Hello guys! I worked with computers for over 20 years. I work in all types of things, architecture, 2d design, but also a lot of 3d design. Last 15 years for travelling and different works I used laptops for my 3d applications, I used over 10 laptops, and went I need to buy a new one mostly for 3D applications (I have installed right now 3ds Max, Blender and Houdini, but I used as well cinema 4d and maya), I take in consideration multiple factors I think they are important. And since a lot of people ask me for opinions about what laptop to buy, I decided to create this “guide” that I hope you will found useful.
You will see images that will link to Amazon. You will not get charged extra if you buy using this links, and I will get a small fee, so if this is helpful, consider buying using this guide, thanks!
Provably you hear Macs are good for design. Yes, it was true 20 years ago and for 2d Design.
If we talk about 3d design, you will found a small amount of users using Macs (Specially the ones using Cinema4d), but the truth is almost no big company uses macs for 3d, and has an easy answer: You pay much more for a mac to have slower components than the equivalent on PC.
No doubt Macs has a great build quality and excellent screen, but you will need to pay a lot to just have an entry level dedicated gpu (that is not an nvidia).
Another reason is that software like 3dsmax only runs on windows, so you will need to install a partition in a mac to run windows, and while possible, is not the best solution if you main package will be 3ds.
Remember that if you are looking for a good quality PC in 2019 you can found multiple brands with similar build quality than a mac.
The size of you laptop is measured by the size of the screen, and it not only affect your viewing area, but also how portable will be your laptop and how powerful can be.
Laptops are very limited for the space they have to allocate components, and how smaller is the space, more difficult to refrigerate them. This way you will only see gtx 1080 or 2080 on 17 inches laptop while you will see 1060 and 1070 on 15″, and on 13″ you will get only integrated gpus or very basic ones. Same happen for ram, where mostly you will be able to have a maximum of 32 gb of ram on 15″ while on 17″ you will reach 64.
10 Years ago 17 inch laptops was quite popular, but they started to be replaced for more and more 15 and 14 inches laptops. I think they are a good compromise between mobility, performance, and a comfortable size screen.
Another important factor is the keyboard. on 17″ you will get a numpad, very good if you introduce a lot of data. A couple of years ago all 15 inches had numpad, but the tendency nowadays is to remove the numpad even on 15 inches (they are reducing screen borders, reduce weight). Some people dont mind the numpad, but for all of us that we enter a lot of numeric data is good to have.
Screen is provably the item you interact the most, and at the same time is provably the item people is less interested in. A good screen is important for your eyes, for viewing angles and much more. There is different technology and terminology to define screens and its important to know what they mean.
Mostly in 2019 you will found 1080p and 4K resolution. On very cheap laptops you will still found 720p, that I dont recommend if you want to work in 3d. Your area of work on most 3d applications will be very limited. With 4K resolution you will have crisper text, but also will demand extra power to display your viewport.
Some 3d applications are still not 100% optimized for 4K monitors, and on a small screen will not make the same impact as on a bigger screen. My suggestion if you will be using it mostly for 3d, is to get a good 1080p panel, will look great, you will have more battery, and you will be sure all 3d applications will work great.
In the other hand, if you plan to do a lot of photo edition, reading on the laptop, or video editing, can be good to go for a 4K panel.
- TN/IPS: Its the panel fabrication technique. What you need to know is that TN panels are cheaper, but also had greater refresh rates, so originally was very present on gaming laptops.
IPS has better viewing angles, better color accuracy (more linear color response, higher bit depth, better contrast and consistency across different viewing angles),
usually more bright, lately are getting better on refresh rates so you will see it in more expensive
gaming laptops. I write this on a TN panel, while its totally usable for general 3d, if you need to do color retouching in photoshop or doing composition of your images,
its true that depending of the viewing angle colors can change a lot, not being a good choice for this other purposes.
- Color accuracy: Very important if in your laptop you will do a part of 3d, color correction on images or videos. IPS panels are better for that as we said.Usually color accuracy is represented with a % of Adobe RGB covage. 100% is very good, lower is not so good.
- Nits: Define how bright is the panel. If you plan to work a lot on exterior, a brighter panel will be highly recommended, usually look for higher than 300 nits.
- Frequency: Measured in Hz, define at what rate the screen is refreshing. Higher frequency is very important on videogames, but also makes a difference while scrolling text for example. On 3d screen frequency is not so important.
- Matte/glossy: Its the finishing of the screen, and it totally depends of your taste/ A Matte finish will kill reflections, while a glossy screen willbe more reflective but at the same time having more vivid colors. For me reflections are quite annoying and I prefer more a matte display. Some laptops has the option to choose the finishing, others you just get one option.
- Bezels: Since 2 years now the tendency is having less bezels. Obviously this has no influence on your 3d application, but will mean a bigger screen on a smaller body, that its always good for portability, and why not, looks cooler.
