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Photographer’s Guide to Black Friday Computers

In Blog, Buying Guide by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

Here it comes.  Black Friday.  Retailers becoming a lot like used car salesman advertising their “insane” deals and hoping that they can draw a massive crowd of shoppers to their stores. 

Starting the week prior to Thanksgiving I start getting constant questions about the thousands of ads photographers see for computers.  The deals come fast and furious, each claiming this is the lowest price ever seen on the computer.  Photographers are hoping that they can get a faster computer to help them with their post processing needs for a fraction of the cost.

In this post I am going to share some the most common questions and how I answer them.

Are the Black Friday Computer Deals Good?

Yes, nearly all of the Black Friday computer deals are very good.  It hasn’t always been that way, and there are some that don’t have discounts as deep as others, but the majority of the computers advertised are sold at an extremely low price that truly hasn’t been seen throughout the entire year.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is the event that Black Friday has become.  It is a chance to sell computers in quantities that just don’t happen any other time of the year.  So many people wait for this one weekend to buy a computer because they know the deals are coming and it enables sellers to make up in bulk what they lose on the sales price.

The other reason is that they really want to eliminate the inventory of their “dated” technology.  New computers and new technology come out at various times of the year, but the steeply discounted computers sold on Black Friday are mostly made up of the technology that sat on the shelves for months – if not longer.  The stuff they simply couldn’t manage to get rid of during the year.

Still, this can be a great opportunity to get yourself a nice computer for much less.  A little like the difference between buying next year’s model car vs. the one from last year that is still on the lot.  Buying the most current and cutting edge technology is more expensive than the stuff that sat around for a little bit, but sitting on the shelf didn’t make that older technology any worse than it already was.

Are the Black Friday Computer Deals Good for Photographers?

No, in general the computers sold in Black Friday deals are NOT going to make good photo editing computers.  They will be fine for surfing the web, doing email, writing documents, making presentations, and other things where there isn’t a lot of actual computing going on.  They just aren’t up to the demands of photo editing.

This is really at the heart of the questions I get at this time of year.  I fully understand why it is photographers are hoping they can buy a computer for a couple hundred dollars on Black Friday to solve the issues they are having with their current computer.  The idea that such a small amount of investment could fix all of their problems is highly appealing, especially because all of the rest of the gear they have to invest in is so expensive.

When I first started into photography the only thing I knew about it was the computer side.  Before I knew a thing about aperture, shutter speed, adjustment brushes, and exposure adjustments, I knew that post processing was critical to producing the images I was seeing online.  I had the benefit of a 20 year background in computer programming to help me know computers extremely well, which made it easy for me to understand which computers were up to the task of running Lightroom and Photoshop and which were not.

If you are here then I suspect you don’t have that background and are clinging to the idea that the $499 computer in the ad you are looking at is going to mean you can upgrade the computer that is running Lightroom too slowly without having to spend $2,000+ on the one you have been looking at all year.  Trust me, you will not be happy with nearly any of these deeply discounted computers.

That isn’t very helpful, I know, so read on for some things to look for and things to avoid.  You may also want to check out my Photographer’s Guide to Buying a MacBook Pro and Lightroom Computer 2018 articles.

What Should a Photographer Look for in a Black Friday Computer?

A photographer should look for three things are critical for a computer to run Lightroom and Photoshop well.  First, a Solid State Drive (SSD) that is 256GB or more.  Second, processor (CPU) that is Intel Core i7 3.5GHz or higher.  Third, memory (RAM) 16GB or more.

If you can find a computer with those kind of specs on sale, then go for it!  That will make a very happy holiday season for you as a photographer as there is enough there to run Lightroom and Photoshop very well for the next few years.

I suspect you are going to look at that list and see that the ad you have doesn’t quite have all of that.   Maybe the storage is 256GB but the processor is Core i5 instead of i7 and the memory is 8GB instead of 16GB.  Will it still work?

Of course the computer will still run Lightroom and Photoshop.  Lightroom doesn’t look at your computer when it starts and refuse to run if there is a Core i5 processor and only 8GB of memory there.  It will start up and your computer will do the best it can to run the software.  I am just telling you that it will be average performance at best.

The old adage that you get what you pay for is still as true today as it ever was.  Sure, the phrase is older than the idea of Black Friday, but even though sellers are highly motivated to get these machines out the door, there is a reason these computers are at such a deep discount.  They aren’t up to running Lightroom in particular.

With a less powerful processor, the sliders and adjustment tools are going to perform more slowly in Lightroom.  As you are moving a slider, you really want to see in real-time the effect that change is making on your photo.  There is a lot of computational work you are asking your computer to do at that point, and having a good processor has the very biggest impact on making that work well.

Having an SSD hard drive and a lot of memory is important as you move from photo to photo, or zoom into a single photo in Lightroom.  The less memory (RAM) there is in the computer, the longer it is going to take to do those things.  Also note here that 128GB of SSD is too small to make a very useful computer, for photography or other purposes.

Check out the testing I have done to see how storing your photos on an external SSD vs an external spinning drive speeds up Lightroom Classic by as much as 50% in this article on Performance of External Drives with Lightroom Classic

The other thing I suggest you look for is a display that is higher than full HD (1920×1080).  Not so important it made the list of the things to look for, and it is kind of funny that here in 2018 I am saying that full HD isn’t good enough for photographers, but a display resolution of 2560×1440 or higher is going to be much better.  If you are looking at a laptop I wouldn’t go any smaller than 13″.

