There are many attractive laptops now available for creative users, but often only a desktop computer can provide the compute power, screen size and expandability required for high-end graphics, design and video work.
In recent years, the elegant, all-in-one (AIO) designs of Apple’s iMac and iMac Pro have proved popular with many creative users and — as is so often the case — have inspired many similar designs from manufacturers of Windows PCs. Many of these designs are slavish imitations, but some PC manufacturers have come up with interesting angles of their own, with features such as the adjustable, touch-sensitive displays of Microsoft’s Surface Studio and the Lenovo Yoga A940, which can be lowered right down onto the desktop and used like a traditional drawing board for design and illustration work. Meanwhile, HP has outgunned the 27-inch iMac with imposing 32-inch and curved 34-inch AIOs.
The great weakness with all-in-one designs such as these is, of course, their limited scope for expansion. It took Apple several years to revamp its ill-fated ‘trashcan’ Mac Pro, before finally launching a new Mac Pro at the end of 2019, but workstation-class tower systems are the bread-and-butter business of many PC manufacturers, so there’s no shortage of powerful, expandable desktop systems available for Windows users.
And, with the future of the entire Mac range now looking uncertain — at least in the short term — following Apple’s announcement of a two-year plan to transition to its own Arm-based Apple Silicon, many creative users may now be wondering whether this is the time to look at Windows alternatives.
Acer’s ConceptD laptops have tempted creative users with some intriguing designs in recent months, but desktop models are also available. These range from the compact entry-level ConceptD 100 to the dual Xeon-based ConceptD 900 professional workstation, which costs a princely $22,999.99 in the US.
The only model currently available from Acer’s UK online store is the mid-range ConceptD 500, a compact tower system costing £2,249.16 (ex. VAT or £2,699 inc. VAT). This buys you an octa-core Core i9-9900K processor running at 3.6GHz (5GHz with TurboBoost), 64GB of RAM, a 2TB hard drive and a 1TB SSD, and an Nvidia Quadro P4000 graphics card with 8GB of dedicated video memory.
In the US, the ConceptD 500 variant on sale costs $3,499, for which you get an octa-core Core i7-9700K processor (3.6-4.9GHz), 32GB of RAM, a 2TB HDD and a 512GB SSD and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 4000 GPU with 8GB of video RAM.
These prices don’t include a display, but Acer does produce a range of ConceptD monitors. This tops out at the $2,199.99/£1,999.99 ConceptD CP7, a 27-inch Pantone-validated display with professional colour accuracy (99% Adobe RGB, Delta E <1, 93% DCI-P3), DisplayHDR 1000 and a refresh rate overclockable to 144Hz.
Although it’s compact, the ConceptD 500 tower unit still finds room for useful expansion options, including three PCI-e slots, while the wood-effect paneling on the top of the unit incorporates a handy wireless charger for your smartphone.
from $3,499 / £2,249.16 (ex. VAT)
Apple’s announcement at WWDC of its two-year plan to move the Mac product line to Apple Silicon and ditch Intel processors raised more questions than answers. However, the company took care to reassure its professional users that key software developers such as Microsoft, Adobe and Autodesk were already developing new ‘universal’ versions of their key apps.
In the meantime, the 27-inch iMac Pro remains an attractive all-in-one option for high-end graphics and video work. It lacks the expansion slots and upgradeability of the Mac Pro’s tower enclosure, but the price of the iMac Pro does include an impressive 5K display (5,120 x 2,880 resolution, 217.6dpi) that supports the DCI-P3 colour space for video editing, along with some powerful CPU and GPU options.
Apple’s website offers just a single base configuration for the iMac Pro, costing $4,999 or £4,082.50 (ex. VAT; £4,899 inc. VAT). It has an 8-core Xeon W processor running at 3.2GHz (4.2GHz with TurboBoost), along with, 32GB of RAM, 1TB of solid-state storage and AMD Radeon Pro Vega 56 graphics with 8GB of dedicated video RAM. You’ve got plenty of scope for customisation, though, including options up to an 18-core Xeon (+$/£2,400), 256GB of RAM (+$/£5,200), 4TB of SSD storage (+$/£1,000) and Radeon Pro Vega 64X graphics with 16GB of video RAM (+$/£700).
However, the current iMac Pro is now more than two years old, and there are persistent rumours of an imminent update — which will presumably still be based on Intel processors.
