First, we’ll start by figuring out what type of laptop you’re searching. That includes nailing down the your prefered laptop size, priorities when it comes to performance-to-portability ratio and general budget limits.
Then, I’ll cover the most important specs and metrics that are essential for any good graphic design laptop. One by one, I’ll explain their role in our particular case and then what exact specs you should be looking for.
Finally, I show what are the 10 absolute best laptops for graphic design. These notebooks were picked out of a pool of over 170 computers. And in the unlikely event that you don’t fancy a single of my recommended models – I’m giving away the comparison sheet of all 172 compared laptops for free. It is tailored specifically for graphic design so you’ll save hours.
But first things first – what are the requirements for the best laptop for graphic design?
What is crucial to a graphic design laptop?
First of all, to know what kind of laptop will be the best for you, you decide on your budget and preferred screen size.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll talk about 3 most common laptop sizes: 13″, 15″ and 17″. I apologize for not including 14″, which I know is just in the sweet spot for some graphic designers. But their characteristics can be easily guessed as a mix between 13.3″ and 15.7″ laptops.
Let’s begin with 13-inch notebooks. They are best suited if you need a very portable laptop. It’s the best size for travel due to its excellent portability. But the lack of screen “real estate” is not ideal for any type of visual work.
15″ is the most common option for most people, including graphic designers. 15 inches is the standard size for an office laptop.
17″ the best screen size if you’re searching for a desktop-replacement workstation and you will need to carry it only once in a while.
Don’t forget that often there are options for external displays. If you need a small laptop for home and a larger one for office – getting a 13″-15″ notebook with a few ports for display can be enough. So you’re not necessarily limited by a screen size. The number and versions of HDMI, Display Port, USB 3.1 Type C (w/ Thunderbolt III) connections determine the number of screens you can use. 13″ laptops usually can have 1-2 external displays while a standard 17″ behemoth can have ~4 of them.
So you are searching for the best laptop for the new AutoCAD 2017? Well, be prepared to spend extra cash on the laptop as AutoCAD demands a lot of performance.
Best laptop for AutoCAD LT
First off, if you want to use AutoCAD LT for 2D drawing and drafting you do not have to buy high-end machines for that. I’ve run AutoCAD LT 2015 and 2016 (haven’t tested 2017) without a problem on laptops priced just under 500$. It took a while to load AutoCAD, but it still worked. At the same time, if you are like most, you’ll probably need the full AutoCAD package, which works with 3D graphics (architecture, 3D design and etc). In this article, I’ll focus mostly on full AutoCAD version and its requirements.
What is essential for a good laptop for AutoCAD
AutoCAD can be surely demanding and if you can, buy a more high-end machine as AutoCAD will be able to take advantage of your extra spending through more lag-free (and stress-free) workflow with complex structures. But let’s start off with the bare minimum – what do you need to run AutoCAD without ripping your hair off? These requirements are roughly based on official minimum requirements.
So what you should actually be looking for is:
If you’ll work with 2D drawings – this criterion is hard to mess up. Any non-entry tier processor will suffice. But if you can spend more than let’s say 700$, you should aim for higher-end processors. 3D work (architecture, 3D models and design) can put a lot more stress on this part so you should aim for 4 core processors with clock speeds above 3 GHz.
For raw performance under $2000, i7-6700HQ is the best option. The good news – this processor can be found in laptops as cheap as $700 (though I would not recommend these models as they sacrifice every other aspect to squeeze in this i7 processor). But in the $1000-$2000, it is the best pick. At the same time, if you are looking for a laptop that offers a balance of battery life and performance – i7 U line of processors would be better. For example, i7-7500U, i7-6500U, i7-6600U. In short:
For best performance look for i7-****HQ (or HK) processors
For good performance and battery life balance look for i7-****U processors
8 GB of RAM (16 GB recommended)
I would not recommend buying anything below 8 GB for any type of laptop for a professional. This is especially the case for performance hungry programs such as AutoCAD. So do not skimp over memory and get at least 8 GB and if you can try to get it to 12 – 16 GB range if you are running more apps than just AutoCAD at the same time (like browser, music player, MS Word and etc.). Even if you are a heavy multitasker – that 16 GB should be enough.
When it comes to any visual work – the bigger the better. You surely do not want to squint your eyes to select lines, especially if you go for a higher resolution laptop. Unless you’ll use a laptop for only small touch ups you should not go below 15″. I would even recommend going for desktop-replacement class 17″ laptop if you’re going to work on it primarily. This can come at an expense of portability, so use your best judgement for that – 17″ if you’ll work mostly in the same place; 15″ if you’ll need to work in several places. Also, be sure not to buy a lower-end HD screen (with a resolution of 1366×768). Nowadays anything below 1920×1080 for a 15-17″ laptops is sub par.
