This past week, I had the opportunity to do something I rarely do: give my opinions not on a camera, but on a laptop computer. My colleagues at our sister site, NotebookReview.com, graciously agreed to let me spend some time with one of a relatively new breed of laptops built for and marketed heavily to power users in the imaging industry. In this particularly case, my test subject was Lenovo's latest, the ThinkPad W700.
If you're interested in my complete thoughts on this massive machine built exclusively for graphics-intensive work, my first look is available over on NBR (a full review will be published next week). But beyond the W700 specifically, the whole process of putting a photographer-focused system through its paces has made me think a bit more about what it is that photographers really need in a notebook. Drawing from the ThinkPad as a starting point, then, I've begun forming a vision of what the ideal photographer's laptop – in my opinion, at least – would look like. And it goes something like this...
Bigger isn't always better
As a desktop replacement device, the W700's desktop-quality 17 inch display is great. But the emphasis on large systems in the graphics-intensive notebook market ignores a simple truth about graphics pros: most creatives do the bulk of their work on high-end desktop systems. A photographer's laptop is, as a rule, truly a travel tool, providing a first stop for offloading, sorting, uploading, and doing first-pass post processing on images on the road.
More and more, I'm thinking my ideal mobile graphics machine will be built on a 15 inch platform, providing a slightly more workable balance between screen area and portability than most of the current graphics platforms offer. The W700 is a great machine to work on when it's anchored to a desk, but the fact of the matter is that it simply won't fit in even my largest photo gear bag. Never mind that it adds a shoulder punishing 12 pounds in the process. For those of us who spend a lot of time taking pictures (and, in my case, writing about taking pictures) on the road, a 17 inch machine is simply unworkable from a portability perspective.
Building a graphics system around a 15 inch display may also make sense in that it might make it more cost-effective to integrate higher-end display technologies. Many were disappointed to learn that for all the talk about its excllent display – and in many ways, it is an excellent panel – the W700 would be coming to market with a common twisted nematic (or TN) LCD. For those who aren't up on their technology where display panels are concerned, cheaper TN panels are the type found in the overwhelming majority of laptops and consumer-grade desktop LCDs.
The gold standard for display technology, though, is the in-plane switching (or IPS) panel type. Although many high-end desktop displays use IPS panels, their cost has kept them out of most laptops over the years – although Lenovo did source one as an option for the now discontinued ThinkPad T60. For color fidelity, contrast, and gamut, IPS panels simply can't be beat, and while they're expensive, building a graphics notebook around a 15 inch display would make integrating a high-end IPS display potentially more cost-viable.
And when it comes to size versus quality, I'll take the world's best 15 inch laptop display over even a very good 17 incher any day of the week.
Speed more important than space
Storage is another area where manufacturers building for graphics users tend to focus heavily on quantity – the assumption being that a photo or video library can easily begin to push the limits of a single notebook hard drive. Hence, machines tailored for this purpose also feature multiple drives in a RAID 0 configuration, netting a single storage area of 300+ gigabytes in your typical 17 inch graphics machine.
The problem here is that backup storage has become so cheap: I can easily get a terrabyte of file storage space in an external drive for under $200 these days. For this reason, most of us who take lots of images, and in particular lots of raw images, aren't exactly hurting for storage space.
Thus, I for one am not interested in paying a premium for file capacity in my notebook, as the majority of my images don't live there long. Rather, if I'm going to pay a premium, I'd much rather it be for speed. Others will undoutbtedly disagree, but a single, relatively low capacity, high-speed SSD is the ticket as far as I'm concerned – that kind of speed is something that I'm willing to shell out bucks for.
The hook up
The W700 has an option to replace its PC card with a Compact Flash reader. As far as I'm concerned, if you're targeting profressional or serious amateur photographers, the ability to pull CF cards straight from your 5D or D700 and grab files from is critical. Hence, a CF reader – or better, yet, double CF slots – should be standard equipment (in addition to the expected multi-card slot for getting files off of your SD or xD using SLRs and compacts).
Likewise, the ability to connect to a range of devices is often the lifeblood of a photographic workflow. Firewire, eSATA, HDMI, and copious (I consider five the bare minimum these days) USB connections are all essential. I honestly couldn't care less about the ability to play BluRay at this point, but a basic CD/DVD burner for quickly ripping files to disk for client copies or quick backups is important.
I was unsure about usefulness of having a built-in tablet/digitizer on the W700: I'm a regular tablet user for my photo editing work, but the W700's 3x5 pad is a pretty small space to work with. With the interests of portability outlined above, however, the idea is really growing on me. The fact that the digitizer isn't so big that it couldn't be effectively integrated into a 15 inch notebook has real promise for a future smaller system. Finding a place to set up my tablet when I'm trying to work in an airport, where table space simply doesn't exist, is always a problem, but with even a small built-in tablet on a notebook that's more traveler friendly, I could soon be leaving my Wacom at home.
Finally, built-in calibrators like the one on the W700 are nice, but you're talking about a piece of equipment (a spectrocolorimeter, that is) that most serious photographers already own anyway. Moreover, it's not as if recalibration is something you frequently and urgently must do when working from the road. For what Lenovo likely spent to integrate the W700's calibration system, I'd love to see something like dual external monitor support instead. Again, you can never have too many connections.
So what about you?
The more I think about it, the more I can envision my ideal graphics machine. Sure, it bears strong resemblances to several systems currently available, but like the W700, would represent an integration of several unique, photographer-focused concepts were it actually to come to market. I suppose there's always room for another W computer in Lenovo's lineup, but given the niche market status of this kind of thing, there are clear risks in diluting the brand as well. Hence, it may be up to someone else to make my "perfect photographer's notebook" a reality.
That's what I'd like to see in a portable computer for how I work and play with my photos, but what about you? Whether you're a casual shooter or a working pro, what features would you like to see in the next wave of laptops designed exclusively for photo nuts? I'd like to hear what other photographers of all skill and interest levels are looking for; feel free to share your thoughts on the future of notebook computers and digital photography in our discussion area.