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Published Dec. 31, 2021

Creatives typically seek out the best laptop because we basically live on these machines. Whether it’s spending hours editing a big batch of photos or churning through a complex video edit, often play a critical role in the image-making process. Choosing the right one isn’t always simple. The sheer number of options on the market can make picking your ideal machine tricky, especially when you expect it to last several years. 

This list breaks down the best and most popular options that will fit your specific workflow. 

Things to consider before buying the best laptop

No matter which machine you pick, there are several variables that you should absolutely consider before making a purchase. Some will be more relevant than others depending on your specific needs, so make an effort to prioritize the features that will make a bigger tangible difference on your day-to-day, rather than maxing out everything and blowing cash you don’t need to part with.

Display size and resolution

The first thing you see when you look at a laptop also represents one of the first specs you should take into account before making a purchase. Most laptops fall somewhere in the 13-inch to 17-inch range. 15 used to be a sweet spot, but now 14- and 16-inch screens have made serious strides . When it comes to resolutions, you’ll typically find that displays start out at a relatively paltry 1,366-by-768 pixels and go up into 4K ultra-HD territory. 1080p HD is typically as low as you’d like to go. Your job is to find the right balance. Higher resolution offers extra room for your editing program’s interface, but cram too many tools on a small screen and it can be hard to navigate or even see what you’re doing. 

Processing power

The CPU and GPU inside your laptop provide the actual computing power you’ll rely on to get work done. The vast majority of laptops won’t allow you to upgrade these after the fact, so you’ll want to get the best hardware you can justify right out of the gate. 

CPU stands for central processing unit—and this is what people often refer to as the processor. It’s the computer’s main brain and handles the heavy computational lifting involved with everything from applying image edits to rendering your finished video footage. You’ll typically find either Intel or AMD options, both of which include seemingly endless versions. For Intel, we generally recommend Core i5 or above. AMD’s naming conventions are more complicated, so best to check it against its competition to get an idea of its performance level. Apple is an outlier here, in that it now makes its own chips outside of the AMD and Intel umbrella. 

The GPU, or graphics processing unit, focuses on parallel processing and can handle a huge number of tasks at once. People often associate GPU performance with gaming, but creative programs like Adobe Lightroom have a feature called GPU acceleration to offload some of the more intense work and speed up overall performance. This type of computing teamwork is especially handy for video editing tasks. 

Again, you very likely won’t be able to upgrade either of these after your purchase, so these specs represent places in which you should splurge if you can swing it. 

You may see the terms “integrated” and “discrete” when looking at graphics specs. Discrete typically means the laptop has dedicated hardware for graphics processing, which typically indicates better performance. 

RAM

This is what people typically refer to as a computer’s “memory.” RAM, or random access memory, is another area in which you’re justified to spend extra money if you can afford it. This memory only holds data briefly, so having too little of it can cause bottlenecks. If you’ve ever tried to make an edit on a large file in Photoshop only to have it tell you that you’ve “run out of system memory,” a paltry helping of RAM was the culprit. 

Some systems will allow you to upgrade RAM after the fact, but others (such as Apple) won’t. It’s worth getting the most RAM you feel comfortable paying for to avoid bottlenecks—but don’t expect upgrading from 8 GB to 16 GB to make your computer feel twice as fast. 

Battery life

This can be one of the most challenging variables to judge when searching through the best laptops. Battery life varies a ton depending on what you’re working on, and those estimates manufacturers give in the computer specs are very different from what you’ll get when you’re running heavy editing programs. I suggest doing a real-world battery test as soon as you get your new laptop to make sure it’ll last as long as you need it to (say, on a shoot where you’ll be doing some on-site editing) before the return window closes. 

Built-in storage

High-res image files and ultra-HD video occupy a ton of digital space, which makes internal storage very handy. Of course, you can easily supplement your built-in drives with external options, but I find that anything less than 512 GB of onboard storage fills up faster than I want it to unless I’m meticulous about it. I personally think a full terabyte of built-in storage is the current sweet spot, but not everyone needs that much. 

