Best Laptops for Photo Editing

Best 4K and High-PPI Laptops for Photo Editing : 2014

The best laptops for photography and Photoshop work have high-ppi screens with a wide color gamut, as well as plenty of RAM and fast SSDs.

Displays are Key

If you’re a photographer, the most important feature of a laptop is going to be its screen. There’s no point in having a fast, powerful machine if your edits and adjustments are going to look bad when shared because your screen’s colors are unreliable, too bright or dark, or the colors are off because the tonal range on your screen is just too narrow.  While high quality IPS panel displays have been available for desktops for many years, they used to be hard to find in laptops. Now, we’re seeing better and better displays in some laptops, and while they may still not be as good as the best Eizo and NEC displays, they’re better than what most people have attached to their standard PCs.

Furthermore, laptop displays can give you significantly higher pixel density than larger desktop screens, making your images more print-like. This means that you can get a better preview of fine detail and how effects like sharpening will affect your images.

But the screen isn’t the only thing that’s important. Processors are getting powerful enough that they’re less important than they were several years ago, but RAM is still very important, and SSDs (instead of hard-drives) and powerful GPUs can make your user experience a little smoother. Luckily, these things are generally found in all of the machines that come with the best displays, or are easy upgrades, so we can begin by focusing on machines that have the best displays.

Laptops By Display

Lets begin by taking a look at which laptops offer the highest pixel density. Pixel density is, for our purposes, the pixel dimension of the display divided by the size of the display in inches… higher numbers are better.

NamePriceDisplay SizeResolutionPPIPanel TypeColor
Coverage
Max. RAMMin. Weight
(LBS)
Microsoft Surface 3 Pro$799 - $1946122160 x 1440216IPS80% sRGB8GB1.76
Apple Macbook Pro 13$1234 - $169913.22560 x 1600227IPS100% sRGB8GB3.44
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro$1049 - 151913.33200 x 1800276IPS74% sRGB4GB3.1
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro$130013.33200 x 1800276IPS98% sRGB8GB2.6
Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus$1099 - $179913.33200 x 180027675% sRGB8GB3.1
Toshiba Kirabook$1246 - $168913.32560 x 1440221IPS95% sRGB
61% Adobe RGB
8GB2.9
Asus Zenbook UX301$1596 - $207913.32560 x 1440221IPS98% sRGB
79% AdobeRGB
8GB3.1
Asus Zenbook UX305$800-100013.33200 x 1800276IPSnot yet available2.6
NEC LaVie Z(currently unavailable)13.32560 x 14402214GB1.75
Aorus X3(Coming soon)13.32560 x 144022116GB4.12
Aorus X3 Plus(Coming soon)13.93200 x 180026416GB4.12
Fujitsu LIFEBOOK U904$1329 at NewEgg143200 x 1800262Approx 90% sRGB10GB3.1
2014 Razer Blade$2399 - $2674143200 x 18002628GB4.47
Apple Macbook Pro 15$1899 - $237415.42800 x 1800220IPS94% sRGB
(tested)
16GB4.4
Lenovo ThinkPad T540p$1799 - $2764 at Office Depot15.52880 x 1620213IPS90% sRGB
60% Adobe RGB
16GB5.7
Dell Precision M4800$2384 at B&H, 16GB15.63200 x 180023590% sRGB,
64% Adobe RGB
(tested)
32GB6.35
Dell Precision M3800$2169 at B&H15.63200 x 180023595% sRGB,
73% AdobeRGB
(tested)
16GB4.15
Dell XPS 15$1959 at Amazon15.63200 x 180023516GB4.44
MSI GT60 DominatorPro 3K$229815.62880 x 1620212PLS?79% sRGB32GB7.7
Toshiba Tecra W50$2759, available Oct. 201415.63840 × 2160282IPS88% sRGB
63% AdobeRGB
32GB5.97
Asus Zenbook NX500Coming this Fall15.63840 × 2160282IPS106% Adobe RGB, 100% NTSC16GB4.85
Toshiba Satellite P50t$1499 - $189915.63840 × 216028216GB5.3
Lenovo IdeaPad Y50$124915.63840 × 2160282IPS16GB5.3
Asus Zenbook GX500Coming this Fall15.63840 × 2160282IPS106% Adobe RGB,
100% NTSC
16GB4.6

Narrowing It Down

That’s a pretty long list. Let’s start narrowing it down.

