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Buying a Computer for the Digital Photographer PT 4

April 20, 2011 - Dave Hecei
Part 4 – Going with a Laptop

A good laptop will have no trouble working with digital photos. But, you knew there was a but didn’t you, there are a few things you need to know about owning a laptop computer, Mac or Windows.

First and foremost is the price. You will be paying more money for an ‘equivalent’ computer. I put that in air quotes to note that the computers can be equivalent in power and/or speed but a tower design is much more flexible than a closed laptop system. That is the big advantage of a desktop, but it isn’t portable.

A laptop is not going to last as long as a desktop. This is another important fact to think about. Since a laptop is portable it gets moved around, gets dropped, and takes more abuse than a desktop would. Also, since the insides of a laptop are much more cramped, the parts are more likely to fail sooner in a laptop. You should go into this thinking that a laptop will last about half as long as a desktop.

What to Look For

Laptops, no matter the operating system, are available in several screen sizes. This can be from 10-inches up to 18-inches. Most of the screens today will say they are LED screens. These are still LCD color screens. The LED is actually the backlight. Older screens used fluorescent tubes to illuminate the screen. This type of light source was ok, but they don’t last as long as LEDs, are less power efficient, and can cause uneven illumination of the screen (meaning the sides or corners can sometimes be brighter than the center).

The size of the screen determines the size, and maybe more importantly the weight, of the laptop. It goes without saying that a 13-inch laptop is going to be much smaller and lighter than an 18-inch laptop. Knowing how you plan to use a laptop will help in determining what size screen you should get. If you are looking for a very light and easily portable laptop then you will be looking at the 13 to 14 inch screen size (you can go smaller but I don’t recommend it for digital photographers). If you want a laptop that essentially replaces a desktop and you will be using it on locations as a desktop, then a 17 to 18 inch model will give you a larger display and likely more processing muscle. Just make sure if you really want a big laptop that you don’t plan on using on a plane or walking around with it over you shoulder – you won’t have much of a shoulder after a while.

Right in the middle is the 15-inch model. This is a good compromise of screen size and portability – plenty big enough to work with digital photographs. A 15-inch screen model’s weight should be somewhere in the range of 5.5 to 6.5 pounds. Not quite as light as a 13-inch model (about 4.5 to 5.5 pounds) but much easier to carry than an 18-inch model (somewhere around 10+ pounds). Please remember that this is just for the computer itself, there are also lots of other stuff you will likely be carrying with it like the power adapter, cables, books, etc.

For true portability you can go with a specialty laptop, the ultra-light. These are very thin and light laptops, which most of the time also means lower power and fewer features. These are available from most of the major computer makers (Dell, Samsung, Sony, HP, and Apple are just a few). The best of these have 13-inch screen and fairly fast dual-core processors. To get the weight down and keep the laptop super thin, most of these models do not have much storage. More importantly, an ultra-light usually does not have an optical drive. For Windows users there are nice ultra-portables like the Samsung Series 9 (900X3A-A03). It has a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 13.3-inch screen, 4GB RAM, and a 128GB SSD hard drive. Street price is around $1600. Apple has their new very popular MacBook Air. The 13.3-inch model has a fast Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz, 2GB RAM, 256GB SSD hard drive, and GeForce 320M graphics. This model is priced at $1599.

The ultra-portable has its place. It is excellent for someone who needs the power of a laptop (just not a whole lot of power), but needs one with long battery life and extremely lightweight. An ultra light is not going to replace a full laptop or even come close to a desktop. But if you must have a computer with you, they can do the job quite well.

The other thing to remember with any laptop is storage. It is at a prime with laptops, even more so with the ultra-portable models that have solid-state drives (SSD). The idea of bringing a computer with you on location is that you can shoot images and then work on them right there and then. For efficiency, you will need to bring some extra storage with you. This can be portable drives or desktop external drives, which do need to be plugged into the wall.

If you are working on important images, or you are being paid as a professional photographer, you may want to have a redundant type drive. This is an external drive that has two or more drives inside that automatically back up the data stored on it. These do come in both portable and desktop powered type drives. A great bus-powered portable drive is made by G-Technology called the G-RAID mini. For a desktop type AC-powered drive, there are several to choose from. Major drive makers like Western Digital, Buffalo Technologies, and Iomega all make RAID type external drives.

The best desktop RAID drive is made by Drobo. They make a 4-drive case where you can install your own SATA hard drives. These can be any sized drives, Drobo is smart enough to intelligently combine all the drives to make one large single drive, but with true data redundancy to keep your precious photos and other data safe. The other really cool thing about the Drobo is that it will tell you when a drive either goes bad, is starting to go bad, or is just getting too full and needs replaced with a larger drive. Just pop that drive out, put in another and Drobo will automatically rebuild the data on the new drive.

External storage is not required, but it is highly recommended. Hard drives do fail, and according to Murphy, will fail when it is the least opportune moment. Having a viable backup strategy is important for any computer, even more so when working with a laptop.

So when buying a laptop for digital photography you need to look at: 1. Specs, 2. Screen size, 3. Weight, and 4. Storage. Most any laptop you buy new today can handle digital photography. On the PC side just stay away from either the Celeron or Sempron processors and you should be ok. It should be at least a dual-core processor and have 4GB or more of RAM. If possible, try to get one with a discrete graphics card.

As for Mac OS laptops, any Mac laptop will have no problem working with digital photography. You just need to find the right size screen and price range that will fit your budget. With any of the new Macs available today you don’t have to worry about processors and graphics cards – they all work. Of course you can always go with upper end models, which are priced accordingly. Just make sure you get your money’s worth out of the one you choose. There is no need to go with a $3000 laptop when one that is about half the price will work just as well. Remember that a laptop will need to be replaced sooner than a desktop model.


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