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, you might want a spare power 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. Multithreading, which enables each core to handle two processing threads simultaneously, is also important. To find out more about the CPU in the laptop you’re eyeing, look it up in Intel’s product directory.
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.
In general, Intel (and now, AMD) laptop CPUs in the power-laptop-oriented H series (look for an “H” toward the end of the CPU’s model name) will be a better match for video editing than CPUs in the companies’ respective “U” series. The U chips are designed for greater power efficiency in thinner laptops. For video editing, you want peak addressable cores and threads from your CPU.
As for main system memory, 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 creator-class laptops with 32GB or more. 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.
Should I Get a Hard Drive or an SSD (or Both) in a Video Editing Laptop?
To complete the trifecta of principal specs, you’ll want a fast boot drive. In essentially all cases these days, 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 are of some importance for video editing (loading editing applications can take some time, if you tend to edit under pressure), 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 platter-based 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, most machines relevant for video editing 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). These are faster than drives that use the older SATA interface, which are less common in midrange and high-end laptops than they used to be. (See our favorite internal SSDs.)
Graphics Acceleration: Dedicated GPU or Not?
Most non-gaming laptops come with graphics-acceleration silicon that’s part of the CPU, not a separate graphics processing chip (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. 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 Blackmagic’s Davinci Resolve editing suite has a video-playback engine that’s optimized for powerful GPUs. In fact, Davinci’s Linux version offers support for as many as eight individual GPUs. Still, 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. 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: What Ports Do I Need in a Video Editing Laptop?
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, with the right cabling or via an adapter. (Thunderbolt 3 ports are physically and electrically compatible with USB Type-C ports.) Some laptops, including all MacBook Pro models, only include Thunderbolt 3. The sweet spot is one or two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and one or two regular USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 ports.
A full-size 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: What’s the Best Screen Size for a Video-Editing Laptop?
With most mainstream and better 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 could have you squinting.
The sweet spot, therefore, if you need to travel with your editing machine is 13 or 14 inches. Many laptops 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. But an important note: Most laptops of this screen size will bounce you down to a U-series processor. You’ll tend to find the most powerful CPUs in models at the 15-inch and larger sizes. That is because, the bigger the laptop, the more thermal leeway the designer has for more powerful components.
While full HD resolution is fine for many editing tasks, if you shoot primarily in 4K, you want a screen resolution to match. Combine a 4K (that is, 3,840-by-2,160-pixel) screen, a six- or eight-core processor, and a discrete GPU, though, and you’ll likely end up with rather 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. That said, new laptops with screens less than that are uncommon except in the lowest-cost machines.
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 DCI-P3 or Adobe RGB color-gamut support and automatic calibration, features that are often rolled into a single marketing moniker such as HP’s DreamColor. OLED screens (an emerging category) and those with HDR support offer greater color contrast and could be helpful as well. (See our favorite OLED-screen laptops so far.)
As mentioned earlier, you probably don’t need to 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.
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.
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, we’d expect that to play into your decision just as much as, if not more than, the OS itself or the hardware available.
So, Which Laptop Should I Buy for Video Editing?
We’ve selected 10 of our top-rated models for video editing 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 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. Color-precise screens tend not to be their forte, but good gaming laptops tend to have many of the same traits you need in a good video editing laptop.
Where To Buy
The Best For Edits On the Go on macOS
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020)
The Best For Complex Editing and Rendering on macOS
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch
The Best For From-the-Factory Color Calibration
Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED XB
The Best For Workstation-Grade, Xeon-Based Muscle
Lenovo ThinkPad P53
The Best For ISV Apps, Animation Work
The Best For Hefty Graphics Acceleration (and 4K)
Acer ConceptD 7
The Best For Multi-Screen Editing in a Single Laptop
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo
The Best For Touch-Screen Editing, Plus Tablet Functionality
Microsoft Surface Book 3 (15-Inch)
at Best Buy
The Best For Nvidia Studio Optimized Applications
Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition
The Best For Occasional Tablet Use
HP ZBook Studio x360 G5
Acer ConceptD 7
Pros: Handsome 4K display. Strong performance. Sleek, slim design. Appealing keyboard and sound.
Cons: Expensive. No Core i9 CPU option. No SD card slot or fingerprint reader.
