Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Computer Specs

One of the most common questions we field concerns computer technical specifications.  People often ask how they should equip and configure their next machine for digital photography purposes (often phrased as Photoshop or Lightroom purposes.)  So let's talk computers for one little post.

 Recent build in the LIGHT studio.

LIGHT recommends the current specs as an excellent configuration.  Off the side I will add comments and fall back positions.

Processor - Core i7 quad core.  We are currently using the Core i7 3770 at 3.4 GHz.  Although the two programs listed above perform best with a fast processor a good fall back position is found in the Core i5 3xxx options. We could go on a bit further regarding hyper threading or adding additional physical cores but we have not seen a huge requirement in typical digital photography needs.  If you push a bit beyond the ordinary with your work, take these into consideration.

Memory - 16 GB.  Most baseline systems these days are equipped with 8 GB of RAM but 16 will give you a nice performance boost.  There normally is no need to get the fastest clock speed RAM available unless you are also going to play games.  On the lower side, go with 12 and on the upper top out at 32.

Graphics - Dedicated video card.  There are a huge number of options here but start with an nVidia or ATI set with at least 1 GB.  You may be tempted to go with the higher end cards but you will not see a huge benefit unless you are working with video or gaming.  If you are thinking of running two or more high resolution displays you may want to upgrade as well. With all that said, the integrated graphics on the Core i5 and i7 (from 2500-4000) are pretty good.  You might be surprised how well they work.  The nice thing is you can always add a dedicated video card later if you need to.

SSD - Solid state drive for programs and speed critical data.  SSD prices have dropped significantly and the performance boost is really nice.  An SSD is not a must have but a majority of our clients enjoy the faster start up times and fast program launches.  At a minimum go with a 128ish GB drive.  You can go bigger (my laptop has a 512 GB SSD) but the drives will be a bit pricier.

Hard drives - At least two, one for data and one for scratch/working space.  Hard drive prices have come back down so we like at least 1 TB for storage and 320-500 GB for scratch.  Try for the 7200 rpm drives and if you want faster there are 10k and 15k rpm available. 

Ports - USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.  Odds are you will connect external storage to your machine and you want it to be fast.  At the top of the list is the Thunderbolt connection, huge speed and flexibility but not as many peripheral/storage choices and much more expensive.  Not nearly as fast but almost ubiquitous and priced right, the USB 3.0 connection is a necessity. Definitely think about these options as one of the most frustrating things is waiting for your machine to communicate with external storage (Lightroom users especially.)

Fortunately, these specs are not too far out of reach for most folks.  Although you may pay a bit more for the system, configuring it properly will save you big in time and workflow efficiency.

 Pure fun building this little beast of a Photoshop machine.

For the somewhat adventurous, LIGHT recommends building your own system.  I recently built the computer shown in the pictures above for about $1275 and two hours of my time.  It has all of the options listed above and is unbelievably fast.  For those who may be thinking Thunderbolt and Windows?  My machine is Windows and has two Thunderbolt ports along with eight USB 3.0 and a handful of USB 2.0.  Depending upon how and when you source your parts the do it yourself option can save you quite a bit.  More importantly, the process forces you to learn about the options and make smart choices as to what is best for your needs and workflow.

Any questions, comments, concerns, or addtions add a comment or email me at

Fiat Lux!