Worried about which pieces of design equipment you should upgrade and which are fine as-is? We’ve got you covered with this guide.
A while back, we gave you a list of the best tools for a designer. It not only covered electronics but also sketchpads and non-design software — and even a backpack. Here, we’ll pivot from that post and discuss ways to evaluate your gear and figure out if you need newer equipment.
We all get the urge to upgrade, even when it’s not necessary. It’s normal. Lucky for us, graphic design work doesn’t need a ton of computing power. There are a few areas where we should try to get the best and latest we can afford — like having a good monitor for color accuracy — but mostly, we designers can get by without huge gear investments.
New models of gear we own can sometimes cause an emotional reaction that defies logic. Sometimes the ads we design influence us to buy stuff we don’t need. Emotions aside, though — the decision to upgrade or replace equipment can come down to a few measurable factors. Most notably, the following:
Imminent Need — upgrading to your first pro-grade computer or monitor, or the basic equipment to perform your duties.
Justifiable Expense — operating costs, or “Will it be better to buy a new thing than continue dragging along an outdated machine that struggles to perform?”
Value Addition – determine if this thing will add value that exceeds its cost. Will it bring business, or will you actually use it in order to do so?
Personal finances and the acquisition of tools is a very personal journey. Don’t worry — we’re not going to get all preachy about materialism. It’s just helpful to know what to evaluate when facing upgrade-itis.
Image via Jane Kelly.
There was a time, not long ago, when home computer technology was rapidly and constantly evolving. Newer, faster processors were a twice-a-year thing, and everyone was upgrading and replacing their big white towers regularly. Now? You can run most Adobe software on a 2010 Macbook Pro with 4gb of memory just fine. In fact, I do that very thing at home.
The following is a bold claim, but I really believe it: if your computer is fewer than 8 years old, especially an Apple, it’s probably fine. MacBook Pros are industry workhorses for many reasons, mostly because they are very hard to kill, and the parts were all made to work together as a unit.
No matter how old your primary machine is, desktop or laptop, here are some things to consider before you start shopping for a replacement.
Expand Your RAM
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is the easiest element to measure, and it creates noticeable improvement. It used to be that 2GB would get you by, but now 4GB is probably the absolute lowest you want to go, and 16GB is the sweet spot. More free space allows for more and faster processing. The amount of RAM you have indicates the space your processor has to work with, allowing or preventing it from performing its best.
Assuming your current computer accommodates expansion, try adding RAM before trashing the whole thing. You can even search the internet for how-to videos to upgrade your particular model, and see if it’s something you feel comfortable doing. On an old machine that’s out of warranty and that you have already thought about replacing anyway, expanding the RAM might be an easy way to the extend the life for a very low price.
Processors Are More Difficult
If you’re good on RAM in a fairly recent machine, you’re probably good on processing. Most computers made in the last decade have processor specs that look fairly similar through the same amount of time . . . for graphic design software. (This is a big caveat.)
Some professionals very much need huge processor specs for what they do. Certain Photoshop and Illustrator processes use a lot of processor power, such as rendering complex effects in a large file. You’ve probably run into this while applying an effect and then trying to undo it really quickly — or toggling back and forth to compare results. You sit there while the progress bar creeps along.
For the most part though, Adobe CC apps are made to run lean. InDesign is still quick on machines with bare bones specs. It’s a layout program, so it’s just a staging display. As long as you’re using links, like you should be, instead of embedding a bunch of graphics, you won’t need to upgrade hardware very often.
Now, if you’re a designer who crosses into video or heavy photography retouching, you will feel the limits of processing power more often. Rendering video and compositing large files takes a lot more power than creating flat vector illustrations with the odd drop shadow or texture overlay.
If you have plenty of RAM, but your machine is still struggling, it may be your processor holding you back. Unfortunately, these are much more difficult to upgrade. In the instance of a DIY-parts PC, you could swap for a better processor, but you also probably wouldn’t be reading this if you built your own computer. So it may be a good time to replace a machine with a processor that is holding you back.
Of course, sometimes a computer breaks in half, or you spill molten lava on a unibody laptop, and the whole thing is just toast. These are good reasons for a replacement. You’ve got to have a computer.
While a desktop has parts you can replace, like the keyboard or the monitor, a laptop is self contained and repairs can be really expensive.
It’s a no-brainer that, barring a repair under warranty, you simply need to weigh the cost of a repair against the perceived longevity of the machine — whether or not replacing it would be more advantageous in your particular situation. There’s no magic formula, though. Just use your head.
Weird But Worth Consideration
The more computers evolve, the fewer ports they seem to include. Apple has been reducing the number of USB port and various other inputs on their laptops for a few generations now. If you have an older machine with a ton of different ports that you find useful, it’s a good idea to weigh this along with other factors before replacing entirely.
You’ll have to buy a separate hub for things like SD cards and USB connections, should you decide to get a new machine.
