'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
There are many attractive laptops now available for creative users, but sometimes only a desktop computer can provide the computing power, screen size, and expandability required for high-end graphics, design, and video work.
Recently, Apple's iMac has proved popular with many creative users and has inspired similar designs from Windows PC manufacturers. But some PC manufacturers have also come up with interesting angles of their own. The adjustable, touch-sensitive display of Microsoft's Surface Studio 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 its 32-inch and curved 34-inch all-in-one desktops.
The weakness of all-in-one designs is 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.
Following the recent launch of the M1-based iMac, creators now have a wide choice of desktop platforms and form factors: Intel Mac (Mini, iMac, Mac Pro), M1 Mac (Mini, iMac), and Intel/Windows (mini-desktop, small form factor, AIO, tower). Here's a selection of ZDNET's picks for the best desktops for graphic design.
Also: The 5 best graphic design monitors
Tech specs: Processor: M1 Ultra; Memory 64GB | Storage: 1TB SSD | Ports: 6x Thunderbolt 4, 1x HDMI, 2x USB-A (3.1), 1x 10Gb Ethernet, 3.5mm headphone socket, 1x SDXC card slot | Dimensions: 95x197x197mm | Weight: 3.6kg
Apple's 27-inch iMac has long been a fixture on the desks of designers and other creative users, but Apple surprised everyone in March when it discontinued the 27-inch model and replaced it with the new Mac Studio desktop system (the rumor mill was expecting a laptop).
The Mac Studio is more like the "headless" Mac Mini, sporting a compact, low-profile design that is sold without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. But, rather than the entry-level M1 processor used in the current Mac Mini, the somewhat larger Mac Studio steps up a gear, offering power-hungry creative users the choice of top-of-the-range M1 Max or M1 Ultra processors.
Prices start at $1999 for a model with the M1 Max, which includes 10 processor cores, 24 GPU cores, and 16-core Neural Engine, along with 32GB memory and 512GB solid-state storage. The M1 Max provides impressive performance for 2D and 3D graphics. For high-end video-editing work, you can step up to the M1 Ultra -- which is quite literally two M1 Max chips bolted together. This provides 20 CPU cores, 48 GPU cores, and a 32-core Neural Engine.
Apple claims that it can handle 18 streams of 8K video simultaneously. That sort of performance certainly outstrips the older iMac it replaces, making the Mac Studio a good upgrade for many Mac users -- albeit an expensive one, as you'll need to budget for an additional monitor, too. The Mac Studio also lacks the internal expansion slots of the Intel-based Mac Pro - which is still on the market right now.
Tech specs: Processor: Apple M1 Silicon | GPU: 8-Core integrated; 8GB memory, 256GB solid-state drive | Ports: 1x Ethernet, 1x HDMI, 2x USB-A, 2x Thunderbolt 4 | Dimensions: 7.7 square inches
The Mac Mini has always been Apple's "low-cost" Mac for home users. The late 2020 release of a new Mac Mini based on Apple's M1 SoC gives the compact desktop system a considerable graphics boost that might attract the attention of creative users working from home.
Apple claims that the 8-core integrated GPU of the M1 processor provides a six-fold increase in graphics performance when compared to previous Mac Mini models, and our tests revealed very respectable performance for such a modestly priced system. Unusually for Apple, the M1 Mac Mini even came with a price cut, now starting at $699 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage.
Developers need to update their software and apps in order to take full advantage of the M1's performance, but with Microsoft and Adobe already providing native versions of Office and Photoshop, that process is well under way. It's just a shame that Apple continues to charge such high prices for its RAM and storage upgrades.
Read review: Apple Mac Mini (late 2020)
If you like macOS and the Mac Mini form factor but aren't convinced by the M1 platform, an alternative solution is to pair the Intel Mac Mini, which starts at $1,099 with an 8th-generation Core i5, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD storage. You can also boost its integrated graphics performance with a powerful graphics card in a Thunderbolt 3-connected external GPU enclosure.
Tech specs: Processor: Intel Core i90-10940X4 | GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; 64GB memory, 2TB solid-state drive | Ports: 1x headphone, 7x USB-A, 1x USB-C, 3x DisplayPort, 1x HDMI, 1x mic, 1x line in, 1x line out, 1x speaker, 1x subwoofer, 2x Ethernet | Dimensions: 200x173x380mm | Weight: 7.38kg
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.
Contrasting with the bright, fluorescent lights that festoon Corsair's gaming PCs, the i200 is housed in a mini-tower chassis with a grey finish. 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. It costs $4,499.99 or £4,699.99 (inc. VAT). In the US, you can also 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 extremely well connected, with three DisplayPort interfaces and one HDMI port providing support for multiple 4K displays. The audio subsystem is impressive too, with analog and optical outputs capable of supporting a 7.1 speaker system. The One Pro i200 is well-suited for audio recording, video work, and editing. There's little scope for further expansion, though, other than upgrading the internal storage.
Tech specs: Processor: Intel Xeon Bronze 3204 | GPU: AMD Radeon Pro WX 3200; 16GB memory, 256GB solid-state drive | Ports: 2x USB-C, 8x USB-A, 2x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x SD card slot, 1x headphone, 1 microphone, 1 line-out, 2x PS/2, 1x Serial | Dimensions: 433x218x566mm | Weight: 20.4Kg
Dell makes a range of workstations with more conventional designs. The recently updated Precision 7920 sits at the top of the range. It's available in either tower or rack configuration, and is designed for 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 prebuilt 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 -- $13,809 to be exact.
Dell's UK website lists one primary Precision 7920 configuration, which costs £2,602.82 (ex. VAT; £3,123.38 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. The dual-Xeon 'science' model costs £9,186.02 (ex. VAT; £11,023.22 inc. VAT) in the UK.
