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Let your creative juices flow

Note: This has been superseded by best laptops, desktops and tablets for creatives in 2019.

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 and other creative tasks, as well as new devices that I think will make the cut even before we've tested them. 

The latest development to improve your experience all around is the release of  the mobile hexacore Intel Core i7, i9 and Xeon processors, which deliver a nice performance boost over yesterday's quad-core maximum. In desktops, we're just starting to see systems that incorporate the second-generation AMD Threadrippers and Nvidia Turing-based RTX cards.

This isn't an exhaustive list, and I'll be updating this gallery on a regular basis.

This gallery was originally published Feb. 23, 2018. Updated most recently with the newest models of the Apple iPad Pro and MacBook Pro 15, Microsoft Surface Studio 2 and Microsoft Surface Pro 6.

Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET
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A pen-first mobile workstation: HP ZBook x2

This is the first 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.

$2,603.96 at Walmart
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A pen-first mobile workstation: HP ZBook x2

Drawbacks: You're limited to the one, single-button stylus so if you can't compensate by reprogramming the QuicKeys on 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, and we're waiting for HP to release a fix that will let you calibrate when there are out-of-gamut colors. 

$2,603.96 at Walmart
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A portable second stylus-friendly screen: Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

The Galaxy Tab S4 Android tablet has a couple of features that might make it worth shelling out what otherwise seems like an exorbitant $650. Most interesting, it's design to work like the old Wacom Cintiq Companion -- Android tablet when solo, graphics tablet when attached to a full system. The S4 supports 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity as well on its Super AMOLED display.

Drawbacks: Not only is the price relatively high, but it doesn't include the keyboard (though at least the S-Pen does come in the box).

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A lightweight for artists: Microsoft Surface Pro 6

The Surface Pro 6 detachable 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.

$797.60 at Walmart
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A lightweight for artists: Microsoft Surface Pro 6

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. 

$797.60 at Walmart
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A Windows 10 featherweight for the basics: Microsoft Surface Go

This 10-inch mini-Surface can't handle the heavy lifting required for running serious Windows 10 applications. But if you think of it as an a travel-friendly sketchpad, for taking notes while collaborating, marking up designs for feedback, or for light work that you hand off to a more powerful Windows system, it's the lightest-weight travel companion in the line and has one of the best keyboards in the crowd of detachables. The display can also get pretty bright, making it more suitable than many other devices for working outdoors. 

$489.00 at Amazon
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A Windows 10 featherweight for the basics: Microsoft Surface Go

Drawbacks: It's fairly expensive for what it offers -- a Pentium processor with an old generation of integrated graphics. Plus, the $400 entry price doesn't include the keyboard or stylus, which together add another $200 to the bill. 

$489.00 at Amazon
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3D rendering, VR design and more: Alienware Area-51

As long as you don't need workstation components, high-end gaming desktops such as the Area-51 are great. There's room to grow with lots of ports, extra cooling options and support for dual Nvidia or AMD Radeon cards. And it generally costs much less than an equivalent workstation. 

I like the AMD Threadripper version of this system because it offers a balance of solid multicore and GPU performance with price, but that price is still pretty high. 

You can always swap in workstation Quadro or Radeon Pro cards on your own if your applications require them, too.

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3D rendering, VR development and other hungry tasks: Alienware Area-51

When configuring a system, there are a lot of things to bear in mind. A powerful GPU makes 3D rendering faster when working with models or high-resolution video, for instance, because it handles the quick-and-dirty renders.  But a fast, multicore CPU will determine how long it takes to render the final, high-quality version. And if you're a big Adobe Lightroom user, the more cores the better -- it will take advantage of as many as you can throw at it for import and thumbnail generation.

Note that many applications won't support 10-bit color unless you have a workstation graphics card. 

If you want as much speed as possible, you can overclock some of the processors (all AMD and Intel K series) though you might want to save yourself time and get them with factory overclocking. Go for the higher-end Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 or better cards.

If you need more than 64GB of memory, you'll have to opt for a system with a workstation-class CPU -- say, for running multiple virtual machines -- since the consumer parts don't support more than that. But many operations don't require the amount of memory you might expect.

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3D rendering, VR development and other hungry tasks: Alienware Area-51

Drawbacks: It's not a workstation. That means no ECC memory support for precision-critical operations, the number of CPU core options is lower, they don't support as much memory, and the security won't stop a determined hacker if you're working on a batch of Game of Thrones edits. 

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Photo and video editing on the go: Apple MacBook Pro 15

The 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.

$2,399.99 at Best Buy
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Photo and video editing on the go: MacBook Pro 15

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. And it doesn't have a built-in SD card reader, so you'll have to tote one with you.

I also caution against opting for the Intel Core i9 model. Although the initial problems have been fixed, if you're going to pay big bucks for that much power, you may want a more powerful graphics subsystem -- unless you're planning to connect a Thunderbolt external GPU, anyway.

