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The Killer Digital Photographers Computer

(By Lance)

OK, I was thinking about this the other day, after kicking my wife’s computer back to life again, that my current computer is over a year old now, and maybe I need to pass it over to Deanna. When I was doing IT, if I had a computer that had not had major components swapped out for over a year – it was a dinosaur.

So, what would I want to make a killer system? I’m going to share a couple of my thoughts with everyone here. This is NOT something you want to do if you feel most comfortable ordering up a system from Dell with some extras added to it, but it can be used as a build guide for your local whitebox builder, or you can get the parts yourself and have a go at it.

Why custom build?

By custom building you can choose the exact components you want, and be pretty well happy that everything is replaceable, or upgradable with out being locked into a certain brand. The exception of this is the CPU/Mainboard. If you choose an AMD processor or main board designed for an AMD then you have to replace it with a AMD processor, same goes with Intel.

If you are very careful, you CAN put a system together for less money then a comparable brand name system would cost – this is more true if you build closer to the bleeding edge then aiming for a moderate box. More then likely it will cost slightly more then a mid range brand name.

You can optimise the system for exactly what you want it for.

Where do I start?

I’d normally say choose a chassis first (case).For the most part, the chassis does not dictate anything other then the amount of hardware you can fit in it, and how quite and unobtrusive your system will be. Note: visually unobtrusive does not necessarily mean auditory unobtrusiveness. However, if you are looking at Small Form Factor systems, the chassis CAN influence your CPU choice. The major SFF manufacturers all custom build their mainboards to fit the case, unlike desktop, mid, or towers, they are not (as a rule) swappable. So If you want an AMD processor, and a SFF case, ensure that the manufacturer has a model of the case/mainboard combo that supports the CPU. Shuttle, as an example, has models for each SFF case it makes that supports either brand. More on cases later. For a photographer, my next criteria (one of THE MOST IMPORTANT), can effect case design choice as well.

What is important to me as a digital photographer?

Data Security – as a small business that relies exclusively on data (your digital images are nothing BUT data now) you have to look at the problem in much the same way a data center would. Data redundancy above almost everything else. These days that is not as big a problem as it used to be, if you think things through from the start, and thanks to some technology improvements.

Scary word #1: RAID – a concept that was introduced in servers back when Hard Disk Drives became “inexpensive”. Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks – it was a way to either mirror data on multiple drives, or stripe it across multiple drives, so that it reduced the risk of data loss due to a single drive failure. You also needed extra cards and cables to implement and drives on the array were not quite as fast as those on your main controller, this has changed thanks to integrated RAID controllers on most mainboards. There are two types of RAID we are interested in; RAID 1 and RAID 5.

Raid 1 is a simple mirroring system. You have two identical drives and as you write or read data from one, the data is MIRRORED to the other drive at the exact same time. If one drive fails, you can go out and get an other drive, drop it into the box and rebuild the mirror from the second drive – no data is lost. You also have access to the complete formatted capacity of the drives. I’ll go into other advantages it has after covering RAID 5.

RAID 5 is a stripped, parity array. It requires at LEAST three drives, and what happens is a third (or quarter, or fifth depending on how may drives are in the array) of each file is written on/across each drive, plus a special error checking PARITY FILE, that allows you to rebuild your data should one of the drives fail. The advantage this has is extreme data redundancy, and the likelihood of data corruption is greatly reduced. You can even set up a HOT spare that will come online and automatically replace a dead drive with out need to power off the computer or pull a disk. For this you need a minimum of four drives – three live and a forth as spare.

So, why not RAID 5 instead of RAID 1? Raid 5 requires more hardware to start with (at least three drives dedicated to the array) and a third of the available format-able space on the array is not usable, because it is set aside by the array to write the parity bits. If your mainboard dies, you have to get the same make/model, as the data is not recoverable from a RAID 5 array with out using the same RAID controller. RAID 1 lets you take either mirrored drive, and have immediate access to the data, irrespective of the brand or make of mainboard or controller. It is also slightly faster to read/write data to the array. Personally, for inside your computer, I would go with a RAID 1 array. Don’t get teh biggest drives, get something around the 300gb range, when you need 500gb, or a terabyte, costs will have dropped again.

So, with RAID, does this mean you don’t need to back up?

NO! Remember, it’s all about Data Security. Fire, electrical problems, natural disaster, etcetera, could still render your entire system dead – including all your hard drives – so remember to include an optical drive as part of your data security. Id recommend getting a DVD-R/+R drive, CD just does not have the capacity to be an effective back up media these days. Burn two sets of your back ups, one an on site copy and a second, off site copy.

Speed of the system

System speed, when looking at Photoshop and other image manipulation applications is impacted by two main bottlenecks, and moderately by a third. These are: Available RAM, Processor speed and Hard Disk usage (What hard drives, again?!? Yes – hold on….).

When building your system, consider a MINIMUM for any system these days is 1GB of RAM. Average Windows use means 512MB (forget what Microsoft says) and with today’s systems anything less then a gigabyte means you will be waiting. Personally, get 2GB minimum for Photoshop and related application use. The more memory you can dedicate to Photoshop the happier you will be, because that means less read/writes to the HDD, the SLOWEST part of your computer.

