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Are you baffled by the multitude of laptop, desktop and tablet options being hurled at you as a generic "creative" or "creator?" Marketing materials rarely distinguish among the widely varying needs for different pursuits. Photo editing? You need a laptop or tablet with a powerful CPU, color-accurate screen and can settle for a midrange graphics processor. For sketching, painting and illustration you want the same, but with a little more oomph in your GPU and likely good stylus support. And for video editing and 3D rendering, you'll want to pull the stops out for everything you can afford. With these criteria and more in mind, I've culled recommendations from products we've tested that stand out for performance, design and features appropriate to specific types of tasks.

I've finally had a chance to check out some OLED laptop displays, and they're as color-accurate as they're reputed to be -- as long as you calibrate them yourself. For instance, only one came with a factory-calibrated monitor. They still have weak areas -- they're not as accurate at the supersaturated areas of the gamut, which may affect you if you do game design or CGI work -- but they're quite something. 

Then there's Nvidia's new "Nvidia RTX Studio" program. The new initiative is a partnership with laptop retailers to ensure that logo'd systems meet a certain minimum level of specifications for creative work: A GeForce or RTX GPU, Core i7 H series CPU, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and a 1080p screen. But I haven't seen any of these systems yet, so it's unclear how far the manufacturers are going to improve on these rather low-bar requirements. However, at the same time, Nvidia delivered new drivers which finally opened up true 30-bit color in Photoshop and other Adobe apps to GeForce cards. Woo hoo!

Note CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of products featured on this page. 

Other developments to take into consideration include: 

  • Apple's big reveal of its shiny new Mac Pro and wowza Pro Display XDR monitor (with its $1,000 stand). They're slated to ship in the fall, but I suspect their release will slip to later in the year. If you're asking yourself, "Should I delay buying until the Mac Pro is available?" my preliminary answer (given that we know nothing about the pricing beyond the base configuration) is "no" for most people. For heavy-duty video editing and a big budget, you might want to wait. But expect to pay more than the $6,000 base configuration, because that comes with a Radeon Pro 580X card, a baffling inclusion in a such an expensive system. It has the same graphics that are in the iMac (not even the iMac Pro) and likely there just because Xeons lack integrated graphics. Plus, the base configuration only has a 256GB SSD, which is barely enough to install Adobe Creative Cloud (an exaggeration, but you get the point).
  • Laptops with Intel's H-series ninth-gen Core processor are also available now, so you don't necessarily need a 10-pound luggable to get fast laptop performance. While Intel's Ice Lake chipsets with integrated Thunderbolt 3 and updated integrated graphics are coming later this year, we don't yet know when they'll make their way into higher-end systems. And thus far they're targeted at lightweight, long battery life models, anyway.

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 certain specs, 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 trade-offs, 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 with longer battery life may be the way to go, though expect to pay a premium. Companies like Falcon Northwest, Origin PC, Digital 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, focus on buying 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. You usually need to step up to a mobile workstation for this type of capability; you can use hardware calibrators such as the X-Rite i1Display Pro to generate software profiles, but they're more difficult to work with when matching colors across multiple connected monitors. This is true for even the new gaming-systems-cooked-for-creatives such as Acer's Concept D line.    
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OLED displays have a combination of color gamut (100% P3) and contrast that IPS panels are struggling to match, but need calibration to keep your colors from chaos. The 15-inch Razer Blade is sleek and powerful -- it's got all the Nvidia Studio specs, just lacks the logo, and you can download the more creative-application-focused Studio driver yourself.  After a quick calibration with an i1Display Pro, the Razer nailed the white point and grayscale tracking, the keys to getting proper color. Plus, they're solidly built, well-designed laptops that perform well. 

Drawbacks: Razer gear is always expensive, and the 4K display kills the battery life; it lasted just under 3 hours in our testing. That's one area in which the excellent IPS displays, like the MacBook's, has an advantage over OLED.

(You'll have to configure it yourself, but if you select the RTX 2080 Max-Q option the OLED display appears as a choice.)

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As long as you're OK with tablet apps rather than desktop applications and don't need the flexibility of a full operating system, the iPad Pro has the power and battery life 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 Retina display for color work, and a fine-feeling pencil for sketching. Apple improved the design over earlier models as well, letting you wirelessly charge the Apple Pencil just by attaching it through a magnetic strip on the tablet for longer battery life. It also swapped the Lightning connector for a more flexible USB-C version. I wish the Pencil had an option for a softer nib, but it seems to be good enough for a lot of people.

Apple recently announced that it was splitting the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad with the next version, scheduled for the fall; at that time the iPad Pro will get iPadOS, which introduces capabilities that will make it a lot more useful for creative work. These include a file system which will support the ability to connect to cameras (and thumb drives) for browsing and downloading and the ability to use the iPad as a second screen via Sidecar -- a screen with Apple Pencil support.

Drawbacks: The Pencil 2 and keyboard add to the cost of what's already a fairly expensive proposition. The company's new iPad Air, which has similar chops to the original iPad Pro and supports the original Apple Pencil but is faster and starts at $499, may be an attractive -- and cheaper -- alternative. You may not be able to use some of the iPadOS features, though, because it has a Lightning, not a USB-C connector.

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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 six 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. Asus' is one of the fastest of the Max-Q 17-inch models we've tested. If you don't need the GPU power as much as the CPU and screen size, you can drop to the RTX 2060 configuration and save some money.

Drawbacks: It's expensive, heavier than some of the competition, and 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. The battery life isn't great and the touchpad is in an odd position on the right side.

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The Surface Pro 6 offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and runs 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. And it boasts better battery performance that previous models.

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. Configurations vary in pricing depending on memory and storage.

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. 

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With the Surface Studio, you're paying for flexibility: the big, 28-inch broad-gamut touchscreen display that you can lay flat for different viewing angles 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 in 2018 with discrete graphics, to a GeForce GTX graphics card, the 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 generation 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.

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A 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 4K display is gorgeous but will quickly drain your battery.

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 WX GL graphics aren't very powerful, but they are workstation-class and it has a 4K, broad-gamut and color-accurate touchscreen display. 

Drawbacks: The 5530 doesn't support ECC memory.

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This 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 portability competitor the ZBook really has is the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, which is much heavier. So if you can "suffer" with a "paltry" 4,096 levels of sensitivity (compared with the Wacom's 8,192 levels) and slightly slower performance, the ZBook model is much better all around for portability. It has a great design, including a comfortable detachable keyboard that automatically reconnects via Bluetooth when you remove it. 

The matte display covers 100% 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 professional graphic designers. If you can't compensate by reprogramming the QuicKeys on the sides of the tablet, this model 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% of the P3 gamut. Also people have complained about light leakage at the edges of the display.

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Originally published earlier this year. Updated to reflect new products.