These configurations are just the starting point, though. In both the US and the UK, Dell provides dozens of build-your-own options for customizing the Precision 7920. Max these out, and you can easily end up in the six-figure territory.
Tech specs: Processor: Intel i7-11700 (2.5GHz - 4.9GHz) | GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 (6GB VRAM); 16GB memory, 1TB solid-state drive | Integrated display: 34-inch (5120x2160) | Ports: 2x Thunderbolt 4, 1x USB-C, 6x USB-A, 1x HDMI, 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x SD card slot, 1x audio in/out | Dimensions: 818x223x368mm | Weight: 11kg
We really liked the 32-inch Envy all-in-one system that we reviewed last year, which was a worthy rival for Apple's now-discontinued 27-inch iMac. The 32-inch Envy has also been discontinued, but HP replaced it with this new 34-inch model.
The Envy 34 has an attractive 5K display, with 5120 x 2160 resolution (163.4dpi) resolution, and a 21:9 aspect ratio that provides plenty of room to juggle multiple apps and windows on the screen. It also supports 98% of the DCI-P3 color standard, making it suitable for a wide range of graphics and design tasks, including high-end video editing. HP pays good attention to detail too, with features such as a magnetic webcam that can be adjusted to different heights and angles for video calls.
In addition to the ports and connectors located on the back panel, there's a separate USB hub built into the stand that lets you quickly plug in a few devices without needing to reach behind the screen. The Envy 34 is more upgradeable than the iMac too, with a service door located on the back panel that provides quick access to the memory slots and drive bays.
HP's website is a bit confusing though. In some places, it lists the Envy 34 as 'coming soon,' although we did find a single configuration that is now in stock and ready to order. It costs $2199.99 with Windows 11 Home running on an 8-core i7 processor, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060, 16GB memory and 1TB solid-state storage. And, if you dig a little deeper, you'll find a number of upgrade options available, including Windows 11 Pro, an i9 processor, and RTX 3080 graphics.
ZDNET's pick for the best desktop for graphic design is the Apple Mac Studio. It's powered by Apple's M1 Max or M1 Ultra CPU with integrated graphics processing, machine learning for more efficient power usage and performance, and blazing fast speed. You can configure the Studio with up to 128GB of RAM and 8TB of SSD storage for all the memory and storage space you'll need for 3D modeling and animating, 2D animation, digital art, and video or photo editing.
Desktop for graphic design
Apple Mac Studio
Apple Mac Mini
Corsaire One Pro i200
Intel Core i9-10940X
Dell Precision 7920 Tower
Xeon Bronze 3204
HP Envy 34 AIO
Intel Core i7-11700
All-in-one PCs like the Apple iMac are often criticized for their lack of upgradeability and expansion slots, but they can be an ideal solution for many users who simply need a fast PC with a large, high-resolution display. The built-in display is also a great value for users on a limited budget. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't suit everyone, though, especially in fields like video editing and sound recording. These creatives often benefit from modular PC designs that may be larger and less elegant, but they provide greater freedom to customize the PC with specialized hardware upgrades.
Choose this graphic design desktop...
If you need...
Apple Mac Studio
A powerful, well-rounded desktop for graphic design
Apple Mac Mini
An affordable, compact option for beginner and student graphic designers
Corsair One Pro i200
A compact tower that doesn't skimp on powerful components
Dell Precision 7920 Tower
A Linux-based desktop for graphic designers that don't work in Windows
HP Envy 34
An all-in-one desktop for graphic design in smaller workspaces
Most manufacturers have desktop PC systems specifically designed for creative users -- what Intel sometimes refers to as "Creator PCs." A key feature of these PC systems is that instead of relying on integrated graphics. they provide a separate, discrete graphics processor (GPU) to handle 3D graphics, animation, and video. (Apple's M1 processors are an exception, as their "system on a chip" design integrates multiple CPU and GPU cores into a single piece of silicon).
However, there are two distinctly different approaches to these PC systems. Apple started the trend for slimline all-in-one designs with the 27-inch iMac. Although the iMac was discontinued recently, rivals such as Dell and HP followed suit with impressive all-in-one designs suited for creative work.
At the same time, though, more traditional "modular" PC designs that feature a separate PC and display remain popular. That's especially the case for high-end workstations that require additional expansion slots for user upgrades and customization.
Graphic design and gaming have similar requirements when it comes to system memory, CPU performance, and graphics processing power. Choosing a computer with 8GB of RAM should be plenty of memory for less demanding programs like Lightroom or Photoshop.
However, if you plan on working with 3D models and animation, you'll want more RAM to properly render images and scenes. Desktops geared towards graphic design can be configured with up to 128GB of RAM, which is definitely overkill for most people. But if you're working on a full-length movie or game, or want to render final images very quickly, you'll need the bandwidth.
A compact, all-in-one PC with a built-in display might seem like an elegant solution for many users, but if you prefer to work with a multi-display set-up, then a modular PC might be a better solution. This will allow you to choose a graphics card that provides the performance you need, along with support for multiple external displays.
And, of course, it gives you the freedom to choose more specialized displays that are suitable for particular industries, ranging from 4K to 8K resolution, or with specialized features such as DCI-P3 for video-editing work.
They can be! Because gaming desktops have powerful processors and graphics cards as well as lots of RAM and storage drive space, they're almost perfectly suited for graphic design applications like 3D modeling, animation, digital art, and photo or video editing.
However, all that power comes at a price. So if you're looking to stick to a budget, you may want to steer clear of gaming PCs, as they tend to run on the expensive side.
Whether you're a student or an established professional, there are plenty of options out there for graphic design desktops. Here's a short list of alternative choices that are also worth considering: