Most people use computers as a means of wasting time through things like social media or constant checking to see what grumpy cat is up to. For creative artists, though, a computer means much more. A computer is how you'll make a living. From Maya to Photoshop, artists put a great deal of strain on computer systems. So it makes sense that, as an artist, you need to put computers through a vetting process before making a decision.
While many artists prefer to use a desktop for their heavy work, whether it's working in the field or carrying your system with you for school, sometimes you just need to be mobile. In those times, you'll need a reliable laptop that can handle the work you need to get done while still being portable.
With that in mind, we called upon our community of creative artists to nominate their favorite laptops for doing creative work. We received a flood of votes across multiple channels and narrowed it down to a top five. Now you'll get to see the best laptops for creatives, as chosen by our community. If you've used one of these in your work, we'd encourage you to vote for it in the poll below.
Great for: 3D, Game Dev and VFX
In our world-wide quest to find the best laptops for creative work, the Lenovo Y510p ended up with the most votes. Full disclosure, some of the artists here at DT use this very same laptop. In fact, that's why it's the same laptop that's in the featured image for this article. Despite this, none of our votes were counted so we found it really interesting that the community also voted for this laptop the most.
You can read more about the Y510p over at Lenovo's website, so we won't bother to repeat the feature listing. Instead, let's look at some of the key features in the Y510p that are key for you as a creative artist.
Perhaps the biggest feature for the Y510p that makes it pretty unique among laptops is its ability to have two GeForce GT 7555M graphics cards. In total, that's up to 4 GB of GPU power. This alone makes the Y510p a great choice for any artist who needs to do some GPU-heavy processing tasks like navigating complex scenes in 3D viewports, GPU rendering or heavy VFX work.
Another great feature that makes the Y510p a great choice for creative artists is the Intel i7 processor. The i7 processor is a CPU chip that's usually found in high-end desktop systems, so if you're looking for a laptop that has the power of a desktop, the Y510p really is a great choice for that.
Every computer has pros and cons, so just like there are some great upsides to the Y510p, there are some downsides that you should know before considering whether or not this system will do what you need it to do. A lot of people think memory (RAM) is a big limiter to computers, but RAM really only has to do with the programs you have open at any given time. So realistically, as a creative artist you're usually going to have a few applications open at a time and these days with most systems having plenty of RAM (the Y510p has 8 GB of RAM) there are other limiters that come into play before RAM does.
In its default configuration one of the biggest drawbacks that will affect creative work done on the Y510p is the hard drive. At 1 TB of space, it comes with plenty of space, but the downside is really in the speed of the hard drive being at only 5400 RPM. In other words, before you hit the 8 GB limit for the memory in the Y510p with what you have open at any given time, you're more likely to run into an issue where the hard drive becomes the biggest bottleneck.
If you're not sure how the RPMs affect your creative work, let's first get a quick overview of hard drive RPMs. You've probably heard the term RPM (revolutions per minute) in reference to your car. In a car, the RPMs help to measure the engine's output.
For a computer, the hard drive has heads that spin to find the data that is stored on them. So let's say you open up Photoshop. For Photoshop to load, your computer needs to read data files that are stored on your hard drive. You can think of your hard drive sort of like a little record player. And like a vinyl record can generate sound by spinning around with a needle touching it, similarly as your hard drive spins there are little heads that find the data it needs. If you're really interested in learning more, you can learn all about how hard drives work in this great Wikipedia article. Essentially, when you load a program like Photoshop, your hard drive has to spin around to find the data it needs to load Photoshop. This, essentially, is what determines how fast a program will load.
But the hard drive speed goes into much more than loading a program and, especially for creative work, this can really have an affect on how quickly your data is being written to, or read from, the hard drive. So if you've got some huge 3D scene files, all of that data needs to be read and written to the hard drive. Or if you're rendering out files, all of that is being written to the disk. All of that can be slowed down by having a slower hard drive like the 5400 RPM hard drive on the Y510p.
