Hi everyone! It’s Black Friday / Cyber Monday 2021 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. I originally made this in 2020 but I revised it for 2021.

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 word processing 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 (generally). And in a few years, your laptop will start to feel very slow, and is typically not as upgradable as a desktop.

For me personally, things have changed a bit. I used to do all of my editing on an Apple iMac (2017 version). I had an Apple MacBook Pro (2016 version) and it held up okay. But remember, I need to be portable. Running an online business is 100% my livelihood, I travel often (yes still), 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.

Anyway, one of the pain points for me is that you can guarantee whatever I wanted to work on was on “the other computer” when I had both laptop and desktop. Well, recently I decided to sell the iMac and trade in the laptop to Apple while purchasing a new one. I got $750 for it too – not bad for over 5 years old. Then I ordered one of the new MacBook Pro’s with the M1 chips (specs below). I now plug this in to a monitor when I’m in my office and the laptop has become my only computer. It totally screams it’s so fast, and is way faster than my 2017 iMac was. This is a fairly new setup for me (2 weeks) so I don’t have much more to report on it’s success other than I’m really happy with one computer, and I totally love the new MacBook Pro compared to the previous one.

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 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 😉

Apple M1 Chips?

Last year in this article I mentioned the new Silicon M1 technology that Apple has been releasing in its computers. I warned that it was fairly new and that you should expect issues as not all software is tuned to work on them. Well here we are a year later and I have actually just got my first M1 computer. At this point, most software is compatible and tuned for the new chips (Adobe and most plug-ins). I’m personally amazed at the speed and I’ll report more on it once I have more time with the computer.

As for software, it is ALWAYS best to check the source and visit whatever software website to see if their software works on your computer.

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 absolute minimal performance. Most companies recommend 16 GB of RAM. I would suggest at least 32GB so you have room to grow. On my previous 2017 iMac, 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).

Most people will end up putting photos on external drives. I use externals for all of my photos. I don’t use RAID or NAS (I don’t even know how to spell them!). I just keep it simple – put it on the drive and make sure that drive is always backed up. As for drives, I’d say just get whatever is cheap and buy two since you’ll need a backup. It’s a hard drive – don’t overthink it. It’s not if it will fail but when. Again, my drives are on the Gear page on this site, but I would just buy whatever is cheap.

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?

NOTE: I have since purchased an Apple XDR screen for my laptop that I wrote about here.

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 used an iMac so it had a nice glossy bright screen, and that’s what edited on mostly. If I was going to print, I’d 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.

Now the BenQ is all I have with my laptop. I’m currently searching for something that was as good, bright, glossy and contrasty as my iMac was and as soon as I do I will gladly put the BenQ aside for print proofing only.

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 or you’re wasting money. 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, 5K or even 6K? 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.
  • 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!

Final Thoughts…

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!

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