Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Computers for photographers - recommended specifications

This is a guide with recommended computer specifications for photographers who are using certain types of cameras. It's in relation to another article about computers being "fast enough".

Grammer is probably horrible, spelling too. Just thought I'd post in case it was any use to anyone here.

Computers for photographers - recommended specifications

Most photographers today who shoot with entry level or midrange Digital SLRs will find that their home computers for the most part can handle editing their snaps fairly well, perhaps with some even being quite snappy. For semi-pro or pro level DSLR's or digital medium format backs with pixel counts in excess of 20MP up to as high as 70MP a home computer isn't going to make much of a dent; or a scratch. Apart from this, professionals often have shorter deadlines, and do more editing in terms of complexity and quantity. The two groups have completely different requirements for computing power.

The majority of photographers, professionals or not, may consider the computer they have as "fast enough" for what they do. If they had used a much faster computer to do their editing work on they would indeed find it hard to go backwards. Obivously dependant on your camera equipment and the editing you do, there will be a point where any faster a computer adds an unnoticeable or no benifit at all. Editing in programs like Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture, effects are applied in "real-time" meaning as you make changes these changes are applied. My own definition of "real-time" is that any changes are made instantly with miliseconds of lag between me making change and the change being applied. If you want this kind of responsiveness editing JPGs from a 4MP point and shoot, any modern computer can ablige. Step up to a 10MP DSLR and you're talking some mid-range hardware. 16-24MP your talking about some pretty high end hardware for good performance (not quite instant) and for Digtal Medium Format systems, well if you can afford one of those you'll probably be able to afford the extremely expensive computer hardware needed to punch through the insane file sizes.

For the normal consumer, buying a new computer can look like a minefield; it is! There are many different components you have to consider when buying a pc, and a couple more when building one yourself. If your less interested in the ins-and-outs and just want to know what to buy, you can skip this next section. A quick foreword here, I know most of Intel and Nvidia's lineup inside out, I am not as familiar with AMD/ATI's. Although there is a good reason for recommending Nvidias cards (Cuda, PhysX, etc.) and Intel's processors (they're high end is the fastest CPU you can get). If you wish to look at benchmarks I suggest you checkhttp://www.tomshardware.com/ and look at the CPU and GPU charts.

COMPLICATED: You might want to grab some caffinated drinks and snacks for this part! Lets do a run through of the different parts:

Processor: Idealy you want the fastest processor you can afford to get, simple right? Wrong. What exactly is it that defines how fast a processor is? Most people think of the GHz rating to decide how fast a processor is but this is not the only factor in how fast the processor will be at doing certain tasks. Clock Speed (GHz), L2/L3 Cache Size (MB) are the main numbers you should be looking for. A processor at 2.6GHz with 8MB of Cache will do most things faster than a 3.6Ghz processor with 1MB of Cache. Ideally you want both these numbers as high as possible. Good numbers are around 2.4Ghz 6MB for laptops and 2.4GHz/3GHz 6-8MB for desktops. That is the simple part, where it gets more complicated is when you compare the same specifications of processor but with different processor designs. Intel for instance had their Netburst design which allowed them to reach speeds of over 3.4GHz with 4MB of Cache with Dual Core processors. However a much slower clocked Core 2 Duo even with the same amount of cache will be able to do most tasks much faster. Why? The Core 2 Duo's design is more efficient and can do more per clock cycle than the Pentium D. This is where being a photographer who doesn't read up on computers can be a problem. Plenty Pentium Dual Core (not to be confused with Penium D's) processors are out there offering high clock speeds, but have less cache and are not as fast as their Core 2 Duo counterparts. Futhermore, even processors branded as Core 2 Duo are not all equal. every so often changes are made to the chips design although only slight compared to the major shifts. Sometimes this is a shrink of the processor dye, changes in the processor stepping etc. making them more efficient and lowering temperatures generally making the chips more stable and more overclockable. The same principle applies to AMD with their different brands and generations of the same brand.

RAM: Random Access Memory does exactly what it says on the tin. It's storage that is randomly accessed, but the difference is it is accessed, VERY quickly, many many times faster than your hard disk drive, or solid state drive. This is where the programs that are running and the stuff your working on is stored for quick access, provided you have enough of it! Ram nowadays is mostly DDR2 or DDR3, although DDR2 is being phased out now with more and more motherboards supporting DDR3 only. With ram you need to look at its speed, in MHz and its latency, and obviously the type of DDR it is, 2 or 3. DDR2-800MHz CL6 / DDR3-1066Mhz is a fine speed/latency for most people but if you have the cash you could probably get DDR2-1066MHz CL6 / DDR3-1333MHz CL7. Most photoediting computers should get 4GB Ram, its a good number since its the max for 32bit OS's and you'll probably still have free ram slots left in a desktop to upgrade yourself in the future if you need to. When fitting your own ram, or given the choice, make sure it is running in Dual Channel mode if you are using two sticks of ram. This basically allows the ram to be accessed a little faster, ther performance gains arnt huge but it doesn't cost anything so why not! For Intel's Core i7 processor they have Tripple Channel where three sticks of memory are being used rather than two. This allows for an even high memory bandwidth and throughput, mainly because these processors can crunch the numbers faster and so need fed the data faster to keep going.

