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Buying a Computer for the Digital Photographer PT 2

April 15, 2011 - Dave Hecei
Part 2 – PC Desktop Specs

A great program for digital photography is Adobe Photoshop Elements (PSE). It’s easier to use than the massive ‘full’ Photoshop, and also about $600 less. Almost any modern computer you buy today will be able to handle basic photo cataloging and editing with PSE. It’s when you want to get more advanced you may find you need a ‘big’ machine. You do, however, have to look at some specifications when you are shopping for a computer. You want to look at the processor type and speed, the amount of memory, the amount of storage, and graphics card. I’ll give you what I think are current PC specs for a good home digital photo computer and one for the advanced photographer.

The Home Digital PC with Photoshop Elements

It amazes me that you can go out to a big box store today and buy a complete PC for under $500. This will get you a functioning PC, but it won’t be ideal for digital photography. These packages are for basic home Internet use. You can get one of these and then upgrade this and that, but why not start out with a PC ready to go.

Let’s start with the processor. Stay away from any PC that says Celeron or Sempron. These are Intel’s and AMD’s low end processors. A home digital photo PC needs a fast dual-core processor. The latest ones from Intel are the i-Core series – i3, i5, and i7. AMD has the Athlon II X4 and Phenom II X4 series. Don’t worry too much about speed. Anything over 2GHz should be plenty, especially if it has more than two cores. [A core is a complete CPU. Most the processors today have at least two cores, called a dual-core, but some have three or four. These cores are all on a single chip which saves money but also makes that chip faster.]

When working with digital photos, RAM (Random Access Memory) is more important than processor speed. Having a fast PC with only minimal RAM will run slower than a medium speed PC with maximum RAM. The old Windows XP is considered a 32-bit operating system. It could only see 3 to 3.5GB of RAM. This is a limit in 32-bit systems. Windows Vista and Windows 7, the latest version of Windows, come in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. When you buy a PC today it will likely come with Windows 7 64-bit. This is a good thing. Windows 7 is one of the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever made, and being 64-bit it can use much more RAM, which is important when working with digital photos.

The hard drive, or storage, has come a long way. Prices keep dropping on hard drives and sizes just keep getting bigger. A typical PC will likely have a 500GB or even a 1TB (a Terabyte is 1000Gigabytes). The hard drive is where the operating system, programs, and documents are stored. The bigger the drive, the more photos you can store. As digital cameras get better and better, and more and more megapixels, storage starts to become important. Later on I’ll talk about other strategies with storage, like secondary drives and backup strategies.

The last thing we’ll cover today is graphics. One way that a PC maker can save money on is with the graphics system used in the computer. This is the part of the computer that creates the graphics you see on the monitor. To save money, a PC maker can use what is called ‘motherboard’ graphics, or built-in graphics. This type of graphics system takes part of the PC’s RAM and uses it for producing graphics. This not only takes away your precious RAM that your photo editing software wants to use, but this RAM is also quite slow.

The better and faster the graphics system is, the less time you’ll spend working on the computer. This is why I recommend what is called ‘dedicated’ graphics. This is a separate card that plugs into a special slot on the motherboard. This card has its own special graphics chip, called the GPU. It also has its own dedicated memory chips, which are usually very fast types of chips. One of the benefits of having graphics on a card is that it can be easily upgraded. Just open the case, swap out an old card for a newer faster one and you’ve improved your PC for a lot less money than buying a whole new computer.

There are two major graphics card makers out there, ATI and nVidia. Both make great products and there is no real reason to choose one over the other. They do however make several GPU lines that vary in speeds. Unless you are planning to use this PC for gaming, you don’t have to go with a premium card. For ATI you will want to look for the HD 5000 series cards, 5460, 5670, 5770, or 5870. For nVidia cards look for the GeForce 400 series, though the older 200 series will work too. Look for a GTS 430, 440, 450, or 460. The GTS 240 and 250 are still very viable.

That’s it for the desktop PC. Don’t worry – I’m saving the monitor for later on. A good home PC for digital editing is going to cost you somewhere between $500 and $800, without the monitor. I recommend Dells when asked what PC to buy. For digital photographers, I like the Dell XPS 7100, which starts at $499. Decked out for home use, the 7100 is about $600 without a monitor.


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