After the screen, I think the keyboard its also very important on a laptop and some people dont even try it before buying a laptop. Most important things I watch before buying a laptop:
- Key travel: How deep a key is moving when you press them. With most modern laptops to reduce height, they had more a more shallow keys, specially visible on newer macs, creating the sensation of moving very little when you press them. This can be annoying for most people, loosing correct key hits. If you use it for 3d, will not be the same as if you write a book, but still on 3d you will pass a lot of time renaming layers or objects, using the keyboard for shortcuts, and if you are more in to scripting or programming, its quite possible a decent travel distance will be important to you.
- Keyboard layout: For some strange and unknown reasons, maybe and excess of creativity, some manufacturers start doing changes on keyboard layouts, having some of the most common keys like “shift”, “enter”, or arrow keys on a weird or lets say unusual location. This things are impossible to change, so you will need to adapt, or just discard a laptop just for an unusual keyboard layout.
- Illumination: Entry laptops sometimes has no light keyboard. Is not something Im specially interested, but if you use your laptop at night can be a good thing to have. Most expensive laptops has independent light colors per key that are also programable. Some people uses this to create “areas” on the keyboard to make it more visible the shortcuts on his 3d program. (I found it totally useless, I never watch the keyboard when I use shortcuts, but hey! people like what they like!).
- Numeric pad: Some people dont use it, but Im totally used to it, when using it on most FX programs, Im used to enter specific values, more than move sliders, and a numpad for me accelerate a lot how I work on 3d, so for this reason if I see a laptop that I like a lot, but has no numpad… is more provable I will pass.
On 3d applications a good CPU its very important, will make your application faster, rendering faster, simulating faster, being able to work with more complex scenes, and more. So a good cpu its important. You have AMD and intel. While AMD is doing good lately with desktop CPUs, on laptops he is not very present, and 95% of the laptops you will found are with Intel CPUs. For a 3d laptop I will discard i3 (not enough power), and the i9 (too much power),
remember you are in a very small body, and you need a good refrigeration, if you dont get a huge laptop (big) I will avoid a too powerful cpu like an i9, where you can have trhotteling problems and over heating. So I will go with an i5 or i7, depending on the money you have available. (Most 15″ gaming laptops has an i7-8750H nowadays. Thats a very good cpu compared with cpus from 2 years ago, having 6 cores and 12 threads.
Dont get confused with the confusing (and stupid) intel naming convention. If the laptop at the end has an “U” or an “Y”, for example: i7-8565U, this means is a low voltage cpu.
So even its called “i7″ will be way less powerful than a i7 cpu finishing in “H”, also less cores. Most 13″ laptops has this less powerful cpus, or laptops like Xiaomi 15″. Having a “U” CPU means slower renders and sims, but the benefit is to have a lighter computer, less heat to dissipate, so a less loud computer, and more energy efficient.
Computers with a U processor:
GPUs are more and more used. And laptops gpus are getting as powerful as desktop gpus. On 3d applications GPUs where used mostly for viewport display before.
But nowadays this changed and GPUs are used for a lot of simulations or for GPU rendering. Forget about AMD gpus for 3d. Nvidia with CUDA technology is the king here. The question is… How much important is the gpu for you, and how silent do you need your laptop.
If you do lowpoly modeling and are rendering with CPU, its provable you will be fine with a 1050 or even you dont need a dedicated GPU. If you plan to render using a GPU renderer like Fstorm or Redshift, going for a gtx 1070 can be a good idea. And always remember, a more powerful GPU means more temperature to dissipate, on a small laptop this will mean, higher temperatures, and fans spinning faster, so a louder laptop.
Ram on a GPU its also important, higher end models has more ram, needed for more complex rendering using GPU, or for more complex simulations.
What you will found on a 3d laptop mostly will be:
MX150 Its the dedicated graphics card from intel with a lower TDP. Its around 2X faster than the buildin GPU on intels processors. If you plan to use it for 3d, sure you will be able to open and work with any 3dapp. Example of this is the Huawei
GTX 1050 (you will get an ok performance, will be a silent laptop) Dell XPS 15inch
- MaxQ: They introduced MaxQ design 1 year ago, basically a gtx 1060 MaxQ means that its a 1060 gpu chipset but runs something around 85% of his total performance, this makes the laptop run way more quite and cold, also reduce slightly performance. Not a bad idea for a laptop.
- RTX laptops. We start to see RTX laptops (RTX 2060 – 2070 – 2080) the big characteristic is Tensor cores and his raytrace accelerated hardware: Asus Rog Strix RTX 2060, Aorus RTX 2060, clevo RTX 2060, Asus Rog Strix RTX 2070, Gigabyte Aero 15 RTX 2070, ROG Sephyrus S RTX 2080,
Most GPU renderers will take profit of RTX graphic cards, rendering even faster, but its a very new technology and we will need to wait to 2020 to see the full possibilities of it. Buying today a RTX, they are already around 20% faster than the previous gen, but you will pay a way higher price (The difference between the 1070 and the 2070 its around 400$ more for 20% extra power and tensorcores), and there are still few 3d programs supporting RTX technology (this will change soon).
