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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Building A Pro Workstation

What to consider when upgrading your Macintosh or Windows hardware

Building A Pro Workstation Whether you prefer Macintosh or Windows, keeping your hardware up to date is essential to take full advantage of the latest software and peripherals. Photography is a competitive business, and current equipment helps ensure that you can meet your client's demanding deadlines and deliver impeccable images without a hiccup. Major changes are planned for both Windows and Macintosh systems in the coming months, and these technology transitions are often bumpy roads at first. If your workstation is lagging, we recommend upgrading now rather than waiting. Besides, there's always something new in the works.

We asked two of our tech-savvy contributors to give us an under-the-hood perspective on what to look for when upgrading your Macintosh or Windows desktop.

Building The Ultimate Macintosh Desktop
By Jon Canfield

Apple announced last spring that it will be making the switch—to Intel. It was a huge surprise for Mac enthusiasts, who have taken a measure of pride in the fact that their equipment is different, even at the core. Apple is still Apple, however, and although future processors will be made by Intel, the Macintosh experience will be essentially unchanged.

New machines with Intel chips are expected in the first half of this year, although we suspect that the switch will be gradual through Apple's product lines, and it could be later rather than sooner that we see the high-end workstations running Intel processors. Apple will continue to support current PowerPC G5 processors along with the new Intel processors, so if you're in need of an equipment upgrade now, recent enhancements to the Power Mac G5 lineup are compelling.


The latest generation of PowerPC G5 chips—the brains behind the beauty—has been updated to offer dual-core functionality. Dual core essentially puts two processors onto one chip and theoretically doubles your performance. I say theoretically because there's some overhead involved with a single chip sharing two brains. First and foremost is access to memory. Today's processors are able to move memory through at amazing speeds, and keeping them fed is a challenge to motherboard designers.With two separate chips, each has its own memory pipeline, accessing RAM as needed. With a dual-core processor, each core takes a turn fetching memory to complete the next command. This overhead limits performance to a lower level than two separate chips, but is still a huge improvement over a single processor.

The second impact on performance with dual core versus two separate chips is in clock speed. Dual-core chips typically run at a lower speed than their single-core cousins. In the case of the Power Mac G5, the top-of-the-line speed has decreased from 2.7 GHz to 2.5 GHz.

The Power Mac G5 now has a full lineup of dual-core PowerPC chips, replacing all of the lower-priced dualprocessor systems with a single dual-core processor. The top of the line is the Power Mac Quad with two dual-core 2.5 GHz G5 chips, giving you, in essence, four processors. Benchmarks show that for many Photoshop-related functions, the new Quad configuration runs about 45% faster than the previous dual-processor version.

So, to build the ultimate Macintosh, let's start with the Power Mac G5 Quad and go RAM shopping.


Without enough RAM, programs are forced to be switched in and out of memory more frequently, slowing down the system. The 512 MB of RAM that comes standard is woefully inadequate for digital imaging.

For photographers, a significant gain in performance can be seen by increasing the memory in your Mac to 4 GB. Photoshop alone can use up to 2 GB, and Adobe Bridge or Apple proworkstation will run best with its own memory, bumping your needs up to 4 GB or more, to run all your programs at once for quick access.

The latest Power Mac G5 Quad can handle up to 16 GB of memory, but the cost is more than most of us can justify. I've found that increasing the amount of RAM in your system to between 4 GB and 8 GB is the best balance between speed and cost.

If you can't buy all of the RAM you want now, you can configure your Mac to be more affordably upgraded later. The current Power Mac architecture has eight RAM expansion slots. Apple lets you choose how to fill those slots to reach your total RAM goal. If you think you might upgrade later, it's better to go with, say, four 1 GB chips (leaving four slots open for the future) rather than eight 512 MB chips. You pay a little more going this route, but you won't have wasted the chips you replace when you do the upgrade.

When selecting RAW, you also have the choice between ECC or non- ECC RAM, and you'll notice that the price difference between them is substantial. ECC stands for “error correcting code;” hence, ECC RAM is capable of catching and correcting errors that might otherwise slow down processing. It's debatable how necessary this is for photographers, especially considering the price jump. But for the ultimate machine, ECC RAM is better.


It wasn't all that long ago that 300 GB of disk space would have seemed like a bottomless well. With multihundred-megabyte image files not uncommon today, and software taking up more and more space, 300 GB doesn't feel so expansive these days. To make the most of our ultimate Macintosh, Apple offers dual 500 GB drives for a total of 1 TB (terabyte) of internal disk space.

For the ultimate in data-redundancy backup, Apple's Xserve RAID can give you up to 7 TB of storage. For bigger studios, or photographers who manage massive stock collections, this might be the way to go.

Another solution is to use one of the third-party external storage solutions for your data backups, like the LaCie Big Disk with capacities of up to 1 TB, or the LaCie Biggest F800 RAID system, which currently offers up to 2 TB or more of storage. The Maxtor OneTouch III with up to 1 TB and RAID support is another fine option. These external drives with FireWire and USB connections all include automatic backup software. Having external storage that can be stored off-site for safety should be considered mandatory for any working professional.

Displays & Video Cards

Like processing speed, you can never have too much screen space. I've been using a 30-inch Apple Cinema HD display for a while now and can't imagine going back to anything smaller. With a resolution of 2560 x 1600 and beautiful, rich color that's accurate from edge to edge, the 30-inch display will fill a big chunk of your desk space, but you'll never regret it.

The latest video cards from nVidia can drive multiple 30-inch Cinema displays for super-efficiency. New applications like proworkstation are designed to be at their best with multiple displays. And having one full screen for image editing while storing palettes and other programs like Bridge or Finder on the other screen can make working on your images a joy.

If the price tag for dual 30-inch displays is too hefty, consider going the multiple-display route, but with smaller screens, such as the 23-inch. You'll still have plenty of workspace for your images and tool palettes, and you'll save money not only on the screens themselves, but also on the video card that drives them.

You can visit Jon Canfield's website at www.joncanfield.com.


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