It's worth pointing out that the Y510p does come with an 8 GB hybrid drive that essentially is a hybrid of solid state (no moving parts, so they avoid that whole RPM issue) and a traditional hard drive, but realistically for creative artists who often work with 3D or video files that top 8 GB on a daily basis, that's not really enough to be beneficial. Fortunately, it's pretty common to upgrade hard drives in laptops so you can always upgrade later if you need to.
How do you know if you need a faster hard drive?
The most common issue you'll notice from a slower hard drive speed is probably on the system boot, programs loading or even if the program "hangs" a lot. Since the Y510p comes with Windows 8.1, one of the updates Microsoft did with its latest operating system is to make the Task Manager (Ctrl + Shift + Esc) utility a lot easier to tell when you're running into disk speed issues. So if you notice your disk percentage in the area of the task manager shown in the screenshot above, it might be beneficial for you to start looking into a faster hard drive.
MacBook Pro 15"
Great for:VFX, Web and Design
There's no denying that MacBooks have long been a favorite for creative artists around the world. So it didn't really surprise us to see the MacBook Pro make an appearance on this list of community-favorite laptops. After all, they're absolutely beautiful and what creative artist doesn't love beautifully-designed technology? Packed full of features, there's a lot to like about the MacBook Pro if you're doing creative work.
Perhaps one of the biggest features that breaks the MacBook Pro out from the rest of the laptops that have been nominated is the Retina display. You can read about it on Apple's websites, but it is, quite literally, one of those things you have to see to believe. Essentially, a Retina display packs in a ton of extra pixels into a much smaller space, so this means even if you're working with a 15" screen you're still working with more screen real estate than you'll get with most desktop computers.
For a creative artist, one of the biggest benefits you'll get from this immediately is the ability to really see your work as clearly as possible. Think of this sort of like the difference between a regular DVD and a Blu-Ray DVD. With the latter, you're able to see so much more detail. When you're creating that detailed work, it's incredibly important to be able to see all of that detail so you can make sure every pixel is beautiful.
Like the Y510p, another great benefit of the MacBook Pro for creative work comes with the Intel i7 (or i5 if you're getting a 13" MacBook Pro) processor. Again, like we talked about with the Y510p above, the Intel i5 and i7 processors are really normal processors you'll find in high-end desktops so it's great to get that same power in a portable form.
While many people looking for a new laptop tend to balk at the higher price point for MacBook Pros, and creative artists certainly are no exception to this budgetary consideration, when you think about the fact that you'll be making a living with your computer, the cost difference between a MacBook Pro and a technically-similar Windows-based system is really negligible.
Instead, the biggest drawback that you'll have to think about as a creative artist really is quite similar to the Y510p - and that is the hard drive. Although the MacBook Pro comes with a solid state drive, so you don't have to worry about RPMs because there are no moving parts. Unfortunately, solid state drives tend to be more expensive (probably because they're newer technology than more traditional disk drives) so as a result the hard drive in the MacBook Pro may be a lot faster, but it also has a lot less space.
With the 15" MacBook Pro, the default configurations come with either 256 GBs or 512 GBs. External hard drives are always an option, but those can tend to hurt the portability aspect of laptops. You can, of course, upgrade to 1 TB for a pretty penny, but before jumping to that solution it'd be beneficial for you to take a look at what you're going to be using it for and how much space you'll need. For example, if you're going to install some Creative Cloud applications, hop over to their system requirements to see how much space will be eaten up by those. So it's just a matter of doing a little bit of math (don't worry, it's simple subtraction) to figure out how much space you'll need.
For example, let's say you go with the $2499 15" MacBook Pro with 512 GB of hard drive space. OS X 10.6.8 takes up 8 GB of space and after installing apps like Photoshop CC 2014 (8 GB) and Illustrator CC 2014 (8 GB) you can really start to eat into that space. This is especially true if you're doing motion graphics work with a program like After Effects, which requires not only the 8 GBs for installation but at least 10 GB of space for disk cache.
