Best laptops for design, graphics, video, and photography in 2020: MacBook Pro, Dell XPS 15, and more
Apple’s professional users — especially those working in the creative industries — have welcomed the company’s renewed focus on its professional Mac products in recent months, following the long-awaited introduction of the new Mac Pro desktop, and the 16-inch revamp of its flagship MacBook Pro laptop. But there’s no doubt that Apple took its eye off the ball in the Mac market while it spent years concentrating on the iPhone, and that has given rival PC manufacturers a real opportunity to capture a slice of Apple’s creative pie.
Intel got the ball rolling back in 2018 with its Creator PC initiative, which was further boosted by Nvdia’s Studio campaign the following year, which aimed to extend the company’s graphics technologies beyond its traditional gaming audience and into the creative industries.
As a result, all the main PC manufacturers, including market leaders such as Dell, HP and Lenovo, now offer extensive portfolios of laptops and desktop PCs that are specifically aimed at creative users in fields such as graphic design, photography, video editing and animation. The involvement of Nvidia, with its RTX ray-tracing graphics technology has also attracted gaming specialists such as Razer and Gigabyte, whose expertise with high-end gaming graphics has allowed them to design some impressively powerful laptops for professional users.
So creative users are now spoilt for choice, with dozens of laptop and desktop systems now vying for their attention. This month we’ll focus on some of the latest laptops for content creation; we’ll follow up with a look at desktop PCs in July.
The ConceptD 7 that ZDNet reviewed at the end of 2019 was an attractive desktop-replacement laptop for creative users, and the company has recently extended the range with an Ezel variation that introduces an unusual screen design.
The highlight is the 15.6-inch display with 4K resolution that supports 100% of the Adobe RGB colour space, which will be suitable for a wide range of graphics and design tasks (although there’s no mention of video colour standards, such as DCI-P3). Like many convertible laptops, the ConceptD 7 Ezel allows you to fold the screen right back so that the device acts like a large tablet. However, the hinged display panel can also tilt upwards — rather like Microsoft’s Surface Studio desktop PC — allowing you to sketch at a more comfortable angle with the Wacom stylus that’s included in the price.
That versatile design provides plenty of power too, with an ‘entry-level’ model that includes a 10th generation, eight-core Core i7 processor running at 2.3GHz (up to 5.1GHz with TurboBoost), 32GB of RAM, 1TB of solid-state storage, and Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 graphics card for £2,499 (ex. VAT or £2,999 inc. VAT; $TBA).
There are also plans for additional upgrade options including Xeon processors, Quadro RTX 5000 graphics, and a 17.3-inch model called the ConceptD 9, although pricing for these has yet to be announced.
$TBA / £2,499 (ex. VAT)
After years of focusing on the iPhone, Apple turned its attention back to its traditional creative audience towards the end of 2019, with an entirely new Mac Pro, and this well-received revamp of its veteran 15-inch pro laptop.
The clue’s in the name, of course, and this new 16-inch MacBook Pro manages to fit a larger 16-inch display into a design that’s only 9mm wider than its 15-inch predecessor, and still manages to keep the weight down to just 2kg. The 3,072 by 1,920 (226dpi) display is a delight, and supports the DCI-P3 color standard used in professional broadcasting, but Apple is also making a renewed pitch for the audio and music markets, squeezing an impressive high-quality speaker and microphone system into the MacBook Pro’s slimline design.
It’s expensive, of course, but with 6-core and 8-core processor options, AMD Radeon Pro graphics, all-day battery life, and a new keyboard design, Apple’s new top-of-the-range MacBook Pro has restored the faith of many long-time Mac users.
from $2,399 / £1,999.17 (ex. VAT)
Dell recently updated its range of Precision Mobile Workstations, but — as with the XPS 15 also covered here — the company has kept some older models on sale too. The 2019 variants have had big price cuts, so they could be a real bargain for some users, but do check the differences between the 2019 and 2020 models before buying.
The Precision laptops are available with both 15-inch and 17-inch displays, but the larger models weigh in at more than 3kg, so we’re inclined to opt for the more manageable 2.5kg of the 15.6-inch Precision 7550.
The three standard configurations on Dell’s website only have FHD (1920×1080) resolution, but there’s also a Build Your Own option that starts at £2,376.37 (ex. VAT; £2,851.64 inc. VAT, or $2,501) with a 4K display, six-core Core i7-10750H processor running at 2.6GHz (5GHz with TurboBoost), 16GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive and Nvidia Quadro T1000 graphics. Other options include 8-core Xeon processors and Quadro RTX graphics for real workstation-class performance.
from $2,501 / £2,376.37 (ex. VAT) with 4K display
Apple labels its laptops by year, but Dell simply slaps ‘New’ on the name and leaves it at that. If in doubt, the ‘New’ XPS 15 also has the model number ‘9500’, which sets it apart from the older 7590 model — which is still on sale, so make sure you choose the correct model when ordering.
