Photographers’ Laptops


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.

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