All of that doesn't count the space other non-creative apps you may want to install, like Firefox or OmniFocus. While those may be smaller, the more you add can start to add up quickly. So while your situation may vary in exactly what you install, it's a good idea to take some time and figure out how much space you'll need for your apps.
Once you've got that, simply subtract it from the hard drive space in the MacBook Pro you're looking at to determine if that leftover space is going to be enough to work for you. For example, if you've got 512 GBs to start with and you're using up 200 GBs with apps, then you'll have about 312 GBs left for your project files.
Let's face it; you're not going to be using your computer for just storing photos and videos you take on your phone. You'll need to store your work on there, and depending on what you're doing that can mean some pretty large file sizes. For example, if you're editing a 1080p video it's pretty common to getvideo files that are well over 10 GB each. That means, along with all the apps you'll need to actually do your work, you're looking at no more than about 30 videos of that size on a 512 GB hard drive before it is full.
At that point, you'd have to ask yourself what you can get rid of or start looking into some external storage solutions. So it really makes sense to do the math now and figure out what will work best for you before finding out you need more space on your brand-new computer a little down the road.
Great for: 3D, Game Dev and VFX
So far we've looked at some really great systems that all have their own pros and cons. One of the biggest pros of the next laptop the next community-nominated laptop is its size. The Alienware 17 boasts a 17" screen that is probably one of the closest, in screen size - not resolution, to a desktop monitor that you'll get in a laptop.
While this is a pro for many artists who like the extra screen size for their creative software workspaces, the same size can be a con for other artists who prefer portability over the size. This is especially true considering the Alienware 17, despite its larger screen size, still runs at 1920x1080, which is the same size as the 15.3" Y510p and way smaller resolution than the 2880x1800 a 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display can offer.
If you look at the features for the Alienware 17, apart from the screen size, the biggest feature that stands out to make this a great laptop for creative artists is really in the graphics cards. The Alienware 17 supports multiple configurations, but can get up to dual GeForce GTX 880M. That's a whopping 16 GB of dedicated graphics memory.
What does this mean for creative work? Like we talked about with the Y510p, having powerful GPUs really means you'll be able to tackle some incredibly complex stuff without any lag on the screen. For example, it could be anything from moving around 3D scenes with a lot of geometry in it to better rendering with your GPU instead of your CPU (providing the app you're using supports GPU rendering, of course). If you are working with 3D, you can read more about what the GPU handles for your 3D work in this article.
If you've read each of the laptops so far, and you've looked at the features for the Alienware 17, you'll see there's quite a range in prices depending on the configuration you have. While our community nominations didn't specify exactly which configuration they were using, if you've read about the other laptops up to this point you'll probably have noticed that all of the variations have 5400 RPM hard drives.
While this could cause a bottle neck in your disk transfer rate, like we talked about above in the Y510p section, what's nice about the Alienware 17 is that you can get it configured with mSATA SSD drives. So, basically, those are solid state drives exactly like you'd get in a MacBook Pro. Because they're solid state, that means they have no moving parts. You can essentially think of them like huge flash drives.
A very common solution for creative artists is to use a solid-state drive (SSD) as the boot drive. Using the example we talked about in the Y510p section above, if you launch Photoshop your computer needs to read the application data to load Photoshop. If Photoshop is installed on an SSD, then your computer doesn't need to wait for the physical heads on a traditional hard drive to spin around to get the data.
Just like with the MacBook Pro, anytime you're working with an SSD you'll want to make sure you've got enough room on there for your operating system and applications. With the Alienware 17, you have the choice of an SSD and a secondary hard drive that's much larger (1 TB 5400 RPM). It's a common solution to have your operating system and applications on the SSD so they can run really quickly while keeping all of your data on the slower 5400 RPM drive.
As a creative artist, this dual hard drive setup usually means your creative software will run really quickly but the bottleneck then will be in loading files from the slower drive. In most cases, this won't be a big deal but if you're going to be doing a lot of rendering to the slower hard drive that'd probably be your biggest speed slowdown.