Do you need a 4K display? No. These high resolutions are not yet well supported in professional applications and you’re bound to have at least 1 or 2 programs in your application suite misbehaving under a 4K/QHD/UHD resolution. But there’s no reason to deliberately avoid these displays. They can be downgraded to the standard FHD (1920×1080) resolution and when applications under your belt start supporting 4K – you’ll be able to upgrade to these ultra-high resolutions without changing your laptop.
Where it would be wise to spend your money but not essential
The Good Investments
Dedicated graphics card
If you’re working with complex 3D models, your processor will surely be thankful for the help it can get from a dedicated graphics card, which is specifically optimised to handle such tasks. Applications like AutoCAD rely on these graphics cards to deliver the smooth workflow we all want. So if you have covered the essentials, grab the best graphics card you can within your budget. Nearly all dedicated video cards are produced by Nvidia and AMD (Radeon line). Meanwhile, majority of integrated graphics chips for laptops are produced by Intel and AMD.
Bad graphics cards for AutoCAD:
Anything in Intel HD line
Any graphics chip in AMD APU
Entry-tier Nvidia chips: 920M, 930M, 940MX
Good graphics cards for AutoCAD:
Intel Iris Pro 5200 or better
Nvidia GeForce 950M or better
AMD FirePro W4190M or AMD R9 M370X or better
Nvidia Quadro M1000M or better
Best graphics cards for AutoCAD:
Nvidia GeForce 1060 or better (1070, 1080)
Nvidia Quadro M5000M or even M5500M
Of course, I have not covered all cards here, just the most popular on the market right now (January 2017).
Solid State Drive (SSD)
SSDs have been named by many as the best investment you can make to make your machine faster and a lot more responsive. Whether other bloggers whether my personal friends – everyone says that installing a Solid State Drive as the main system drive made them regret not pulling the trigger on HDD sooner.
SSD will not improve AutoCADs performance as much as it will improve the responsiveness of the whole system. So if you do have everything covered to run AutoCAD, make sure you can launch it fast with an SSD. I would discourage going for hybrid solutions where you get a regular hard drive and a small “buffer” of SSD as they do not deliver the full benefits of SSD and make it not worth the extra spending. It’s worth reminding that if you do not have enough money for an SSD, you can buy a laptop with an extra empty slot for it. Then you’ll be able to buy an SSD down the road and retire your older drive as your “archive”. But once again, if you can afford it, buy an SSD from the start as moving between drives can be a painful hassle.
This one is more up to your situation than others. If you’ll work at the same place most of the time taking your laptop out only when it is necessary or taking it out to places where there’ll always be a power source, you can treat battery life only as “nice to have”. On the other hand, if you’ll be working on the go or you’ll need to work without a guaranteed power source – spend almost everything else you have left in your budget for a better battery. Nowadays manufacturer estimates of battery lifetime are a bit more accurate than they used to, so even that can be a good way to compare two or more laptops. If you want to be sure of real battery lifetime, check the laptop list or search for reviews of laptops online.
What would be nice addition to fully round out the laptop for AutoCAD-type software?
Extra memory (16GB+)
I have already talked a bit about the importance of RAM and how you should don’t go below 8 GB even on a strict budget. But if you want to be future-proof, having 16 GB (or even 24 – 32 GB in some rare cases) will make your life easier down the road. As time goes on, the software uses more and more memory (which is also true for AutoCAD) and having more of it will ensure you won’t be in trouble when you have to run 2 or 3 memory-hungry applications. It is worth mentioning that there’s a way to reach a compromise without adding more memory and not breaking your budget – buy a laptop with an additional empty slot for extending RAM. That way, when you’ll need to buy more RAM, you’ll be able to just add a new memory module without breaking the bank.
High resolution IPS screen
By high resolution I mean screens beyond Full HD (1920×1080). Just a few years ago these resolutions were hard to come by, but now high resolution is a key part of a high-end laptop. But not only the pixels count – some screens have high resolutions but still look like ****. To be more certain of the quality the screen can deliver, be sure it has an IPS panel.
Compact mouse (and keyboard)
Do not forget to get a mouse, you’ll be using it a lot, even if you buy the best laptop for AutoCAD and you remember every single keyword in AutoCAD command line. Do not skimp on investing in comfort! It is often underrated as it can be hard to measure, but if you’ll be working with a laptop for most of your day, you sure want something that makes it feel as effortless as possible.
