Looking for the best budget laptop you can find for home working and photo editing? When it comes to choosing a new laptop, the sky's the limit. If you're after the best photo-editing laptop there's no shortage of stunning machines that go large on tech and performance. Trouble is, they also go large on price as a result, often costing as much as a decent used car.
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Fortunately it is possible to bag a capable laptop that's got enough oomph for some serious photo editing, home working, or even light gaming, and all for around the $500-$800 mark. At this price point don't expect the latest and greatest Octa-core processors or a large-capacity internal SSD, but you'd be surprised what you can still find.
In this guide we're focusing on a laptop's screen specs above all else, as these can make or break a laptop's photo editing ability. Firstly, consider screen size. Laptops can be had in a range of screen sizes from around 11.6-inches up to 17-inches. The smaller sizes may be great for portability, but soon get tiresome when used for extended periods. We're assuming you're more likely to use your laptop mostly from home, where a 15-15.6" screen size makes most sense and is commonly available.
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Then there's screen quality. Laptop screens primarily use two types of LCD technology: TN, and IPS. TN is the cheaper variety and is characterized by restrictive contrast and viewing angles, requiring you to tilt the screen up or down to choose whether highlight or shadow detail in an image is visible - not great for viewing images, let alone editing them. IPS screen tech has no such issues, and is a must if you want to do justice to your photos. Finally, there's screen resolution. At 15.6 inches, a Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution is what you should look for, as anything less will leave you with a pixelated, low-resolution viewing experience that'll soon get uncomfortable.
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As for the rest of the laptop specs, temporary storage, known as RAM, is vital - consider 8GB a minimum. Long term storage is likely to come in the form of a conventional hard disk drive - not the fastest technology, but adequate on a budget, and it'll give you a healthy 1TB+ capacity. It is possible to get a faster SSD-based storage drive instead, but capacity will be low - usually around 256GB.
As for the central processor - the laptop's 'engine' - the minefield of processor model numbers from manufacturers Intel and AMD is all but undecipherable. Basically, anything with four cores should see you through reasonably intensive photo editing and work, and the faster the Gigahertz (GHz) rating, the better.
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The ThinkBook 15 Gen 2 is a thin and light laptop just 18.9mm thick and tipping the scales at a very reasonable 1.7kg. The external aesthetic is subtle and corporate, making it an ideal machine for use at home or work.
In an age where physical connection ports are in short supply, Lenovo has given the ThinkBook 15 a refreshing well stocked selection of connections. There's a bang-up-to-date Thunderbolt 4 ports, a USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C port, 2 USB-A ports, plus headphone/mic, LAN, and HDMI ports, and even a full-size SD card reader.
Battery life is respectable at up to 8 hours for the larger 60Wh battery option, or up to 6 hours if you spec the smaller 45Wh battery. Screen specs are also impressive, with most models being equipped with a Full HD 1920x1080 display. Be sure to pick the IPS screen option to get top quality viewing angles and reliable color and contrast. An entry-level TN-based LCD display is available, also Full HD, but it's best avoided as color and contrast accuracy will be sub-par.
Rather than running Windows or Mac OS, this budget laptop is based on Google's ChromeOS operating system. It's designed to be super-simple to use and runs apps from Google's Play Store, just like an Android phone or tablet. As such you won't be able to use Windows software, notably Adobe Photoshop, but there are alternatives like Lightroom Mobile, and Google's own Snapseed.
Despite its low, low price, this is one of the best Chromebooks you can buy right now, with its standout feature being its 14-inch Full HD 1080p screen. It's an IPS panel, so you needn't worry about restricted viewing angles or weak contrast. Be sure you go for this Full HD (FHD) version of the HP Chromebook 14 though, as other models are available with lesser screens, and we don't reckon the marginally lower price is worth the significant reduction in display quality.
Of course, a laptop this cheap is never going be an image-editing powerhouse, and the base Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and 32GB on-board storage all represent the minimum of what you can get away with for web browsing, image viewing and HD YouTube viewing. But the payoff for having such power-efficient hardware is up to 11 hours battery life from a highly portable and lightweight device.
Acer's Nitro 5 laptop range is all about offering maximum performance with minimal outlay. The focus is unashamedly on gaming, so the exterior is chunky and utilitarian, and you get frills like a glowing backlit keyboard of dubious aesthetic appeal. But see past the superficial gaming extras and the Nitro 5 has so much to offer non-gamers, too.