Available ports

Sadly, it’s more than two decades into the new millennium, and we’re still relying on wires. That means computers still require a suite of ports for connecting our accessories. Most modern laptops have shifted, at least in part, to USB-C ports, which use small oval connectors instead of the larger rectangular ones found on USB-A ports. Even if you’re still using older accessories with USB-A connectivity, it’s worth considering the move to USB-C. More is better. It’s a better, faster connection, and the connectors don’t require a specific orientation so you won’t struggle with trying to plug them in upside down anymore. 

Some laptops will include an HDMI port for attaching an external monitor. If you’re planning to plug a fancy 5K, high-refresh-rate screen into your computer, however, that HDMI port may not have enough oomph to get the best performance out of your swanky screen.

Lastly, some laptops offer a built-in SD card reader, which can come in handy in a pinch. But they’re not perfect: The slots are often relatively slow compared to a dedicated reader—or even plugging the camera right into the machine via USB-C.  

Operating system

As it has ever been, you’ll still need to choose between Mac and PC. In many ways, it still comes down to personal preference, but there are a few exceptions. Video editing software Final Cut Pro, for instance, is still only available on Macs. As long as you double check that your software will work, you can pretty much just pick whatever OS works best for you. TKTK

You may notice that I didn’t mention Chromebooks as part of the OS discussion. I still don’t think Chromebooks have the full-fledged editing options required for a full-on creative machine, but they’re coming along. 

Size and weight

A pound may not sound like much weight, but when your chunky laptop is crammed into your camera bag with a ton of other gear, every ounce counts. When choosing a size for your laptop, I recommend picturing the situation in which you’ll be using it most. Are you crammed onto a plane or in the airport lounge? Or, is it on a stand on your desk from which it rarely moves? Don’t give up too much power to save weight, but also don’t find yourself cursing your decision when you can’t open your 17-inch laptop all the way in a tight little economy airplane seat.

Best laptop overall: MacBook Pro M1 Pro

Specs:

  • Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max processor
  • Apple GPU
  • 14- or 16-inch screen
  • Up to 8 TB storage
  • Up to 64 GB RAM

Why it made the cut: With its new processor, no Touch Bar, and even a built-in SD card slot, this is the best laptop around at the moment. 

Pros

  • Beautiful mini LED screen
  • Extremely fast, even in the base models
  • Lots of ports compared to older models
  • Absurd battery life

Cons

  • Pricey

This is the best laptop I’ve used, full stop. Apple’s current generation 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros rely on the company’s M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Those silicon slabs integrate the CPU, GPU, system memory, machine learning core, and just about everything else the system needs to run. That tight integration makes the computer run so efficiently that it can achieve borderline astonishing levels of performance. 

It’s hard to overstate just how good these laptops really are. They employ beautiful mini LED displays with smooth motion and meticulous edge-to-edge brightness. The displays also support a super-wide color gamut, which comes in very handy for video editing. 

The new MacBook Pros offer three USB-C Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI, and even an SD card reader. The MagSafe charging port is back, too, so charging the computer doesn’t tie up one of the USBs. 

The Macbook M1 Pro version will likely be more than enough firepower for most people. I regularly edit Canon R5 images in Lightroom, Capture One, and Photoshop with almost no lag on a base model M1 Pro (with upgraded storage). Hardcore video editors will likely want to beef up to the M1 Max to eliminate stuttering. Despite its high performance, the fans barely ever spin up and the bottom of the machine doesn’t slow roast my legs during editing. It doesn’t even slow down on battery power. 

Of course, all that performance and design comes—literally—at a price. You can expect to pay $2,000 bare minimum for the M1 Pro version of the 16-inch, and the cost only goes up from there. Still, you can expect to use this laptop for years to come. 

Best cheap laptop: MSI Modern 14

Specs:

  • Intel Core processor
  • Intel Iris or Nvidia Geforce graphics
  • 14-inch screen
  • Up to 64 GB RAM
  • Up to 512 GB storage via M2 SSD

Why it made the cut: Cheap is a very relative term when it comes to laptops for creatives, but this is one of the best deals around for high-performance parts making it our choice for the best cheap laptop. 