$2,399.99 at Best Buy
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Pro artist on the go: Wacom MobileStudio Pro

If your main criteria for a system are stylus sensitivity and feel, and if you need a powerful processor or use a Wacom Intuos Pro or Cintiq when stationary, Wacom's Windows 10 tablet is pretty much your only option. 

Thankfully, it lives up to the Wacom name for feel and quality with the latest version of its EMR technology with 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity and a matte display, rare among tablets. That speedy processor comes in handy for fast thumbnail creation on ingestion, running complicated filters and complex autotraces.

It uses the same ExpressKeys as the pen tablet, which helps since you don't have a keyboard (though you can connect one through Bluetooth). And with an optional accessory, you can connect it to your desktop system as a monitor.

It's also one of the few laptops or tablets to still offer a version with the Intel RealSense camera, for your 3D input needs.

Go for the Core i7 processor. Since it's still using sixth-generation parts, the i5 option is still dual-core compared to the newer quad-core parts. If performance is more important than portability (or budget!), the 16-inch model will deliver better performance and workstation-application support, thanks to discrete mobile Quadro graphics.

$2,999.95 at Walmart
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Pro artist on the go: Wacom MobileStudio Pro

Drawbacks: It's pretty heavy for a tablet and expensive; though Wacom has dropped the prices on all but the highest-end model, the components are starting to look a bit old.  Plus, the battery life is miserable. Unlike mainstream PC manufacturers, Wacom doesn't update with new parts very often, so we don't know if or when we'll see newer ones that might provide better battery life.

The display gamut is sadly only about 72 percent of Adobe RGB, and it can't store color calibration profiles internally. But that might be in the works for the next model.

$2,999.95 at Walmart
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All-around Apple all-in-one: Apple iMac 27-inch

If you're going to fuse a monitor to your computer and be stuck with it for a while, the Retina 5K is the one to pick: It has excellent color gamut and accuracy. 

The performance of even the Core i5 model is pretty good, the AMD Radeon discrete graphics boost your processing and the latest models are VR-ready. It also has a respectable number of connectors, though you'll need a dongle to connect to an external monitor via DisplayPort. 

$1,590.92 at Amazon
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All-around Apple all-in-one: Apple iMac 27-inch

Drawbacks: The design's getting old and the connectors and SD card slot are awkward to reach. Apple's overdue for a redesign which it failed to deliver in 2018, and if it's going to happen in 2019 it won't be until late spring at the earliest, so waiting might not be an option.

$1,590.92 at Amazon
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Photo editing and game design on the go: Dell XPS 15

The Dell is a Windows answer to the MacBook Pro 15, with a similarly accurate, 100 percent AdobeRGB display. Now that it's been updated with eighth-generation Core i9 processor options, it should be fast enough for almost any mobile work.

Its GTX 1050 Ti isn't very powerful, but it's one of the few laptops with gameworthy discrete Nvidia graphics and a 4K, broad-gamut and color-accurate touchscreen display.

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Photo editing and game design on the go: Dell XPS 15

Drawbacks: The battery life isn't the best with the 4K display, and the webcam's in an unusable spot, plus there's no VR-ready configuration.

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Art and presentation: Dell XPS 15 2-in-1/Dell Precision 5530

A convertible version of the XPS 15, the two-in-one 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, a Quadro P2000 and up to 32GB RAM. 

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

$1,479.99 at Dell
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A big-screen coders dream or rendering power portable: Acer Predator 21 X

While the world found it amusing to make fun of this heavy, expensive gaming laptop with its 21-inch curved display, a luggable machine with a relatively huge screen may be just what the developer ordered. You should be able to install Linux for dual booting. And because it's so big, it can cram in more power than more portable systems, such as dual Nvidia GTX 1080 GPUs for speedier real-time visualization -- if your application supports the consumer chips for that kind of acceleration.

Drawbacks: Well, the weight and the size, not to mention the $9,000 price tag.

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For power and portability: Asus Zenbook Pro 15 (UX580GE)

This Zenbook offers the best of both worlds: only a little over 4 pounds for its 15-inch screen plus the option to configure it with an eight-core Intel Core i9 and discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti GPU. Its large touchscreen touchpad is sort of the Windows equivalent of Apple's Touch Bar, but supports extending the primary display. It may or may not turn out to be really useful, but doesn't sacrifice any other capabilities (such as discarding function keys like Apple did). The optional 4K screen covers 100 percent of the Adobe RGB color space with color-critical accuracy of less than 2 DeltaE as tested.

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For power and portability: Asus Zenbook Pro 15 (UX580GE)

Drawbacks: All those displays take a toll on battery life.

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A multitalent for art and design: Microsoft Surface Studio 2

With 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.

$2,149.00 at Amazon
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A multitalent for art and design: Microsoft Surface Studio

Drawbacks: I'm on the fence about this recommendation because, while the screen remains good and the ability to lay it flat for sketching is still rare, the system itself is relatively old, and Microsoft's 2018 upgrade didn't go far enough. Notably, in this case, 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 simply too 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.

