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.

RAM
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.

Processor
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.


Click Images To EnlargeThis Article Features Photo Zoom
Alienware

Currently, there are four systems with various configurations available from Alienware. Each one has a basic configuration, which you can customize to suit your needs and budget. When you're building a desktop system on their website, each of the four systems will offer a different level of performance in the components you can choose from. Within each category for the ALX Crossfire and such as processor, RAM, hard drives, CD/DVD drive, video card and so on‚ you select from higher-end hardware, plus they come with premium VIP service and warranty packages.

The Area-5100 7500 is a more basic setup by comparison, but it's still high-performance by any standard. The standard out-of-the-box system starting at $1,399 includes an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, a 20x dual-layer DVD burner, a 256 MB NVIDIA graphics card and Windows XP. For an additional $200, you can have 4 GB of RAM. The 250 GB hard drive can be replaced by various other configurations up to a maximum of 4 TB of storage. If you want to run two monitors, you need to upgrade to a dual graphics card and the 1000-watt multi-GPU-approved power supply.

Apple
The new Mac Pro has a recommended configuration starting at $2,800, which includes two 2.8 GHz Intel Xeon quad-core processors, 2 GB of RAM, a 320 GB (7200 rpm) hard drive, a 256 MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card and a 16x double-layer SuperDrive for playing and burning CDs and DVDs.

Rather than an eight-core setup, which won't be of benefit to most photographers, save yourself $500 and go for a quad-core setup. Putting that money toward more RAM and additional hard drive storage makes more sense.

HP
The Pavilion Ultimate series from HP has a recommended configuration for $1,630 and a base configuration starting at $1,000. Its recommended configuration includes the Windows Vista Home Premium operating system, an Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz processor, 4 GB of dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM, a 500 GB (7200 rpm) hard drive, a LightScribe 16x DVD SuperMulti optical drive and one 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT graphics card.

With a few tweaks to HP's recommendation, I was able to make a configuration more suitable to my needs as a photographer. That’s the beauty of customizing rather than buying something‚ off the shelf why not put your dollars where they’ll do the most good.

Alienware


Alienware Area-51 7500
(custom configuration)
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz
Graphics Card: 256 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8600GTS
Memory: 4 GB dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM
Operating System: Windows Vista Ultimate
Hard Drives: Two 1 TB SATA drives (RAID 1 data security)
Optical Drive: 20x dual-layer DVD burner
Estimated Street Price: $2,679 (as configured)
Contact: Alienware, (800) ALIENWARE, www.alienware.com/photo


HP

HP Pavilion Ultimate d4999t Series
(custom configuration)
Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz
Graphics Card: 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT
Memory: 4 GB dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM
Operating System: Windows Vista Ultimate
Hard Drives: Two 500 GB SATA drives (RAID 1 data security)
Optical Drive: Blu-ray/HD DVD player and LightScribe SuperMulti DVD burner
Estimated Street Price: $1,930 (as configured)
Contact: Hewlett-Packard, (888) 897-8561, www.hp.com


Apple Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro
(custom configuration)
Processor: Intel Xeon quad-core 2.8 GHz
Graphics Card: ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT
Memory: 4 GB DDR2
Operating System: Mac OS X
Hard Drives: Two 750 GB Serial ATA (add $800 for Mac Pro RAID card)
Optical Drive: 16x SuperDrive
Estimated Street Price: $3,449 (as configured)
Contact: Apple, (800) MY-APPLE, www.apple.com


Monitors
Dell
Dell UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC
Eizo
Eizo ColorEdge CG241W
When it comes to viewing and editing photos, bigger is better. A 24- or 30-inch display lets you see what a picture actually looks like as a large print. You can have two programs open side by side, which is a wonderful and efficient way to work. And whether you’re working in Photoshop or ACDSee, you’ll find the overall editing process is just easier and faster when the interface is that large‚ especially if you like to fine-tune specific portions of your images. Having more of the image visible on the screen when you're zoomed in at 300% or 400% means a lot less scrolling and less zooming out to periodically get your bearings. So make sure your next desktop system has a video card that supports a large HD display if you don’t already own one.