I updated my recommended laptops 2016 January 26th, July 12th and 2017 January 5th!
This is a well-rounded mid-range laptop. It has 4 USB ports (nice!), matte display (less shiny reflections but a bit dimmer colors) and high-mid range CPU/GPU. This ASUS also comes with a full backlit keyboard with number pad and to top it off you get 1 Year Warranty/Accidental Damage Protection.
Overall, if you have a tight budget – be aware of its 256 GB storage which might limit you if you decide not to invest 50$ – 160$ for extra storage.
This Dell Inspiron is very similar to the ASUS K501UX above with a few notable exception.
Firstly, it has a better graphics chip and a bit weaker processor. Usually, I would advise going for a faster processor but if you see yourself gaming on a laptop – getting this Dell would be a smart choice.
Secondly, it is very easy to upgrade – even if you’ve never had to deal with PC upgrades, adding extra RAM and more storage is a piece of cake.
Talking about storage, it falls short in the same category where ASUS K501UX did. That’s understandable, 512GB SSDs are still not cheap and manufacturers are forced to put in 256GB for that lower pricetag. Nevertheless, if you plan to use it as your main workstation – be ready to spend up to 160$ for extra storage.
Finally, Dell has a bright and vivid IPS screen which is superior to the one Asus offers if you don’t have to deal with bright reflections.
1.5x+ faster GPU than any other laptops under $1500
Poor battery life (~2 hours)
Performance wise, this laptop is an absolute killer machine. If you can sacrifice battery life and having a bit of extra weight – it’s a great machine for its price. It has Intel Core i7-6700HQ (Skylake), GTX 970M and 16 GB RAM and a 500 GB SSD storage.
A few things to note – it has an bright screen with wide viewing angles (w/ IPS) but it’s only mediocre when it comes to color accuracy. It has a reasonably large SSD (512 GB) but if that’s not enough for you – storing files in the cloud is always an option.
Laptop that was in recommended in this price range before January (2017) update – MSI GE62 Apache Pro
If you don’t absolutely need a FirePro/Quadro, this laptop is as good as it gets.
It packs a few cutting edge technologies like SSD over PCI-Express. This ensures performance that isn’t possible for 95% laptops on the market no matter how fast their SSD drive is. It also comes with USB-C (and thus Thunderbolt III) which might be a life-saver for some external hardware.
One of the cheapest laptops with CAD-certified graphics card
4K Resolution with IPS Technology
128 GB SSD for OS and 2 TB storage for everything else
OK-ish battery life of ~5h
No HDMI port (but it has DisplayPort and even VGA)
I would consider this a great option if you absolutely need a CAD-certified card but you don’t need an expensive higher-range model.
This HP ZBook 15U G3 Workstation laptop comes with many other useful features such as a full spill-resistant keyboard, low noise and temperature levels, NVMe SSD and it is considered to be one of the best lightweight laptops for AutoCAD. However, less weight comes with a cost. Though this laptop lacks a spacious SSD.
DELL XPS 15 comes with a popular i7-6700HQ and NVIDIA 960M GPU which is enough for complex 3D modeling and drawing. Display ports are included which make setting up multiple displays a no-brainer.
The laptop supports 4K Resolution, has 500 GB SSD PCIe Storage and a healthy battery life while staying just under 4 lbs. If you want to have a laptop that is close to highest performance levels but is not inflated in its price by some highly-priced professional features – DELL XPS 15 is the right choice.
Great performance (Intel Xeon processor, Nvidia Quadro card & SSD)
Plenty of ports: HDMI, DisplayPort, USB 3.1C, 4x USB 3.0
Massive long-lasting 9-cell battery (8.5 hours)
Just under $2000, we can find this Lenovo workstation. Thinkpad P50 comes with a high-end Intel Xeon E3-1505M processor and Nvidia Quadro M2000M card which is ~1.5 times faster than M1000M. Also, this is one of the best-reviewed workstations with a great keyboard for long work sessions.
Finally, to make it perfect, I would add 500 GB SSD and/or additional 2 TB HDD.
Best CAD-certified laptop graphics card on the market (NVIDIA Quadro M5000M)
Best laptop for AutoCAD, Revit and other CAD/modelling software
Time to bring out the big guns. This laptop has some of the best specs on the market and probably the best ones when you consider Quadro graphics chip. If you can settle for 2nd-best, you might as well save 1900$ by getting slightly cheaper model.