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Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2019 – CNET

OLED laptops are here to fulfill your creative dreams.

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On the hunt for the best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives? I've culled these recommendations from products we've tested that stand out for their performance, design and features for painting, drawing, rendering, designing, video and photo editing among other creative tasks.

I've finally had a chance to check out some OLED laptop displays, and they're as color-accurate as they're reputed to be — as long as you calibrate them yourself. None of the laptops I've looked at have come with factory calibrated displays, or at least with an active accurate software color profile. They still have weak areas — they're not as accurate at the supersaturated areas of the gamut, which may affect you if you do game design or CGI work — but they're quite something.

Then there's Nvidia's new "Nvidia RTX Studio" program. The new initiative is a partnership with laptop retailers to ensure that logo'd systems meet a certain minimum level of specifications for creative work: A GeForce or RTX GPU, Core i7 H series CPU, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and a 1080p screen. But I haven't seen any of these systems yet, so it's unclear how far the manufacturers are going to improve on these rather low-bar requirements.

Note CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of products featured on this page.

Recommended systems

Other developments to take into consideration include:

  • Apple's big reveal of its shiny new Mac Pro and wowza Pro Display XDR monitor (with its $1,000 stand). They're slated to ship in the fall, but I suspect their release will slip to later in the year. If you're asking yourself, "should I delay buying until the Mac Pro is available?" my preliminary answer (given that we know nothing about the pricing beyond the base configuration) is "no" for most people. For heavy-duty video editing and a big budget, you might want to wait. But expect to pay more than the $6,000 base configuration, because that comes with a Radeon Pro 580X card, a baffling inclusion in a such an expensive system. It has the same graphics that are in the iMac (not even the iMac Pro) and likely there just because Xeons lack integrated graphics. Plus, the base configuration only has a 256GB SSD, which is barely enough to install Adobe Creative Cloud (an exaggeration, but you get the point).
  • Laptops with Intel's H-series ninth-gen Core processor are also available now, so you don't necessarily need a 10-pound luggable to get fast laptop performance. While Intel's Ice Lake chipsets with integrated Thunderbolt 3 and updated integrated graphics are coming later this year, we don't yet know when they'll make their way into higher-end systems. And thus far they're targeted at lightweight, long battery life models, anyway.

There are so many variations of the performance mix individuals need for power-hungry applications, so it's not only hard to limit suggestions to a handful of certain specs, it's even harder to recommend specific configurations for each. (And note that I've got no budget picks here, but will probably add them in a future update.)

So here are a few rules of thumb that should help you make your decisions:

  • Check your software requirements. Some applications require workstation-class components, such as Nvidia Quadro chips rather than GeForce, to access some advanced features. For example, Adobe Photoshop doesn't support 10-bit color without one (you may think you've switched it on but it's not operational). Unfortunately, that also increases the price.
  • Base the specs on the application you spend the most time in. If your budget demands that you make performance trade-offs, you need to know what to throw more money at. Since every application is different, you can't generalize to the level of "video-editing uses CPU cores more than GPU acceleration," though a big, fast SSD is probably a good idea.
  • For desktops, think about going boutique. If you're not a victim of corporate purchasing standards, getting a custom-built system with longer battery life may be the way to go, though expect to pay a premium. Companies like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital Storm and Maingear, for instance, are known for their gaming desktops but they build workstations as well. They also offer processors and graphics cards you generally can't find from more mass-market manufacturers, such as an 18-core Core i9, 32-core AMD Threadripper or Nvidia Titan RTX. Plus, they'll overclock those parts for you. Some also personalize the cases with custom artwork which should appeal to your artistic sensibility, help you decide what components you'll need for the software you run and provide more personalized tech support.
  • If you do color-critical work, focus on buying a laptop with hardware calibration. A display that supports color profiles stored in hardware, like HP's Dreamcolor models, will allow for more consistent color when you use multiple calibrated monitors. They also tend to be better, as calibration requires a tighter color error level than usual. You usually need to step up to a mobile workstation for this type of capability; you can use hardware calibrators such as the X-Rite i1Display Pro to generate software profiles, but they're more difficult to work with when matching colors across multiple connected monitors. This is true for even the new gaming-systems-cooked-for-creatives such as Acer's Concept D line.
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Sarah Tew/CNET

OLED displays have a combination of color gamut (100% P3) and contrast that IPS panels are struggling to match, but need calibration to keep your colors from chaos. The 15-inch Razer Blade is sleek and powerful — it's got all the Nvidia Studio specs, just lacks the logo, and you can download the more creative-application-focused Studio driver yourself. After a quick calibration with an i1Display Pro, the Razer nailed the white point and grayscale tracking, the keys to getting proper color. Plus, they're solidly built, well-designed laptops that perform well.