$4,999 / £4,082.50 (ex. VAT)
When Apple finally unveiled the new version of the Mac Pro last year, some critics argued that Apple had taken six years to simply return to the aluminium tower design it had used prior to the 2013 cylindrical ‘trashcan’ Mac Pro.
However, the 2019-vintage Mac Pro is a different beast altogether, designed to tackle modern tasks such as 4K/8K video editing and VR, and it has done much to restore Apple’s credibility with its most demanding professional users. And, with customisation options such as a 28-core Xeon processor on offer, it seems likely that the Mac Pro will hang on to its Intel processors for a while — probably until Apple completes its full transition to Apple Silicon sometime in 2022.
Expansion has always been Apple’s Achilles Heel, but the new Mac Pro restored the expansion slots of previous models, with seven PCI-e 16 slots and support for twin Radeon GPUs. It’s expensive, even by Apple standards, with a starting price of £4,582.50 (ex. VAT; £5,499 inc. VAT) or $5,999 for an 8-core Xeon W processor running at 3.5GHz (4.0GHz with TurboBoost), 32GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a single Radeon Pro 580X graphics card with 8GB of dedicated video RAM.
Extensive upgrade options include Xeon W processors with up to 28 cores (+$/£7,000), up to 1.5TB of RAM (+$/£25,000), two Radeon Pro Vega II Duo GPUs (+$/£10,800), 8TB of SSD storage (+$/£2,600), and an ‘Afterburner’ accelerator card that allows the Mac Pro to handle up to six streams of 8K video, or 23 streams in 4K (+$/£2,000).
There’s no display included in these prices, though, and at $/£4,999 Apple’s own Pro Display XDR costs as much as an iMac Pro with an integrated 27-inch 5K display.
from $5,999 / £4,582.50 (ex. VAT)
Corsair is best known for its range of gaming PCs and accessories, but buried in the depths of its website is this solitary workstation system, the One Pro i200.
Rather than the bright, fluorescent lights that festoon Corsair’s gaming PCs, the i200 is housed in a mini-tower chassis with a more sombre grey finish. But while the design isn’t particularly imposing, the single configuration that’s currently available has a 14-core Core i9-10940X processor running at 3.3GHz (4.4GHz with TurboBoost), 64GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD, and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics card with 11GB of dedicated video RAM. This costs $4,499.99 or £3,916.66 (ex. VAT; £4,699.99 inc. VAT). In the US, you can click a ‘configure’ button and select a slightly cheaper ($4,199) variant with a 12-core Core i9-9920X CPU and more storage (1TB SSD + 2TB HDD).
The Corsair One Pro i200 is also extremely well connected, with three DisplayPort interfaces and one HDMI port providing support for multiple 4K displays. The audio subsystem is impressive too, with analogue and optical outputs capable of supporting a 7.1 speaker system. This means that the One Pro i200 will be well suited to audio recording and editing, as well as the graphics and video work that’s the focus for most of its ‘creator PC’ rivals. There’s little scope for further expansion, though, other than upgrading the internal storage.
$4,499.99 / £3,916.66 (ex. VAT)
Dell’s OptiPlex all-in-one systems are perhaps the closest direct rivals for Apple’s iMac and iMac Pro, offering both 24-inch and 27-inch displays, and a variety of processor and graphics options. The company recently updated the range with the new 27-inch Optiplex 7780, while also keeping last year’s 7770 model on sale. A full range of configurations and customisation options is available in the US, but there’s currently only one entry-level configuration on offer in the UK.
The entry-level model in the UK is based on a 10th generation 8-core Core i7-10700 processor running at 2.9GHz (4.8GHz with TurboBoost), with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. But this configuration, which costs £1,399 (ex. VAT; £1,678.80 inc. VAT), relies on integrated graphics only, so its appeal to creative users is fairly limited.
In the US there’s more choice, with 10th-gen Core i5, i7 and i9 processors, 16-64GB of RAM, 256-1TB of SSD storage and integrated or Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 graphics. Current prices for the three preconfigured models in the US are $2,009 (Core i9/16GB/256GB/iGPU/non-touch screen), $2,199 (Core i5/16GB/512GB/GeForce GTX 1650/touch screen) and $2,549 (Core i7/64GB/256GB/iGPU/touch screen).
Creative users will probably want to specify the optional OptiPlex All-in-One Articulating stand (+$24.52/£33.80), which allows the monitor to recline to a 60-degree angle, making touch-screen variants much easier to use.
from $2,009 / £1,399 (ex. VAT)
As well as its attractive OptiPlex all-in-one systems, Dell also makes a range of workstations with more conventional designs. The recently updated Precision 7920 sits right at the top of the range, is available in either tower or rack configurations, and is aimed at virtual reality, 3D graphics and AI applications.