Now it’s time to look at CPUs. Skip the “single core” processors, they are OK for gaming still, or other single process applications. For heavy Photoshop users the dual core processors from AMD and Intel are what rules the roost. Photoshop is able to hand off tasks to each processor, splitting the work and speeding it up. Typically the dual core systems run quieter, cooler, and consume less power then their single core cousins. Don’t buy the fastest CPU, unless you really plan on gaming as well, and need the brag rights. Buy the second, or third fastest CPU in the line, they offer nearly the same processor power, for a lot less.

I’ve been a promoter of AMD for a LONG time, right now their dual core desktop systems still rule the roost. AMD introduced the concept of two CPUs on one “chip” to the mass market, but the introduction of the Intel “Duo Core” chips are pushing the boundaries. If you hold off an other couple of months the “Core 2″ chips from Intel – the first completely new chip logic since the Pentium 4′e came out – promises to bring AMD some grief in the fastest processor camp, drawing significantly less power, and running cooler then the AMD chips, a dramatic reversal from the current status quo.

With CPUs you need to choose a MAINBOARD. Get one that has SATA connectors and a RAID controller built in. SATA (Serial ATA) is the new HDD connector, a small, thin cable that is easier to route in the case, and has advanced speed and functionality features I won’t get into unless I’m asked. Needless to say it’s the new standard and offers ease of use, and cooler, quieter running systems. Also, I would recommend getting a board that has PCI-E slots, this is the replacement for PCI AND AGP (the older connection standards for expansion cards and graphics cards). Graphics card manufacturers are rapidly adopting it (faster then they adopted AGP in fact) and it offers other advanced functionality that may prove advantageous in the near future as well.

Now, back to HDD, get a moderately sized HDD, say 120-160GB for your main drive. It will be your boot drive (your RAID ARRAY will strictly be for data – those precious bits that turn into pictures). Partition it into two, a large partition for you OS and programs and a second, smaller partition (say 15-20GB) as a scratch disk for Photoshop. Having Photoshop’s scratch disk on a second partition really speeds up the program!

Video

It is not as important for photographers to get the fastest, coolest card on the market. Get one with enough RAM to drive a big display, or two displays. A mid level card is more then enough. I recommend a minimum of 128MB of video RAM and ensure it is DIRECTX 9.1 compatible, this means you will be able to upgrade to VISTA when it comes out and be able to take advantage of some of the accelerated desktop graphics features that VISTA will incorporate. Better yet, if the box indicates it is DirectX 10 compatible things will be guaranteed to work with Vista. Ensure to get one that has Dual DVI ports – more on that when I cover monitors, other then this: DVI is a digital signal, the older VGA is not, and DVI offers signal advantages that VGA doesn’t. If you have a monitor that only has a VGA connector, check to be certain the video card has a dongle that adapts one of the DVI ports to VGA.

The two main manufacturers of Video cards are ATI and Nvidia. Intel also makes graphics cards, but mostly focuses on integrated graphics, something you want to try and avoid. The graphics cards built onto most motherboards are adequate, but often use system RAM instead of dedicated video RAM, this means slower performance and less RAM available to your computer for Photoshop. Matrox has long been a favorite of professional users, and is still a niche builder, not the fastest cards, but renown for their clarity and sharpness. These days, especially in the mid range cards, it’s almost a matter of personal choise. ATI and Matrox have historically been able to produce sharper and better graphics then Nvidia, at least in standard Windows applications.

Chassis

Again? Yes – this is likely the lease important part for a photographer, but there are still things to consider. If you want a visually unobtrusive system, a SFF case is the way to go, fitting easily on your desktop and looking fairly sleek. For one to fit everything I recommend, you need to get one of the newest Shuttle cases – it has room for multiple HDDs to build a RAID ARRAY, an optical drive and has a built in card reader, and has models that supports either AMD or INTEL. Other SFF manufacturers may have followed this path as well now, but I am not as familiar with them and Shuttle basically invented the case format.

If the sounds of fans really bug you, and you want the quietest system you can reasonably get, get a mid tower case. It should support 120mm fans, and if you are really pushing it, get one that uses 250mm fans. The cases that support 250mm fans are fairly new, and mostly aimed at gamers. These fans are huge, but ultra quiet, turning at about 500-800rpm to get the same airflow as 120′s spinning at 1500 to 2000rpm. Look at getting a third party CPU cooler as well, the stock ones that come with the CPU often are not up to the task of cooling the CPU as well as being quiet. Zalman, Arcticooler, and Thermalright all offer excellent aftermarket cooling solutions. There is always plenty of room for internal drives when choosing a mid tower case. Also get a good quality power supply, poor ones waste up to 60% of the power consumed as heat and tend to be loud and unreliable.

I also recommend that you do not go too cheap on the case. A good case is going to last far longer then all the rest of the components together. So unless you intend on “passing down” the computer as you out grow the components, spend some extra on the case. It’s actually a good investment to look at an Aluminum case, they help dissipate heat better then a steel case, are lighter to move if need be and generally are better built. Look for a case with edges rolled and tool-less construction.Both of these saves fingers if you have to poke and prod, or are building the system yourself.

That is my recommendations for general computer construction, as geared to a digital photographer in the Windows world. I’m going to go into other parts of the “system”, such as off site and NAS storage, LCD displays, OS choices and more later, but ask away!

Lance Nichols
Photographer

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