The Right Specs for Editing Power
Powerful laptops weighing just a few pounds can now handle many of the tasks that editors used to perform on intricate and expensive equipment in a studio. So whether your boss expects you to make first edits in the field, you’re a film student, or you just want to review your vacation footage on your flight home, you should consider a laptop with robust enough specs for video editing. Here’s what to look for.
Companies seldom make laptops specifically for video editing in the same way they push bulked-up machines for PC gamers, or Chromebooks targeted at students. That means you’ll have to pick and choose features from among standard laptop categories such as ultraportables, gaming laptops, and mobile workstations. Your list of most-wanted features could end up belonging to a dream machine that doesn’t exactly match any laptop currently for sale. But at least you’ll have a starting point from which to make compromises.
Devoting most of your budget to a powerful CPU, a buffed-up graphics card, and many gigabytes of memory is a safe bet, but ancillary features such as storage, input/output options, and the operating system are far more important factors for you than they are for the average laptop shopper. So is weight, since even a few extra pounds could push your already heavy bag over an airline’s weight limit or make your carry-on too fat to fit into an overhead bin.
Display specs are especially important, especially if you plan on using your laptop for more advanced editing tasks such as shading and color correction. A comfortable keyboard is a must, too, since keyboard shortcuts help streamline many editing tasks, from starting and stopping playback to adding keyframes.
Finally, there are a few features common on laptops that you don’t need to worry about when buying a mobile video-editing station. Chief among them is battery life, since video editing consumes so much power that your laptop will probably spend most of its time plugged in. (If editing on the road is a must, buy a power strip and spare adapter for hotel rooms, and make sure your flight has in-seat power outlets before you buy a ticket.) Neither will you get much use out of a touch screen or a convertible laptop that doubles as a tablet, unless you’re looking for a machine that you’ll also use for web browsing and watching videos after the end of a long day of shooting and editing.
The Key Engines of Editing: CPU and Memory
The two most important laptop components for video editors are the CPU and memory. Most applications are optimized to take advantage of modern multi-core CPUs, which usually means that the more cores you have, the better. Fortunately, even some of Intel’s mobile Core U-series processors, designed to use less power than their desktop counterparts, now have four cores, and with the 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” mobile processors, a few of the Core i7 and Core i9 H-series CPUs (which lie between the U series and Intel’s desktop chips) feature Hyper-Threading-enabled designs with support for six cores and 12 concurrent processing threads.
For a bird’s-eye view of how a higher processor core count increases performance, you’ll want to check out how well the laptop you’re considering fares on our Cinebench benchmark, which is listed in the performance section of each review. This test uses software from video-effects titan Maxon to spit out a proprietary score based on how quickly the PC can render a 3D image. Although multiple factors can influence the score, in general, the more (and faster) cores the CPU has and the more addressable threads it supports, the quicker the image renders.
The principle is the same for video-editing software such as Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro, which are engineered to distribute compute tasks over multiple cores just like Cinebench. Any Cinebench result above 700 is excellent for a laptop, and suggests that it will be an adequate video-editing machine. Typical machines with these results range from some Core i7-powered ultraportables to most mobile workstations equipped with Xeon processors. Note, however, that desktops with full-powered CPUs can push far above 1,000 on this test.
The problem with selecting a many-core processor is that manufacturers don’t always list core counts and support for Hyper-Threading (or the lack thereof) on the box or website product page. You may have to determine the exact CPU inside and Google for details; Intel’s ARK processor-info site is a primary source for this info.
Luckily, finding out how much memory the system has is much easier. A good rule of thumb is that you should select a laptop with 16GB of RAM. For many consumer ultraportables, this is the limit, although you can now order some mobile workstations and Apple’s MacBook Pros with 32GB. The cost is often prohibitive, however, and we think the money is better spent on a faster CPU, so we’re calling 16GB the sweet spot.
Hard Drive or SSD: Keep It a Spin-Free Zone?
To complete the trifecta of principal specs, you’ll want a fast boot drive. In nearly all cases, this means configuring a laptop with a solid-state drive (SSD), which can access data much faster than older spinning drives. For everyday computing use, the speed difference between an SSD and a spinning-platter hard drive is vast, since an SSD’s main skill is decreasing boot times and making apps load faster. These things don’t matter as much for video editing, but an SSD will still offer noticeable speed gains on specialized tasks such as playing back multiple clips at once or working with 4K footage.