This new 15.6-inch model offers several configurations based on a 10th generation, six-core Core i7 processor running at 2.6GHz (up to 5.0GHz with TurboBoost), with a highly portable design that weighs just 1.83kg. The less expensive configurations aren’t specifically aimed at creative users, relying on integrated graphics and relatively modest 1,920 by 1,200 display. However, the top-of-the-range configuration shown here steps up to a ‘4K+’ display with 3,840 by 2,400 resolution (290.3dpi) powered by an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti graphics card, along with 16GB of RAM and a healthy 1TB solid-state drive. The US version of this model has a similar specification, although it includes 32GB of RAM and is referred to as the ‘Creator Edition’.
That’s a higher resolution than Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro, and the display supports 100% of the Adobe RGB colour standard, so the New XPS 15 will be a good option for web or magazine design. However, it only manages 94% of the DCI-P3 standard used in the broadcast industries, so rivals such as the MacBook Pro may still have an edge for professional-level video editing.
$3,029 / £1,989 (ex. VAT)
Gigabyte is one of several companies that traditionally focus on gaming, but are now taking the opportunity to bring their high-end graphical expertise to the creative markets.
The company’s Aero range includes 15-inch models and the imposing 17.3-inch Aero 17 shown here — which nonetheless manages to keep its weight down to a relatively modest 2.5kg. Both screen sizes provide 4K resolution and, as the name suggests, the Aero 17 HDR XB also supports the HDR 400 (High Dynamic Range) standard, which produces rich, vibrant colours, as well as 100% of the Adobe RGB colour space. That makes it a good choice for a wide range of graphics and design tasks, although Gigabyte doesn’t make any mention of the DCI-P3 colour standard used for professional video-editing work.
The model shown here has a mid-range specification, with a recommended price of $2,899 or £2,249.17 (ex. VAT), which includes an eight-core Core i7-10875H running at 2.3GHz (up to 5.1GHz with TurboBoost), Nvidia RTX 2070 Super graphics, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of solid-state storage. However, there’s a wide range of customisation options available through Gigabyte’s third-party retailers, including top-of-the-range models with Core i9 processors and RTX 2080 Super graphics.
$2,899 / £2,249.17 (ex. VAT)
HP recently launched an entire portfolio of laptops aimed at creative users, encompassing 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch laptops. But one of the company’s most interesting designs was the new Envy x360 convertible, which is available in both 13-inch and 15-inch sizes, and offers a choice of Intel and AMD Ryzen processors.
The more affordable 13-inch models are aimed at students, so professional users will probably prefer the 15.6-inch model shown here, which costs $849.99 or £791.66 (ex. VAT). It’s based on a 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor running at 1.0GHz (3.6GHz with TurboBoost).
The display has a relatively modest FHD resolution (1920×1080, 141.2dpi), powered by Intel’s integrated graphics, so it’s perhaps best suited for lighter work such as photo editing, or sketching with HP’s optional stylus. However, customers in the US can also opt for a Core i7 model that has yet to arrive in the UK, which also includes a discrete nVidia GPU for $1,020. There’s also an AMD alternative coming soon, offering an AMD Ryzen processor and Radeon graphics (price TBA).
from $849.99 / £791.66 (ex. VAT)
HP’s Envy laptops and convertibles provide lightweight options for designers and creative users, but it’s the ZBook range that provides heavyweight workstation performance for tasks such as video editing, 3D graphics and animation.
The current range is impressive enough, including conventional laptops as well as eye-catching designs such as the ZBook x2 G4, which claims to be “the world’s most powerful detachable PC”. The x2 G4 is effectively a high-end PC squeezed into a 14-inch tablet, with a 4K display, a quad-core Core i7 processor and Nvidia Quadro M620 graphics.
Impressively, the tablet and keyboard together weigh just 2.2kg. The keyboard is detachable, and uses Bluetooth so it can be moved around on the desk if you’re using the tablet with an external monitor (courtesy of its HDMI or Thunderbolt 3 ports).
That’s the only specification available at the moment, and the ZBook x2 G4’s 8th-generation processor is showing its age a little. However, HP has recently announced an overhaul for the entire ZBook range, with new ‘Studio’ and ‘Create’ models planned for August release.
$2,639 (16GB/256GB) / £2,769 (ex. VAT; 32GB/1TB)
If you’re after a slimline laptop that combines high-performance with lightweight design, then Lenovo’s 1.7kg ThinkPad P1 has a lot to offer. However, it’s the somewhat chunkier ThinkPad P53 that lifts the ThinkPad to true workstation levels of performance.
