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I've had my MacBook Pro since 2007 and I'm starting to think about what the next system might look like. I'm not made of money, but if upgrading a component helps to make me a more efficient worker for 5+ years, that's worth something to me. Point being, I don't want to just max out every category; I want to be smart about it.

So, what bits of hardware matter the most to a designer? Is a dedicated graphics card overkill for a Creative Suite power user? If not, how fast should a GPU be to handle Photoshop and cutting-edge Web technologies? How much of a difference would four cores make over two when I run a script in Illustrator? Does the usage of design software mean that my system would need more RAM? Two small monitors or one big one?

I know storage space is a big deal, so straight solid state probably isn't viable...but having OS and Creative Suite on a smaller drive and throwing in a 1TB drive might work really well. That's the kind of thinking I'm trying to have.

Along the same lines, has anyone gone to the desktop to save some bucks and regretted it later? Can a desktop plus a tablet fill in well enough for a laptop?

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It doesn't really matter what a 'graphic designer' needs. What matters is what 'you' need. –  DA01 Apr 10 '13 at 14:36
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6 Answers 6

I've been using a 16,4" laptop for a bit over 2 years now.

What I considered for the purchase of my system were my typical working conditions. In my case:

  • I needed my own computer
  • I had to be able to work in different locations
  • No workplace I was going to work in, was going to have a dedicated workstation. So I could not rely on getting more than electricity and WiFi access.
  • Daily commutes with that damn thing on my back
  • I nearly never have to work while traveling. (important point that defines power vs batterylife requirements)

My keypoints for the purchase where:

  • Highest resolution possible. I went with 1920x1080
  • Lots of RAM (helpful if you need to do video or big print productions)
  • fast CPU, ok GPU with dedicated ram

Diskspace was not too important (I back my work up at another location and generally have no more than 150gb of current projects on the laptop).
Also battery life became secondary mostly because the more energy-efficient machines were either underpowered, too small or just plain expensive. But I went with the biggest battery pack I could get.

Regarding accessories.. I pack a wireless mouse and sometimes a keyboard. When I know I'm going to work more than 1 day at a place I almost immediately start bugging, pleading, bribing and talking people into getting me a monitor to hook up to my laptop as secondary screen so I can work comfortably.

The screensize of 16,4inch with 1920x1080 is awkward for reading but works well for PS, AI and the likes. It's all there, just very tiny :)

If I'd have to work while traveling I would get a less power-hungry setup (they are also a lot lighter). I'm now down to 1,5 hours of batterylife due to aging cells. That would be a dealbreaker if I'd have to work while traveling.

As it is, I merely resigned to lugging around a relatively heavy slab. But I can be sure it's going to handle most of the things I'm going to have to do at work.

At home and for work I don't like to do on the laptop I use a desktop PC. I spent the same kind of money on the desktop PC 4 years ago and it has virtually the same performance as the laptop. I get a more "stable" feeling. Since it does not get hot or warmer under my hands I feel more comfortable throwing intense renders at it and working long hours. I also use the desktop for illustration work with the tablet.

I use two 23inch monitors, but would like it much more to have one big 2560x1600 monitor instead.

The most important thing you should consider is if you are willing to sacrifice performance and comfort for the ability to be mobile.

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I can't work with only a laptop. In fact, I can't get much done on a laptop at all other than general project management and communications. And that really has little to do with eyesight or anything physical. I simply feel like I'm working on a post it note and can only do so much. A laptop is livable with a second monitor connected and a WACOM tablet connected though. I do have a spare tablet I put in my laptop bag for the odd time while traveling when I need to sketch or mock something up quickly. But I honestly dread trying to get any actual design done on a laptop.

I'm a Mac user. I upgrade my desktop (MacPro) about every 3 or 4 years to stay current with trends in hardware and software. Often it's because of software demands. Or I've surpassed the hardware capabilities (like when USB1 died or when I needed support for more than a 2TB HDD - that sort of thing) I always purchase the base Apple model for the processors I want. Then upgrade RAM and HDDs from (much cheaper) third party vendors. No one should ever buy a hard drive or RAM from Apple if it can be avoided. Apple prices for such items are ridiculous.

In terms of processors, faster processors are always better than more processors. It may seem a bit counter intuitive to some, but very few applications will actually use more than 2 or 4 processors so getting a 2.4Ghz 12-core system isn't really better than a 3.2Ghz 4 or 6 core system. Almost all apps will benefit from the 3.2Ghz processors while only a few will benefit from 12 processors. The exception here would be 3D and video work. Those two project types use more cores easily so if those are primary focuses of your work, then more processors may be better.

For hard drives, the optimum set up is to have a dedicated scratch drive. Not a partition of the boot drive, but an actual separate hard drive. This allows scratch data to be read and written without waiting on the hard drive heads to be free from other tasks. Each drive can only be read/written to by one process at a time. By adding a second drive you double that capacity.

