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Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2020

Here's a place to start when companies like Apple, HP, Dell and Microsoft overwhelm you with choices.

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 and a color-accurate high-resolution screen but 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 for the best laptop for designers and creatives from products we've tested that stand out for performance, design and features appropriate to specific types of tasks.

What's new

 It looks like 2020 is going to be a great year for video editing and CGI gear, specifically desktops and monitors. That's because AMD has been packing cores into its Ryzen Threadripper and Ryzen 9 processors as fast as it can, and because we're seeing a respectable increase in the number of professional HDR monitor options with brightness of 1,000 nits or more and over 1,000 zones of local dimming. 

Read: Best laptop deals: Windows and Chromebooks for under $500 | Best 2-in-1 PCs for when you need a laptop and tablet in one | Best 15-inch laptops | Best Chromebooks | Best gaming PCs | Best wireless mouse for 2020 | 5 best standing desk converters for 2020

More CPU cores directly translates into shorter final-quality rendering times (the graphics card handles real-time rendering), and the most recent Threadripper 3990X incorporates 64 of them, and even the more consumer-focused Ryzen 9 3950X has 12 -- both overpowering Intel's competing offerings for both pro and prosumer desktops. Even the less-expensive 3900X has been delivering terrific performance in our testing. Coupled with AMD's support for PCI 4, which promises faster internal data and GPU performance, that good news for anyone working with large files or high resolutions.

That new wave of HDR monitors, including models announced at CES 2020 from companies like Lenovo, Acer and Asus, will also make it possible to edit content for higher-end HDR formats like Dolby Vision -- they're expensive, but still a lot cheaper than Apple's Pro Display XDR. And then there's that 17-inch MSI Creator 17 laptop with its 1,000-nit HDR display. Gimme, gimme.

Laptop screens for photo editing

The OLED displays we're more frequently seeing as an option for a 15-inch laptops are as color-accurate as they're reputed to be -- as long as you calibrate them yourself. For instance, even the most broadly calibrated model -- the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XA -- which came with profiles for several white points, still may still require some tweaking. And 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, for example, but they're still quite something to look at.

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I'm not a huge fan of OLED for photo editing, however, even though a lot of people I've spoken with are fine with it. There just doesn't seem to be any tonal range in the shadow areas below 30% gray (even if you calibrate it properly), and between black and about 30% gray, the native white is completely different than in the rest of the tonal range. Trying to bring up shadow areas visually is painful. Also, since all the rules of thumb about calibrating for photography are based on monitors with completely different characteristics, such as smaller color spaces, dissimilar tonal response curves and even different math, you're really on the bleeding edge when trying to match for print or sRGB. 

On the other hand, calibrated IPS displays are becoming commonplace now, and can be extremely good, as long as they also have Windows profiles for the color spaces you need. For instance, I recently tested an Acer ConceptD 5's  Pantone Validated, 400-nit 100% Adobe RGB display, which was great -- excellent contrast, brightness, gamut, grayscale tracking and accuracy for photography -- but it only had a native Adobe RGB ICC profile, so the sRGB accuracy was far less impressive. (We test screens using using Portrait Displays' Calman 5 Ultimate and an X-Rite i1Display Pro Plus.)

That might not matter to some people, but when you need to verify they'll look the way you want on most people's screens as well, sRGB is really important. (The Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000-equipped configuration of the ConceptD 5 I tested isn't shipping in the US, so I didn't review it. However, great screen aside, the laptop still feels like it hasn't shaken off its gaming roots. The ConceptD 7 models announced at CES 2020 are far more appealing.)