You will notice that I have made no mention of the video or graphics in the computer.  Lightroom and Photoshop don’t really utilize GPU in their software today, so it isn’t a really important part of the puzzle right now.  I expect that to change, maybe 2019 will be the year, but for now my advice is to NOT spend a lot of money on graphics capabilities unless you also plan to do video editing.  If you are going to do video then you want an NVIDIA GPU.

If you want more information on this, check out my 
my Photographer’s Guide to Buying a MacBook Pro and Lightroom Computer 2018 articles.

What Should a Photographer Avoid in a Black Friday Computer?

In general, anything less than $800 in a laptop and less than $500 in a desktop.  A photographer should avoid computers with Intel Core M, Core Y, and Core i3 processors.  Also avoid AMD processors in general.  Avoid 8GB of less of memory, and 5400rpm spinning hard drives.

I say avoid here because a computer that has these components on the list is still going to run Lightroom and Photoshop.  Of course it will.  But I promise you it is going to struggle.  Especially if the computer is deficient in all three critical areas of storage, processor, and memory. 

An computer with a 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive, AMD A6 processor, and 4GB of memory is really going to struggle.  Lightroom will be slow in pretty well all aspects.  This kind of computer will run a browser and Microsoft Word or Excel very well, but you aren’t going to merge that HDR panorama on it.

The other thing I highly recommend you consider as a photographer is a desktop computer.  Everyone seems to want the option to use their computer outside of their office and photographers in particular seem to thing they really need a laptop.  They can be nice, and I love having the options in everything I do, but you pay a premium for laptops over desktops and even “desktop class” laptops aren’t the same in computational power.

If you are looking for the best bang for your buck this holiday season, there is no question you will get far more computer in a desktop for your money over a laptop.  So think though it and make sure you REALLY need the ability to do photo editing away from your office.  Seriously, you should get a desktop.

Will a Black Friday Windows Computer Be Good for a Photographer?

Probably not! Windows computers CAN be fully up to the task of photo editing, but most of these Blake Friday Windows computers are not good enough for photographers.

I am amazed at how passionate people are about the operating system they run.  There are Mac fanboys and Windows fanboys and it seems they can’t be friends.  There are pros and cons to both types of computers, but they both run Lightroom and Photoshop well.  At least they both CAN run Lightroom and Photoshop well.

There is a reason so many influential photographers use a Mac.  Most of them are photographers first and foremost, with no time (or knowledge) to deal with any kind of issue or challenge with their computers.  Mac computers are more expensive initially to be sure, but with the extra expense you get an ecosystem that was carefully designed and engineered to work well together.  There is value there.

The other great thing about Mac is that they don’t really sell anything that is not going to work well for photographers.  I don’t recommend the MacBook Air (not even the new 2018 version – has the Intel Y processor) or the plain MacBook (again, the processor is too weak), but besides those two, you pretty well can’t go wrong with a Mac.  Value there too.

Windows computers CAN be just as capable.  They can be built to be superior in computing power to every Mac available.  I custom built a Windows computer in 2014 that I continue to use today and it is doing extremely well.  But Black Friday computers tend to be lower end Windows computers and this is why I included this question in this post. 

Unlike a Mac where apart from the MacBook nothing and the MacBook Air you really can’t go too far wrong, you can ABSOLUTELY buy a Windows computer that is far below the minimum specifications I suggest you need as a photographer.  Most of these Black Friday super steal deals are just that kind of computer.  The kind you should avoid.

If you are interested in knowing a little more about Mac vs. Windows, check out my Mac vs. PC for Photographers article.  It is a little dated now (2015), but little has changed and it is very applicable.

If you want some more specific help with choosing a good Windows computer, check out my Super Guide to Buying a Windows PC for Photo Editing.  Again, dated (2015) but little has changed other than the specific models of computers recommended.  I still love the Dell XPS 13.

What Black Friday Computer Do I Recommend for Photographers?

This is a tough question.  I won’t be combing through all of the Black Friday computer deals and looking for the very best deal on a computer for photographers.  If I happen to come across one that is particularly good I will update this article with it, but with the other information in this post you are armed with what you need to figure it out for yourself, which is better.

Also, I don’t think there is a massive advantage of one manufacturer of Windows computers over another.  The specs of the computer are what matters, no matter what anecdotal story your friend may have with X brand of computer that was terrible.  Most likely the terrible part was the tiny amount of money spent on the machine and they got what they didn’t pay for.

I will say recommend looking at Dell XPS 13 or HP Spectre for a Windows laptop.  Dell XPS and HP Envy for Windows desktops.  Lenovo and Asus make some decent stuff too.  Acer has been kind of a lower tier manufacturer in the past, but they have had some good stuff lately.  Really though, look for the specs.

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  1. Micro Center has a PowerSpec PC with Core i7 8700K 3.7 GHz, 480GB SSD, and 16GB DDR4-3000 RAM for $899. What do you think?

  2. I am looking for a budget friendly monitor for photo editing on my pc…..any ideas? How about the Dell Ultra Sharp U2415?….which comes in 24 inches…..Dell also makes a 27 inch (U2715H).

    1. Author

      @John the Dell Ultrasharp monitors are really good. If at all possible I would go with a 27” over 24”, the difference is a big deal. Also higher than full HD 1920×1080. The sweet spot is a 2K display like 2560×1440 or 2560×1600 so that Lightroom will perform well. 4K displays are awesome but not only are they a little more money Lightroom struggles full screen at that resolution. You want to make sure the screen uses IPS technology and the beat way to connect your computer is through DisplayPort. HDMI is next best, especially if it is HDMI 2.0.

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