Surface Pro 3
Great for:Web and Design
Since its launch, Microsoft has touted the Surface Pro 3 as "the tablet that can replace your laptop". Apparently, many community members agree that this is more than just marketing jargon as it was nominated right alongside some of the other powerhouse laptops we've looked at up to now.
While we've specifically not really wanted to talk much about the budget for various laptops so far, mostly because everyone's budget varies so much, the biggest feature that the Surface Pro 3 has for creative artists is probably that some of the lower-end configurations are very affordable.
However, it's worth pointing out that some of the lower-end configurations only have 64 GB of storage and an Intel i3 processor. Basically this means you'd be hard-pressed to do any heavy-duty creative work on a lower-end Surface Pro 3. With that said, considering the Surface Pro 3 is essentially a tablet you could easily throw something like Photoshop or SketchBook Pro on there to turn it into an extremely portable creative tool that also just so happens to be your portable communication device.
For the higher-end configurations of the Surface Pro 3, there is enough power there to rival any laptop. If you look at the specs and compare it against the laptops we've looked at so far in this article, you'll see some familiar technology. The Intel i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and up to 512 GB of SSD hard-drive space has enough power to help you unleash your creativity.
If there's one area that is probably the biggest downside for creative work on a Surface Pro 3, it's the graphics. Probably because of its non-standard size, the Surface Pro 3 doesn't have a dedicated graphics card and instead relies on the Intel HD graphics built into the Intel CPU processors. What this means for you as a creative artist is that you'll be more likely to run into issues when you're trying to do more GPU-heavy tasks like 3D work or game development.
While you may be able to install some high-end creative software, maybe even 3D or game engines, on the Surface Pro 3 the lack of a dedicated graphics card means you'll be hard-pressed to do any serious GPU-intensive work on the Surface Pro 3. So that's just something you'll want to keep in mind. Of course, depending on what you're going to be using it for will really be the driving factor on whether or not it's right for you. Considering the power it does have, and its incredible portability, it certainly does pack a punch that's pretty hard to beat for the price.
Dell Precision M6800
Great for: 3D, Game Dev, CAD and VFX
We round out the top five community-nominated laptops with what Dell claims to be the world's most powerful 17" workstation, the Dell Precision M6800. That's an interesting claim considering the Alienware 17 we looked at earlier is also made by Dell. Maybe it's because the Alienware 17 is marketed as a gaming system instead of a workstation.
Its case may not be as pretty as the Alienware 17 or the MacBook Pro but as long as we can create beautiful work on it then who cares what it looks like, right?
Like the other laptops we've looked at so far, the M6800 certainly does have plenty of power that any creative artist can take advantage of. Probably the biggest feature is one that's a bit unique from anything we've looked at so far and that's the NVIDIA Quadro (or AMD FirePro if you're an AMD fan) graphics cards. While there's ongoing debates among tech fans as to whether or not NVIDIA's gaming cards (GeForce) can do CG work as well as Quadro cards, there's no doubt that NVIDIA's Quadro cards are great cards for any heavy-duty CG work.
Another great feature about the M6800 is they've got quite a bit of room for memory. While we haven't really looked at memory a lot for some of the other laptops as their biggest strengths or weaknesses, the M6800 supports up to 32 GB of RAM. That's a lot of RAM.
For a creative artist, this means between the great GPU and the huge amount of RAM available. You'll be able to tackle the same sort of complex 3D work you'd expect to be able to do on a high-end desktop. Considering you can also pack up the M6800 and take it with you a lot easier than you can a desktop computer, that's pretty impressive.
As we've mentioned before, every computer has pros and cons, and probably the biggest con for the M6800 comes with the size of the computer itself. Weighing at almost 10 pounds (actual weight varies depending on how it's configured), that can start to get heavy pretty quickly if you plan on carrying it around a lot. Still, considering it's a lot more portable than an actual desktop and the amount of power you get, it's a great option to consider.
Which one is your favorite?
Now that you've had a chance to dig into the technical guts of these top five community-nominated laptops for creative work, it's time for you to vote for which one you like the best. Use the poll below to vote for which one is your overall favorite and may the best laptop win!