Every media project requires several things: creativity, time… and a computer. Sometimes it’s this last item that can be such a pain-point in creative work. So let’s say you decide to look for a new computer so you can spend more energy focusing on creative endeavors, but you quickly become overwhelmed by the options and technical specifications! Sound familiar?
To answer some of the questions I am asked on a regular basis, I put together the guide below to serve as a roadmap of sorts for creatively-minded people (and non-creatives too) to navigate this difficult but necessary subject with ease.
The first step on the journey is to pick your operating system (OS). The operating system is the software that runs your computer the way it does. The two most common are Mac and Windows. I have used every version of Windows going back to 3.1 (released in 1992), and I have used Mac for professional work for nearly a decade (and currently use both), so I feel like I can give an impartial perspective on the issue. Most people already have a preference for this because of what they are accustomed to, so I will keep this brief, but it is a necessary question to ask, especially for creative professionals.
I am frequently asked by college students which operating system I would recommend. I usually state that Adobe Creative software runs equally well on both, and at the end of the day, creative professionals (and students) will spend much more time in the Adobe suite than they will interact with the OS. Years ago, Mac had some technical reasons why it was superior for creatives, which is why it is still the industry standard, but today it’s simply a matter of preference for most people, and both have merit. Macs utilize a new file system (introduced with High Sierra), but Windows supports better color management. Macs are more efficient with memory (more about this later), while Windows has a greater ability for customization. Macs typically have better battery life due to their engineering, but Windows computers usually have more attractive price points.
The operating system affects a lot of how we interact with the computer and thus people have strong opinions about which is best. Ultimately, choose whichever you are more comfortable with using in a work environment. If you choose Mac, you can skip the next section; it’s for Windows users trying to select a manufacturer.
If you chose Mac as your operating system of choice in the last section, go ahead and skip this one—you’re stuck with Apple. For the PC users reading this, choosing a brand can be an imposing decision because there isn’t a spec to easily compare among the different brands. Usually, this decision is made through experience (mostly bad ones) or word of mouth.
The processor (or CPU) is a very important spec for creatives. I definitely recommend Intel over AMD at the moment, although both companies will leap over each other at different points. Currently, I believe Intel to have a slight edge. Intel has three lines of processors that most consumers will want to be familiar with—the budget i3, the middle-of-the-road i5, and the high-performance i7. There is a new tier, i9, but this won’t find its way into affordable computers for a while yet. The i3 is really only useful for business applications (Microsoft Office, QuickBooks, etc.) and web browsing. The i3 would be great if you used your computer for basic computing tasks and/or web development. The m3 found on the entry-level Surface Pro has an edge over the i3 and could work for light media work, especially photo editing or graphic design. Next up, the i5 is the minimum for working with video and heavier applications like Blender or After Effects, although you may find yourself waiting longer for renders and for exporting video. Finally, the i7 processor is ideal for creative projects and will save you time if you can afford a computer that sports one.
While the gigahertz (—GHz, also called “clock speed”) value of the processor used to be very important years ago, today the processor’s series is much more crucial. In other words, I would much rather have a 2.0GHz i7-series than a 2.8GHz i5-series chip. Another factor is the number of “cores” the processor has. In theory, this lets the processor do more at one time, but not every program supports using multiple cores, so while this is a consideration, I feel it’s becoming more of a marketing line than a useful spec. The one exception to this would be video editing applications (most of which will use all the cores available) where multiple cores can really help to speed things up.
If I lost you on some of this, just pay attention to the series of the processor—i3 for basic computing or web design, i5 for graphic design or photography, and i7 for video and animation. That rule of thumb can help cut through the options greatly.
A computer’s memory (also called RAM) is like a handyman’s tool belt. The handyman won’t keep all of his tools in the tool belt, but he will place the ones in there that he is actively using. When you open an application on your computer, it has to load that application into memory before it can open. The faster the memory, the faster the computer can use running programs. The more memory the computer has, the more programs it will be able to run at once. For creatives that want to use memory-hungry Adobe apps and use several at once during a big project, more and faster memory is essential. For basic computing like working on documents or web browsing, 4GB might work, but for light graphic design work or image editing, 8GB is a minimum. 16GB or more is definitely preferred. This is probably the one spec that as a designer I would not compromise on. I would rather have enough memory than even the next series up of processor. The more memory your computer has, the more it can do simultaneously. There is a way to work around low memory; see the section below on storage.
The graphics card (also called video card) is where all of the visuals are processed before being displayed to the user. There are two main kinds of graphics cards: integrated and discrete. Integrated cards are cheaper and use less power, making them more gentle on your computer’s battery life, but at the cost of speed and efficiency. The more powerful your graphics card is, the more cooling systems your computer will need, making it bulkier and more often needing to charge. Anytime you see “Intel” listed as the graphics card maker, you are looking at the integrated type. If you see Radeon or Nvidia GeForce listed, that is discrete graphics.
