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Technique

Le présent article n'est pas disponible en Français
June 2007

You know your ISOs from your f-stops and your ‘snoots’ from your ‘fish fryers’, but do megahertz, megabytes and RAM just leave you cold?

Most photographers own or aspire to owning a laptop, but what should you look for and what is an appropriate price? This simple guide should have you up, running and confident in no time at all.

Price level and specification are primarily dictated by the type of work that you do and the equipment you are already using.

A photographer using the EOS-1Ds Mk II, and shooting high volumes of fashion images as RAW, is going to have a far higher requirement than the wedding photographer, shooting JPEG on the EOS 30D.

Due to the quirks of the industry and for historical reasons, it is also likely that the fashion shooter will want an Apple Mac laptop whereas the wedding photographer would probably be looking for PC. This is not about platform wars; both Windows and Mac can do the same job at a similar speed, albeit in slightly different ways. It all comes down to personal preference.

Nuts and Bolts

The main factors that determine the price, performance and effectiveness of the laptop as a tool are as follows:

Processor

Intel Core 2 Duo, a dual core processor commonly used in professional laptops
 

Intel Core 2 Duo, a dual core processor commonly used in professional laptops

This is the engine and it is measured in megahertz (Mhz). For any photographic work, 2Ghz (gigahertz) or above is suitable.

Processor type is also important. Most modern laptops use Intel processors, with one or two, cores, a few use the equally good AMD processors.

Two cores effectively means two processors in one. The Intel Core Duo 2.33 Ghz has one processor with two 2.33Ghz cores allowing very effective multi-tasking. This also makes Photoshop, and other power-hungry applications, work most effectively.

At the budget end of the scale, the Intel Centrino is a reliable, single core processor and perfect for showing images to clients, low intensity image processing and email/ admin work.

Hard drive

A Seagate Momentus 7200RPM laptop hard drive with the top removed showing the disk itself and the read head.
 

A Seagate Momentus 7200RPM laptop hard drive with the top removed showing the disk itself and the read head.

The hard drive is the storage area. Consisting of a magnetic disk rotating at 4500, 5400 or 7200 rpm, it provides storage for your data. As with most things, faster is better and bigger is better too. The current maximum on one drive is 160Gb (gigabytes). This is a large amount of space and plenty for day-to-day working with even the largest images.

For news photographers or anyone trying to extract the maximum possible performance, there is around 15% speed gain to be had by specifying a smaller, but faster hard drive. Currently the maximum size drive at 7200 rpm is 100Gb.

Memory

Memory is frequently confused with hard drive capacity. While both are storage areas, they operate in different ways.

Sodimm RAM chip as used in a laptop. (Image courtesy of Kingston Technology)
 

Sodimm RAM chip as used in a laptop. (Image courtesy of Kingston Technology)

To use a simple analogy, the hard drive is the filing cabinet where you store your files and images, while memory is the notepad on your desk where you store information that you need frequently and at speed.

Memory in computer terms means RAM chips removable circuit boards with memory chips soldered onto them. These are where data are stored temporarily while the machine carries out tasks. It is sometimes described as ‘swap memory’ and it is important to put as much into your laptop as possible. Next to the processor itself, it is the biggest determinant of the machines performance. Ideally, think of 1Gb as a bare minimum and 2Gb or more as the ideal.

Screen

Screen size and quality are important factors to the photographer. Sizes range from the mini machines at 10” (25.4cm) right up to 17” (43.8cm).

Because of size and cost constraints, laptop screens are not capable of reproducing as many colours as a quality desktop monitor. Nevertheless, a good laptop monitor can be calibrated and will give sufficient fidelity to at least output roughs to clients and is perfectly good enough to show off your folio to an art director.

If you only want to work with a laptop and have no intention of buying a workstation, the majority of laptops allow a desktop monitor to be plugged in for colour-critical editing work or presentations.

What else?

Now the basic technical stuff is a little clearer, it is worth considering what else is important to a photographer?

Connectivity

A laptop looks great without the wires, but images need to be imported and exported from the machine. Back ups need to be done and you may want to use a mouse, plug in a Wacom graphics tablet or even tether your camera to the laptop.

All these components need sockets or ‘ports’ to connect to. The majority use a connection called ‘USB2’ or Universal Serial Bus 2, so you need as many USB ports as possible.

For connecting cameras or card readers, it is often useful to have ports for a connection type known as Firewire or IEE 1394a. This tends to be a Mac protocol, but many PCs now feature the smaller 4-pin Firewire or Mini DV (Digital Video) connector that provides the same functionality.

Side view of Hewlett Packard’s DV2036 laptop showing the wide variety of ports including both USB2 and IEE1394a / Firewire 400.
 

Side view of Hewlett Packard’s DV2036 laptop showing the wide variety of ports including both USB2 and IEE1394a / Firewire 400.

WIFI

WIFI or Wireless LAN is for networking or connecting to other computers. It also provides connectivity to the internet in many hotels and other public spaces.

The good news is that almost all laptops now feature this as a standard feature. Be certain that it is included in the machine that you are buying.

Pricing and models (as of March 2007)

There are several price tiers in the laptop market. For the purpose of this article, there are four levels ranging from level 1 at sub €750; level 2 at €750 - €1,500; level 3 at €1,500 - €2,250 and the top of the range machines priced over €2,250.

For professional photographic use we can safely rule out level 1. Above that level, pricing is related to performance and perceived ‘professionalism’.

In the laptop market, like any other, there are options, and sometimes it seems like there are too many options. To reduce confusion, two models have been identified in each price tier one PC and one Mac.

Apple Mac is renowned for its minimalist styling and ‘cool’ factor. Hewlett Packard, which produces PCs, is known for making solid and reliable products with up-to-date features and good performance.

Level 4

 

At the top end of the market both platforms compete with machines featuring the Intel Core 2 Duo 2.33 processor, 2Gb+ of memory and high-resolution displays. Both the Mac and the PC have 17” screens.

Apple MacBook Pro 17” Intel Core 2 Duo 2.33Ghz, 2Gb RAM, 160Gb hard drive €2,443
Hewlett Packard nw9440 Workstation Intel Core 2 Duo 2.33Ghz, 2Gb RAM, 120Gb hard drive €3,173

Photoshop CS3 runs well on both and iView flies through a large image archive. Both machines have good screens with extremely high resolution (bearing in mind the point made earlier about the limitations of any laptop display) and when calibrated, provide good colour rendition.


Level 3

In the mid range, specifications are similar, with Apple having a slight performance edge, but HP’s machine is slightly cheaper.

Apple MacBook Pro 15” Core 2 Duo 2.16Ghz, 1Gb RAM, 120Gb Hard drive €1,735.
Hewlett Packard dv9050ea Core 2 Duo 1.6Ghz, 1Gb RAM, 100Gb hard drive €1,607.

 

Level 2

At the lower end of the market, specifications are again similar. Apple perhaps gains in terms of cool factor, but the HP machine is slightly more solid.

Apple MacBook 13” - Intel Core 2 Duo 1.83Ghz, 512Mb RAM, 60Gb hard drive - €963
Hewlett packard DV2036ea 14.1” - AMD Turion Dual Core 1.6Ghz, 1Gb RAM, 100Gb hard drive - €932

(All prices are manufacturer’s list prices excluding VAT)