Pros

  • A great deal considering the specs
  • Lots of upgrades available if you want to spend extra money
  • IPS screen for accurate color reproduction

Cons

  • Screen is only 1080p

Perhaps best known for its gaming computers, MSI’s Modern 14 is a compelling everyday laptop that has enough computing oomph to handle intensive creative work when the occasion calls for it. It offers a selection of Intel Core processors, as well as a choice between Nvidia and Intel Iris graphics. 

Even the lower-end models, which can dip below $500, offer a solid screen with IPS or in-plane switching, a tech that ensures solid color reproduction—and typically means better edge-to-edge consistency on the display. 

If you want a Windows machine that’s fast enough without spending a ton of cash, this is a very solid option. It isn’t super light—it weighs more than four pounds—but it’s only 0.63 inches thick so it’s still easy to stick into just about any laptop-compatible bag. 

Best laptop for video editing: Dell XPS 15

Specs:

  • Intel Core processor up to i9
  • Intel integrated or up to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050
  • 15-inch screen (OLED optional)
  • Up to 64 GB RAM
  • Up to 8 TB built-in storage

Why it made the cut: Dell will absolutely cram this machine full of high-end components for people who don’t mind spending the cash. 

Pros

  • Proven form factor
  • Lots of upgrade options for cheaper than a Mac
  • OLED screen option
  • Super powerful GPU option

Cons

  • Upgrades add up quickly
  • Screen max brightness lower than some other options

When it comes to video editing, power comes at a premium. That means you’ll want to upgrade as much as possible when looking for the best laptop for video editing. Dell’s XPS 15 performance laptop offers a fairly solid base model, but it can get very impressive with a few options upgraded. 

The max level CPU comes from Intel’s latest generation Core i9 line. The base model offers integrated graphics (which typically aren’t very speedy), but it can go all the way up to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050, which is more powerful than what you’ll find in a lot of dedicated desktops. 

Two memory slots allow for up to 8 TB of total storage, and the system memory caps out at 64 GB. Of course, a fully-upgraded model isn’t cheap, but it’s still only about half the price of a MacBook Pro with similar options selected. 

The XPS even offers a few features the Apple doesn’t, like an optional OLED screen upgrade that takes the resolution up to 3.5K. Dell has been making this machine for years and it has been impressive the entire way. 

Best laptop for photo editing: Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

Specs:

  • Intel Core processor
  • Intel integrated or Nvidia graphics
  • 14.4-inch touchscreen
  • Up to 32 GB RAM
  • Up to 1 TB built-in storage

Why it made the cut: The clever design and super-sensitive touchscreen make this the best laptop for photo editing. 

Pros

  • Fast refresh rate touchscreen makes for smooth motion
  • Surface Pen great for retouching
  • Clever hinge design makes it comfortable for stylus use
  • Lots of hardware options

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Limited ports

A stylus and touchscreen can come in very handy when doing in-depth retouching. The pairing offers considerably more precision than a mouse and allows your hand to move much faster during edits. Microsoft built the Surface Laptop Studio with that kind of usage in mind. 

The 14.4-inch touchscreen monitors the position of the stylus up to 120 times per second, so it can create smooth paths as you drag the tip along the display. This prevents annoying stuttering that can really throw a wrench in tedious work like silhouetting. 

Underneath that swanky screen, Microsoft equipped the Surface Laptop Studio with a full suite of powerful components, including Intel Core processors up to i7, and the option for an Nvidia GeForce RTX video card for intense editing (or gaming). 

The options don’t allow users to push the specs as far as other options on the list, but the utility that comes from the touchscreen might save you more time than simple spec bumps, depending on your workflow. 

Best portable laptop: MacBook Air M1

Specs:

  • Apple M1 processor
  • Apple GPU
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • Up to 16 GB RAM
  • Up to 2 TB built-in storage

Why it made the cut: Even the super-compact version of Apple’s M1 machines handles heavy editing with surprising ease making this model our choice for the best portable laptop. 