Other considerations include: 

  • If you're looking at  Apple's shiny new Mac Pro and have a budget to stick within, you might want to wait until the midperformance graphics options are available. The $6,000 base configuration 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. But until the 5700 series card alternatives join the roster, bumping up to the next level of graphics adds a whopping $2,400 to the price. And you might want to apply the savings to more storage, because the base configuration only has a 256GB SSD, which is barely enough to install Adobe Creative Cloud (a slight exaggeration, but you get the point).
  • For Windows laptops, you'll probably run into references to Nvidia's "Nvidia RTX Studio" program. The 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 Quadro RTX GPU, Core i7 H series CPU, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and a 1080p screen. That's a pretty low bar though, and interestingly, systems listed by Nvidia as part of the program don't necessarily bear the logo sticker -- it's just in the marketing. (As it is for the Gigabyte.) At the same time, however, Nvidia delivered drivers, which finally opened up true 30-bit color in Photoshop and other Adobe apps to GeForce cards. Woo hoo!  

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, like resolution, storage and performance, 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 choice:

  • Check your software requirements. Some applications require workstation-class components, such as Nvidia Quadro chips rather than GeForce, to access some advanced features. 
  • 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 almost always 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 Ryzen 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 tolerance than typical screens. 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. 
Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Gigabyte is sleek and powerful -- it's got all the Nvidia Studio specs -- it just lacks the logo -- and you can download the more creative-application-focused Studio driver yourself. It has a color-profile switcher utility which is more convenient to use than Windows', and it's a well-designed laptop that performs solidly. 

Drawbacks: The battery life isn't great, though better than a lot of the gaming notebooks these laptops are based on, and the webcam is in a ridiculous spot. Read our Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 hours of battery life for a lot of the sketching, photo, graphics design 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 split the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad; the iPad Pro's iPadOS, introduces capabilities that make it a lot more useful for creative work. These include a file system which supports 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 current iPad Air, has similar chops to the original iPad Pro and supports the original Apple Pencil but is faster and starts at $499, so it could 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. Read iPad Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 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 applications. And the battery life isn't great. Read Zephyrus S GX701 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Pro 7 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 more hours of battery performance than previous models.

If you plan to use this graphic design laptop 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 down your speed if you don't have enough processor power for your graphics design software. 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, unless you're one of the few with a USB-C monitor. Read our Microsoft Surface Pro 7 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Microsoft Studio's sole advantage over other all-in-ones is its big, articulated pressure-sensitive touchscreen; for everyone else, the HP Envy 32 is a great choice. It has a big, bright 32-inch 4K screen that's reasonably accurate; discrete Nvidia RTX 2060 graphics; a very good speaker system and some clever design touches.

Drawbacks: You can't change the height of the display (common for all-in-ones). Read our HP Envy 32 All-in-One review.

For art and design on the desktop

Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. Read Microsoft Surface Studio review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A convertible version of the also-excellent XPS 15, the two-in-one offers the same great display resolution 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.

Drawbacks:  Relatively low power graphics. And sadly, Dell seems to no longer offer the Precision workstation equivalent.  Read our Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 (2018) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 quality 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. Read our HP ZBook x2 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple finally made some meaningful updates to its veteran-for-creatives MacBook Pro line, including a bigger, higher-resolution (but still accurate) screen and current-generation mobile AMD graphics -- enough that it's back on my recommended list after spending some time in the "waiting for upgrades" section. Plus, it's got a better keyboard.

Drawbacks: It's still expensive and there's no discrete graphics option. Read our Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The secondary display may only be about half an extra screen, but it's still really useful when you want to fit more video or photos on the main 15-inch monitor or work in a small space. The ZenBook Pro Duo's primary OLED touchscreen display provides excellent color accuracy for Adobe RGB and P3, plus it's got a high-powered i9-9980HK 8-core processor, making it a portable Lightroom powerhouse or speedy if you need to view 3D models for approval or annotation.

Drawbacks: It's relatively heavy for its class at 5.5 pounds, and the high-end model we loved costs $3,000 -- don't expect blazing speed (though it should be respectable) from the less expensive Core i7, RTX 2060 configuration. Plus, the battery life isn't very good and the keyboard can be uncomfortable without the wrist rest.  Read our Asus ZenBook Pro Duo review.

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Originally published in 2019. Updated regularly to reflect new products and news.