$2,149.00 at Amazon
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For the space-constrained aural artist: Dell XPS 27

Sure, you can set up a surround system in your office, but if you need to do your mixing in a small space, the XPS 27 delivers some of the best sound you can get from an all-in-one. The 27-inch touchscreen display has a broad gamut -- about 98 percent Adobe RGB -- with reasonable color accuracy. And while it still incorporates seventh-generation Intel CPUs, even the least-expensive Core i5 models are VR ready.

$2,548.00 at Amazon
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For the space-constrained aural artist: Dell XPS 27

Like the Microsoft Surface Studio the display folds down flat, but you can't sketch on it. However, in that configuration it's good for a touchscreen mixing or MIDI setup.

Drawbacks: The webcam is poorly placed, and it's not the most graceful-looking all-in-one. And the back connectors are miserably difficult to work with.

$2,548.00 at Amazon
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Light artistry on a featherweight: Apple iPad Pro 2018

As 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, adding wireless charging via a magnetic strip that also gives you a place to put the Pencil. It also swapped the Lightning connector for a more flexible USB-C version.

$744.00 at Walmart
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Light artistry on a featherweight: Apple iPad Pro 2019

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 so the only way to copy files off it is on an app-by-app basis.

$474.00 at Walmart
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VR design: HP Omen X Compact Desktop

Until we've got HTC Vive-class wireless headsets, you're going to have to carry your VR PC on your back to if you want to preview your designs in untethered VR. 

Performance is pretty good, if you don't count battery life, and after a while you really don't feel the weight. When you're at your desk, you can dock it to use as your main system.

$1,699.99 at HP
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VR design: HP Omen X Compact Desktop

Drawbacks: It's oh-so-clunky -- you need a second person to gear you up. And chances are it will get a much-needed redesign sooner rather than later, so you might want to wait.

$1,699.99 at HP
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HP ZBook Studio x360: A most flexible mobile workstation for creatives

HP's  ZBook Studio backflipping x360 mobile workstation  stands out for people who need more power than a typical consumer convertible affords or need workstation certification to run specific applications -- it goes up to eighth-gen Intel Xeon E3-2176 and E3-2186 CPUs and an Nvidia Quadro P1000. Plus, the hinge is designed so that you can use the stylus (Wacom AES, 4,096 levels of pressure) with the unit laid flat and not irritate your wrist. The optional display covers 100 percent Adobe RGB, and there's a color-accurate DreamColor 4K option. And it delivers excellent performance for a laptop its size.

$1,691.95 at Walmart
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A rendering monster in a small footprint: Apple iMac Pro

With its workstation components -- a Xeon with up to 18 cores and top-of-the-line Vega-class AMD Radeon Pro graphics -- it's certainly more powerful than the current iMac Pro. 

But it's all shoehorned into an old iMac design, so you may want to wait until we see what Apple's forthcoming modular Mac Pro design looks like before committing.

$4,999.99 at Best Buy
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For pinstriped designers who need a little power boost: ThinkPad X1 Extreme

Lenovo's first laptop with discrete graphics -- in this case, a 4GB Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti -- provides ThinkPad-level security without the workstation price overhead; configured with the hexacore Core i7-8850H, 4K display, 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD, it's hundreds less than a similarly configured P52 workstation. You can't get 10-bit color with the consumer GPU, but the display only covers the sRGB gamut and isn't that color accurate, so it doesn't matter. Opting for the 4K monitor raises the price, but the more precise rendering of hairlines and and details, it may be worth it.

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A 'small' mobile workstation for VR: Lenovo ThinkPad P52

Most laptops with VR-capable workstation-class Nvidia GPUs come in 17-inch models; the P52 is a 15-inch that can be configured with the Quadro P3200, Nvidia's entry-level for VR in the line. So if portability matters, this may be an ideal option. Most of its certifications are for CAD software, so it's a relatively compact solution for creating walkthroughs. 

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The light choice: Lenovo ThinkPad P1

The ThinkPad P1 is Lenovo's first thin-and-light workstation; it's a 15-inch model that weighs less than 4 pounds, one of the lightest available in its class. But it still manages to pack in a Quadro P1000, hexacore Core i7-8850H, 512GB SSD and 16GB RAM.

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For coding on the cheap: Dell Inspiron Chromebook 14 2-in-1

Two factors are converging to make Chromebooks a cheap alternative to a laptop for coding: Chrome OS officially supports LInux (as of version 69) and we're seeing more powerful models with Core i processors. The Inspiron convertible adds the extra flexibility of tablet or presentation positioning, and it's got one of the larger screens in this class at 14 inches.

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Best performers

If performance and portability matter more than color gamut or accuracy, you might want to go with a gaming laptop. Check out our list of the best performing laptops we' tested in 2018. in 2018.

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