If you use Photoshop, you want a graphics card with a great deal of vRAM. Photoshop uses the GPU more and more with each release. The better your video card, the better Photoshop operates where GPU processes are concerned (screen redraw, 3D, dynamic zooming, panning, brush sizing etc). And not just Photoshop. A better video card helps all apps draw faster and render color better.

Of course, with the direction Apple portables have gone, they've locked you into many decisions at the time of purchase since you can't always upgrade hard drives or RAM in Apple portables anymore.

I prefer at least 2 monitors and a WACOM Intuos tablet to work effectively. I currently use 3 monitors on my main workstation and an Intuos large tablet. I tend to start a MacPro with about 16GB of RAM and then add to it as prices drop until I hit the maximum. That being posted, my current system is only at 32GB of RAM when it could hold 128GB. Truth is, I've felt no need to go higher than 32GB.

I've never purchased a desktop system and regretted it. Well, almost never. I did get 3 bad units from Apple my last purchase which took 4 months to get sorted out. But since I got a good unit things have been fine. I do have a laptop (albeit an older one) and an iPad for mobile use if the need arises. 90% of the time I find the iPad a good replacement for my laptop needs when I'm mobile.

If pondering only one system and trying to decide between a portable or desktop, you simply need to ask yourself where you do most of your work? At a desk or on the go. Some designers I know have an entire set up on a desk for their laptop and almost never move the laptop off the desk and merely purchased the laptop fo the option of portability should it be needed.

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I would like to make a small comment on your suggestion not to buy hardware from Apple itself. Don't Apple computers have good performance because of the hardware compatibility between all the different pieces of hardware? That's what I've been told anyway. Because all of the hardware is made by Apple (opposed to a bunch of assembled pieces from different manufacturers in a Win computer), the performance of the hardware is at its best. Logically, you do pay dearly for that extra performance. –  poepje Apr 10 '13 at 9:00
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Apple uses standard hard drives and RAM from third party manufacturers. There is absolutely nothing special about hard drives and RAM from Apple. Where hardware does make a difference is in the video cards and processors which are intentionally specified for the MacOS. So that hardware is designed to run better for Apple software. –  Scott Apr 10 '13 at 9:11
    
I see, thanks for clarifying. –  poepje Apr 10 '13 at 9:24
    
One thing about the RAM: if you are using a 32-bit application it cannot reference more than 3-3.5 GB RAM because it cannot reference number larger than a 32-bit representation. So in Scott's example 32GB no single 32-bit program can ever use all of that memory. (Adobe products are available in 64-bit versions.) –  horatio Apr 11 '13 at 15:15
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Taking a slightly different approach, if you plan on using this for freelance work, make sure you are charging enough so you don't have to skimp on things like hardware.

Running a business takes money, and part of that money is equipping yourself with tools. Hardware, software, and everything else you need in your office.

When you add it all up, chairs, desks, insurance, internet access, paper, printer, ink, software, hardware, the actual cost of your hardware becomes really only a fraction of your total expenditures.

TL/DR, try not to skimp on such important tools as your computer. ;)

To answer your question more specifically, we'd need a bit more information. It really depends on the type of design work you plan on doing.

Lots of video work? Then you really want to put your money towards fast RAID drives.

Lots of huge PhotoShop work? Then look at maxing ram.

Doing lots of on-site work? Laptop.

Always at a desk? Maybe a huge iMac.

Personally, I rarely need to deal with giant PSD or video files these days, so pretty much any 'new' hardware tends to be more than fast enough for me for a few years. What I really value is screen real estate.

However, since I don't do as much freelance anymore to pay for all these toys, I have had to work under a budget so eventually ended up going with the cheapest MacBook Air + an iPad. The hardware is plenty fast, really portable, and when I need a bigger screen, I can attach the iPad as a second monitor.

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Although above answers seem pretty helpful, my say is that -if you want to be a bit more careful about spending money- the most important thing is to look what you use yourself. I'm mainly talking about the processor, RAM and video-RAM.

If you use 600MB of RAM at most, don't bother with buying 5GB of RAM.

As for vRAM, the same (don't know myself how to check usage of that though), just make sure the graphics card has either no shared vRAM, or if it has, you'll need some extra vRAM.

The HDD space doesn't have much influence on your computer's performance, as long as there's plenty of space left on it. If it's filled for 95%, you'll find that your computer will be considerably slower.

As for the processor, I don't know much about this at all, but I'd go for at least a 2gHz one with multiple cores. Others may say this will barely cut it for Adobe CS6, so you might want to go a bit higher.

One other tip, if you're going for a new computer anyway; check the requirements of the Adobe's software you're going to use. A few CS6 apps (such as After Effects, but I think even PS as well) require a 64-bit system whereas most computers (or at least Win computers, dunno about Apple) are 32-bits. Unfortunately, 64-bit computers ARE more expensive.

