Top alternatives to MacBook Pro for designers

The MacBook Pro has long been a staple for professional designers. It's fast, aesthetically beautiful and, well, a Mac. But it’s expensive. Very expensive. The top-end 15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro is pushing £2,700, which is a huge investment for any freelancer or, indeed, studio. 

But there are a raft of alternatives that will give you pretty much the same power, and in some cases extra functionality, for less of your hard-earned cash. 

Sure, you won’t get the Touch Bar (who uses that, anyway?) but you might get a touchscreen. Sure, you might have to move over to Windows 10, but cross-platform compatibility among Creative Cloud apps is better than ever. So read on for our top alternatives to the MacBook Pro – all of which are packed with power…

Microsoft Surface Book

Super-powered two-in-one game-changer

CPU: 2.6GHz Core i7 | SSD: 256GB | Graphics: Dedicated NVIDIA GeForce graphics | Screen: 13.5-inch PixelSense touchscreen. 3000 x 2000 at 267ppi | Dimensions: 232.1mm (l) x 312.3mm (w) x 7.7mm (h) | Weight: 1.51kg | Ports: 2 x USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, SD card reader, headphone jack | Other: Front (5-megapixel) and rear (8-megapixel) cameras, Surface Pen, front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby Audio Premium

Excellent screen
Hugely powerful
Can double as tablet/sketchpad (with Surface Pen/multi-touch)
Fantastic build quality
It’s pretty heavy at 1.51kg for 13.5-inches

Okay, with the Surface Book you’re gonna sacrifice a bit of screen size – not resolution, but physical size. The Surface Book is only available in 13.5-inch models, but because of its super-high resolution (3000x2000 at 267ppi, whereas the MacBook Pro 15-inch is 2880x1800 at 220ppi) you’re not going to be losing any desktop real estate. Match that with a responsive touchscreen (that you can use with either your finger or the Surface Pencil) and you have a fully featured laptop that you can use as a machine for Photoshop, InDesign, After Effects – or whatever – as well as a digital sketchbook.

To give you an idea of power, for £2,024 you can pick up the mid-range Surface Book, which has a 512GB SSD, a Core i7 running at 2.6GHz, a dedicated graphics card and 16GB RAM. It’s pretty much on a par with the top-end MacBook Pro. Spend around £300 more and  you get a 1TB SSD. Sure, you don’t get the luxury of four Thunderbolt ports, but a MiniDisplay port and two USB 3.0 ports should satisfy everyone but pro video editors. Battery life is quoted at around 12 hours.

Of course, the Surface Book can also transform into a tablet, making it great for presentations and sketching on your lap. And the screen can be turned around and attached, which is again good for sketching or viewing media. Two built-in cameras (one front, one rear) are an added bonus. The Surface Book is one of our favourite laptops of the moment – it’s well worth considering.

HP ZBook Studio G3 4K Xeon Mobile

A true mobile workstation

CPU: Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5 | SSD: 256GB | RAM: 16GB | Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro M1000M 24GB GDDR5 | Screen: 15.6-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080), anti-glare display | Dimensions: 386mm (w) x 264mm (d) x 260 mm (h) | Weight: 2.6kg | Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 3.0, HDMI, 3 x USB 3.0, headphone jack, smart card reader, SD card | Other: Bang & Olufsen HD audio, 720p camera, spill-resistant keyboard

Hugely powerful
Can be specced-up, hugely!
Heavy at 2.6kg
Not as portable as rivals

HP classes the ZBook 15 as a ‘mobile workstation’ and we can’t really disagree. If you want a subtle mix of power and portability, this probably isn’t for you; but if you want a rip-roaring beast of a workstation that, just so happens to be a laptop as well, it may be worth considering – especially if you work in video production or 3D.

This power (on the £2,178 machine – comparable to MBP price) is all thanks to an Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5 CPU running at 3.7GHz, along with an NVIDIA Quadro M1000M 2GB GDDR5 graphics card. You’ll also get 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Sure, it doesn’t seem as specced-up as some of the laptops here, but it’s a pro-level machine, rigorously tested in production environments. For graphic designers and tinkering around in Illustrator, or even After Effects, this is overkill; but for high-end 3D work it’s a machine that won’t let you down.

If you want more power, you’re gonna pay for it – for around £300 more you’ll get a 4K screen, 512GB SSD and 32GB RAM amongst other upgrades. Still, that’s a lot of cash to drop (but this’ll probably be your only machine that you dock back at the studio, so bear that in mind).