There used to be a rather large gulf of performance between the two different kinds. The gap has lessened in recent years, so this is becoming less important in the list of specs to a creative pro. Not having a discrete graphics card used to be a debilitating thing when it came to working with media, but that’s simply not the case anymore.
If you are more concerned with battery life or you only work with 2D media (like graphic design, web development) or photography, the integrated type will work just fine. The only time it’s handy to have a powerful discrete graphics card is when working with video (especially 4K or high frame rate footage), 3D animation, or projects in After Effects. If these don’t apply to you, stick to the integrated type—it will help your battery life and mobility.
Your hard drive storage is crucial to having enough space to work on large projects without being tethered to a file server or a lot of external hard drives all the time. With photography and video work producing increasingly larger files each year, this is something you will want to think through to help future proof your new computer and allow you the freedom to work the way you need with these larger files.
There are two things to consider when selecting the kind of storage: how much space you need and how fast you need to access your data. Let’s break this down by each question.
How much space do you need? This is the important question. 120GB is a little tight when you consider that the operating system (Windows or MacOS) might use, as of this writing, up to 20GB of space by itself without any of your files. For most of us, 250GB will work fine for most work, but for video editors, 500GB is a minimum with 1TB (or 1,000GB) being ideal. If you plan to buy a few external drives and don’t mind being disconnected from some of your data when out and about, you may be able to get by with less. I run a file server in my home that has 12TB (12,000GB) of storage space where I store all of my photographs and design files. This allows me to only have to carry the files on my laptop that I’m currently using or actively working on. A very handy arrangement, except for the few times I’ve needed a file from home.
Next, how fast do you need to access your data? Currently, there are two main types of storage drives—traditional hard drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD). Traditional hard drives are cheaper per GB and come in much larger capacities, but they work by using a system of spinning disks and needle-like readers, almost like a record player. All of these sensitive components are very susceptible to damage if dropped or moved suddenly. Traditional hard drives are much more delicate and therefore much more prone to causing massive data loss if damaged. Solid state drives are much more durable, as they have no moving parts and are also significantly faster too. This makes everything your computer does faster including boot up, opening applications, opening large media projects, and working with video clips. Personally, I would much prefer a small SSD to a large hard drive simply because of how much that speed increase makes a difference for the whole computer.
You might be surprised to find a whole section of this article to ports, but you’ll find that they can make big difference in day-to-day use and when working with a lot of peripherals (accessories other than your computer). Now that computers are foregoing the CD/DVD drives in favor of smaller and lighter form factors and hard drives are getting less spacious (although faster), we are carrying more accessories around with us simply because they are no longer built into our computers. I will break down the common ports and their uses so you can get an idea for which ports you will need and which ones you can live without.
USB. This is the universal port now for just about everything. USB 3 is the fastest port available on most computers, so lots of devices use it, including external hard drives, memory card readers, keyboards and mice, and Wacom graphic tablets. You will definitely want to have several of these ports if you want to be able to use several of these devices at once, like copying photographs from a memory card (via a USB reader) onto an external hard drive. I recommend two USB ports at a minimum, with three or four definitely being preferred.
USB-C. While technically USB, the type-C port is a smaller size, making the user purchase adapters (also called dongles) to use accessories with the full-size ports. If the computer you are considering offers USB-C ports, just make sure you have some funds remaining after your computer purchase to buy the sometimes costly adapters to make your existing equipment compatible with it. I definitely feel that USB-C is the future, but for now, it makes things complicated with all the adapters necessary to get work done. Some computers also use USB-C ports to charge the computer. Keep this in mind, because when your machine is plugged into the wall, you will have one less port at your disposal.
HDMI. This is the most common form of video connector currently. HDMI is used for more than Blu-ray players; it’s used to connect to many screens and projectors as well. Most of the TVs and projectors in the classrooms at the institution where I teach use HDMI making this an important port for me, as it also would for many business people who frequently give presentations.
DisplayPort and Mini DisplayPort. These ports are one in the same, with the exception that the Mini DisplayPort is substantially smaller. This port (referring to both collectively) is much faster than HDMI, allowing for connection to higher resolution monitors (especially for wide-gamut color work). USB-C is significantly faster and more capable than DisplayPort, and I expect it to replace DisplayPort in the near future.
3.5mm headphone jack. Music is important to most creative professionals, so I recommend looking for a computer that features one of these. If not, you can always get small USB sound cards that offer 3.5mm output for your headphones. Wired headphones just sound so much better than Bluetooth sets.
SD card slot. If your camera or devices take SD (Secure Digital) cards, having a slot built into your computer can be very handy. My DSLR has two SD card slots, so having a reader built into my MacBook Pro allows me to import footage and photographs without carrying a separate reader and related cables.
Ultimately, there are lots of really great options out there. I absolutely recommend going to a brick and mortar computer store and handling the different models for yourself to gauge the size, weight, hinge build quality, and screen quality. These are all aspects that cannot be appreciated online and very important to a good laptop. For the technical specifications, hopefully, this article has helped you understand more of what you are looking at and make a more informed decision.