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Not to get into a war with PC VS Mac but my main station at home is a custom built PC. I learned how to build them about 5 years ago and I follow a few computer forums. It has proven a learning curve but the reward and price has far out weighed the cost I would have spent. To date I have built 7 PCs all of which are running AMD/ATI. I do like the Intel Sandy Bridge but there is no need for me to transfer into that area because I can swap and parts (such as ram or CPUs) around if something went wrong or diagnosis.

Cost

It cost me around 3000 for a really good design station and the specs are:

The above you can estimate around 2500.00 USD. Im sure I can find cheaper if I shopped around and from experience you can watch Amazon, Newegg, and Tigerirect on prices.

Now all the above is over time and all the parts come from manufacturers I have used over and over again. In a few years when motherboards are better I may get another motherboard that holds bigger RAM. If a 12 core CPU comes out in AM3+ I can swap with the 8 core I have now. I didn't buy all of these at once they are a collection over time, but as I stated once you start down the custom building path you tend to find a company you like and you can mix and match when needed. The great thing also about over time I don't have to spend another grand here or another grand here. I can spend usually 250 every couple years and my system is still running better than whats out there.

NOTE on the ssd. I first bought a 60ish back in the day during the CS4 master suite and quickly filled that up. I would suggest not going lower than 128gb. Also some ask me do I overclock and the answer is no.

Currently my old stations run as RIP stations/servers all with quad core and 4gbs in a Linux environment. To date I think I own around 20 HDDs in different RAID configurations. I was lucky a few years back and bought 10 Western Digital 1TB Blacks on Black Friday @ Best Buy before the flood and snagged them all for 39.99 each.

My point is though Macs are great but when you do your own thing and work on projects at times buying all Macs are not feasible. Not saying there is anything wrong with a Mac but that's just the facts when money is involved.

As far as a laptop I still have an old Inspiron 1720 I use as a Ubuntu terminal for PDF processing and to take with me when I need to. I do plan to buy a mac but I'm still on the debate on whether I can justify the cost for a desktop VS laptop. Also, still use your old laptop and put it to work!

So, what bits of hardware matter the most to a designer?

What matters to me is how quickly that .psd or .ai file will open and if the color is accurate. In my arsenal I also use Spider for monitor calibration.

Is a dedicated graphics card overkill for a Creative Suite power user?

Not at all and I would recommend it, but be aware there is a difference with a Desktop GPU and a workstation GPU. Workstations are best described as a guaranteed level of performance. Some higher models are good if you plan on doing 3D modeling.

If not, how fast should a GPU be to handle Photoshop and cutting-edge Web technologies?

How much of a difference would four cores make over two when I run a script in Illustrator?

You would see this in performance the most when trying to open large files or doing a gradient on a large size canvas. I also believe that past CS3 Adobe requires a quad core now or suggests one?

**

Does the usage of design software mean that my system would need more RAM?

** RAM is useless in theory if you have a low CPU. The best way to look at it is in relation to a car. The CPU is the motor and the transmission is the RAM. You can have the best transmission in the world and it show a little but if your CPU is low where are you really going?

Two small monitors or one big one?

My feelings towards monitors is based on the users preference. I know some that love a single 30" but I cannot stand not using anything less than dual monitors even if they both are 20" each.

I know storage space is a big deal, so straight solid state probably isn't viable...but having OS and Creative Suite on a smaller drive and throwing in a 1TB drive might work really well. That's the kind of thinking I'm trying to have.

This is a great idea and it helps in hdd performance, too. Just be careful when looking at an SSD you get one that will fit your needs. As stated already I learned the hard way and still have my 60ish gb hdd.

**

Along the same lines, has anyone gone to the desktop to save some bucks and regretted it later?

** I've never regretted building my own desktop but purchasing a desktop I wouldn't do unless it was a Mac tower. I have had my ups and downs with it but there are great open source software for diagnosis out there and a few good forums built for people that like to build their own rigs.

**

Can a desktop plus a tablet fill in well enough for a laptop?

** That would depend on the usage or what you are doing. If you are doing web apps in coda then you would need a Mac and a iPad would come in handy. If you are dong web design an iPad would come in handy for viewing when you are coding the CSS. So many variations.

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Only commenting because of the script/Illustrator item... Illustrator is not and never has been a multi-threaded app. AI uses only one core at all times, so the answer to that question is... NONE. :) –  Scott Apr 10 '13 at 23:12
    
Oh thanks Scott I over looked that area –  Matt Apr 11 '13 at 2:57
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The most important thing you will need if you want to work fast are Dual 23 inch HD monitors. If you are working on anything less, you are working at least 10% slower than you could be in my opinion.

Rest depends on what type of work you are doing. Motion Graphics needs more RAM, 3D animation needs more processor. As a general rule, 64 bit with 12+ GB RAM and a mid range video card should be enough to not make you want to constantly punch your computer.

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