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.
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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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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.

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.

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 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,


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,

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,

Dell UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC
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.