A place to start when you’re overwhelmed by choices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I’ve culled these recommendations from products we’ve tested that stand out for their performance, design and features for drawing, painting, designing, rendering, photo and video editing as well as other creative tasks.

The latest development to improve your experience all around are the mobile hexacore Intel Core i7, i9 and Xeon processors, which deliver a nice performance boost over yesterday’s quad-core maximum, and Nvidia GeForce RTX 20-series graphics processors, which are faster, and when supported, accelerate ray tracing for 3D. Both also support more memory, so you’re not just gaining some speed.

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 specific options, 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 tradeoffs, 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 may be the way to go, though expect to pay a premium. Companies like Falcon NorthwestOrigin PCDigital 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, look for 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.

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Apple MacBook Pro 15

Sarah Tew/CNETThe MacBook Pro’s 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. 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 for its time, it’s fallen behind 4K. I normally don’t recommend 4K on a 15-inch 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.



Dell XPS 15 2-in-1/Dell Precision 5530

Sarah Tew/CNETA 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 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 Xeon CPU and up to 32GB RAM. The Radeon Vega M GL graphics aren’t very powerful, but it still delivers gameworthy discrete Nvidia graphics and a 4K, broad-gamut and color-accurate touchscreen display.

Drawbacks: The 5530 doesn’t support ECC memory, and both models suffer from the poorly located, up-your-nose-view webcam.



Apple iPad Pro 2018

Sarah Tew/CNETAs long as you’re OK with apps rather than applications and don’t need the flexibility of a full operating system, the iPad Pro has the power 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 display for color work, and a fine-feeling pencil for sketching. Apple improved the design over earlier models as well, letting you wireless charge the Apple Pencil just by attaching it through a magnetic strip on the tablet. It also swapped the Lightning connector for a more flexible USB-C version.

Drawbacks: The Pencil 2 and keyboard add to the cost of what’s already a fairly expensive proposition, particularly given the lack of connections and the inability to run desktop applications. While the USB-C port adds the ability to attach little hubs to it, they jut out awkwardly, plus iOS lacks a real file system. The only way to copy files off it is on an app-by-app basis. We haven’t yet seen any implementations for tethered shooting, either.



Microsoft Surface Pro 6

Sarah Tew/CNETThe Surface Pro 6 offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and full Windows 10, plus it supports the Microsoft Dial, which can substitute some functions when you don’t have access to the keyboard for your shortcuts. There’s also an option to use the sRGB color space instead of the default make-colors-pop setting.

If you plan to use it for painting rather than sketching, don’t skimp on the processor when you buy. Go full Intel Core i7 to get the better CPU and more storage if you can afford it. Complex brushes, color mixing and textures can slow you down if you don’t have enough processor power.

Drawbacks: At 12.3 inches, it’s portable but small, especially if you want to use the Dial. It can also get expensive, and you’ll have to pay extra for the pen, Dial and keyboard.

It’s a bit low on ports, too — if you need to present your work, you may need a dongle for HDMI, though there’s a mini DisplayPort to connect to a monitor, and it lacks USB-C.



MSI GS75 Stealth 8SG

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 five 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.

Drawbacks: 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.

(We have tested but not yet reviewed this laptop.)



Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Sarah Tew/CNETWith the Surface Studio, you’re paying for flexibility: the big, 28-inch broad-gamut touchscreen display that you can lay flat and draw on with a pressure-sensitive stylus. The Microsoft Dial’s an extra perk if you like a fourth input device when you work (in addition to mouse, keyboard and stylus). The system was updated this year with discrete graphics, to a GeForce GTX 1070.

Drawbacks: Pressure-sensitive stylus technology has evolved in the past couple years, and it still only offers last-generation Nvidia GPUs and relatively slow mobile CPUs. It’s very expensive for that, especially given that this is an investment. Plus, Microsoft has intimated that it plans to release the display as a standalone in 2019, which means you could attach it to a more powerful system.



HP ZBook x2

Sarah Tew/CNETThis is the only detachable mobile workstation that can be configured with a 4K UHD DreamColor, 4,096-level Wacom EMR pressure-sensitive display. A workstation Nvidia Quadro GPU means it can run certified applications. Plus, it doesn’t skimp on connections.

The only serious competitor the ZBook really has is the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, but if you can suffer with a paltry 4,096 levels of sensitivity (compared with the Wacom’s 8,192 levels) and slightly slower performance, this is much better all around. It’s got a great design, including a comfortable detachable keyboard that automatically reconnects via Bluetooth when you remove it.

The matte display covers 100 percent of the Adobe RGB gamut and does so with excellent accuracy and built-in profiles. Plus, the chemically etched display adds a little more friction, making the stylus feel more precise and natural compared to the typical glossy surface.

Drawbacks: You’re limited to the one, single-button stylus so it’s no good for many 3D designers. If you can’t compensate by reprogramming the QuicKeys on the sides of the tablet, it might not work for you. Plus, it’s relatively heavy, and while the battery life is good for its components, it won’t get you through the day.

As for color, the 8-bit+FRC (10-bit simulation) display only covers about 70 percent of the P3 gamut. Also people have complained about light leakage at the edges of the display.



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