Bottom Line: It’s not cheap, but Acer’s elegant white ConceptD 7 combines six-core CPU muscle, a classy 4K display, and blazing GeForce RTX graphics to tempt 2D and 3D creative types.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch (2020)
Pros: Improved keyboard comfort
Excellent Retina display
Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
Long battery life
Good graphics and computing performance
Cons: Expensive as configured
Limited port variety
No support for Wi-Fi 6
Bottom Line: A tweaked keyboard and the option for a 10th Generation Intel “Ice Lake” CPU bring typing comfort and better performance to Apple’s already-excellent 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch
Pros: Excellent Retina Display, now larger and with slimmer bezels. Revamped keyboard. Comfortable, XL-size touchpad. Superb audio quality. Powerful Intel Core i9 and AMD Radeon Pro 5500M. Long battery life. SSD storage options up to 8TB.
Cons: Lacks microSD slot, USB Type-A ports. As ever, no touch-screen option. Expensive as configured.
Bottom Line: With a larger display, a beefier graphics chip, and (vitally and finally!) an improved keyboard, Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro is a beyond-capable big-screen powerhouse built for creatives.
Asus ZenBook Pro Duo
Pros: Unique ScreenPad Plus second display simplifies workflows. Main display is an OLED panel. Excellent design and build quality. Intel Core i9 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 offer computing muscle. Included stylus and wrist rest.
Cons: Cramped keyboard and touchpad. No SD card reader. Heavy. Short battery life.
Bottom Line: The Asus ZenBook Pro Duo is a thoughtful, albeit pricey, reinvention of the laptop, with a second screen in the keyboard base and an Intel Core i9 processor that should appeal to creative professionals with resource-intensive workflows.
Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED
Pros: Spectacular AMOLED screen
Excessive CPU and GPU power
Bling-tastic RGB backlit keyboard
Full array of ports
Cons: 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD instead of 32GB and 1TB
Ho-hum webcam placement
Audible cooling fans
Bottom Line: A ravishing OLED display and all-new eight-core Core i7 and GeForce RTX 2070 Super components make Gigabyte’s 15.6-inch Aero 15 status symbol a top choice for creative pros.
Lenovo ThinkPad P53
Pros: Colossal Quadro RTX 5000 graphics. Sky-high memory and storage ceilings. Famous ThinkPad keyboard. Wi-Fi 6.
Cons: Awfully expensive, even without 4K display. Marginal battery life. Poor-quality webcam. A pound overweight.
Bottom Line: Nvidia’s earth-shaking Quadro RTX 5000 makes the Lenovo ThinkPad P53 one of the most powerful mobile workstations you can buy. It’s hefty and pricey, but it obliterates big workflows like nobody’s business.
Microsoft Surface Book 3
Pros: Unique detachable design
Powerful graphics processor
Many configuration options
Dual 1080p cameras
Beautiful PixelSense display
Keyboard base adds significant weight
Bottom Line: With an advanced mechanical locking system for the keyboard base, powerful graphics processing, multiple cameras and batteries, and a brilliant near-4K display, the Surface Book 3 is an innovative, excellent detachable laptop.
Pros: Remarkably thin and light for a 17.3-inch mobile workstation.
Speedy Core i9 CPU and Quadro RTX graphics.
Nice battery life.
Good array of ports.
Cons: Less expandable than bulkier systems.
1080p screen is merely adequate (no 4K display available at rollout).
Slightly awkward keyboard layout.
Bottom Line: The MSI WS75 is a big-screen mobile workstation that weighs two and a half pounds less than its rivals, while packing eight-core CPU power and Nvidia’s latest professional graphics.
The display’s just average, but the laptop on the whole is impressive.
Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition
Pros: Sleek aluminum build.
Stunning 4K OLED screen.
Long battery life.
Cons: Fast, but doesn’t top the performance charts.
No ISV certifications or eight-core CPU option.
Keyboard lacks tactile feel.
Standard warranty just one year.
Bottom Line: Razer’s stylish white Blade 15 Studio Edition turns the Blade 15 Advanced gaming laptop into a mobile workstation competitor with a 4K OLED screen, Quadro RTX graphics, and Nvidia Studio driver support. Sleek and all aluminum, it’s as elegant as creative-pro notebooks get.
HP ZBook Studio x360 G5
Pros: Convertible flexibility meets workstation punch.
Handsome 4K touch screen.
Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Cons: Bulky and heavy.
Quadro P1000 isn’t very high up Nvidia’s mobile workstation GPU ladder.
No buttons on touchpad.
Bottom Line: HP’s ZBook Studio x360 G5 isn’t the fastest or lightest mobile workstation you can buy, but its convertible design makes it a natural for presentations or pen input.
More Inside PCMag.com
About the Author