Digital Photography Computer Buying Guide
NOTE This page was published as a standalone article in November 2009. Start at the first page of this Digital Photography Computer Buying Guide to get the latest information about computers for photography.
Computers are an important part of digital photography. Even those who never manipulate images often use one to share, display, print, sort and backup images. While any computer can be used, careful consideration can greatly improve the experience in working with digital images.
The most important component for digital photography is not the computer but the monitor. There are a number of models to choose from which have a wide gamut of colors and can be calibrated. So, before considering to change computers, it is extremely important to choose the display and leave some budget for it. Both NEC and Eizo make excellent wide-gamut displays with prices ranging from around $500 USD and way up. On a budget, the cheapest such display is the NEC P221 which is available from Amazon.com. They have 24", 26" and 30" versions as well, available from B&H Photo with a SpectraView II color calibrator. Click on the size to jump to the corresponding product information page.
Parts vs Computers
Now back to the regularly scheduled program. A computer is assembled from individual parts which have to be fit together just like a DSLR and lens. There are hundreds of options to choose from for nearly every part. Computer manufacturers such as HP, Acer and Gateway mostly assemble such parts and sometimes design simple parts like the casing. In order to give competitive prices, these manufacturers combine a few good headline parts with many low-quality components.
One can optimally build a computer from parts or get a pre-built computer and replace the undesirable parts with better ones. This ends up costing more but can save time and labor cost for those who cannot do it themselves. Computer models change so fast that any links to pre-made models here would become obsolete very rapidly. For now, here are two computers reasonably suited for digital photography: AMD based HP Pavilion Elite e9240f and Intel based HP Pavilion Elite e9270f.
There should be one. Most computers, particularly low-cost models, use integrated graphics now to keep cost low. The problem is that this reduces the speed at which images can be drawn to the screen. Imaging software use very little GPU power so a powerful card is not needed and the amount of RAM usually makes no difference for digital photography. A card with 64MB would be enough but they do not make them anymore. Avoid things that says Shared Memory or anything similar sounding. The process of selecting which images to keep and which to delete is much more pleasant when draw speed is fast.
The SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 4350 works as well as as any except it has no fan to keep things quiet and 2 Dual-Link DVI output to drive up to two 30" displays. Those are the reasons I chose it for my system even though 1GB of RAM is way more than necessary. For technical reasons beyond the scope of this article, having more graphics memory reduces the amount available to 32-bit operating systems, therefore it is highly recommended to go for a 64-bit Operating System.
CPU - Processor
The CPU is considered the brain of the computer. It is most often the fastest part of the system so when it interacts with memory, disk and network, it tends to wait quite a bit. What keeps a CPU busy is image processing. Those who do little more than RAW conversion and cropping are not going to get much out of a powerful CPU unless the computer performs other tasks simultaneously.
Nowadays most, if not all, CPUs are 64-bit capable. A 64-bit capable computer can access more memory and process more data without swapping to disk. If you find a 32-bit CPU, it would be best to avoid getting it. Modern CPUs also have multiple cores which lets them do more than one thing truly in parallel. Software is being improved to take advantage of this capability.
There are currently only two common CPU manufacturers, AMD and Intel. Which one is better depends on when we ask because they are constantly leapfrogging each other, plus it only applies to the top model. In general AMD CPUs cost a bit less than the equivalent Intel.
AMD Phenom II X4 945 3.0GHz Socket AM3 95W Quad-Core Processor was chosen for its high-speed memory interface and relatively low power consumption. This means it needs less cooling and therefore a more quiet fan. There is an even lower-powered version which runs slower though.
A motherboard is the glue between most computer parts. It must be compatible with the chosen CPU and determines what kind of memory can be used. Motherboards have ports for hard-drives, burners, USB devices and more. Expansion boards can be added to provide additional ports if needed, as long as the motherboard has free slots.
An ECS Black Series A785GM-M Micro ATX Motherboard was chosen for its support for DDR3 memory up to 1333Mhz. The important features are to have at least one 16X PCI-E slot for the graphics card and plenty of SATA ports. In this case, that would be 6 SATA ports and 2 eSATA ports. Support for lots of storage is key, internal for working and external for backups. Note that if you cannot find a motherboard with eSATA, any SATA port can be converted to eSATA with a special bracket.
Memory - RAM
The CPU always gets its data from memory. Having enough fast memory is important to keep the CPU busy and to avoid swapping to disk which is much slower. Even RAW files do not take much memory compared to the operating system, software and video files. Of course, batch processing can work on multiple files at once which can take quite a bit of memory. A good starting point it 3GB but to take advantage of a 64-bit CPU, more than 4 is needed. Note that you must get 64-bit capable software for an individual software to see the benefits. Otherwise, multiple 32-bit software together will do.
