About Laptops For Image Processing…

17" Notebook

A very common question from a popular photography forum:

I’d like to replace my desktop with a 17? notebook so that it will be portable around the house (useful for babysitting the kids). I’m debating on the screen. I have a 24? 1920×1200 on my desk so I’m thinking a 17? 1440×900 screen would be enough since I’d edit photos with my 24? monitor anyway.

For the hard drive, people say 5400 isn’t that much slower. The 5400 drives are cheaper and bigger so I’m leaning towards that.

Any other advice? I’m thinking of a Dell Inspiron. We have one in 15? which is not bad. Just too small and slow to be my desktop replacement.

15" Dell Inspiron

My response:

As a professional user of laptops (photographer) I’ll offer you some suggestions based on experience, but it’s up to you to do the research to fill in the holes. I’ll start by saying I currently maintain seven different Dell laptops for my business. I use Dells for several reasons. 1. International warranty (I’m often in some strange country) 2. I can order it the way I want..

1. I’ve owned Inspirons… many in fact. Now, I will only buy from their Small Business lineup which includes Latitudes, Precisions, and XPS’s. Why? Because they include a standard 3 year next day on-site warranty at no charge, and these units are built tougher than their consumer line which is important to me. Also, tech support for all of these is North American based.. much better than dealing with some guy in India without authority to do anything but make you jump through hoops.

2. Check out the Dell Outlet. I buy almost everything from the Outlet now and have been 100% satisfied with the products. I can’t tell them from original new and I’m pretty damn picky. If you’re astute and watch the Outlet site for a while you can save much more than a casual Outlet user.

17" Dell Precision M90

3. For most photographers most screens when properly calibrated will be fine. If you’re a product photographer and/or it’s important to get the different shades of the same color perfect.. then consider the finest desktop monitors. I’ve only had one laptop out of over 40 I’ve owned (total throughout the years) be this accurate. This was the Precision M90 17? 1920×1200.

4. The same exact spec’d Dell, same model, same specs, etc.. could possibly come with screens from 3-4 different manufacturers. There are some on-line charts somewhere (forgot where) that will let you use the information gleaned from your service tag and Dell Support site (which will provide you the manufacture and part number) and then compares them against the others.

5. It’s ALWAYS worth it to pay for the graphics card upgrades. On some it will add $20, on others over $1000… It will give you thinks like increased performance, more accurate colors (contrary to popular wisdom), and more functionality when running external monitors, HDTV’s, DLP projectors, etc. Great option to spend money on.

6. Hard drives: Check the reviews on sites like www.storagereview.com for performance stats on drives by model number. They do vary and there is no hard and fast rule that one type will perform better than another type just because of it’s rotational speed, seek time, etc. “In General” 7200rpm drives outperform 5400rpm drives. However, a newer 5400rpm drive with a SATA II (3gps) interface will outperform some of the older 7200rpm drives with SATA (1.5gps) and all older PATA drives.. and do it much quieter, and with less power.


With that said I’ve been popping in WD’s new 320gig SATAII Scorpio drives in my laptops to replace older 100g 7200rpm Hitachi HDD’s and have noticed no degradation in performance. I have noticed longer battery life, less noise, and much more capacity. I have noticed a big performance gap between these 7200 drives I’m replacing and older 5400 drives of the same era.

Know the specs and performance reviews on each separate hard drive you consider if speed, performance, reliability and capacity are important to you.

7. System performance: Mother board architecture and design IS important. I have two like systems, a Latitude D620, and Precision M90. Latitude, 14.1? 1440×900, 7200rpm Hitachi HDD, 2.16 Core 2 Duo, 2gigs of 667 RAM. M90, 17', 1920×1200, same HDD, processor, ram, etc. The main differences is the screen size, graphics cards (Latitude has the Nvidia 128mb option, the M90 the 512mb Nvidia Quattro Pro option), connectivity (inputs/connectors).. same LAN’s, some WI-FI cards, etc, etc..

The M90 processes circles around the D620. I’m talking HUGE circles. Both are using Vista x32 Ultimate, latest drivers, etc.. but these differences were also present using XP pro. My opinion.. the motherboard architecture, graphics cards, and intended design of the unit makes a huge difference. The M90 is made for high-end graphics application and is ISV certified to run them perfectly. and it does.

8. Consider docking station support, both hardware and software. Both the Latitude and Precision (not sure about the new Inspirons) have bottom docking station connectors which work great. Powered up you can lay it on the docking station, take it off, etc.. and the software accommodates with no issues. Connectors DO wear out and cause issues, so if you’re constantly using your external video/USB/LAN connectors you WILL wear them out or break them. Docking connectors are built much tougher and by design are more reliable.

Also, different docking stations have different capabilities. One of the Dell docking stations I have accepts optional video and/or PCI cards.

Dell Docking Station

Here’s a rundown of my main use laptops and where I use them.

M90 Precision Mobile Workstation: I use this for local workshops and corporate presentations when I need the best in speed and connectivity and I can easily handle it’s 8.5 pound weight. It’s a wonderful machine and to date the only one that profiles accurately enough to use for product photography. Even it’s built in 5.1 audio system (including sub-woofer) is very impressive. The matte screen will blow you away, even if you’re used to the fake and punchy look of glossy (truelife, trueview, etc) screens.

D620 Latitude: This is my primary travel laptop that I drag through airports and use on assignments where I travel on assignment and will be the only one using/viewing from this laptop. It’s under 5 pound weight and relatively high performance makes for one tough potent package. I've banged it around from one end of the world to the other. It’s 14.1? optional 1440×900 matte screen powered through the 128mb Nvidia graphics card profiles out well and I’m comfortable turning out portraits, weddings, and most general work ‘when I must’ from the road. This (and the D630) replacement is possibly the best “general purpose” laptop I’ve ever used.

Inspiron 1720. Great budget laptop. Core 2 Duo, 2gigs RAM. Nice big 1900×1200 screen ran through the 256mb graphics card option. It even holds two hard drives. Big, heavy, and almost as tough as the M90.. but at less than half the cost. I use these for students at my workshops.

Dell Inspiron M700

Inspiron M700. Old Pentium M, 1.5gigs or RAM, 12.1? “Truelife” glossy screen, small and only four pounds with the big battery. Very handy when size/weight is more of a priority and only light/occasional image editing is anticipated. I find the glossy screen sometimes useful for outdoor use, the high contrast lets you move it around to an angle where you can see it (barely) in bright sun.

If I was looking again today.. I’d look hard at these models.

XPS M1330. To replace the D620. Smaller, lighter, maybe a better performer.

Dell XPS M1330

D630 Latitude. To replace the D620. Same basic tough package, but upgraded platform. I’d also look into the “ruggedized” XFR version for at least one of them.

D430 Latitude. A sub-three pound 12.1? screened notebook built along the rugged specs of the Latitude line.

Precision M6300. This is the replacement for the M90, it looks great but I’d compare it to the 17? XPS Small Business version as well.

The top three considerations I’d stick with:

1. Small Business line for both warranty and support.

2. Shopping at the Dell Outlet to cut costs.

3. Know the individual screens, hard drives, and other parts used.

Hope this helps;