Need Laptop Selection Help
July 15, 2010 10:26 PM   Subscribe

Looking to buy a PC laptop I can run photoshop, autoCAD, and sketchup rendering on a student budget.

I don't know a lot about computers and am very easily confused by tech jargon. I was hoping some tech-savvy mefites could give me some advice and/or a good direction to follow in my search.

I am a student, so I'm not looking to spend anything over $1000. I also commute by bicycle (do not own a car) so I would appreciate something lightweight because I like to stay pretty mobile. I've been working with a Dell Latitude D600 thus far. I looked up specs and it states it's around 4.7 pounds but it feels really heavy to me! I might have looked them up wrong, I don't know.

My cousin recommends a netbook but I'm not sure that I'll like a screen size that small.

I'd like to run something like photoshop and illustrator at the same time without significant lag, or be able to do some rendering in sketchup without it completely killing my laptop.

This website lists some suggested system specs, but I don't know of a good way to search for those specs to narrow down options.
posted by bluelight to Technology (14 answers total)
A netbook will definitely not have the performance to run those graphics-intensive apps, screen size aside. Can you tell us what school you go to? Maybe we can check out the campus bookstore and see if they have any laptop options that might meet your budget and needs.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:44 PM on July 15, 2010

The best laptop for photoshop is a tablet-pc (with a wacom screen/stylus, not the finepoint ones), because you have a wacom digitizer is built into the screen, and the stylus slots into a compartment in the laptop.
These are also lightweight. Many or most will be out of your budget new, but you can also consider the second-hand market - laptops lose value pretty quickly, which is useful if you're buying.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:21 AM on July 16, 2010

Maybe we can check out the campus bookstore and see if they have any laptop options that might meet your budget and needs.

It would also be good to check and see if your school IT department repairs laptops. At some schools, they will repair ones that you buy through the school (maybe not really through the school, but on a list of approved laptops -- for my school it's Macbooks and some Lenovos). If you're not tech savvy, that could be helpful.
posted by bluefly at 4:13 AM on July 16, 2010

Seconding the Tablet PC recommendation. YOU NEED ONE. They are extremely easy to find used. I got mine used, a Lenovo x61 Thinkpad. It is small and light and has no problems running Photoshop, although because it lacks a dedicated graphics card, it stinks at running 3D applications like Maya.

Stick with Lenovo, Toshiba and Fujitsu. Do not buy an HP laptop, and make sure that whatever you get has a Wacom digitizer, and not an N-Trig or anything else made by another company, because only Wacom is compatible with all the apps. Also, make sure it has a dedicated graphics card.

You also need a 64-bit OS and plenty of RAM (like, at least 2GB, if not 4 or even 8GB).
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:41 AM on July 16, 2010

Response by poster: Here is the campus site: I don't think they sell tablet pcs. They only offer HP, Dell and Apple.

I don't know why the site I tried to link to before didn't work but here it is w/o html formatting:

In terms of RAM, my cousin has offered to install it for me if I buy it. IOW, if I buy a laptop with only 2 GB, he says it's very easy for him to instead another 2 to 4 and that it would be cheaper than buying a laptop with 4 or 8 GB already installed.

I will look into tablet pcs, thanks for the tip. I think I also need a pretty strong graphics card as I'll be running sketchup and 3-D rendering.
posted by bluelight at 6:31 AM on July 16, 2010

I presume you're in architecture or similar? Don't get a tablet PC, it would be awful for autocad and sketchup. And don't get a netbook. You need a regular laptop with a regular keyboard. I haven't bought a PC in years, but I hear good things about lenovo thinkpads. Definitely avoid Dell and HP. Definitely find a manufacturer-refurb if you can, to save cash. I would recommend maxing out your RAM and getting an upgraded video card (esp. if you plan to use revit or similar) -- also, newer versions of autocad just keep tacking on more cruft -- if you can get your machine with XP instead of Vista and find an old copy of autocad 2006, you can get by with much cheaper hardware. Very few people need any of the tools they've added since then.
posted by Chris4d at 7:28 AM on July 16, 2010

You should probably get something with a discreet graphics card, not integrated, for photoshop and AutoCAD. This is going push up the price a bit (100 to 200 dollars), but the difference is not minor.
posted by hellslinger at 8:42 AM on July 16, 2010

I don't agree that you need a tablet. In fact, as a student, I highly recommend against a tablet as the screens are less sturdy (hinge + rotation) and the cost is going to be much more for less computer. If you need a tablet, get a wacom that you can plug into it separately and can use for years down the road. Professionals do not use Tablet PCs for Pen/Tablet input, they use stand-alone tablets.

I believe that a discrete graphics card is crucial. They're more expensive and you get slightly less battery life, but for real graphics work I find integrated graphics entirely insufficient.

There are many HPs and Dells that have discrete graphics and are in the sub 1000 dollar range. Avoid entry level processors (Pentium D, Athlon II) and avoid integrated graphics. Check newegg or your local best buy, etc. Bookstore laptops are overpriced in my experience.
posted by hellslinger at 9:00 AM on July 16, 2010

I agree. Tablet PC's are more money for less computer. You can get a much higher resolution standalone tablet. Depending on what you are doing with photoshop (not all photoshop use is photo retouching/digital painting) you may not even need a tablet. Illustrator less so.