Customers in the US get five pre-built tower configurations (with some recent price cuts), starting at $2,219 for an entry-level 1.9GHz Xeon Bronze 3204-based system with 16GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200rpm hard disk and an AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 graphics card with 2GB of dedicated video RAM. The top-end pre-built system in the US runs Ubuntu Linux on dual 3GHz Xeon Gold 5217 processors, with 192GB of RAM, 256GB of SSD storage and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 6000 graphics card with 24GB of dedicated video RAM. This ‘science’-oriented variant is considerably more expensive — $13,819 to be exact.
Dell’s UK website lists one primary Precision 7920 configuration, which costs £2,652.87 (ex. VAT; or £3,183.44 inc. VAT). This has a six-core 1.9GHz Xeon Bronze 3204 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and an AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 graphics card.
These configurations are just the starting point, though: in both the US and the UK, Dell provides dozens of build-your-own options for customising the Precision 7920. Just for fun, we specced out a no-holds-barred system comprising: dual 2.7-4GHz 28-core Xeon Platinum 8280L processors (+$33,920.74 over the entry-level $2,219 configuration), 3TB of RAM (+$92,650.97), 4x 2TB PCIe SSDs (+$4,722.44) and triple Nvidia Quadro RTX 8000 GPUs with 48GB of video RAM each (+19,699.84). That’ll be $153,111.56 thank you very much.
from $2,219 / £2,652.87 (ex. VAT)
The outstanding feature of HP’s Envy 32 is, as the name suggests, its imposing 32-inch display, which is only beaten on the imposing front by HP’s even bigger curved Envy 34. It’s not just for show either, as the Envy 32’s display supports HDR-600, with 600 nits brightness (compared to 500 nits for Apple’s iMac Pro) and 98% of the DCI-P3 colour space, making it suitable for a range of high-end graphics and video applications.
There are two configurations currently on sale in the UK, both based on the 9th generation 8-core Core i7-9700 processor running at 3.0GHz (4.7GHz with TurboBoost). At £1,916.66 (ex. VAT; £2,299.99 inc. VAT) the most affordable has 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and a 1TB hard drive, plus an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU with 4GB of dedicated video RAM. Spend £2,499.99 (ex. VAT; £2,999.99 inc. VAT) and you get 32GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD with 32GB of Intel Optane memory and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 graphics with 8GB of video RAM.
Customers in the US can get a configuration with a 10th generation Core i7-10700 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD/1TB HDD storage and 8GB GeForce RTX 2070 graphics, which costs $2,399.99. Less expensive models with 9th-generation Core i5 and i7 CPUs are also available.
As well as a large screen and decent specs, the Envy 32 offers a smart-looking minimalist design, a strong audio subsystem (designed in partnership with Bang & Olufsen), wireless charging built into the base and a good set of ports (Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, 2x USB 3.1, HDMI 2.0 in and out, and RJ-45 Ethernet).
$2,399.99 / £1,916.66 (ex. VAT)
HP’s small-form-factor Z2 Mini G4 is due for some attention, as it hasn’t been updated significantly since ZDNet reviewed it at the end of 2018. Even so, the compact design of the Z2 Mini G4 remains an impressive piece of engineering — rather like Apple’s Mac Mini on steroids. It measures just 216mm square and 58mm high, so you can tuck it under a monitor on your desk, or stand it on its side with no trouble at all.
The entry-level configuration on HP’s US website starts at just $1,400, but that’s distinctly short on computing muscle: a 9th generation Core i3, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard disk and integrated graphics isn’t going to cut it for creative types. However, there are multiple customisation options, including processors up to a Xeon E-2278G, RAM up to 64GB, SSD and HDD storage up to 2TB, and Nvidia Quadro P1000 graphics with 4GB of video RAM. All of these upgrades would take the price up to $4,333, but judicious choices should deliver the required price/performance mix.
There are currently five Z2 Mini G4 configurations on HP’s UK website, ranging from £899 (ex. VAT; £1,078.80 inc. VAT) to £1,359 (ex. VAT; £1,630.80 inc. VAT). The entry-level model runs on a Core i7-9700 processor with 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and integrated graphics, while the more creator-friendly model has a Xeon E-2126G CPU, 32GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and discrete 4GB Nvidia Quadro P1000 graphics.
from $1,400/ £899 (ex. VAT)
The mini-tower ThinkStation P520 is available on Lenovo’s website in a number of pre-built configurations at different price points, but there are also completely customisable ‘build your own’ (BYO) options that allow you to specify exactly what you need. You can even buy the P520 without a graphics card at all, with tool-free sliding panels allowing you to easily open up the case and install one or two GPUs of your choice.