Ideally, you want a capacious hard drive in addition to a speedy SSD, but since the cost of built-in SSDs skyrockets at capacities above 1TB, it’s more cost effective to make sure your laptop has a Thunderbolt 3 connection to enable a link to a fast external drive where you’ll store most of your footage. That said, some larger workstation and gaming machines can offer two drives (an SSD boot drive, plus a roomy hard drive), and if you’re in the market for a big machine, this is an ideal video editors’ arrangement: both speed and mass storage at your disposal, without external-drive hassles.
When it comes to assessing SSDs, midrange and high-end machines have moved toward SSDs using the PCI Express bus (often associated with the term “NVMe,” for a protocol that affords faster data transfers than ever). PCI Express SSDs are often implemented these days on laptops via the M.2 interface, which reduces the drive itself to a gumstick-size sliver. That said, in some designs, such as Apple’s MacBook Pros, the SSD may be soldered down and not upgradable after purchase. (See our advice for the best M.2 SSDs and much more about the PCI Express interface as it pertains to SSDs.)
Graphics Acceleration: Dedicated or Not?
Most non-gaming laptops come with graphics-acceleration silicon that’s part of the CPU, usually dubbed “Intel HD Graphics” or “UHD Graphics,” not a separate graphics processing unit (GPU). This arrangement offers weak performance if you’re playing richly detailed, AAA-grade video games, but it’s actually fine for many video-editing scenarios. As mentioned earlier, nearly all video-editing suites are designed to take advantage of more powerful processors, but the ability to leverage powerful graphics-processing hardware isn’t as common.
There are a few exceptions. For example, a discrete GPU can speed up the video-encoding process in Final Cut Pro X, and the latest version of Blackmagic’s Davinci Resolve editing suite has a new video-playback engine that’s optimized for powerful GPUs. In fact, Davinci’s Linux version offers support for as many as eight individual GPUs. Since the highest number of graphics processors we’ve ever seen in a laptop is two (and that’s quite rare, seen only on elite, gigantic gaming rigs that tend to exceed $ 5,000), it’s best to save GPU-accelerated editing tasks for when you get back to the studio.
That said, if the laptop you’re considering offers an entry-level discrete GPU for a reasonable premium (say, $ 200 or so), there’s little reason not to spring for it and enjoy the added speed boost when you’re exporting video. This will usually be, if it’s a mainstream, non-gaming-oriented machine, an Nvidia GeForce MX130 or MX150 graphics chip. Once you’ve graduated to a GeForce GTX graphics chip (the lowest-end, “starter” chip there is the GeForce GTX 1050) you’ve graduated to the gaming-chip leagues; an Nvidia Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro chip means you’re looking at a workstation-garde laptop. You can get a comparative idea of a laptop’s graphics performance by glancing at its scores on our 3DMark benchmark tests, as well as our game-simulating graphics trials from Unigine.
Connectivity: Lose the Weight, Not the Ports
If you’re already carrying around dozens of pounds of camera and lighting equipment, the last thing you want is to add weight to your bag. Luckily, many very powerful laptops weigh less than 3 pounds these days. The thinnest and lightest won’t have discrete GPUs or displays larger than 14 inches, but you may be able to do without these features, especially if you’ve got a studio with a more powerful editing station where you do most of your cutting.
If you’re slimming down, however, try not to lose too many ports. We recommend at least one Thunderbolt 3 port, which lets you connect to external displays via the DisplayPort standard, lightning-fast external drives, and pretty much any USB peripheral, such as external mice or keyboards, via an adapter. Some laptops, including all MacBook Pro models, only include Thunderbolt 3, which is a bit extreme since the standard is still relatively new. The sweet spot is one or two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and one or two regular USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 ports.
An SD card slot can also be useful for transferring footage directly from your camera to your laptop, and all laptops should have an audio port for connecting headphones to use while editing on the plane or in a cafe.
Assessing the Display: Counting Inches
With many laptops these days offering at least full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution, your main screen consideration should be screen size, not pixel count. A 15-inch or 17-inch display will let you see more of your project timeline, but it comes at the expense of weight and heft. Meanwhile, a 12-inch display like the one on the Apple MacBook could have you squinting. The sweet spot, therefore, if you need to travel with your editing machine is 13 or 14 inches. Many laptops, including Dell’s XPS lineup, manage to squeeze a 13-inch or 14-inch screen into a chassis that otherwise would hold a smaller display by slimming down the bezel, or border, around the screen.
