There are many things to consider when it comes to buying a laptop for instructional design work. You want to make sure that the machine is powerful enough for your needs, but you also want to make sure that it fits with your lifestyle and preferences.
On top of this, instructional designers face some additional challenges. We need to make sure that the operating system is compatible with the most popular instructional design tools, and we need to make sure that the computer will handle our current and future development tasks.
So, that’s where this article comes in. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting your Master’s program, landing your first full-time job, or coming up on decades of experience. This article should help you find the perfect laptop for you and your needs.
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Let’s dive in!
We’ll start things off by considering the important tech specs for your new computer. This section should leave you feeling confident and informed about what to consider when evaluating a potential laptop. Think of it as an instructional designer’s laptop buying guide.
The processor, also known as the Central Processing Unit (CPU), is the command center for your computer. It’s the brain that makes all of the different components work together.
Because of this, the processor will have a significant impact on your laptop’s performance. If you have a fast processor, then you’ll be able to run more apps simultaneously AND run apps more quickly.
In short, faster processors will make your machine feel “zippier.” There are other components that impact this (which we’ll get to shortly), but if you have a slow processor, then it doesn’t matter how strong your other components are. The computer will still feel slow.
So, there are two main players in the CPU game: Intel and AMD. For most instructional design and eLearning development purposes, I’d recommend going with an Intel i5 or AMD A10 processor (at minimum). If you go with anything less powerful, then you risk dealing with productivity-draining lag.
Furthermore, if you plan to edit 4K or 360 degree videos (either now or in the future), then I recommend looking at more powerful processors, such as the Intel i7 or AMD A12. Even if you don’t see yourself needing to do that right now, I’d suggest going with the more powerful machine if your budget allows. You never know where your instructional design journey will take you a couple of years down the line.
Finally, when evaluating processors, you’ll also see the number of “bits” and cores. The higher the bits and cores, the more your machine can handle at once. I recommend going with a 64+ bit, 4-core processor. You can likely get by with fewer cores, but I suggest researching your specific configuration before buying to ensure that it will meet your needs.
Random Access Memory (RAM) serves as the short-term memory for your computer. Think about having multiple apps or tabs open. When you revisit the tab or app, you’re right where you left off — no lag and no hiccups. This is because the data is held in the RAM (similar to how you would hold a series of numbers in your short-term memory, readily available to access).
Naturally, this means that the more RAM you have, the more your system can handle at once. I’d recommend that you get a system with at least 8 GB of RAM. If you go with 4 GB instead, you may risk significantly slowing down your machine as you open more apps.
If you want to comfortably have multiple apps open (for example, Articulate Storyline, Adobe Illustrator, many Chrome tabs, and a video editing program), then I recommend opting for 16 GB of RAM. 16 GB will make it much easier to edit large video files, too.
When it comes to a computer’s storage, there are two main things to consider. Let’s take a look at both.
Storage can come in two forms: an HDD, a SSD, or both. HDDs are the older tech. They read and write your data more slowly, so it will take longer for your system to start up, load files, and launch applications.
If you value your productivity, then I highly recommend going with a SSD. This form of storage is extremely fast. SSDs often result in sub-30-second startup times, and your files will open very quickly.
You may also find systems that have smaller SSDs and much larger HDDs. If you opt for one of these hybrid options, then make sure that you store your most-accessed files and applications on the SSD (if the system doesn’t do this for you automatically).
Since SSDs are so much more efficient, they are more expensive than HDDs. Because of this, the storage capacity on SSDs will be much lower than that of HDDs in the same price range.
In addition to making sure that the system has an SSD, you’ll want to make sure that the storage capacity meets your needs. Since instructional designers need to work with many different files (some of which can be quite large, especially once video gets involved), you’ll want to consider 256 GB of storage as the absolute minimum.
It is not uncommon to find base versions of laptops with only 128 GB of system storage. If you’re working with video in any capacity, and possibly even if you’re working with photos, then this will not be sufficient.
One option is to buy external storage (or cloud-based storage) and store your files elsewhere once you’re done with them.
However, the more practical option is to purchase a system that comes configured with more storage. While you can get by with 256 GB, I recommend 512 GB if you want to be comfortable and 1 TB if you see yourself using the machine long-term.
The graphics card, or GPU, is what handles demanding graphics tasks. Think photo editing, video editing, and even gaming.
There are many different graphics card options on the market, so I will not get too deep into them here. However, it is important to know the distinction between integrated and dedicated graphics.
Integrated graphics cards do not have their own CPUs. Instead, they rely on the system’s main CPU to perform all graphics rendering tasks. These graphics cards serve more of a helping function, and they are not as powerful as dedicated GPUs.
That being said, most laptops will have integrated graphics. Integrated graphics cards are sufficient for most instructional design tasks.
If you foresee yourself doing 4K video editing and graphics-intensive VR work, then I recommend searching for machines with dedicated GPUs. Dedicated GPUs have their own CPUs built-in. This means that they have an additional CPU that’s dedicated entirely to rendering graphics and handling graphics-related tasks.
Check out this resource for a full comparison of laptop graphics cards.
The laptop screen’s quality and size are also important considerations.
First, let’s discuss size. If you develop eLearning (which, as an instructional designer, you most likely will), I recommend opting for a screen that’s at least 15 inches corner-to-corner.
