If you do a lot of video or photo editing, the one thing you want to avoid when buying equipment is nasty surprises. A slow or badly equipped PC, laptop or tablet will be a drag on your creative process.
Meanwhile, a subpar monitor or laptop display could yield videos that look shockingly different than what you saw during production. And you may miss a deadline if your machine can’t render the final product quickly enough.
This doesn’t just apply to PCs. Adobe is planning a full version of Photoshop for the iPad, and it’s developing an all-in-one video tool, Project Rush, that will work across platforms. Whichever app you choose, it’s crucial to do some hardware research to ensure that your equipment will work with the app rather than against it. Luckily, we’ve already done a good chunk of the homework for you. Here’s how to pick gear for photo and video creation, whether you’ve got $500 or $5,000.
The demands of photo and video editing
After installing a photo or video app, you may find it’s by far the most resource-hungry thing on your computer. So what do you need to rein in all that power?
Storage and memory. If you’re editing 4K videos or RAW 42-megapixel photos, storage space and RAM are paramount. A single RAW-image file can take up 100 MB, and 4K video files can be multi-gigabyte monsters.
Without enough RAM to handle such files, your computer will slow to a crawl. And a lack of storage and a non-SSD program drive will make your PC drag to the point where you’ll constantly be deleting, copying and juggling files to get a project finished.
Sixteen gigabytes of RAM is really the bare minimum on laptops and desktop PCs for videos and photos, in my opinion, but 24GB or 32GB is ideal. I’d also recommend an SSD program drive, at a minimum, and preferably an NVMe M.2 drive with speeds of 1,500 MB/s or higher. If you edit videos on Mac or PC, your best bet for speed and flexibility is to use a fast USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt external hard disk or SSD.
Processors and multi-threading. Photo and video editing benefit more from multi-core processing more than just about any other type of app. Multi-threading can help you finish rendering and other activities more quickly and make switching between applications more seamless. Higher clock speeds boost everything as well, and overclocking, if done safely, can accelerate video- and photo-editing chores just like it does for gaming.
When choosing a CPU for a laptop or PC, it’s instructive to look at lists like this one from PassMark and compare the ranking (speed) of a chip to its price. Professional video or photo editors who want the utmost in performance without regard to price might choose a multi-core Xeon or Core i9 processor. If you want to spend less than four figures, though, you can get AMD’s 16-core Ryzen Threadripper 1950X for around $750 ($1,000 less than the 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE), and you’ll take just a 25 percent performance hit.
Graphics cards. When selecting a GPU, it makes a big difference whether you’re doing video or photo editing and what kind of display you have. Adobe’s Lightroom and Photoshop, the two most popular photo-editing packages, benefit little from a GPU; you’re better off having more RAM and faster storage. Video-editing apps like Premiere Pro CC and DaVinci Resolve, on the other hand, use your GPU for everything from playback to rendering, so if that’s your main activity, you should get the best one you can afford.
Adobe recently added GPU support to Lightroom CC, but it only helps if you have a recent, high-end GPU and 4K monitor. If you’re running an older or cheaper GPU at 1080p, you could actually see worse performance with the GPU enabled because of the extra overhead. For video editing, any supported graphics card will help, especially for rendering, but the more you spend, the less you’ll have to wait.
There’s one important caveat to this. If you’re planning on buying a 10-bit monitor with 1.07 billion colors for Photoshop, be careful which graphics card you select. Consumer models from NVIDIA and AMD like the GeForce GTX 1080, new RTX 2080 or Radeon RX Vega 56 don’t support OpenGL on Photoshop and other Windows 10 apps, so you won’t benefit from the extra colors of a 10-bit display. To get that, you’ll need a laptop like the Origin NT-15 Quadro (above) with a much more costly model like NVIDIA’s Quadro P4000 or the AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100.
Monitor. Buying a monitor might be your trickiest decision. High resolution and maximum color accuracy are a must. If what you see on the screen doesn’t accurately represent your vision, then the public or clients might be disappointed with your work. With HDR becoming the norm on consumer TVs, you’ll want to strongly consider that as well.
The problem is, manufacturers are often not forthcoming about a display’s true specs and capabilities. A monitor marketed as having HDR and a billion colors may in fact not have a true 10-bit panel nor be bright enough to meet the official HDR standard. (See our guide on how to buy an HDR monitor for more details.) Another issue is setting up HDR on Windows 10, which is a massive pain at this point.
That said, you probably don’t need to splurge on a super-pricey monitor. An 8-bit monitor that uses frame-rate control (FRC) to simulate more colors will be fine for most creators, and it costs a lot less. A cheaper, non-certified HDR monitor will also meet the needs of most video and photo editors.
There are only a few true, professional 10-bit monitors that hit the magic 1,000-nit mark considered optimal for HDR10 work, including Acer’s new ProDesigner BM270 and the Dell UltraSharp 27 4K HDR monitor. Not surprisingly, you’ll pay dearly for them (think $1,400 and up). So even if you have a decent budget, this is one area where you might have to compromise. That doesn’t mean you have to settle for inaccurate colors though. Instead, buy a monitor that was set up by the manufacturer to have accurate colors from the factory, like ViewSonic’s $900 32-inch VP3268 or the $700 Benq EW3270U.
PC vs. Mac?
MacBooks don’t have GPUs as fast as you can get on Windows 10 laptops (the 4GB Radeon Pro 560X is the best you can do), and they suffer from embarrassing keyboard problems. They also lack the ports that come standard on PCs. They’re still incredibly popular with graphics professionals, because despite the flaws, macOS is simpler and more powerful than Windows 10. MacBooks are also better designed than most PCs, and Apple offers better support than the lion’s share of PC vendors.
If you really want a MacBook Pro and are willing to live with some flaws and slower rendering, your best bet might be to either go with the new models or get an older, pre-butterfly-keyboard one. Video users will want the 2018 MacBook Pro 15-inch model with discrete AMD graphics, starting at $2,400, while photo editors could spend a bit less and get the $1,800 and up 2018 13-inch, integrated-graphics model. Just be sure to get one with at least 16GB of RAM.