Color Coverage and Consistency

First, even though all of the displays above are high resolution, some of them are better than others. For photographers, it’s especially important to use a panel with IPS or similar technology so that you get accurate colors from a wide viewing angle. Most don’t report color coverage, and some don’t even cover the standard sRGB gamut.

The BEST: The Asus Zenbook displays are among the best. The NX500 and GX500 both wield calibrated 4K IPS wide-gamut displays that cover the full NTSC color palette and 106% of Adobe RGB. Those numbers are as good as any desktop monitor out there. The new Lenovo Yoga 3 has a greatly improved monitor over the Yoga 2, now displaying 98% of sRGB, which is great if you’re looking for a standard gamut machine.

RAM

Second, RAM is very important for photo editing, and many ultrabooks have RAM that can NOT be upgraded; it’s soldered into the motherboard rather than giving users slots that allow RAM modules to be exchanged.

So, how much RAM do you need? That depends on how big your files are and how many layers you work with, and whether you also work with video. If you usually work with 24 megapixel, 2-3 layer documents, 4GB of RAM will probably be sufficient most of the time.

If you’re a re-touch or digital artist and work with dozens of layers, hundreds of history states, or any animation and video, you’ll want as much RAM as you can get. I use 16GB and don’t run into trouble very often, but I’d really prefer 32GB. If you’re not a professional or can live with a little slow-down now and then, 8-12GB should be fine.

Weight

The whole point of having a laptop is that it’s portable. If a computer is too bulky for you to want to carry it around, then buying a laptop is a waste of money… you’ll get better performance from a desktop workstation for the same money.

While some of the laptops listed above weigh in at over 6 pounds, many of the 13″ models are right around 3 pounds, and the NEC LaVie Z weighs a mere 1.75 pounds! If traveling light is very important to you, you might also consider the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. While the screen resolution is not as high as many other tablets (like the iPad retinas), its 216ppi is respectable, and more importantly, it is the only tablet available that can run Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. However, it weighs in at 1.76 pounds… no less than the NEC LaVie Z, though the Surface has twice the RAM.

Asus Zenbook nx500

The Best

Ultimately, you’ll need to decide on which combination of weight, screen performance, and computer performance are right for the kind of work you do. However, at the moment, the Asus Zenbook GX500 and Asus Zenbook NX500  offer an excellent combination of top-notch display performance at a relatively light weight, and with a respectable amount of RAM. The Lenovo Yoga 3 is a great standard gamut machine, and the Apple Macbook Pro 13 inch and 15 inch also test well.

Storage And Other Necessities

While the SSDs that ship with these laptops are extremely fast and provide a great improvement in user experience, even the largest are still pretty small, at about a half terabyte, and a good portion of that will be filled with your operating system, cache files, and other working data. If you shoot RAW files (and you should) with a high megapixel camera, you’ll want to add some additional storage space. If you shoot HD video, it will be a necessity rather quickly.

Luckily, additional storage isn’t terribly expensive these days.

When I’m traveling, I’ll usually settle for carrying a small, portable hard drive along with me. One of Western Digital’s 1TB “My Passport” drives can cost as little as $69 and they are powered by your computer’s USB cable… no wall warts are required.

At home, though, I want a quick and easy way to back up my images; a single copy of my precious RAW files is just not safe. The simplest option at home is to use a multi-drive backup system, such as Western Digital’s MyBook Duo which can be plugged into your laptop via USB to transfer and catalog your files, and will automatically create copies of your files onto two separate drives. If one of them fails, it can be replaced and your files recovered from the other drive. A 4TB Duo costs about $269, but you can also get larger systems up to 12TB for $650.

