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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Building A Pro Workstation

What to consider when upgrading your Macintosh or Windows hardware

Building The Ultimate Windows Desktop
By Tim Grey

Due out in 2006, Windows Vista is the first major overhaul of Windows since XP was introduced in 2001, and it's expected to make major improvements in graphics and speed. In the meantime, Windows XP has seen two Service Packs that have improved system stability and security, making it a solid platform for imaging and catching up in many respects to Mac OS X.


As part of its broader marketing strategy, Intel has been de-emphasizing the speed ratings of its processors. While processor speed is important, particularly for graphics-intensive work, evolutions of processor technology, such as 64-bit computing and dual-processor systems, have taken some of the emphasis off of sheer speed ratings.

The two leading manufacturers of processors for Windows machines are Intel and AMD. Although Intel is the better known of the two, both companies make excellent chips. There's anecdotal evidence in the video game enthusiast market that AMD 64-bit processors are even preferred, citing better performance with high-end graphics rendering, which may translate to a boon for photographers, too.

With AMD, the best choices are the Opteron and Athlon 64 processors; from Intel, the best are the Xeon and Pentium 4 processors. The basic rule when choosing a processor is to get the maximum performance your budget allows. A good strategy is to select a processor that's one step below the latest and greatest, as that will still provide excellent performance without the premium price typically associated with the most recent release.

I recommend a processor that supports the 64-bit instruction set as this is the direction in which operating systems are going (it provides more efficient processing and access to bigger caches of system memory). Most of the latest processors from AMD and Intel support it.

Another issue is dual processors versus a dual-core processor. The former means you'll have two individual processors on the motherboard; the latter means you'll have two processors built into what looks like a single processor. The performance gains are comparable. The superior performance achieved by dual processors or dual cores is especially noticeable when working on processor-intensive tasks, such as applying filters to large image files.


Memory is the most significant factor in the performance of your computer. It's also the most cost-effective way to improve performance—you'll get more for your money than with any other system component upgrade.

While the photo hobbyist can get by on 512 MB of RAM, that's not adequate for serious photo-optimization work in Photoshop. I recommend treating 2 GB of RAM as a starting point for pros. If you routinely work with multiple high resolution images at the same time or create composite images, consider 4 GB or more of RAM.

Hard Drive

You've no doubt run into situations where it took much longer than you wanted to save one of those big images with lots of layers. Also, if you ever run into a situation where Photoshop has to use scratch disk space, you'll appreciate the need for a fast hard drive.

Several factors affect overall hard drive performance. The specifications most commonly referenced include the interface, rpm, average seek time and maximum sustained transfer rate. The interface is an important consideration because it determines the overall maximum potential performance.

At this point, you'll find only two interfaces in common use: Serial ATA (SATA) and SCSI. Both provide excellent performance, but I prefer SATA, mostly because it's easier to manage. The rpm of the drive is a measure of how fast the drive platters rotate. This is an important factor in the maximum data-transfer performance, but it isn't always a clear indicator of actual performance.

While 5,400 rpm drives are generally slower drives, those at 7,200 and 10,000 rpm are often on par with each other. The latest drives offer 15,000 rpm, and these are generally very fast. Keep in mind that the rpm speed isn't always an entirely accurate reflection of overall drive performance.

The average seek time is usually referenced only in the detailed listing of specifications, but it's a good additional measure of hard-drive performance. It's the average time required for the head that reads data from the drive to move into position over a specific sector of the hard drive. In general, you'll want to look for drives with an average seek time of under 10 milliseconds (ms), with smaller numbers being better.

The most important specification for a hard drive is the sustained transfer rate—a measure of how quickly data can be transferred in a continuous process, not just for short bursts. When dealing with large files, this is what we really care about. I recommend looking for a drive with a sustained transfer rate of 150 MBps. or faster. The latest drives now offer 300 MBps.


You may want to consider a RAID system—a configuration option in which multiple drives are connected to improve performance (RAID-0) or data redundancy (RAID-5). The performance-enhancing RAID-0 configuration is helpful for high-end video editing. It can offer benefits for those who work on very large files, but for most pros, RAID-5 is probably of greater benefit.

RAID-5 is essentially two or more drives that “mirror” one another. Save an image to your primary hard drive, and that file is instantly duplicated on the other RAID drive(s). If your primary drive should fail, all of your irreplaceable data is precisely replicated on the other drives, so you'll lose nothing. To help avoid technical complications, buy all of the drives at the same time and buy identical drives.


You spend a lot of time looking at your monitor, so it's essential to have a high-quality display. While CRT monitors offer some benefits in terms of color fidelity and the range of tonal values they can produce (contrast ratio), few manufacturers make CRT monitors.

Furthermore, LCD technology has developed to the point where using a high-end LCD monitor no longer represents a compromise. Look for a high contrast ratio (over 400:1) and try to compare monitors in person, looking at photographic images to get a better sense of the quality you can expect.

It's also important to have a display adapter that adequately drives your monitor display. For photographers, a huge advantage is working with two monitors—work with your image on your primary monitor, and all the tools, palettes and dialog boxes are on the second monitor. A display adapter that supports multiple digital LCD screens on a single card is recommended. Look for a display adapter with at least 64 MB of video RAM (more is better) and a high-performance interface.

Visit Tim Grey at www.timgrey.com.




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