There are several Nitro 5 variants, but all but one sport a 15.6-inch Full HD IPS screen, so you needn't worry you might be tripped up by the specs lottery of some other manufacturers and end up with a lesser display.
We've selected the bottom of the range Nitro 5, but even this gives you a capable quad-core AMD Ryzen 5 2500U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard disk drive for plenty of file storage (other configurations with a smaller but faster SSD alternative are also available, and for minimal extra outlay).
Factor the included dedicated graphics card and even if you weren't previously a gamer, this laptop might just give you a new hobby!
Even if you're not a video gamer, don't ignore the gaming laptop sector. Gamers want fast performance and a high quality screen, which is exactly what we as photographers also value.
With this laptop get a selection of nippy processor options, and at least 8GB of RAM (though speccing 16GB would be a smart move for future-proofing), along with speedy SSD storage for your files, with 256GB, 512GB or 1TB capacities available.
Screen specs are well catered for by the quality 15.6-inch Full-HD (1920 x 1080) IPS screen which will show off your photos in all their glory. The Pavilion 15 Gaming Laptop also includes a dedicated graphics card like the GeForce GTX 1650 or faster, to give this laptop a genuine gaming ability, or to help speed up your video rendering.
We reckon even the cheaper spec configurations of the Pavilion 15 Gaming Laptop give you a great bang for your buck, making this laptop a great deal.
Fancy a laptop and tablet in one? The Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 offers an outstanding amount of versatility and features for a very reasonable price. The 14-inch Full HD screen can flip back and around to rest on the back of the machine, creating a tablet PC, albeit a thick one. The screen is touch-sensitive and can be used as a basic pen-enabled graphics tablet - a very rare trick in the budget sector. Dell hasn't forgotten about display quality either, as the panel uses IPS tech - great for photo quality.
Under the hood is a bang-up-to-date 10th generation Intel® Core™ i5-10210U quad-core CPU with a potent 1.6GHz base speed and up to 4.2GHz boost speed. Pair this with the 8GB of RAM and generous 512GB SSD and you've got very respectable all-round performance.
The only drawback here is the 14-inch screen size, which is noticeably smaller than a typical 15.6-inch laptop and can make for a slightly fiddly Photoshop workspace. But if you prioritize portability, this compromise may just be worth it.
HP's Pavilion range is packed with budget-friendly, yet well-specced models that are great for a variety of tasks, including home-working. Various processor and RAM configurations can be had, but we recommend midrange the AMD Ryzen 5-based machines, as these offer the best balance of power at a reasonable price.
8GB RAM is the minimum available for the current Pavilion 15 range, and this is good enough for light photo editing. If you need to edit really big images, 16GB RAM can be specced with a few Pavilion 15 versions, though this will tie you into a much pricier machine overall.
Connectivity is decent for the price point, with USB-C, USB-A, HDMI and even a built-in SD card reader. Also impressive is the 15.6-inch Full HD 1920 x 1080 screen, which is IPS-based so your photos will be displayed at their best.
Asus's VivoBook range is extensive, and rather confusing, but pay close attention to the specs and it is possible to grab a 15.6-inch model equipped with a high quality Full HD IPS screen with wide viewing angles and reliable contrast. There are various different VivoBook S15 model numbers that can get you this screen option, but it's not universal, so check carefully before you buy.
Several processor options are available, but the quad-core Intel Core i5 balances performance and cost the best. Elsewhere, the S15 is most often specced with a healthy 8GB of RAM and a small but fast 256GB SSD.
Measuring 361.4 x 243.5 x 18 mm and weighing in at 1.8kg, the VivoBook is also a svelte budget laptop, proving that low cost doesn't have to mean low style.
How we test laptops
When reviewing a laptop, we assess its internal hardware features, build quality, ergonomics, performance in a variety of usage scenarios, value for money, and its overall suitability for its target buyer. Although we'll evaluate a laptop with a typical user in mind, we will also pay particular attention to the perspective of photo and video enthusiasts, with special focus given to screen quality and color space coverage. Where possible, a monitor calibrator will be used to measure a laptop's display performance to assess whether it matches a manufacturer's claims, and software benchmarks like GeekBench are used to measure a laptop's processor and graphics card capabilities.
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