Printers and Scanners
This category is much easier to evaluate on average. It’s usually cheaper too — you don’t need to own great printers and scanners unless you do freelance work that warrants it. You can get by with a cheap printer for proofing things, then build a relationship with a print shop for pro-level jobs.
If a home office printer is doing, or not doing, something that you can’t fix with self-cleaning or clearing a paper jam, it’s likely due for replacement. But if an expensive large-format printer is acting up, you should obviously try to get it fixed. The gap between pro gear and consumer gear is pretty wide, and the price + the cost of ownership reflects that.
Also there is connectivity to consider. If your work setup is skewing toward wireless or Bluetooth, and your old printer-scanner combo is the only thing you have to wire up, maybe look into upgrading to a wireless model.
If you’re wondering, yes, it’s always time to upgrade your sandwich. (Image via Kegfyld.)
Scanners haven’t evolved much. If the resolution you get now is good enough, and your scan bed isn’t scratched up, there aren’t any major advances to catch up on. If you want to upgrade for a bigger one, say an 11×17″ bed, be ready to spend a lot more money. That decision will fall under the “value addition” category. If it’s justified, go for it.
For a digital designer, the monitor is the heart of your operation. It’s literally your work environment. Good monitors are easier on your eyesight, give you more screen real estate, they’re brighter, and (most importantly) they’re more accurate.
Upgrading your monitor is a good idea when it’s keeping you from doing your best work. Since color accuracy is so crucial to design, a cheap old monitor won’t cut it. However, good monitors last a long time.
Image via Rawpixel.com.
The best monitors aren’t cheap, but as technology advances, high-resolution monitors that used to be prohibitively expensive are within reach. If you can’t afford to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest equipment, periodically looking around at monitors within a certain price range can be pleasantly surprising.
A 27″ 4k monitor that was once outrageous is now just a few hundred dollars. An upgrade here is worth it, and it’s much easier now than it ever has been.
Now, if the monitor on your laptop isn’t up to snuff, that will make upgrading a little more complicated. Fortunately, laptop monitors have been great for years now. So if the monitor is the most obvious thing making you think about a laptop upgrade, you’ll likely appreciate the performance boost you’ll also get.
Some digital design tools are exclusive to specific types of work. These are task-oriented pieces of technology that are highly valuable to those tasks.
A better camera can make you a better photographer. To a point. If you’re shooting your own photos for design work, then you’ll want to make sure you’re getting everything you can out of your budget.
For a while, digital cameras weren’t very good, so you had to replace them often, as technology allowed. Today, they’re great: cheaper, better, tougher.
If your camera is holding back your design work, it’s time to start looking. Bigger sensors allow more light, better dynamic range (the difference between blown-out highlights and pitch-black shadows), and the ability to get that soft bokeh we all like.
That said, if you have a camera that accepts interchangeable lenses, you may want to look at investing in a faster or more versatile lens. Those can easily climb to stratospheric prices, though, so consider your future as well. If you like your camera’s brand, the lenses you buy can transfer to other bodies of the same sensor size.
iPad Pro and Apple Pencil
With the advent of illustration apps like Procreate and Illustrator Draw, the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil have become formidable tools in the world of illustrative design. Where once we drew, refined, and scanned the drawing to trace in the computer, or fought the weird hand-eye-coordination of graphics tablets, we can now just draw on a screen.
And for the first time on a device within the average person’s reach, it is awesome.
As far as upgrading from a 1st-generation iPad Pro to a newer 2nd generation goes, you probably don’t need need it. According to the specs, there isn’t much difference in areas that concern drawing.
Image via Vladyslav Starozhylov.
Interactive Graphics Displays
In the same vein, interactive displays are really useful to professional illustrators. Models like the Wacom Cintiq line have come down in price quite a bit. If you have an older one, there have been improvements in the interface and the tactility.
Comparing an interactive display to an iPad Pro can get weird, though. The iPad is portable and independent, while a display hooks up to a computer. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. For instance, when using an interactive display and computer, you will enjoy the full power of your computer and the design apps. On an iPad, you’ll be using the mobile versions of apps, and you will be tethered to battery life.
Whether you need new gear or just think you might, you can see that some calls are easier to make than others. The majority of industry-standard tools like MacBook Pros and good monitors now offer great reliability, compared to years past. Also things don’t change as drastically as they once did.
If your gear works, take the time to make an informed decision. You’ll be better off than simply following the release schedules and the marketing budgets of the manufacturers.
Cover image via Vol. Kozin.
For more articles on design thinking, check these out:
How to Start a Successful Freelance Graphic Design Career
Aaron Draplin on Life, Design, and Taking the Work Home
Free & Cost-Effective Tools to Keep Your Freelance Business On Track
Insight from the Freelance Designer and Digital Nomad Behind Walking Designs
10 Indispensable Creative Tools for Graphic Designers and Illustrators
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