For my system a CORSAIR XMS3 8GB (4 x 2GB) DDR3 pack was chosen. It gives 8GB of RAM split across 4 slots. Using multiple slots allows CPUs with multi-channel interfaces to access data faster. It also improves stability when memory pieces are identical.
Hard Disk Drives
Permanent storage is needed to store and access images. Photo albums constantly grow and, while not all need to be on disk, it is nice to have a plenty of space available. Video files require the most storage. Modern hard-drives use the SATA-2 interface which is efficient compared to the older IDE interface. All new motherboards support SATA drives.
Compared to everything other than network, hard drives are quite slow. Just like memory can be accessed faster using multiple channels, hard-disks can be made into a RAID-0 to split data across multiple disks and access it in parallel. A good idea is to have separate data and application disks. A single disk can be used for both the operating system and applications while a RAID of 2 to 4 drives are recommended for storing data. In the case of video, a 4-disk RAID is enough for real-time playback of uncompressed HD material.
When choosing hard-disk drives it is extremely important to consider reliability as factor. Both Seagate and Hitachi offer the most reliable disks at only a few dollars more than lower-end ones. Note that even reliable drives fail and backups are always necessary.
The sweet-spot in terms of price being around 1 TB, I chose 3 HITACHI 1TB 3.5" SATA-2 internal drives. Video can fill this up very fast but this can accommodate over 100,000 images at 10 megs each.
Backups are essential. How to manage them is a complex topic with many options. The important thing to know is that at least one off-site backup is needed to prevent against loss due to fire, theft or other disasters. The most practical format for off-site backups is to use DVD disks. DVD disks cost very little, are cheap to replicate and have no monetary value once burned. This last point reduces the chances of theft. Another option for off-site backups is to use portable hard-drives but they are sensitive to mechanical failure and cost more.
It perhaps will take another 2 or 3 years before Blu-Ray takes the place of DVDs because Blu-Ray is not ubiquitous yet. It means that finding a machine to restore a backup from Blu-Ray is not so easy.
The burner I choose is the Pioneer DVR-218LBK SATA with LabelFlash Support. It is essential to get a well-rated burner without known compatibility problems to produce readable backups. Plextor is know for its higher-end burners as well.
Choosing a computer case is rather simple. The importance it to choose one large enough to accommodate the chosen motherboard and plenty of storage devices. At the minimum it should have one 5 ¼" bay for the burner, one external 3 ½" bay for a card-reader and bays for multiple 3 ½" hard-drives.
A good case with space for 5 hard-drives is the RAIDMAX Hurricane ATX-248WB. The multi-card reader I use is the excellent Atech AFT PRO-35U. This is both an internal and external model, so a bay is not technically required. While all cameras can transfer images via USB, using a card reader is considerably faster and does not consume the camera's battery.
A power-supply is also simple to use. It is recommended to use one that is rated least 50% more than required. Another consideration is that the power-supply be relatively quiet. A few fanless power-supplies exist but those are expensive. If using a fanless graphics card, only two fans remain. There are now energy ratings for power-supplies which gives their efficiency. The more efficient it is, the less heat it generates and therefore the less cooling is required. As a bonus, lower energy bills follow.
An Antec EarthWatts EA650 650W Continuous Power was selected to complete my new system. This one is rated at 85% efficiency and appears very stable. For the components chosen, 650W is more than enough, leaving plenty of room for future power-hungry devices.
Sum of Parts
It should take less than an hour to carefully assemble these components yourself. Local computer shops offer this as a service for a small fee. The total cost without a display of the system described was $1026.85 USD or $1113.39 CDN before taxes and shipping at the time of purchase.
The last pieces of the puzzle are the operating system and software. Free versions of software abound but those come with the caveat that support is either inexistent or self-serve. Computer builders have discounts on versions of Microsoft Windows. We highly recommend avoiding Vista and going straight to Windows 7 64-bits. The experience is much lighter and easier to customize and cleanup. The free operating system Neocamera uses is OpenSUSE.
The most common question about computers for digital photography is "Can I use a laptop?" The most common answer is "no". While this is the most sensible choice, there are good reasons to buy a laptop and having a full-size computer as well is not always an option. It would be better though.
The only requirements for using a laptop for photography is to use a good external monitor. After all, the display is the most important part of the system and all laptops can at least hook to an external display. One must carefully check the connection options since laptops rarely have more than one type of display connector unless using a dedicated docking station. The most common limitation is that laptops can rarely drive 30" displays.
The next best thing is to upgrade the laptop's hard-drive to the fastest model available since typical laptop drives are quite slow. This can often be done when ordering.
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