How much ram do you need for 3d? It totally depends. Any 3d program will run with 4 Gb of ram and you will be able to do basic stuff. If you do things that require not much ram like lowpoly modelling, asset modelling, small renders, scripting, etc, its quite possible that with 8Gb of ram you have enough. But always keep in mind that you will do other stuff with your laptop, maybe After effects, or preview animations and load in ram, or have multiple web pages open at the same time, and you will need for 16Gb that actually is the most standard quantity. With 16Gb you will be able to render big scenes, and manipulate more data, also do medium size simulations. If you need to render heavy scenes, or you are an FX guy (like me) I will recommend to go for 32 Gb. Only with 17 inch laptops you will be able to go with 64Gb of ram.
The good thing of ram is that is easily upgradeable, so if you are not sure, I can suggest you to buy a 16gb model, and if you need it you upgrade yourself the ram.
In 2019 most of the computers have DDR4 ram, I will not loose time in checking ram frequencies, higher speed ram slots can make some difference in gaming, but is not as important on 3d apps, what I look most of the time is to have the biggest capacity with the cheapest price. So far, I had over 7 laptops I never had a single ram slot failing, I work in more than 10 Desktops and only once 1 Ram slot malfunction (and it was an ECC!).
Most 15″ laptops have 2 slots for ram. A lot of them come with this 2 slots occupied (If its a 16Gb means 2 X 8 Gb), so if you want to upgrade you will need to replace the existing ram for 2 X 16 Gb. However some laptops (a few), only have 1 slot occupied with 16Gb of ram, having an empty slot. If you think you will update your ram, its a nice touch.
The quality on your laptop will not make it go faster, but can be important if you need to use your laptop in professional meetings, where you need to look serious, or also for durability. Some gaming laptops are cheaper because they use cheaper materials on his chassis, like plastic, they tend to have more flexibility on keyboard and screen, in the other hand some manufacturers like Razer, Apple, or Dell with Xps has computers with aluminium or carbon chassis, they will be more expensive than a usual gaming laptop for maybe lower components, but sure will not feel like a toy.
Here my favorite ones with great body construction:
If you buy a laptop most provable is that you need it to move around, and you want it to use it unplugged. Here the bad news, any 3d app uses extensively CPU and GPU, is not like browsing facebook or watching a movie, so unfortunately, even with a big battery, like some Dell XPS 15 inch, your battery will not last more than 3-4 hours and you will need to have a plug close by. When I select a laptop for 3d I dont take in to account battery life, but if you plan to use your laptop for other things as well, its something you can consider.
With thinner laptops the trend is to loose ports, while you get a more stylish laptop, if you are using it for work, you will need to carry multiple dongles, and its really unfortunate. It all depends in what you do, and is nothing will affect you directly with your 3d app.
I like to have at least 2 USB 2 or 3.0 connectors. I dont have any USB-C hardware, but in 2019 will be good to at least have one of this to ensure future compatibility. Is quite possible you will connect a mouse in one of the USB connectors, and in the other is quite possible you will have an external hardrive for example.
I like to do photos, so having a card reader integrated on my laptop its something I like a lot. Also I have a projector and having an HDMI connector makes my live easier, I output some times directly my 3d app there to do realtime mappings.
DVD reader, I think in 2019 they should be extinguish, but my laptop for example still have it (I never used it), some gaming laptops still keeps the DVD not sure why, I think the space will be better used in other components rather than that.
Ethernet connection, I didnt use it much lately, but its true that while doing freelance and going to other companies its something great to have if you need to connect to his intranet and share information with them.
And maybe the most important question: How much I should spend on my laptop?
A lot of students ask me this question, needing a laptop to start his 3d courses, and wanting the best. The trust is, nowadays even a 300$ laptop can run any 3d app, you dont need to spend 5K like 20 years ago. If you are a student I will not go for the most expensive laptop you can afford. You will need to study 2-3 years learning the software, then you will go maybe in to a company (where you will not need your laptop), or you will go by your own, needing maybe a full desktop, or after this 3 years if you start working you will have money and you will be able to buy something more expensive, and also after 3 years, better components.
If you are on the learning process something on the 1500-2500$ should be more than enough. If you are tight on budget no worries, you can do 3d more than ok with less than 1000$ (I never spend more than 800$ on any laptop).
Finally, if you are working as a freelance, doing money with it, and you need a powerful laptop, then I feel make sense spend over 2500$ on a laptop.
Here my suggestions based on price (Canadian dollars):
less than 1000$:
Below 1000$ one good option is to check for second hand laptops. You will need to be careful, but you can found good deals, getting much more for your money. Second recommendation will be to check for past generation CPU or GPUs. You always will pay more for the “last” tech than the actual speed increase you will get with an older generatio.
more than 2500$
Let me know in the comments if you have any question!