Plus, with a standalone tablet, you don't have your hand all over your screen, which (as a graphic designer) seems... barbaric to me. Screen color proofing has a pervasive set of rituals/superstitions (wearing black clothing, windowless rooms with 50% grey walls, white cotton gloves, etc). Rubbing my grubby mitts over a screen, my only screen? Oh god, I think I'm hyperventilating a bit.

Cad is useless with a tablet pc. You'll need at least a 5 button mouse, and hotkey access. Running a CAD program or Sketchup isn't particularly graphics or processor intensive. Rendering lighting/print-size images will take a while. The thing that will speed this up is multi-core processors, assuming you have a rendering license for each core. Likely, you will have access to lab/render farms at your school. Otherwise, I always used rendering time as a built in time to sleep.

Anywho, what you need for a laptop:

Absolutely not a net book. You need something with a discrete graphics card. Figure out what the capacity for RAM will be. Converting 2GB to 4GB may not always be so easy if there are, for example, only 2 ram slots and they give you 2GB in two 1GB sticks. You then have to sell those two 1GB sticks and buy two 2GB sticks. You'll have the option to buy the 2GB as one 2GB stick, then you only need to install the other 2GB stick. This may save you a couple hundred bucks, as they'll often upcharge factory installed RAM by a considerable amount.

This is all assuming that RAM replacement/upgrade is a user serviceable part, according to your warranty. Cracking the seal, even for just a RAM replacement may void your warranty. Be sure you know beforehand.

They're not light, or pretty, but I've been impressed with ThinkPads. As a friend put it "I could throw this thing in a pool, and it would evolve arms and pull its self out" Get a comprehensive replacement warranty from the manufacturer. I've found campus book-store based service plans to be generally staffed by incompetent CS Freshman, and not worth the money, as for serious problems you'll need to send it out anyhow.

Go for a stand alone graphics card, 2 GB RAM, and then get the best processor you can to fit inside your $1000. Get a nice thick sleeve (not those neoprene ones) and a commuting bag with lots of laptop padding.
posted by fontophilic at 10:08 AM on July 16, 2010

Seconding Lenovo for build quality and price-to-value. You can get a nice one with 4GB for under $600 on
posted by Erroneous at 11:55 AM on July 16, 2010

Any laptop you get for under $1000 is going to be SUPER slow at running Photoshop (assuming CS5). This is a professional program that even my $1000 desktop (with 6 GB mem) hiccups on.

Raise your price target to $1200 and you'll see a lot more options, but even then I doubt you'll be happy with rendering speeds. And NOTHING you get is going to be very light (really, you shouldn't even be bothering with Photoshop on a small screen anyway.)

Also, seconding the fact that you'll need a 64-bit system - otherwise you'll only have 4GB of usable RAM, which will certainly not be enough to run Photoshop and Illustrator at the same time, unless you want to wait 15+ seconds for every minor edit to render.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:29 PM on July 16, 2010

Your realistic options from the UMD Bookstore are from HP, which are above your price range, and from Apple, which have two models below your limit. The Dells are out, IMO, because their build quality is low, making their products a poor value at any price. However, AutoCAD for OS X is not out yet, so that leaves the HPs, which again are above your price range.

As you're spending money on AutoCAD and Photoshop, you might think about buying older versions of these packages (particularly Photoshop, which rarely has important, new features between major releases) so that you can adjust your computer budget upwards.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:11 PM on July 16, 2010

Most objections to tablet-pc's here seem misguided to me - while it's correct that a pro (such as myself) would not be using a tablet-pc for these tasks, the reason is because a pro would not be using a laptop for these tasks. And OP is not intended to buy a workstation for these tasks.

But when I am using a laptop, I am definitely not going to be lugging around one of my wacom tablets with me, it's definitely going to be a tablet-PC. I would hate to go back to older style of laptop. They're so much less versatile and ergonomically poorer.

I also sometimes find myself more inclined to go to the tablet-pc than the workstation for photoshop in cases where I don't need the large screen or colour sensitivity, and I just don't feel like messing around with digging my stylus and tablet out from under papers, etc, and be tethered to a desk. With the laptop, you just turn it on and it's ready, anywhere.
The laptop tends not to "win" me over the workstation for 3D apps like Maya though.

If you do go the tablet-PC route, get a "desktop replacement" tablet-pc, ie includes a DVD drive, has decent graphics, not too small physically, etc.
But as mentioned above, if fingerprints on the screen drives you batty, do NOT get a tablet PC :)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:03 PM on July 16, 2010

as a student, I highly recommend against a tablet as the screens are less sturdy (hinge + rotation)

In my experience, tablet-pc screens are actually more sturdy, mainly because they're reinforced because the screen is designed to have a stylus+fist thumping into it continuously.

I've seen more regular laptops end up with LCD screens cracked by flexing or impacts, than I have seen laptop tablet-pcs end up with busted hinges. (Tablet-PCs tend not to suffer from the LCD screen getting cracked, unless you drive over it or something :-)

That screen reinforcement adds half a pound or more of weight though.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:27 PM on July 16, 2010

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