Photographers’ Laptops

Above: Alienware Area-51 M15X
Weight: 7 pounds
Size: 14.5×10.7×1.3 inches
List Price: From $1,299

One of the joys of digital photography is the instant feedback you get from looking at your images right after capturing them. Whether you’re photographing a family event or traveling on vacation, having a laptop with you that lets you review, organize, back up, enhance and share your images will definitely add to your enjoyment. Even a few years ago, carrying a notebook computer powerful enough for digital imaging was a heavy proposition. Today, there’s a wide range of laptops available that easily can handle processing big image files, from ultraportable models to larger, wide-screen models.


Laptops generally fall into one of three size categories. The smallest are commonly referred to as “netbooks.” The name comes from the fact that they’re best suited for Internet-based tasks and applications like web browsing, e-mail and social networking. These are the most portable notebook computers, with screen sizes smaller than 13 inches, and some features, like a DVD drive, are omitted to achieve the smaller size. With their lower power demands, battery life is typically much better than with the larger models, and the form factor allows you to pack one of these into your bags much more easily.

On the larger end of the scale are full-featured, big-screen models that can be an alternative to a desktop computer. They’re often relatively heavy and large, but offer screens up to 17 inches and desktop specs. Add an external screen and keyboard, and you have a dual-display workstation for use at home.

In between the two is the range of laptops that are ideal for most mobile photographers. With screen sizes from 13 to 15 inches, they offer a balance between portability and performance.

Which is right for you? If you have a desktop computer where you do most of your photo processing, a netbook or midrange laptop probably will suit you best. You’ll travel lighter, plus have the ability to download and organize your images, share them, upload them and even do some basic Photoshop work.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a laptop that can do double duty as your primary computer at home, you may want to sacrifice some of the portability to get the enhanced performance offered in the larger models. With their larger screen sizes, more memory and typically faster processors, you can run intensive Photoshop operations with ease.


Why not just have a laptop and be done with it? Despite all the power and features in a modern laptop, they still have limitations compared to a desktop computer. Memory is an obvious difference, with most laptops unable to accept more than 4 GB. Newer operating systems and programs demand more memory, and while 4 GB sounds like plenty today, it won’t in a few years.

Another major difference is the quality of the screen. The typical laptop display doesn’t compete with even an average LCD monitor. The color range is normally much smaller on the laptop, making it more difficult to make critical color corrections. Of course, you can connect an external monitor to overcome this weakness, but that should be taken into consideration.

Alienware Area-51 M17X
Weight: 10.5 pounds
Size: 16.1×11.5×2.1 inches
List Price: From $1,999

The final weakness, and one that seems to be disappearing with each passing month, is the storage space in a laptop. Many photographers are set up with 1 TB or more of storage space on their main computers. Laptops are now coming with drives in the 500 GB range—big, but still restrictive compared to a desktop computer. Drives in a laptop also tend to be slower, especially the large-capacity ones. Again, this can be worked around by adding external hard drives, via USB, FireWire or eSATA ports, but add it all up, and your money may be better spent on a desktop and a netbook than on a powerhouse laptop.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the options available for the photographer on the go.

Apple MacBook Air
Weight: 3 pounds
Size: 12.8×8.9×0.76 inches
List Price: From $1,799

While Alienware has a reputation for building excellent gaming systems, much of what goes into that type of computer also happens to be ideal for the photographer: loads of memory and disk space, high-performance CPUs and high-quality graphics. While Alienware doesn’t offer anything in the compact category, any of its Area-51 laptops easily could serve as a desktop replacement.

All use an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and come loaded with 4 GB of RAM with up to 1.5 TB of disk space in a SmartBay configuration that makes swapping drives easy, along with wireless and a Blu-ray drive. The m15x edition is a 15.4-inch display with a 2.8 GHz processor and a single NVIDIA 9800M GT video adapter with 512 MB of dedicated video memory. The high-end m17x uses the same processor, but adds a second 9800M video adapter, a 17-inch display and an extra 500 GB of storage space.

For the ultimate in light weight, the MacBook Air is hard to beat. You get a 13.3-inch display with 2 GB of memory, a 120 GB hard drive and an NVIDIA 9400M video processor all powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6 GHz CPU. The 1.8 GHz model uses a solid-state drive in place of the standard hard drive. However, there’s no built-in optical drive (it’s an external option), and only a single USB port, making the MacBook Air a good choice for photographers who have a desktop workstation and can sacrifice features in favor of mobility in a laptop.

Apple MacBook
Weight: 4.5 pounds
Size: 12.8×8.9×0.95 inches
List Price: From $1,299

For most traveling photographers, the new 13-inch MacBook should fit the bill nicely, balancing price, portability and performance. One of the few laptops to use an LED backlit display for improved image quality under a wide range of lighting situations, it comes with either a 2.0 or 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2 GB of RAM that can be upgraded to 4 GB. Hard drive space is 160 GB (250 GB on the faster model), with an option to go up to 320 GB, or replace the standard hard drive with a 128 GB solid-state drive for extended battery life and durability. This latter option will set you back an additional $700, though, and reduce your storage space. The video is handled by an NVIDIA 9400M processor, and the 13.3-inch display is one of the most accurate displays I’ve seen on a laptop.

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch
Weight: 5.5 pounds
Size: 14.4×9.8×0.95 inches
List Price: From $1,999

The higher-powered MacBook Pro offers a 15.4-inch LED backlit display that photographers will appreciate for the extra screen area. Other upgrades from the standard MacBook include dual graphics processors: the 9400M found
on the MacBook, plus a faster 9600M GT with up to 512 MB of memory for improved performance in many graphic applications, including Photoshop and Aperture. (Save battery life by using the 9400M for e-mail and web, and switch to the 9600M GT when you need imaging power.) The MacBook Pro features Intel Core 2 Duo processors running at 2.4 or 2.53 GHz and hard drives starting at 250 GB. The MacBook Pro also includes a FireWire 800 port and ExpressCard/34 slot along with the USB 2.0 ports found on the MacBook.