The ‘build your own’ customisation options on Lenovo’s website give you great scope to specify exactly the features you need, although creative users will probably want to skip the more modest entry-level configurations and start with a 15.6-inch display with 4K resolution (3840×2160, 282.4dpi) and a six-core Core i7-9750H running at 2.6GHz (up to 4.5GHz with TurboBoost). That configuration costs $1,870.47 or £1,708.50 (ex. VAT), and also includes an Nvidia T1000 graphics card, along with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. However, you can double that price for the top-of-the-range model that includes a six-core Xeon processor and a Quadro RTX 5000 graphics card.
The ThinkPad P53 has a starting weight of around 2.5kg, although that can vary depending on the configuration you choose. That’s a significant but manageable weight, making the P53 a good option for designers and other creative users who need a portable system capable of really high-end performance.
from $1870.47 / £1708.50 (ex. VAT) with 4K display
Lenovo’s Yoga tablets and convertibles are normally aimed at home users, but the company’s new Yoga Duet 7i adopts a versatile detachable design, as well as introducing an innovative stylus that will be particularly useful for design and illustration work.
Due on sale in EMEA later in June, the Duet 7i consists of a 13-inch tablet with a ‘2K’ (2160×1350, 196dpi) display that supports 100% of the sRGB colour space, which will be suitable for graphics work on the web or print. The first model available in the UK will be an entry-level configuration based on a 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, although i5 and i7 models will follow in the coming weeks. That i3 model will cost around £1,000 (ex. VAT) or $1,316 and include 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage, as well as Lenovo’s detachable Bluetooth keyboard.
An interesting aspect of the Yoga Duet 7i is Lenovo’s new E-Color Pen, which uses an internal sensor to ‘pick up’ colours from physical objects and materials — rather like the eye-dropper tool in Photoshop. That could prove to be a real time-saver for illustration and product design work, especially with the more powerful models due to arrive soon.
from £1,000 (ex. VAT) / $1,316
The detachable design of Microsoft’s Surface Book has proven extremely popular, especially with creative users who enjoy the freedom of using it as a tablet with (optional $80/£100) stylus for sketching and visualisation work.
The new Surface Book 3 has just gone on sale, but the standard models run Windows 10 Home, so business users who require Windows 10 Pro will need to choose the Surface Book 3 For Business variant.
Like its predecessor, the Surface Book 3 is available with either 13.5-inch or 15-inch displays, although creative users will probably prefer the 15-inch model with not-quite-4K display (3240×2160, 260dpi). There’s an entry-level model based on a 10th-generation Core i5 processor with integrated graphics, but it’s only the more expensive Core i7 configuration that offers an upgrade to a discrete GPU.
If you need discrete graphics, prices start at $2,299 or £1899.17 (ex. VAT) with quad-core Core i7-1065G7 running at 1.3GHz (up to 3.9Ghz with TurboBoost), 16GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. That price includes an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU, but you can double the RAM and storage and step up to a Quadro RTX 3000 for a total price of $3,355.95 or £2,774.17 (ex. VAT).
from $2,299 / £1899.17 (ex. VAT) with 15-inch display and dGPU
MSI has been making a strong pitch for the creative audience in recent months, and even launched its own Creator Awards scheme earlier this year. The company provides a wide range of laptops for creative users, ranging from slimline 14-inch ultrabooks to 17-inch workstations for architects and engineers. However, the sweet spot in that range is the 15.6-inch P65 Creator, which manages to combine impressive performance and lightweight design at a competitive price.
The company has been a little slow introducing the latest 10th-generation Intel processors, and its third-party retailers (in the UK) are currently only offering a handful of configurations based on 9th generation chips. Even so, a price of $1,899 or £1,749.17 (ex. VAT) is very tempting for a model that provides 4K resolution, a six-core Core i7 processor running at 2.6GHz (up to 4.5GHz with TurboBoost) and a high-end Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU, along with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive. The P65 Creator only weighs 1.9kg as well, giving slimline rivals such as Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro a real run for their money.
$1,899 / £1,749.17 (ex. VAT)
Razer has always been known for its gaming gear, including the popular Blade range of laptops, which combine powerful graphics performance with attractive, slimline designs. But that graphics performance can be turned to other tasks as well, and Razer has produced a number of Blade laptops that are specifically aimed at designers and creative users.
The company recently updated its Blade 15 Studio Edition, which boasts a 15.6-inch display with 4K resolution (282.4dpi) and a variety of powerful CPU and GPU options in a sleek design that measures just 19.9mm thick and weighs 2.1kg.
This year’s model steps up to a 10th-generation, six-core Core i7 processor running at 2.6GHz (up to 5.0GHz with TurboBoost), with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. It also adds new GPU options that support Nvidia’s RTX ray-tracing technology for state-of-the-art graphical effects. The RTX models start at a competitive $1,799.99 or £1,358.32 (ex. VAT) with a GeForce RTX 2060 GPU. US customers get 512GB of storage, while other configurations offer a high-end Quadro RTX 5000 GPU.
from $1,799.99 / £1,358.32 (ex. VAT)