In the US, the single customisable BYO system starts at $1,598.35 for a quad-core Xeon W-2102 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and an Nvidia Quadro P620 graphics card with 2GB of video RAM. CPU options rise to an 18-core Xeon W-2295 (+$3,150), 32GB of RAM (+$880), 2TB SSDs (+$1,375 each) and Nvidia Quadro GV100 graphics with 32GB of video RAM (+$18,690). Ready-to-ship systems start at $2,039 (Xeon W-2102/16GB/512GB SSD+1TB HDD/5GB Nvidia Quadro P2200), rising to an $11,749 ‘AI developer’ system running Ubuntu Linux on a 10-core Xeon W-2155 with 128GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 8000 graphics card with 48GB of video RAM.
In the UK, there are currently three customisable build-your-own and six ready-to-ship ThinkStation P250 configurations. The cheapest is a prebuilt quad-core Xeon W-2104-based system costing £1,074.99 (ex. VAT; £1,289.99 inc. VAT), while the most expensive is a BYO system based on the 6-core Xeon W-2135 which costs £2,616 (ex. VAT; £3,139.20 inc. VAT).
from $1,598.35 / £1,074.99 (ex. VAT)
Lenovo’s Yoga brand mostly consists of convertible laptops and tablets, but last year the company introduced the Yoga A940 all-in-one desktop, which is specifically aimed at designers.
The 27-inch display provides 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160, 163.2dpi), and supports 100% of the Adobe RGB colour standard, as well as Dolby Vision HDR. Like Microsoft’s Surface Studio, the Yoga A940 allows you to tilt the touch-sensitive display down onto the desk so that you can draw on it with the bundled digital pen. There’s also a ‘content creation dial’ that can be attached to either side of the display — for left- or right-handed use — and programmed to activate specific tools or commands in apps such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Another nice touch is the wireless charging dock on the right-hand side of the base, with a groove for stowing the digital pen when it’s not in use.
It’s an attractive design that’s well suited to graphics and illustration work. The only disappointment is that, in both the US and UK, Lenovo currently only offers the Yoga A940 in a single configuration. In the US, $2,599.99 buys you a Core i7-9700 processor running at 3-4.7GHz with 32GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive (5,400rpm) and an AMD Radeon RX 560 GPU with 4GB of video RAM. The UK offering is more affordable at £1,666.66 (ex. VAT; £1,999.99 inc. VAT), but you only get 16GB of RAM and 256GB of (SSD) storage.
$2,599.99 / £1,666.66 (ex. VAT)
Microsoft’s Surface laptops go from strength to strength, but the company seems less sure-footed with its solitary desktop offering, the all-in-one Surface Studio. And while the entire Surface laptop range was updated recently, the Surface Studio 2 has had little attention since ZDNet reviewed it in early 2019.
That’s a shame, as the Surface Studio 2 has a lot going for it, including an attractive 28-inch display with a ‘4.5K’ display offering 4,500-by-3,000 resolution (192dpi) and support for the sRGB and DCI-P3 colour standards that make it suitable for a wide range of graphics, design and video applications. It leans more towards graphics and illustration, though, with a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s designed to emulate more traditional print-based design methods. There’s also a ‘zero gravity’ hinge that allows the touch-screen to be lowered down onto the desktop so you can use it like a traditional drawing board with the bundled Surface Pen.
Microsoft offers three standard configurations for the Surface Studio 2 for Business, with all three based on the same 2017-vintage quad-core Core i7-7820HQ running at 2.9GHz (3.9GHz with TurboBoost). Prices in the US start at $3,499.99 for 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics with 6GB of dedicated video RAM; $4,199.99 buys you 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and an 8GB GeForce GTX 1070, while the top-end $4,799.99 model boosts SSD storage to 2TB.
In the UK, these configurations cost £2,957.50 (ex. VAT; £3,549 inc. VAT), £3,540.83 (ex. VAT; £4,249 inc. VAT) and £3,957.50 (ex. VAT; £4,749 inc. VAT) respectively.
from $3,499.99 / £2,957.50 (ex. VAT)