If you choose to go with a 13-inch option, then I recommend purchasing an external monitor. Even with a 15-inch laptop, using an external monitor will have a significant positive impact on your eLearning development productivity. (This 27-inch ASUS eye-care monitor was my first external monitor, and I highly recommend it!)
When it comes to screen quality, consider color accuracy and resolution. You want a screen that represents colors “true-to-life” (often measured via Adobe’s sRGB rating), and you probably want a screen that looks crisp and high-quality.
For laptops, the resolution will range anywhere from 1080p to 4K, with 4K giving much more visual “crispness” and quality. I’d say that, for instructional design work, a 4K screen is more of a nice-to-have than a need-to-have (unless you’re working with 4K video).
If you’re doing design work that is color-sensitive, then I recommend checking the Adobe sRGB or RGB ratings for the laptop that you’re considering.
Your battery life needs will depend on how mobile you need to be. While most high-end laptops will have battery life between 8 and 10 hours, this is something that you’ll want to double check if you’ll be on the go.
Alternatively, you can get an external battery pack. This will add some weight to your on-the-go setup, but it can save you in times of need.
Instructional designers often attend video conference calls with colleagues, potential clients, and subject matter experts. Because of this, you want a laptop that has a decent webcam. Or, if the laptop you like doesn’t have a good webcam setup, then you’ll want to invest in an external option. (Here’s the Logitech C920 HD external webcam that I used until I invested in a higher-end video setup.)
A 720p built-in webcam is okay, but, if you can opt for a model with a 1080p webcam, then I highly recommend doing so.
Now that we’ve covered the key considerations for buying a new laptop as an instructional designer, I’ll give my top three laptop recommendations.
Let’s dive in!
When I was breaking into the field and starting my Master’s program in 2017, the Dell XPS 15 was my laptop of choice. I still own the laptop, but I conduct all of my work these days via the desktop PC that I built.
The Dell XPS 15 is lightweight, powerful, and has a beautiful screen (if you opt for the 4K version). Seriously, the 100% Adobe RGB screen made working in Adobe Illustrator a very satisfying experience. The ~8 hour battery life also made it easy to bring the laptop to class, coffee shops, and client sites.
My XPS 15 build has an Intel i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. I had no problems editing videos, writing code, or working in eLearning development tools.
Coming from a MacBook Air (which I had used as an undergrad), I was hesitant about the keyboard quality on a Windows computer. However, I loved it. I was able to type quickly and ergonomically, so I was pleasantly surprised.
The downside was that it took a bit of troubleshooting and configuration out of the box to get the device working how I wanted it, but it looks like Dell has improved the device in subsequent releases and iterations since 2017.
If you prefer macOS and want a laptop that works great out of the box, then the MacBook Pro is the laptop for you. My partner has always had a MacBook Pro, and she and I use it while traveling to work on eLearning projects.
As a laptop, the MacBook Pro speaks for itself. It’s the top-of-the-line Apple laptop that’s used by creative professionals around the world. A stunning retina display, updated keyboard, great battery life, and beautiful design are just a few of the features that you will come to know and love.
Apple computers also run more expensive than their Windows counterparts, but if you prefer macOS, then you probably already think that it’s worth it to shell out the extra cash.
However, despite the ease-of-use and nice iOS integration with the operating system, there are some downsides. Perhaps the biggest is that Articulate Storyline 360, one of the most popular eLearning development tools, only runs on Windows.
This means that you need to either partition your hard drive to run Windows OS, or you need to purchase a Parallels license and use that to run Storyline. This is only a minor inconvenience if your system has 16 GB+ of RAM, but you can likely get by with only 8 GB of RAM if needed.
While I haven’t owned a Microsoft Surface Pro, it’s a device that has intrigued me for years (and I’ve heard great things about it from peers).
If you’re on-the-go and like to bust out the stylus for sketches, storyboards, or note-taking, then you’re probably going to love the Surface Pro.
It’s a high-end Microsoft laptop that doubles as a tablet. While the 12.3 inch screen isn’t sufficient for development work (and you’d likely want an external monitor at your workstation), this little laptop packs a punch.
You can top the configuration out with an Intel i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB SSD. I think that the 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD version of this bundle on Amazon (stylus and keyboard included) would be perfect, but you can also build the laptop yourself on Microsoft’s website.
Make sure that you pick up the Microsoft Pen and Type Cover Keyboard if it’s not included in your configuration!
There are hundreds of laptops to choose from, but I made the case here for the Dell XPS 15, MacBook Pro, and Surface Pro. If these devices don’t fit your needs, then I suggest looking for something that has at least 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD, and an Intel i5 or AMD A10 processor. Ideally, you can go with a build that has 16 GB of RAM, a 512 GB+ SSD, and an Intel i7 or AMD A12 processor.
Furthermore, don’t feel compelled to get the latest and greatest. If you can find a version of one of the aforementioned laptops that’s a few years old (but still has the suggested specs), then go for it. You may even be able to find refurbished options that feel brand new.
And, finally, don’t feel limited by the devices on this list. Use the buying guide in the first part of this article as needed, and don’t hesitate to conduct research on each component in your configuration before buying.
If you have any questions, hop into my instructional design Slack channel and ask away. Best of luck on your laptop-buying journey!