22 Comments

    Just got a asus system 2.5gh, core2quad, 8mb ram, 1TD hd, 23 inch monitor, windows 7 home prem,dvd lightscribe for $779. The price and preformance was to much to pass up, I already had a 1tb hard drive that I added and networked my 2 other computers together for more storage space and work room. one wich has my tethered camera attached to it.

    Shift to new computer gave only a modest improvement. I went from a $825. HP with one BFG 9800 pro X2 to a hand built i7 950, 12 GB of ram, 2 300GB WD velocorapters on raid 0 and 2 nvidia 460’s on a SLI equipped mb. The files from my Canon 7D’s reduced Adobe Bridge to a crawl now it only takes a few minutes. PS CS4 in 64 bit mode is some faster but I still have to wait longer than I want. Now Adobe wants more thousands for CS5, well about 1600 for production suite CS5.

    @Liz Marr – I like laptops I can move around with easily. That not only means amazing specs, but also a computer that doesn’t weigh much. I recently ordered an Alienware M11x R3, it has really good specs for an 11″ system. You may also want to consider the latest MacBook Air, it no longer is a system that sacrifices on performance. If the having the ultimate 13″ computer that weighs less than the Air is a must, take a look at the latest model Sony Vaio Z – I had Signature edition for a couple of months and loved it.

    Regardless of which laptop you choose, just be sure it’s running DDR3 RAM, and a Solid State Disk – hard drives are to slow and risky to travel around with.

    You may also want to consider adding a Solid State hard drive. My current configuration is an Acer laptop. Intel i3 processor, 8GB RAM, and an 80GB intel solid state drive. Even though the hard drive is on the small side, i only use it for my Operating System (Windows 7 Ultimate) all my photo editing software, and the current set of photos i’m working on. Solid states are still pretty expensive for large capacities but a 120GB can be picked up for about $150-$200. A solid state has read and write speeds of 3Gb per second. This also allows battery life to increase by 30-90 minutes. Timed executions of Boot time and program loading with SSD and Regular 7200rpm hard drive
    SSD
    Windows: 21.6 seconds
    Photoshop CS5: 2.8 seconds
    Photomatix v4.1: 1.7 seconds
    Regular hard drive
    Windows: 76.4 seconds
    Photoshop CS5: 9.2
    Photomatix v4.1: 4.1 seconds

    -Travis-

    No matter what hardware you are running, your digital darkroom needs software to process the images. As in days of old, no matter what equipment one selected for the traditional darkroom, it still required the proper chemicals, techniques and skills to get results. It’s not so much what computer system you are using as what you are doing with it.
    The article seemed to purposefully avoid what I believe to be every bit as important as processor speed, HDD and ram … the best software one can afford.
    Software is gear.

    Thank you for sharing, this information is useful to me. good quality
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    I was really hoping this would be a more current posting. I have a computer with a dual processor and 4 gigs of ram and it has a hard time managing light room 3 and I have most applications shut down and nearly nothing running in the back ground. Hope to see an update soon as I am in the market to get a new computer and CS6 in the coming months.

    Best Buy has quad core 8 gb ram asus computers, but now the price is around $400. Also check other places for a better deal. Prices come down all the time.

    I have added several 1tb hards drives to my network for under $100 each.

    this is obviously an old article as it talks about 2GB Ram, and vista as an operating system. the Lenovo K430 at tigerdirect.com for $899 with an i7 8core processor, 8-12GB Ram, 2TB Hard drive and Nvidia graphics card would be perfect or an Asus similarly configured.

    I use a lower end Lenovo/IBM with an i5, 8 GB Ram, and 2 TB HD and it works well with my Canon 5D full frame DSLR, with Photoshop CS5, and Lightroom. Today’s desktops start with 4 GB Ram and at least 500 GB HD.

    If you are publishing a link to 5-year old outdated information, you should issue a caveat. The system described by the author is a dinosaur and wouldn’t work with today’s software of file sizes.

    Why is this a lead article in Outdoor Photography in March 2013? The information is outdated and antiquated and is only good as a history lesson in dinosaurs. OP, get up with the times!

    Been down this path. Now have an i7 processor, 12 Gb RAM, 1 terabyte drive with 1 terabyte primary backup; and a seconday 750 MgB backup. RAID 1 was a pain and slowed things down. Better to get a mirroring external drive on USB3 or eSATA. Video card has 1 Gb vram. Get serious or……wait!

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