While full HD resolution is fine for many editing tasks, if you shoot primarily in 4K, you will want a screen resolution to match. Combine a 4K (that is, 3,840-by-2,160-pixel) screen, a four- or six-core processor, and a discrete GPU, though, and you’ll likely end up with brutally short battery life. So, if you settle on a 4K screen, make sure it’s feasible that you’ll stick near a power outlet most of the time, and consider buying an external battery charger to use in a pinch. At the other end of the spectrum, don’t choose a resolution below full HD in any video-editing machine.
If your video-editing tasks mostly involve arranging clips, mixing audio, and the like, you probably don’t need to worry about the display’s color capabilities. For more artistic or precision-minded jobs, though, such as shading and color correction, you’ll want to pay attention to how many colors the screen can display and how it calibrates the color profile. Look for specs like a P3 color gamut and automatic calibration, features that are often rolled into a single marketing moniker such as HP’s DreamColor.
As mentioned earlier, you probably needn’t worry about whether or not the laptop has a touch screen. Video editing involves precision and repetition, which are best suited to keyboard shortcuts and a mouse, not touch inputs. The one exception is the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, a narrow, secondary touch screen perched forward of the keyboard, between it and the screen. It’s designed with apps like Final Cut Pro and the Adobe Creative Suite in mind, and will pop up context-relevant shortcuts with supported software. It’s essentially a function row for serious content creators that morphs according to the program in use.
If you’re a novice editor or a veteran willing to switch up your workflow, the Touch Bar could be a useful way to scrub through clips, adjust audio levels, and perform other similar tasks. If you’re buying a high-end MacBook Pro, the Touch Bar comes with the laptop, whether you want it or not, so you might as well experiment with it. But we don’t recommend choosing an Apple laptop solely for this still-novel interface.
Editing Platform Basics: Mac or PC?
Video editors are among the class of creative professionals that stereotypically prefer to use Macs instead of PCs. Whether or not you fit that stereotype, if you’re a veteran of the industry, you probably already have a preference, so we’re not going to try to change your mind.
If you’re OS-agnostic, however, you have a vast array of hardware choices if you decide to choose a PC over a Mac laptop. The biggest advantage of going with Windows 10 or Linux is the possibility of buying a workstation-class laptop with a many-core Intel Xeon processor, something not available on any Mac portable; the closest thing is a six-core Core i7 or i9 on the very highest-end MacBook Pro. We tested a kitted-out Core i9 version of the 2018 MacBook Pro and found it a brute for video-editing heavy lifts, but you’re looking at a minimum starting price of $ 2,799 for the i9 silicon, exclusive of any other upgrades.
Another OS consideration is video-editing software. Final Cut Pro only works on Macs, although most other editing suites, from Premiere Pro to Avid Media Composer, are available on multiple platforms. If you’re wedded to one program or another (and most serious video editors are), we’d expect that to play into your decision just as much, if not more, than the OS itself or the hardware available.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
We’ve selected 10 of our top-rated models whose specs and prices fall within this rough range and outlined them below. Some are gaming laptops, others are mobile workstations, and there are even a few thin-and-light models. Any of them should be powerful enough for at least casual video editing, and some are muscled-up enough for major editing tasks.
Ultimately, how much you’ll have to budget depends on whether you’re only using your video-editing laptop for quick work in the field, or whether you plan to bring it back to the studio, plug it in, and use it as your primary machine. If you’re going the former route, you’ll also want to take a look at our best desktops when it comes time to upgrade your main rig. If you’re choosing the latter, you might want to familiarize yourself with our list of best gaming laptops, one of which may offer the power—especially the heftier CPU—you need for marathon editing sessions on deadline night.
Best Video Editing Laptops Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Excellent battery life. Core i9 processing muscle. Sleek, thin all-metal design. Beautiful display with automatic color-temperature adjustment. Roomy SSD.
Cons: High starting price, and painfully expensive as configured. Limited I/O options.
