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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Your Next Digital Darkroom

Between the large image files today's new D-SLRs generate and the demands of the latest software tools, your old computer is probably starting to show its age. We have some suggestions when it's time for an upgrade.

Click Images To EnlargeThis Article Features Photo Zoom

Alienware Alienware Area-51 7500
At the heart of most digital darkrooms is a desktop computer system, and compared to your camera and other related gear, it may be lagging behind. And it’s becoming all the more apparent every time you use your sluggish, half-asleep computer. Opening programs. Opening photos. Rendering changes. Saving them. Everything takes too long. It’s time to get a new computer, but what should it be?

Whether you prefer a Windows or Mac platform, there are plenty of spectacular choices in high-performance desktop systems. And the specific components usually are customizable at the time of purchase. You can get exactly what you want, and what you want is at least 2 GB of RAM a fast processor and one or more hard drives that will get you at least 1 TB of storage.

Because imaging programs rely heavily on RAM to crunch the numbers behind the scenes, having at least 2 GB is essential. You even may want to start with 4 GB if your budget allows. When you have multiple programs open and frequently move between them, 2 GB can be a little slow, and any editing of panoramas or large compositions of multiple, high-resolution photos is much faster with 4 GB of RAM. Depending on the size of the file with which you’re working, your system can get bogged down or even freeze with only 2 GB. Also, keep in mind that computers have a fixed number of RAM slots, so we recommend getting fewer larger-capacity RAM modules up front so you can leave empty slots open for future expansion.

Although you still can find dual-core processors offered, many high-performance systems have gone to quad-core processors‚ the Apple Mac Pro offers a configuration with two quad-core processors. Each chip basically consists of four processors in one, giving a huge gain in overall speed and performance, while simultaneously reducing power consumption.

But unless you’re creating huge composite files of 500 MB or more or working with advanced 3D-rendering programs, the difference between a quad-core and an eight-core may not be noticeable or worth the extra money. If your image files average around 40 MB or smaller and you’re not heavy on multitasking, a dual-core processor should be plenty powerful and definitely save you some money if it’s available for a particular system. With the new Mac Pro, Apple doesn’t offer a dual-core option, but it lets you opt for a single quad-core processor, which saves you $500. Then you always can add another quad-core later if you find you need the extra processing power.

Hard Drive Storage
Here, the balance is found between speed, size and how you're planning on using the hard drives‚ whether separately or together in a RAID configuration. Speeds of 7200 rpm are common in high-performance hard drives now, with 10,000 and 15,000 rpm available in some systems, but those speeds come with a sacrifice in size.

Alienware's 10,000 rpm drive is 160 GB; Apple's 15,000 rpm drive is 300 GB. Faster speeds mean quicker loading times for programs and large image files, but you'll need three or four hard drives to get the kind of overall storage.

If you want to do a RAID 1 configuration‚ where data is stored in parallel on two identical hard drives‚ be aware that some desktop systems only allow for two internal hard drives in that kind of setup. In a case like that, you’re better off going with two 500 GB (7200 rpm) hard drives, for example, rather than two smaller capacity drives that operate at 10,000 rpm or higher.


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