Pros

  • Faster than other machines its size
  • Excellent, accurate screen
  • Weighs just 2.8 pounds

Cons

  • Underpowered for long, intensive editing sessions
  • Only two ports, one of which you’ll need to charge it

While the MacBook Pro is the undeniable leader of the pack, Apple’s smaller, cheaper computer also offers some surprisingly robust capabilities. The 13.3-inch screen reaches an impressive 2560-by-1600 resolution, which leaves lots of room onscreen for both images and software UI. 

The M1 chip inside isn’t meant for extended periods of heavy abuse, but I’ve personally edited entire weddings on one of these (on battery power) without issue. You’ll want to upgrade both the RAM and the built-in storage if you can manage the extra cost, because it’s impossible to upgrade later on. Plus, with only two USB-C ports—one of which will be occupied by the charger sometimes—working from built-in memory is much simpler than adding an external all the time. 

If you want to squeeze a little more power out of your ultra-portable, stepping up to the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro gets you the same basic machine, but with the addition of fans inside to help manage the heat better and improve overall performance under heavy load. 

Best gaming laptop (that’s also great for creative work): Razer Blade 15

Specs: 

  • Intel Core processor
  • Nvidia GeForce graphics up to 3080 RTX
  • 15-inch display
  • Up to 64 GB RAM
  • Up to 8 TB built-in memory

Why it made the cut: With its super-fast refresh rate screen and desktop-grade graphics card, this machine will rip through a video edit just as easily as it will a game of Call of Duty.

Pros

  • 240 Hz refresh rate screen provides super smooth motion
  • Graphics performance better than most desktops
  • Weighs under five pounds
  • Lots of room for storage expansion

Cons

  • Don’t expect lots of battery life
  • Pricey

One of the best gaming laptops overall around can also shred when it comes to photo and video editing. Throw enough money into the build and you can end up with an Nvidia GeForce 3080 RTX, which is nearly as good as it gets when it comes to GPUs. 

The screen also puts up some outstanding stats. Each display comes calibrated from the factory. Plus, its 240 Hz refresh rate makes for super-smooth motion on-screen when programs support it. 

Despite all that power inside, the Razer Blade weighs less than five pounds, which is an impressive feat. With all that power inside, it can make quick work of the battery, especially if you’re putting in heavy work, but it comes with a relatively absurd 230-watt power adapter to pump juice into it in a hurry. 

The Blade offers a bevy of ports, including three USB 3.2 ports, a pair of Thunderbolt ports, and an HDMI. This is a lot of computer. 

FAQs

Q: How much do laptops cost?

To handle serious creative work, you’re going to want a machine that can handle modern editing software. You can get something that will work for around $500 if you pay attention to deals, but anything cheaper than that is going to eat up your savings in time spent waiting for things to render or complete. On the high end, the sky is the limit. A fully ramped up MacBook Pro can approach $7,000. Most PCs, however, stay below $4,000.

Q: How much RAM does a laptop need

RAM is one area in which you don’t want to skimp if you can avoid it. System memory can quickly become a bottleneck when you’re working with large files and that can cost you serious time. Right now, 16 GB feels like a safe amount, but going above that will always be a good idea. 8 GB will still probably work for you, but going below that will hurt performance too much.

Methodology

The PopPhoto writers and editors have decades of combined experience in photography, much of which involves staring into laptops and editing images and videos. We’ve personally tested most of the options on this list and can recommend them first-hand. 

For our selections, we focused on machines that offer enough computing power to make editing a smooth and simple experience. We looked for computers that offer a wide range of spec options to fit into various workflows from occasional editors to heavy creators. We also chose product lines with solid reputations that have endured over several generations to ensure durability. 

A final thought about the best laptops

Buying a new laptop can be exciting, but it can also feel intimidating. There are so many specs out there that can be tough to compare. In the end, focus on the features most useful for your specific process, ramp up the RAM,  and don’t skimp on the stuff you can’t upgrade later. You’ll be glad you spent a little extra when you’re not staring endlessly at the beach ball or blue screen of death during an editing session. 

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