Graphics Card: Up until recently the graphics card was only used to accelerate 3D applications such as games, or rendering software and more recently to encode/decode video files. Adobe has versions of its Creative Suite that use the graphics cards power to help render images and improve performance in their applications. Checkwww.adobe.com for a list of compatable graphics cards since all cards will not be supported, although the majority of modern ones from NVIDIA and ATI will be supported. Most decent graphics cards range from £50 upwards with really good cards at the £130 mark (Nvidia GTX 260/275) that are very fast and are also great gaming cards. ATI's HD4XXX Series is also very good with cards such as the 4770. The amount of RAM on a graphics card isn't that important, the 1GB mark is about as much as you will need, any higher and the gains are almost 0. It is instead the memory bus you should look at, a 256bit or wider memory bus will allow more data to be pushed to the memory and taken out of it. My 2 year old 8800GTS has 640MB ram and a 320Bit memory bus and it still performs fine in most of todays games. How much help it is however in Adobe Products is unknown since I am unsure how much it helps with Lightroom 2.4 just now (if at all!) which is where the majority of my photo editing is done. Plus the fact my CPU is more than fast enough to carry the load of my photoshop work. The GT300 Chipset from Nvidia is due early 2010 along with ATI's new chips which are due to have Open GL 4 and DirectX 11 support, so if your planning an upgrade or a new computer and can hold off or at least hold off on the graphics card (using one you already have or a cheaper one for example) it would be wise to start in a new generation to get the most longevity.

Motherboard: This part is more for the DIY'ers out there. When you buy a pre-built computer you likely won't have a say in the motherboard. This means you'll have to hunt about or ask about the motherboards ports, and expansion slots, e.g. the number of USB/Firewire ports, ethernet, PCI, PCI-X, PCI-E (1,4,8 or 16x ports). You'll need to make sure you have enough if you plan on using certain RAID controller cards, wifi card, firewire cards, sound card or graphics cards. Although this will probably be fine its always a good idea to check. The other downside if you purchase a pre-build computer from brands like Dell, HP etc. most of the BIOS settings will be locked out, although this only matters if you plan on tinkering and overclocking to save a lot of money and get the same performance. This should be a valid option as overclocking now is extremely simple, change a couple of numbers and you are almost guarenteed to save yourself as much as £400-500 on a processor. My Core i7 for example went from 2.6GHz to 3.4Ghz with no problem at all and with a decent cooling solution (air) and a good motherboard You can make a £250 CPU with a £60 Cooler as fast as the £1000 CPU. Obviously not all processors are overclockable no matter how good your board is, so its a good idea to research this in-depth before buying. Decent motherboards are various prices depending on the CPU your using. Usually anything above the £100 mark should be great most of the time.

Hard Drive: Although I use this term to describe the storage solutions, this can be either Hard Disk Drive or Solid State Drive. Although for the most part people especially in photography who require a fair amount of storage will continue to use HDD's until the SSD's are more competitively priced at higher storage sizes (256GB+). Depending on your camera and how much shooting you do will depend on how big a hard drive you need, and indeed if you need more. Bigger the file sizes, more space you'll take up per photo, depending on whether you shoot in RAW, JPG or both will effect it massively and finally the amount you shoot. Number of edits, exports etc can also effect the amount of storage space you use, altough not as much as the other two. Hard Drive performance comes from its ability to read/write parts of the drive quickly and transfer that data to the RAM. The spin speed of the drive, measured in RPM effects this hugely. 5,400RPM in the standard for laptops, 7,200RPM for desktops, although I would recommend getting a 7,200RPM drive for a laptop as a build to order option, or fitting yourself as it improve the speed of everything, boot times, load times etc. For desktop drives 7,200 is as fast as you get without spending silly amounts of money, 10,000RPM Western Digital Raptor hard drives at 300GB or so cost a pretty penny and can't really be justified for most people. A step up again is the higher end Solid State Drives which are dropping in price every month and increasing the GB per £/$ ratio too! Although not economical just now keep an eye out for them in the next year or two. For SSDs the transfer rates are given since there is no spin speed. Anything over 100MB/s read and write is good, getting to 200MB/s is where they get very expensive but also almost instantaniously fast. The other, although stranger option is SAS, Serial Attached SCSI. Back in the day SCSI was the defacto standard for high speed hard disk storage and is still used in servers and high end workstations the world over and is a tried and tested format. Drives are normally around 15,000RPM but range from 10,000RPM to over 17,000RPM. These drives usually require special controller cards (PCI-E) to be used since the port isn't on 99.9% of consumer motherboards (go figure, its a server/high end workstation peice of equipment) but they are very fast. I personally have 4 SAS Hard Drives, and two of my 74GBs in a Raid 0 (stripe) array gets over 240MB/s read speads, faster than some of the fastest SATA SSDs! Hard drives in large sizes is not a problem these days since they are really cheap. You can get a 1TB (1000GB) hard drive with a standard 7,200RPM spin speed and a large 32MB Cache for around £60 these days from almost any of the big names. The 1.5 and 2TB drives are avaliable now but their performance might be slightly lower, significantly lower if they have a lower spin speed such as 5,400RPM, or in some cases as low as 4,200RPM! There is also RAID, A Redundent Array of Independent Disks, which basically allows multiple drives to work together, either to increase performance, reliability or both. Raid 0 (stripe) is where two drives act as one, so two 500GB drives would be a 1000GB drive but since the read/write is spread across both they can both access data at the same time. This doesn't quite equal double performance but it is certainly noticeable. Raid 1 (mirror) is where you have two drives, one is an exact copy of the other. This is great as it means your data is always backed up and if a drive goes down, simply swap it out with another and it'll rebuild. Best of all you don't need to swap another drive in to continue working, so if ordering a drive takes a while or you just don't have the funds you can continue to function (albeit it at more risk) as normal. There are other types of RAID but you can look them up on wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID for more information on them. There are many possible setups for ideal performance and safety incase of drive failure, but a super simple way to do it is have a fast OS drive, fast scratch disk/pagefile/cache drive and two high capacity storage drive; one with your data, one as an identical backup. All of these should be at least 7,200RPM, with faster OS/Scratch disk drives where possible.

