Doing Imaging Work on a Laptop Computer

Can you replace your desktop with a laptop for imaging work? We have spent some time trying it with a high-end Sony Vaio.
Sony Vaio A39 laptop

For the last six months I have been working with a Sony Vaio VGN-A59GP laptop computer, courtesy of Sony. This is a multimedia laptop with a 17″ display that is truly lovely to use, a Pentium-M processor, 1GB of RAM and a 100GB hard drive. I’ve been using this laptop to determine just how feasible it is to work with a laptop as your main imaging machine.  The simple answer is that it depends on the type of work you are doing, but probably yes. The more complex answer follows.

As a photographer who needs to download images off a camera and process those images, the Vaio was a perfect companion. The wide screen allows you to get the Photoshop palettes off to the side and still have a huge area to view the images. The memory capacity meant that working with large image RAW files was no issue, as was having multiple applications open at once, as in, say, Photoshop and Bridge. The screen is bright and crisp, making image work easy on the eyes and color spot on.

Sony Vaio A39 laptop

For multimedia work, such as developing websites, the Vaio was again great. The wide screen makes working in Dreamweaver with a web browser also up easy. The memory also made it easy to work with several applications running at once with no slowdown, such as ImageReady and Dreamweaver.

It was only for the sort of digital art work that I do that the issues of a laptop for imaging become problematic. I do large, complex and many layered image composites in Photoshop. For these, where the Photoshop file size can push over 3GB, a laptop balks. In fact even my desktop balks, just not quite as badly. That said, the Vaio handled other imaging tasks I do, such as fractal rendering, very well and always allowed me to work responsibly in other applications while the rendering was happening in the background.

Of course the price of such a large screen and other capabilities is a short battery life off on the mains. With the Vaio I was using I generally found I could get a couple of hours of use off the batteries. This was fine for most field work, such as downloading images and checking them on a large screen to see if I had nailed the shot. It did mean, however, that for anything else it was a tethered experience.

So, with one proviso for certain types of imaging work, which are not typical, the laptop worked very well. The Vaio I used came with a port replicator, which meant easy connections to the wealth of devices one seems to need for imaging work. With the arrival of the new duo processors in laptop form then laptops may finally be fine for all the imaging work I do, provided they hold enough memory.

One of the major concerns for doing imaging work on a laptop is storage. The most natural way to work with a laptop is to use external hard disk drives to add more storage capacity when you are back at base. This, in practice, works fine. However, I have had long running concerns over external hard drives. These seem to experience a higher rate of failure than internal drives, even if they are never moved. Research has tracked this to the inadequate ventilation that many have compared to a disk drive in a decent computer case. Many of the lower cost devices allow the drives to run far to hot with significant use. Certainly good ones exist, but one does need to be careful. I’ll have more to say about external storage in a followup article.

So working on a laptop as your main computer for imaging work is entirely possible, especially for photographers and web designers. The freedom is great.

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