What is the best Mac for graphic design and layout? It’s a question many of our readers ask. Apple Mac OS X computers are especially useful for designers, and many creative professionals need to invest in the latest Mac hardware.
But choosing the right Mac for design work can be a challenge. Apple creates a whole range of Mac OS X laptops (MacBooks) and desktop computers. Although all Apple Macs are great, some are better suited to design than others.
With this in mind we’ve created this guide to buying the right Mac for graphic design. In this article we take a look at what a computer requires to be truly great for working with professional design software, and the features you pay more for. We then look closely at the range of Mac computers available, and the custom built to order options available that make sense for designers.
We also look at some of the accessories, software and services available that make sense for keen graphic design professionals.
Graphic design on a Mac
Most graphic designers automatically veer towards the Mac OS X platform as a matter of course. Partly this is a result of Apple’s graphic design heritage (Apple pretty much created the Desktop Publishing Market back in the 1985 with the original Apple Macintosh computer, combined with PageMaker and the first LaserWriter printer).
But these days most designers work in a purely digital format, and will be using very different software to that created back in the 1980s. However, Apple is still the choice for designers thanks to its more comfortable Mac OS operating system, wide software support and lots of industry love.
Apple’s Mac range for graphic designers
Graphic design is a varied subject, ranging from Photoshop image editing through to illustration, interactive design, user interface development, animation, 3D design, video and up to full-blown 3D animation. Many graphic designers do a bit of video and audio editing on the side. There’s a lot of variety in what is done using graphic design for, and these different subjects have different computing skills.
Because it’s a visual medium, a graphic designer is likely to want a big canvas (or display) to work on. The better and more detailed the display, the better the work is. So this naturally leads us towards the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, or the 27-inch iMac. Design work can also be processor and memory intensive, especially for 3D work, and file sizes for graphical work can be quite large. So the faster innards and larger storage in Apple’s professional range will come in handy.
However, there is a downside to both of these machines in the form of the ‘glossy’ display that all Apple computers now come with. These displays are best for video, and digital graphic design work (because it’s the type of display your content will be eventually viewed on). But ‘glossy’ displays do not offer as print colour reproduction to the same accuracy as ‘matt’ displays, so print designers often hate them. If your work is likely to be turned into a physical medium at some point: say if you work in magazine or flyer creation, physical photography or product packaging development then you may prefer a good Matt monitor. If that’s the case then we would have advised a Mac Pro, but it’s not on sale at the moment in the UK so we would suggest a second monitor for an iMac, or you attach a really good matt monitor to a high end Mac mini.
Graphic design on a MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Best for detail
The extremely high resolution of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display ensures that you can do high quality work on the move. We’d advise the 15-inch 2.4GHz with Retina Display model (£1,799) if you’re a professional. It has a fast 2.4GHz Intel i7 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB Flash storage, 1GB super fast GDDR5 RAM, and a discreet NVIDIA Graphics card. It’ll blaze through most design task and the display will be amazing for detailed graphic and text work.
Read more: MacBook Pro with Retina Display review
The only downside is the slightly limited Flash storage, so you’ll probably need to pick up a decent external hard drive.
See: Mac Storage reviews
Graphic design on a Mac mini: Best for print workers
Print workers will find the power packed into the latest generation of Mac minis more than enough, and the small footprint will leave plenty of space on your desk for a huge monitor. We’d advise the 2.3GHz Intel i7 model (£679) with an 8GB RAM upgrade (+£80).
If you’re really going all out on a professional display we recommend the NEC SpectraView Reference 271 (£1,859). It makes more sense to spend on the display not the Apple Mac.
We understand that spending almost £2,000 on a display (as well as £700 on a Mac) may be a little much for some designers, so take a look at our display reviews to see if there’s a model that suits you.
See: Display reviews
Graphic design on a iMac: Best for large screen
The iMac has a huge 27-inch IPS display that makes all the difference to a designer (as long as they’re not bothered about the ‘glossy’ nature of the display). If you work in digital, web or video design then this is the Mac to get.
We’d advise the 27-inch 2.9GHz model (£1,499) with 8GB RAM, 1TB Hard Drive, and the discreet NVIDIA graphics card. This offers plenty of power to the graphic designer plus lots of hard drive space and a huge display.
Read more: iMac 27-inch review
Graphic Design on a Mac Pro: Best for 3D power
It’s not on sale in the UK at the moment, so it’s a bit cheeky mentioning the Mac Pro. Howerver, if you’re closely working in 3D or 3D animation then you really do need all the power you can get. In this instance we’d advise you to wait and see if Apple introduces a new Mac Pro this June at the WWDC.
If you really can’t wait then either pick up an old Mac Pro, or go for a top of the line iMac. You can pick up a 27-inch iMac 3.2GHz (£1,699) and take the processor up to 3.4Ghz (+£160). You might want to also consider taking the RAM up to 16GB (+£160). It’s a grand total of £2,018.99 placing it in entrance of the Mac Pro territory, and it has plenty of grunt. If you can afford it we suggest a 1TB Fusion drive while you’re at it (+£200).
Apple Mac accessories for graphic designers
There are a range of great accessories for designers out there. A keen designer should investigate an upgraded mouse, and perhaps a trackball to prevent long-term RSI problems. And a really good designer will want to look into a tablet input. These are often made by Wacom and sometimes even integrate their own display.
Buying a Mac for graphic design
Here are some additional Macworld features that will help you when buying a new Mac.