Drawbacks: Razer gear is always expensive, and the 4K display kills the battery life; it lasted just under 3 hours in our testing. That's one area in which the excellent IPS displays, like the MacBook's, has an advantage over OLED.

(You'll have to configure it yourself, but if you select the RTX 2080 Max-Q option the OLED display appears as a choice.)

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As long as you're OK with tablet apps rather than desktop applications and don't need the flexibility of a full operating system, the iPad Pro has the power and battery life for a lot of the sketching, photo and video-editing capabilities you need. It can also feed into desktop apps for the rest.

It has a great Retina display for color work, and a fine-feeling pencil for sketching. Apple improved the design over earlier models as well, letting you wirelessly charge the Apple Pencil just by attaching it through a magnetic strip on the tablet for longer battery life. It also swapped the Lightning connector for a more flexible USB-C version. I wish the Pencil had an option for a softer nib, but it seems to be good enough for a lot of people.

Apple recently announced that it was splitting the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad with the next version, scheduled for the fall; at that time the iPad Pro will get iPadOS, which introduces capabilities that will make it a lot more useful for creative work. These include a file system which will support the ability to connect to cameras (and thumb drives) for browsing and downloading and the ability to use the iPad as a second screen via Sidecar — a screen with Apple Pencil support.

Drawbacks: The Pencil 2 and keyboard add to the cost of what's already a fairly expensive proposition. The company's new iPad Air, which has similar chops to the original iPad Pro and supports the original Apple Pencil but is faster and starts at $499, may be an attractive — and cheaper — alternative. You may not be able to use some of the iPadOS features, though, because it has a Lightning, not a USB-C connector.

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A big 17-inch screen with an 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 in a slim Max-Q design, this is a powerful system that weighs less than six pounds — and since Nvidia hasn't released any mobile Quadro RTX chips yet, the gaming-oriented GeForce GPUs are your only option for portable cutting-edge graphics. Unless you settle for less power on the road and plug into an external GPU at the office. Asus' is one of the fastest of the Max-Q 17-inch models we've tested. If you don't need the GPU power as much as the CPU and screen size, you can drop to the RTX 2060 configuration and save some money.

Drawbacks: It's expensive, heavier than some of the competition, and there's no Core i9 configuration option, which means you're gaining better real-time operational fluidity by sacrificing rendering speed. Because it's the consumer GPU, you may not be able to take advantage of some advanced features that are limited to workstation GPUs in 3D software and no 10-bit color in graphics applications. The battery life isn't great and the touchpad is in an odd position on the right side.

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The MacBook Pro's IPS display is one of the best, if not the best, of consumer laptops with respect to color accuracy and gamut. It's also pretty well-rounded when it comes to performance, including decent battery performance. Plus, it's got plenty of USB-C and Thunderbolt ports.

A lot of photo-editing software now supports the Touch Bar for contextual operations such as flagging and labeling, which may help speed you through your workflow.

Drawbacks: While the Retina display had a pretty high-resolution screen for its time, it's fallen behind 4K. I normally don't recommend 4K on a 15-inch Retina display, but my one exception is for photo editing, where you really want to see the details.

The Touch Bar isn't universally loved and can be more of a roadblock than a fast lane compared to keyboard shortcuts. Nor does it have built-in SD card reader, so you'll have to tote one with you.

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A convertible version of the also-excellent XPS 15, the two-in-one offers the same great display but adds tablet flexibility you might want for drawing and sketching as well as the convenience of flipping the screen for presenting to clients. The 4K display is gorgeous but will quickly drain your battery.

The Precision 5530 is the workstation equivalent, with the same excellent display options and design, but incorporating better security and more powerful options, including a Core i9 or XeonRead More – Source
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