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Let your creative juices flow

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. 

The latest developments 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 quadcore maximum. 

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

This gallery was originally published February 23, 2018. Updated with the review of the HP ZBook x2 and some new products to look forward to.

Updated: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 mean 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

A lightweight for artists: Microsoft Surface Pro

The Surface Pro 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 Iris Plus graphics, if you can afford it. Complex brushes, color mixing and textures can slow you down if you don't have enough processor power.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

A lightweight for artists: Microsoft Surface Pro

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. 

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

Photo editing on the go: Apple MacBook Pro 15

The MacBook Pro's display is one of the best, if not the best, 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

Photo 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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 6th-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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

Pro artist on the go: Wacom MobileStudio Pro

Drawbacks: It's pretty heavy for a tablet and expensive. 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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. 

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All-around 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 so if you're not in a rush to buy, you might want to wait and see what happens by the fall.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

A cheaper lightweight for artists: Lenovo Miix 720

While it's not cheap, this Windows 10 detachable is a lot cheaper than the Surface Pro for the same configurations and it comes with the stylus and keyboard. Its 4,096 levels of pressure (though no tilt) is fine for most people's needs, as is the quality of the 12-inch, 2,880x1,920-pixel display.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

Lenovo Miix 720

Drawbacks: Battery life isn't great. The Surface offers a better display, at least with respect to resolution, accuracy and color gamut.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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. It doesn't perform quite as well as the MacBook has a slightly faster processor option than Dell, but the XPS 15 offers a 4K touchscreen option.

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

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

A multitalent for art and design: Microsoft Surface Studio

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).

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

A multitalent for art and design: Microsoft Surface Studio

Drawbacks: I was 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 hasn't upgraded the components in a while; notably, in this case, pressure-sensitive stylus technology evolved in the past couple years and it still only offers last-generation Nvidia mobile GPUs and relatively slow CPUs. It's simply too expensive for that, especially given that this is an investment. 

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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 if you spring for the highest-end configuration, it's also VR ready and delivers decent performance.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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For the space-constrained aural artist: Dell XPS 27

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.

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Light artistry on a featherweight: Apple iPad Pro 10.5

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 10.5 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.

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Light artistry on a featherweight: Apple iPad Pro 10.5

Drawbacks: The Pencil 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

VR design: HP Omen X Compact Desktop

Until we've got 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.

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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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

HP ZBook Studio x360: a most flexible mobile workstation for creatives

HP recently announced its updates to its ZBook mobile workstations, and the new backflipping x360 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 8th-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 display only covers 100 percent Adobe RGB, and there's a color-accurate DreamColor 4K option.

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A rendering monster in a small footprint: Apple iMac Pro

I haven't tested this one yet either, but with its workstation components -- a Xeon with up to 18 cores and top-of-the-line AMD Radeon Pro graphics -- it's certainly more powerful than a Mac 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.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Sarah Tew/CNET

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've seen so far in 2018.

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