Both the MacBook and MacBook Pro recently were redesigned and feature a new “unibody” construction—hewn from a solid block of aluminum—along with other design enhancements. The MacBook Pro also is available in a 17-inch model, but this model wasn’t updated along with the rest of Apple’s laptops last fall. We expect updates to this model in 2009, but nothing has been confirmed by the notoriously secretive Cupertino.

Dell XPS M1330
Weight: 4 pounds
Size: 12.5×9.4×1.3 inches
List Price: From $949

Dell offers a wide range of laptop models, but the XPS series is the most interesting for photographers, thanks to the higher-powered CPU and graphics, along with greater expandability. All models use Intel Core 2 Duo processors. The 13.3-inch XPS M1330 includes 3 GB of shared RAM to help power the integrated graphics adapter, a 250 GB hard drive and a DVD burner. Memory can be increased to 4 GB, and a more powerful NVIDIA 8400M graphics adapter with 128 MB of dedicated memory is available.

Dell XPS M1530
Weight: 7 pounds
Size: 14.1×10.3×1.4 inches
List Price: From $1,449

The larger XPS M1530 in its Powerhouse configuration offers a 15.4-inch LCD, up to 4 GB of RAM and 320 GB of disk space, along with NVIDIA graphics using dedicated memory for better performance. Both Dell laptops include USB, FireWire 400, ExpressCard/54, HDMI and an 8-in-1 card reader.

HP MINI 1000
Weight: 2.3 pounds
Size: 10.3×6.6×0.99 inches
List Price: From $399

The HP Pavilion series has a wide range of notebook computers with lots of customization options. For ultimate mobility, the HP Mini 1000 series is incredibly small, with screen sizes of 8.9 or 10.2 inches. The specs aren’t up to serious imaging work (RAM maxes out at 1 GB), but if you primarily want a place to review and organize photos and stay connected when on the go, this is an affordable and affable travel companion. We strongly recommend upgrading to the 60 GB hard drive so you’ll have room for archiving photos.

HP Pavilion DV4T
Weight: 5.2 pounds
Size: 13.1×9.5×1.4 inches
List Price: From $599

For a better balance between performance and portability, the Pavilion dv4t offers a 14.1-inch display, with the option of LED backlighting; 1 GB of RAM is standard, but it can be upgraded to 4 GB. Hard-drive capacities range from 160 to 400 GB, so you’ll have plenty of room for photos and other media. You also have the option of Intel Core 2 Duo processors from 2.0 to 2.53 GHz. These are solid specs for a portable PC, and should be able to handle most, if not all, of your photo workflow.

HP Pavilion DV7T
Weight: 7.6 pounds
Size: 15.6×11.2×1.7 inches
List Price: From $799

Excellent as a desktop replacement, the dv7t includes Intel Core 2 Duo processors from 2.0 to 2.8 GHz, a 17-inch HP BrightView display, an NVIDIA 9600M graphics processor with 512 MB of memory and disk space up to 640 GB. Unusual for a laptop, you can have up to 8 GB of RAM installed, ideal for Vista 64 and Photoshop CS4.

Lenovo W700
Weight: 8.3 pounds
Size: 16.1×12.2×1.6 inches
List Price: From $2,729

The Lenovo W700 was designed specifically for photographers, and while it’s among the least portable of the laptops here, it’s one of the best desktop replacements. With a base configuration that uses an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.53 GHz up to a Core 2 Extreme, an NVIDIA Quadro FX graphics processor with up to 1 GB of dedicated memory and up to 4 GB of RAM, this laptop will power through any image-editing task you throw at it.

Toshiba Portégé R600
Weight: 2.4 pounds
Size: 11.1×8.5×1.0 inches
List Price: From $2,099

What really sets this laptop apart from the competition though is the outstanding display that includes Pantone color calibration and a much wider gamut (up to 72% of Adobe RGB) than the typical laptop display is capable of reproducing. Another key feature that photographers, in particular, will appreciate is the integrated 4×3-inch Wacom tablet with full pen and pressure support. Other options include dual hard drives up to 320 GB each, Blu-ray recordable, a 7-in-1 card reader and an ExpressCard/34 slot.

Toshiba has a wide range of laptops, but the Portégé line is perhaps the most interesting for photographers. The ultralight R600 has a 12.1-inch transreflective screen that has been optimized for use outdoors, giving you a better look at your images while you’re still in the field. The computer comes with an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 1.4 GHz, 3 GB of RAM and a 160 GB hard drive. Similar in size, weight and performance to the Apple MacBook Air, the R600 adds a DVD-R, 2 USB, an SDHC slot and an eSATA port.

Toshiba Qosmio X305
Weight: 9.4 pounds
Size: 16.2x12x1.7 inches
List Price: From $1,999

For a desktop replacement, the Qosmio X305 is billed as a portable gaming machine, but it includes all the features you’d want in an image-processing computer. The 2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor is coupled with 4 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive and a DVD-R optical drive. The 17-inch screen uses TruBrite Technology for better viewing in bright lighting conditions, and it’s powered by dual NVIDIA 9800M processors with 512 MB of memory each.

Three USB ports, FireWire 400, eSata and ExpressCard slots, as well as a 5-in-1 card reader, are included. The X305 also includes H
DMI out for high-definition playback.


Alienware (800) 745-1639
Apple Computer (800) MY-APPLE
Dell (800) 915-3355
HP (866) 749-9132
Lenovo (866) 96-THINK
Toshiba (800) TOSHIBA

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