If you do a heavy amount of work in Photoshop, I’d recommend getting a Wacom pen tablet. I bought my first one about 5 years ago, and I’d never go back to using a mouse for retouching and compositing images. Though they used to cost hundreds of dollars, a good portable size now costs as little as $85. I actually prefer the small size, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

Finally, if you don’t have one already, a display calibrator is a necessity! I’ve primarily used Datacolor Spyder ($219) colorimeters, but several brands are available. The X-Rite Display Pro ($240) has a great reputation, but less expensive units such as the X-rite ColorMunki ($179) and even the Spyder Express ($79) are much better than hoping that your factory calibration was accurate and holds up.

Comment and Share Your Experience!

There are too many models for me to reasonably be able to list every one, much less test them. If you know of a laptop that should be listed here, please comment below and let me know. Alternately, if you’ve heard bad reports about any of these machines, please let us know.

I’d like to thank notebookcheck.com for providing accurate, independent display tests,  and the notebookreview.com forum for giving me someplace to start.

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9 Comments

  • A couple of years down the line and I’m struggling to find an Asus Zenbook nx500. Looking forward to an update as I need a new laptop.
    Or does anyone else have recommendations? Not too expensive…
    Thanks

    • Hi John,

      I’m actually using a Surface Pro 4 now, and I love it. Lightweight, great resolution, though not quite 4K, excellent color. I’m in Morocco, and have awful internet access, but I’ll look into updating this article when I return to the USA. In the meantime, good luck! And let me know what good options you find.

      – Matthew

  • Thank you, Matt, for a very helpful piece. I am interested in a couple of laptops not fully covered in your article. I didn’t get the PPI but the Dell.ca chat line told me of the percentage coverage for sRGB and Adobe RGB of two of their screens. One is the Dell XPS 15 (3200×1800) in which the sRGB is 67% and the Adobe RGB is 57%. The newer (but less expensive) Inspiron 15 7000 with the UHD screen (3840 x 2160) fares better: 93% of sRGB and 73% of Adobe RGB.

    The photobooks that I make use sRGB so I work in that for the most part. What I don’t have is an idea of what one is giving up to to work on a screen that has less than 100% sRGB. If the screens were in front of us, would the average person notice a difference between 100%, 90%, 80%, 70% ?

    As new laptops and their screens are always changing, wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that kept an updated record of this info.

    cheers,
    MichaelB

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the extra info :)

      When it comes to displays that display fewer colors than the full sRGB spectrum, whether you’ll be able to tell the difference is situational. For a lot of images, there would be no obvious difference (just like for some images you can make a 256 color GIF and there’s no obvious loss in quality). However, in images where there are smooth color gradients, like a blue sky that transitions from bright blue to dark blue, or sunset colors to dark blue, etc… it’s those grades where the missing colors will be visible. Where the display can’t produce the intermediate colors, you’ll see banding instead of a smooth transition.

      I really wish I could keep a page like this up to date… but it’s just so hard to get reliable information.
      – Matthew

  • Great article! I’m very much a layman but I still would have liked a little more meat about the type of ips being offered, 6, 8 or 10 bit pixels (ie billion colours plus – or is that covered in the Adobe and RGB ratings?) and whether the rest of the hardware supports and makes use of the colour depth and finally whether touch screen laptops can have high ppi ips screens? That would eliminate the Wacom for example, you could work directly on the image.

    • Hi Dizz,

      Unfortunately, a lot of the details for laptop displays are simply not available. The Wacom displays go as high as 1900 x 1200, I believe, which is just about full HD, but is certainly not high-ppi. Several of the laptops above are available with a touch screen, though, and all of them can be used with a Wacom tablet (I’m using one right now).

      When it comes to IPS displays, all of the pixels themselves are going to display 8 bits of color at least. When the manufacturers are talking about how many colors the monitor can display (16 million, 1 billion, etc) that’s really referring to the color look-up-tables (LUT), but those don’t always translate into display performance. Many monitors with 10-bit LUTs still don’t manage to cover the sRGB color space… so I find that it’s more useful to look at those data directly (color space coverage). If you haven’t seen my earlier article on photo monitors, you might want to take a look… or at my newer article about high 4k/PPI monitors.

      – Matt

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