What to Look For in a Laptop

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I am currently in the market for a new laptop computer. If you read the Upcoming and Elsewhere entry that I posted on the 13th, you’ll have noticed that I listed a LOT of software that I will be reviewing and posting tutorials. That’s more than my current laptop can handle… plus, it only has a 70G hard drive that is well over half full. I keep having to off-load stuff onto my backup drive, which is a good practice to stick with, but annoying in the frequency with which it has to happen just to keep my laptop from dying. The two gig of RAM is not fast enough to serve my current needs – it is SO frustrating to have to slow down my workflow in order to wait for a raw photo to compile, or watch an action set S-L-O-W-L-Y render in Photoshop.

Anyway, here are some things to consider when looking for a new laptop to accommodate your digital photography. Regardless of if you’re a PC person or a Mac fan, these points should all apply.

One – Processor Speed and RAM. You need a processor that can handle the complexity of RAW data, and the ever-increasing draw on processing power that today’s latest photo editing software suites demand. Intel dual core and quad-core technology (the i3/i5/i7′s) is at the top of the line in today’s market, and any of those three will accommodate photography processing needs very well. Pair them in tandem with at least 4GB’s of RAM and you’ve got a fantastic powerhouse for your laptop.

Two – Size. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time editing your photos, you certainly don’t want a tiny netbook, or a laptop with anything less than a 15″ screen. Consider, too, the comfort of the keyboard configuration and the sensitivity of the touchpad. I always recommend using an external mouse no matter what, but for on-the-go editing you need comfort without peripherals. Finally, consider how often you’ll be travelling with your laptop, or taking it with you to photo shoots. If the thing weighs ten pounds and is too big and cumbersome, it will be awkward to carry around in tandem with all of your photography gear. If you’re not going to travel with your laptop at all, you might want to consider getting a desktop computer instead.

Three – Battery Life. Again, this is important if you’re going to travel with your laptop. You’ll want at least a four-hour battery life to accommodate most circumstances in which you will find yourself. We can’t always be in reach of a handy power outlet! Batteries are easily upgradeable, so if you find yourself in a financial pinch when throwing down the cash for your new laptop, this is a purchase that can be budgeted for later.

Four – Hard Drive Size. Photos and photo editing software take up a lot of room on your hard drive, and if you work in RAW the file sizes are exponentially larger. Hard drives in laptops these days are typically between 250 and 500 GB, which should be plenty of room for any programs you use AND a large collection of photos. When used in tandem with an external hard drive backup, 500GB should be more than you would ever need.

Five – Optical Drive. If you ever want to burn your photos to a CD for sharing or storage, you will need to ensure that your laptop is equipped with a CD/DVD read/write burner. The higher the speed, the faster the CD will burn, so shop for a 16-22x. A single layer drive burns half the information per single layer CD/DVD that a double/dual layer drive can burn on a dual layer CD/DVD. If you don’t burn a lot of CD’s, single layer is fine. If that’s all you do, you might want to invest in a dual layer. If you want the WHOLE SHEBANG, there are optical drives out there that support CD, DVD, Blu Ray, single AND dual layer read/write capabilities.

Six – Graphics. Graphics cards are tricky, but of course since you’re working with photos you’ll want graphics that are clear and accurate to the color spectrum. Adobe has listed recommended graphics cards for their Photoshop fleet of programs – these would apply to just about any photo editing program you would use. Typically today’s laptops come standard with perfectly acceptable graphics capabilities.

Seven – Price. Laptop computers can run you anywhere from $400 to $3500 (USD), so it’s vital that you get the most bang for your buck. Everything I’ve listed up there, sans any whizzy-bang toys, gadgets, gizmos, and unnecessary “features”, will cost about $800 to $1300 in today’s market. SHOP AROUND. Sales and deals are everywhere. Comparison shop between Best Buy, Costco, Amazon, Dell, etc. Once you have your baseline requirements in mind, it’s easier to sort through all of the fluff and hype that is pitched at you in order to determine which laptop and which retailer is right for you. It’s a good idea to add a one or two year warranty to your purchase, if for nothing else but the peace of mind that if you drop your laptop off a cliff you can get it replaced with little trouble.

If you’re interested, the laptop I’m considering for myself is the Toshiba Satellite A505-S6040 TruBrite 16.0-Inch Laptop (Black/Silver).

Have you recently shopped for a laptop, or are in the process of looking for one like me? Do you have some advice to offer or an experience to share? Tell us about it in the comments!

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
- “Dell laptop keyboard” by bigpresh on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Home Sweet Studio” by Geishaboy500 on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • http://rainy-n-texas.blogspot.com texassky

    I've had a Toshiba Satellite, I can't remember the model number now but I'm sure it's no longer in production. Anyway, lovely little laptop. Great monitor!! I now have a Macbook Pro. I've had mostly a positive experience with this pricey little gadget. The monitor is fabulous to work with editing photos. My pics print out exactly the way the monitor displays. I would definetly recommend this fast little thing but I know the price is not right for everyone.

  • TJRichards160

    I think you should go with the iMac i7 or MacBook Pro i7. They have lots of power and very good screens.

  • TJRichards160

    Although your original choice is very good.

  • yrthegood1staken

    Excellent list. Two thoughts of mine:

    The dual-layer choice is not applicable to CDs, only to DVDs and Blu-Rays (you'll be hard pressed to find an optical drive that doesn't support DVD anyway – just wanted to be clear).

    Also, I really think that the brand of computer is something that should be considered, for two reasons. First is appearance – if you show up to a photo shoot (or pull out your laptop to show some of your work), people will notice the design of your computer. Fair or not (my personal opinion is that it's fair), people often associate Apple with quality when it comes to photography/video. If you have a Macbook Pro, people will notice. Second is reliability – Windows 7 is apparently better than prior versions, but in my experience nothing beats the reliability of a Mac. Everything just works and when you're trying to chug through a bunch of images, transfer your files, or show off your work, a crash or glitch will really mess up your workflow.

    Apples are more expensive, when you look at initial cost, but in my opinion the cost is made up in the time you save by having less computer trouble and in the quality of product you get.

    Disclaimer: I do not own any Apple stock – I am just really, really happy with my Mac Mini and Macbook.