Bottom Line: With the addition of an Intel Core i9 processor, the sleek 15-inch MacBook Pro is now one of the most powerful desktop-replacement laptops you can buy, making it an excellent choice for well-heeled, on-the-go creative pros.
Pros: Sharp design. High-quality, portable build. Better-than-60fps gaming at appealing price via GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPU. 144Hz display. Long battery life for a gaming laptop. Solid port selection. Per-key backlighting.
Cons: 512GB of storage in tester unit is a little tight for gaming. A bit of lid flex.
Bottom Line: MSI’s GS65 Stealth delivers better-than-60fps gaming performance and a premium, portable build with long battery life. With no real flaws, an appealing price, and power topped only by pricey alternatives, it’s our top midrange gaming laptop.
Pros: Portable, spiffy design. High-end build quality. Hits well over 60fps while gaming with its RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU. 144Hz display benefits from high frame rates. Per-key RGB keyboard backlighting. Good battery life.
Cons: Garish lid logo. Runs hot while gaming. White “Mercury Edition” costs extra.
Bottom Line: The 2019 Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model takes last year’s slick, winning design and adds peppy, muscled-up Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics. It’s our top recommendation in its class.
Pros: Powerful, VR-ready Nvidia Quadro graphics and six-core Intel CPU. Gorgeous 4K touch screen. Classic ThinkPad keyboard does not disappoint.
Cons: A pound overweight. Brief battery life.
Bottom Line: Thumping its peers in our testing, Lenovo’s Quadro-based ThinkPad P52 raises the bar for beefy 15.6-inch mobile workstations in almost every regard.
Pros: Stylish, sleek, and light. Stunning 4K touch screen. Legendary ThinkPad keyboard. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Cons: Expensive. No Core i9 or WWAN option. Ethernet port requires optional dongle. Lackluster battery life.
Bottom Line: Torn between the Dell XPS 15 and Apple MacBook Pro? Your decision gets more complicated with the arrival of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme, a deluxe desktop replacement with a sensational Dolby Vision HDR screen.
Pros: Premium alloy construction. Elegant convertible design. Sharp high-resolution touch display in new larger size. Discrete Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics. Very long battery life. Multiple configuration options. Xbox wireless controller receiver is integrated.
Cons: 16GB RAM maximum. Surface Pen is an additional purchase. Adding SSD storage is pricey. Some finicky issues required troubleshooting in our tests.
Bottom Line: The Surface Book 2 is a feat of design, a top-of-the-line premium convertible 2-in-1 laptop that’s fast, long lasting, versatile, and portable. It’s even up for gaming.
Pros: Excellent touchpad. Gorgeous display. Titanic-capacity SSD in test model. Improved keyboard comfort. Full-disk encryption. “Hey Siri” functionality.
Cons: No option for discrete graphics. Using ports will require adapters or dongles, in most cases. Expensive as configured.
Bottom Line: A pricey but superior tool for creative pros, 2018’s Touch Bar version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro brings four-core moxie to Apple’s handsome ultraportable, with options for cavernous local storage.
Pros: Top-end Nvidia Quadro P5200 graphics, Core i9 processor, 4K display in test unit. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Category-leading performance, as configured.
Cons: Big and heavy. Build is classy but unremarkable. Battery life is short.
Bottom Line: The highly configurable Dell Precision 7730 is a big, fierce 17-inch workstation for pros in design, VR-content-creation, and engineering fields. Our stacked Core i9/Quadro P5200 model delivers best-in-class performance.
Pros: Hexa-core horsepower. Screen choices including 1080p with privacy filter and 4K DreamColor. Snappy keyboard with collaboration features. Toolless access for upgrades. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Strong audio.
Cons: Big and heavy. Privacy screen is too dark.
Bottom Line: It’s a bruiser compared with Apple’s MacBook Pro or Dell’s Precision 5530, but HP’s ZBook 15 G5 is an ultra-powerful, ultra-configurable mobile workstation ready to crush the toughest jobs and biggest datasets.
Pros: Sleek, premium build quality. Comfortable keyboard. 4K touch screen that mimics writing on paper. Impressive 32GB of memory.
Cons: Expensive as configured. Heavy. Underwhelming graphics performance.
Bottom Line: The HP ZBook x2 is heavy and expensive, but this Windows tablet’s strong feature set gives creatives an excellent alternative to using a traditional laptop or desktop.