Dell XPS 15

Top-spec bargain

CPU: Core i7 | SSD: 512GB | RAM: 32GB | Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 | Screen: 15.6-inch, 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) InfinityEdge touch display | Dimensions: 11-17mm (h) x 357mm (w) x 235mm (d) | Weight: 2kg | Ports: HDMI, 2 x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, SD card reader | Other: 720p camera, carbon fibre composite palm rest

Fantastic looks
Great value
Amazing screen
Quite heavy at 2kg (MBP 15-inch is 1.83kg)

Dell has become a major player once again in the pro design space over the last five years or so – it’s no longer regarded as the place to just get a bargain PC. But, its XPS 15 is a bargain. Cool, huh! It’ll cost you £1,799 for the mid-spec machine, and it packs a hell of a punch for that price. 

At the heart of the XPS is a magnificent display. It’s a 15.6-inch, 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) InfinityEdge touch display. Marketing jargon aside, this means there’s very little bezel on each side of the display. Pair this with…wait for it… A Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card with 4GB GDDR5 and you have a monster of a machine for the cash.

What’s more, there’s a raft of ports, including an HDMI, two USB 3.0, a Thunderbolt, and an SD card reader. Ooh, and there’s also a rather snazzy carbon fibre palm rest. It looks the part and is powerful enough for any creative task.

Push to the top-level machine for £2,199 and you get even more – a 1TB SSD and 32GB of RAM (expandable to 64GB)!

iPad Pro 12.9 256GB

Left-field 'laptop'

CPU: Apple A9X, M9 coprocessor | SSD: 256GB | Screen: 12.9-inch Retina. 2732 x 2048 pixels at 264ppi | Dimensions (without Smart Keyboard cover): 305.7mm (l) x 220.6mm (w) x 6.9mm (h) | Weight: 723g (Cellular model) | Ports: Lightning connector, headphone jack | Other: Front (1.2-megapixel) and rear (8-megapixel) cameras, four speakers, nano sim tray

Hugely portable (especially the 9.7-inch model)
Great screen
Loads of apps
Can’t run full versions of CC
Smart Keyboard tricky to use on your lap

OK, so we know the iPad Pro probably isn’t going to replace your laptop, but as a digital sketchbook and concepting tool it’s fast enough and light enough to do what you want, wherever you need to. The top-of-the-range iPad Pro, with a Smart Keyboard cover will cost you quite a healthy £1190 – which seems an awful lot for an iPad, right? Add to that an Apple Pencil for sketching and you’re up to £1290. 

But the iPad Pro 12.9-inch is super-fast, has a fantastic screen (2732 x 2048 pixels at 264ppi) and has a 256GB SSD for storing all of your artwork. The A9X chip rivals many laptop CPUs – and with a raft of apps you can edit 4K video with few problems (and by using the Apple Pencil/your finger in combination with keyboard shortcuts).

And then there’s the added bonus of being able to add a sim card (along with buying a data plan of course) meaning you can be online pretty much anywhere, even when there’s no Wi-Fi around. And of course, you can use it to take quick notes, write emails and do pretty much anything you could on a laptop. 

With one caveat. And a big one. There’s no actual support for Creative Cloud apps on the iPad – and although you can use Adobe’s plethora of mobile apps (including Photoshop Sketch, Illustrator Draw and Premiere Clip), you’ll be using these for concepting and asset prep rather than finished project files – you’ll be wanting to continue working on your main machine back at the studio.

The iPad Pro can be a laptop replacement, but it can’t be your only machine – like the other options here. In fact, it’s worth looking at the newer 9.7-inch model as well as it has some better specs – it can record 4K video, for one (the 12.9-inch can only record in 1080p) and is naturally, more portable.

Refurbished MacBook Pro

Pre-owned perfection

Spec: Varies depending on refurb model

Cheaper than new
Great screen, powerful
Even 2015 model is worth a look
Still pretty expensive
Lacks the ‘new Mac’ experience

If your heart is set on a MacBook Pro, there is another option – and a great one at that. Apple has a dedicated refurbished store on its site, offering the latest Touch Bar MacBook Pro at a number of different configurations. These are often custom-configured machines that have been sent back within the 14-day returns period or warranty period for whatever reason – but rest assured, Apple will have fixed any problem with the machine, and you’ll get the same warranty deal as when you buy a new one.

Sure, some of the MacBook Pros on the site are expensive – they’ve been upgraded from the standard model; but there are standard models as well. At time of writing this, you can get a 15-inch stock MacBook Pro for £1,999 – a saving of £350 if you were to buy a brand new one (and believe us, there’s no real difference – you’re not going to get an old, bashed-up Mac!). But you won’t, in our experience, get a nice shiny MacBook Pro box – you’ll get a generic white box (but that doesn’t really matter, does it?).

You can filter by screen size and model (there’s more than just MBPs on there). Head here