Power Supply:
Again this one only applies if your building your own computer or requesting one be custom built (Although the people building it should be to know what you need) Most of the time a good 700W Power supply will do even with a fairly beefy graphics card. 800W should enough for any single graphics card system. If its too cheap to be true, it's probably to cheap to trust powering your computer. A Good 800W PSU will run you around £65.

Simple Stuff: If you skipped most of that last part, I don't blame you. It's a lot to understand and it won't happen in a day. It is good to be educated on the subject, you'll need to be at least somewhat! Onwards to the stuff most of you will be looking for, what you should get!

Mid Range Computer: Any DSLR under 10MP

CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E8300 2.83GHz, 6MB Cache, 45nm
RAM: 2x2GB DDR2-800MHz / 2x2GB DD3-1066Mhz
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT 512MB/9800GT 512MB
PSU: 650-700W
HDD: OS Drive, Larger Data Drives. (2 data drives, one main, one backup)

A Fast Computer: Any DSLR Under 20MP

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 2.6GHz, 12MB Cache, 45nm
RAM: 4x2GB DDR2-800MHz / 4x2GB DD3-1066Mhz
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTS250/GTX260 (1GB)
PSU: 700W-800W
HDD: OS Drive, One Scratch Disk Drive, Larger Data Drives. (2 data drives, one main, one backup)


CPU: Intel Core i7 920 2.6GHz Hyperthreaded (8 Threads) 8MB Cachce 45nm [overclock to 3.2GHz]
RAM: 3x2GB DD3-1333Mhz/3x4GB DDR3-1066Mhz
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX260/280 (1GB)
PSU: 800W-900W
HDD: FAST OS Drive, FAST Scratch Disk Drive, Larger Data Drives. (2 data drives, one main, one backup)

Silly: You work with 30MP+ Medium Format Systems

CPU: Dual CPU - Intel Xeon W5580 3.2GHz Hyperthreaded (2 CPUs, 8 Cores, 16 Threads)
RAM: 4 or 6 x 4GB DDR3-1066MHz FB-DIMM
GPU: NVIDIA GTX 285/295 or a Good Nvidia Quadro/ ATI FireGL (workstation cards)
PSU: 1200W+
HDD: 2xSSD OS Drive Raid 0, 2xSSDs in Raid 0 Scratch Disk, Larger Data Drives in RAID 5 with external backup.

Most of you will do fine with the Mid Range Computer. It'll probably do things like the D300 and 50D fine but with large image libraries and RAW workflows it may slow down a little on the midrange and for future proofing its better to go with the "Fast Computer" since the full potential isn't being unlocked yet, so with improvements to the applications using more multi threading and graphics cards power you'll see improvements without any hardware upgrades! The people who shoot the 20-30MP DSLR's are probably using much lesser systems than they should. For a fast and efficient workflow, that kind of hardware is really needed. People who shoot the Medium Format backs probably pay someone to know what kind of computer they need, so its not much good to us, needless to say it would eat my 5DMkII for breakfast!

I hope that wasn't too much for you to digest, I know its a lot of numbers and specifications being thrown about but thats what computers are! There is much more detail that could have been gone into believe it or not but I feel that should be enough for most people. If you are struggling to understand, post in the comments or look at sites such as www.tomshardware.com, www.bitech.com, www.hardocp.com and so on who do great reviews of computers, pre built and equipment. Also I know I havn't spoken about laptops much in this, mainly because I feel strongly that unless it is totally needed, a laptop should never be the primary workstation. High end laptops cost a lot of money £2000+ and the battery life is generally very poor. Plus we are in the middle of a transition with laptops with the graphics, and processors about to change dramatically to new designs making them much more power efficient and faster than the current generations.

source: cameralabs.com

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting articles. I enjoyed reading it.

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