the specs. Keep in mind I am as un-tech-savvy as any person out there. As I mentioned, please don’t send me questions asking me to elaborate because I won’t be able to. But here’s what I know:
Processor: Your main computer processor is one of the biggest things that will get you speed. Get the best one you can get. I can’t give you a number because there are too many with all of the i7s and i-this and multi-core-that’s. Just get the best one you can configure or afford. You won’t regret splurging on this choice.
RAM: Right now for most applications the minimum specs are 8GB of RAM. That means that’s the absolute minimum for the software to operate. And when you buy the absolute minimum of anything be prepared for the absolute minimal performance. Most companies recommend 16 GB of RAM. I would suggest at least 32GB so you have room to grow. On my 2017 iMac at home, I ordered it with 8GB of RAM cheap option, and then went to Crucial.com and ordered the 64GB Upgrade kit and upgraded it on my own (it was super easy to do – took about 3 minutes and again… I’m not tech savvy at all).
Hard Drive: I’d recommend at least a 1 TB Internal SSD drive. They are fast and they are what you’ll put your applications on so they can be accessed very quickly. Plus, 1 TB gives you room for extra stuff. But don’t plan on putting your photos on your internal drive. I believe the costs get too high for that. You can store your photos on external hard drives no problem (see my Gear page for more info).
Graphics Card: This is a really tough one to write about. There are just too many options and every program uses the graphics card in different ways. I would say get at least 4GB of RAM (or VRAM or whatever they call it) for your graphics card. My best suggestion is to do a Google search for “Minimum Specs for Lightroom (or Photoshop or whatever software you use)”. It will take you to Adobe’s website and under “Graphics Card” there are typically recommended specs and even a “Read More / GPU FAQ” or something similar.
But if it’s me, and I went to Apple’s site to configure a new iMac, I saw I had an option for + $300 for a better card and + $500 (a 16GB graphic memory) for an ever better card. I’d get the best card. If you can afford it, do it. If you can’t get the best one you can that’s at least 4GB – but go with 8GB if you can.
What About Monitors?
Okay, this is another really tough area. 99.99999% of your photography will be seen on a device of some sort when you share it (phone or tablet). So get used to the fact that you have ZERO control over how your photos are seen to everyone else in the world. You can get the best screen in the world and it won’t do any good. The best you can do is just edit consistently. You’ll read a ton about sRGB and Adobe RGB, etc… So my suggestion is decide if you are printing A LOT or not, and how important this is. If it’s important you’re going to spend more money. If you think you’re going to print at least every week or two (lab or at home), then you may want to spring for a more expensive monitor that comes close to supporting the Adobe RGB color space. If not, go with the cheapest thing you can find.
I use an iMac so it comes with a nice glossy bright screen, and that’s what I edit on primarily. If I’m going to print, I proof the photo on my BenQ screen. But I hate the way my photography looks on the BenQ screen for the most part (photos always look better on bright glossy screens), because it’s not how the rest of the world sees it on their devices, so I try not to use it much unless I’m printing.
I know that all sounds vague, but my advice is that most of you reading this aren’t printing often. So don’t buy a screen that is made for printing. Even if you don’t have a screen made for printing, you can easily dial in your settings and develop a workflow to get a good print with any screen.
Finally, if you need something a little more concrete here’s some suggestions:
- At least a 23″ screen. I’d actually recommend nothing smaller than 27″ if your eyesight is as bad as mine 🙂
- What about 4K? Personally I don’t want more resolution. But if you’re editing video go for it. For just photos, you don’t really need 4K? For many monitors, higher resolution just means smaller / harder-to-see interfaces which is actually NOT what I want.
- Remember the larger the screen the more strain you put on your graphics card and computer overall – which in turn translates to your photo apps running slower. And if you add a second screen you’ll want to make sure you have a great graphics card that can handle it.
- Dell Ultrasharp monitors are good. Honestly, all Dell’s are good. I’d buy the cheapest one in a heartbeat if I needed one.
- BenQ makes good photo monitors if you want to spend more and print a lot. Don’t get one if you don’t print.
- Eizo also makes good screens and they fall in to the same category as BenQ – don’t get one if you’re not printing a lot.
Finally… Try It Out
My last piece of advice is to buy something you can try out. That may be harder with a computer, but with a monitor it should be easy. Make sure you get something that you can return. And make sure you watch the return policy. I’ll personally never buy anything from that “Blue/Yellow” electronics store because I hate their 14-day return policy. I’m just so used to 30 days that I inevitably forget and get stuck with something I didn’t want. But this time of year, most places will give you until January to return things. And if it’s shipped to you, pay attention to the return policy shipping fees. You don’t want to get stuck spending $100 just to return something that you don’t want.
DISCLAIMER ONCE AGAIN… I know I probably sound like I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but I just know how this works. So I’m asking again nicely… please don’t write in asking me to elaborate on a topic. I won’t be able to. I have a very “10,000 foot level” understanding of technology, so if you need more info, I’m probably not the guy to come to 🙂 I buy a new computer every 4-5 years and when I buy it, I typically get the best I can configure at the time so it lasts me. Thanks!
One final thought and it’s more of a way to think about this. Whatever computer you get will feel fast for a total of about 24 hours. After that, you settle into working on it and it will feel slower again. It’s just the way it works. No computer speed ever consistently exceeds our expectations for a long period of time. It may sound harsh, but you know I’m right 😉 Good luck!