Help me buy a new desktop.
January 10, 2010 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Please help me buy a new desktop computer for photo editing.

My primary (ok, only) computer is a desktop which is now almost six years old. I've recently gotten into photography, and my machine is dreadfully slow when I'm running Lightroom to do my photo editing. I have 3GB of RAM installed, and looking at system performance shows that the processor is the limiting factor here, not the memory.

The other things I use my computer for are not very resource-intensive: mostly email, music, watching DVDs, LaTeX, web-surfing, Skype, etc.

I think it's time to replace this machine. My plan is to get a new desktop now, and in the near future a netbook so I can be more mobile. I'm running XP now, and I will probably switch to Windows 7. Macs are too expensive for my budget.

Budget is around $800. I don't need a monitor, speakers, or any other peripherals.

My questions are:

1) For the purpose of doing photo editing stuff, what features should I be looking for? Dual-core or quad-core processor? Lots of memory? Other?

2) Any particular models or manufacturers that I should be looking at?
posted by number9dream to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Any modern computer will likely do just fine. You definitely want multiple cores, but the choice between 2 and 4 is mainly made on your budget. You also definitely want lots of memory: 4GB is probably a good number, but more won't hurt.

Then, when you get it, blow away the Windows install on it and start over with a fresh slate. It's almost worth buying your own, separate copy of windows for this if the only installation media they give you is a full restore that includes all the bloatware.
posted by Netzapper at 11:28 AM on January 10, 2010

Do yourself a favor and get a quiet computer. I got my latest from these folks and it has improved my workspace and productivity considerably.
posted by squalor at 11:35 AM on January 10, 2010

I'd consider the Dell Studio XPS 8100 -- it's $850, which I realize is $50 over your budget... but it's a pretty solid deal.

You get an Intel Core i5 processor (two 3.2ghz cores on a single chip). This is the "mid range" so to speak processor from Intel. Should be more than enough power to handle Lightroom and the rest.

You also get 6GB of RAM, 720GB hard drive, and a 512MB graphics card. (Dell Site)

And you could get a Mac Mini if you wanted for $800 (2.53ghz Core 2 Duo, 320GB HD, 4GB RAM). Overall, however, I feel like the Dell is a better deal.

Good luck!
posted by mck9235 at 11:45 AM on January 10, 2010

Response by poster: Also, does it make any difference whether I get an Intel or AMD processor?
posted by number9dream at 11:46 AM on January 10, 2010

Intel and AMD have been locked in mortal combat for years to see who can design the best processor. For about five years, up to about 3 years ago, AMD was ahead. Right now Intel is ahead. Per GHZ clock rate, Intel chips are faster.

But not really all that much so. In practice you won't be able to tell the difference between them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:51 AM on January 10, 2010

As Netzapper said, just about any modern desktop will be fine.

You say you don't need a monitor. But if you're working on a monitor smaller than, say, 22", you should really consider buying a bigger monitor, too. The new desktop will speed your software along, but the new monitor will really revolutionize your photo editing -- it's amazing what a difference all that extra space makes.
posted by gum at 12:40 PM on January 10, 2010

Intel's current naming practices are somewhat confusing: in the Core iX series (i3, i5, i7), the number after the "i" is just an indication of intended purpose. So i3 -> basic computing, i5 -> economic performance, i7 -> top of the line.

The thing that really tells you "what's in there" is the three digit number after the "i" part.

The i3-5XX and i5-6XX processors are dual cores that can run 2 threads simultaneously (what Intel calls hyperthreading). They are 2 cores/4 threads processors, with the 6XX being faster out of the box than the 5XX (but not that much faster). They also include integrated graphics. This means that if the fairly slow Intel graphics suit your needs, you won't need to buy a computer with a separate graphic card.

The i5-750 and i7-8XX processors are quad core processors. The 750 can run 1 thread per core, the 8XX, two. They are generally faster than the 2 core/4 thread processors.

The i7-9XX processors are 4 core/8 thread processors that have 3 memory channels instead of 2, and that require relatively expensive motherboards. They're out of your price range.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:04 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're just planning on using lightroom, I wouldn't worry too much about how many cores you have. I use lightroom on a two year old laptop with a dual core and it's fine. In my experience it hasn't been nearly as processor intensive as a program like photoshop.
posted by kylej at 1:10 PM on January 10, 2010

I use Lightroom on a two year old Macbook, and it is very slow on my machine. More RAM would definitely help, but in the meantime, try working with smaller catalogs. Maybe you photograph for different reasons, like personal and commercial, or maybe New Year, New Catalog.

Anyway, I found that is a bit of a help.
posted by Magnakai at 2:19 PM on January 10, 2010

Lightroom likes a fair amount of memory (especially if you are going to be using a raw workflow), and anecdotally it runs better on a Mac with smaller memory than Windows. Some activities on Lr are "throttled", so it shouldn't ever redline a modest multi-core 32- or 64-bit system. (Though I'm not sure why you would want to run 32-bit, unless there is some other app you must run 32-bit natively.)

Spend your money on a good monitor (with digital input) and budget for a second one eventually. Two monitors is the way to fly with Lightroom. So this means making sure the video adapter has multi-monitor support (and has good 2D performance.)
posted by clvrmnky at 2:53 PM on January 10, 2010

Ars Technica has a great guide for a budget box. The Budget Box: October 2009 Edition.
posted by axismundi at 3:15 PM on January 10, 2010

If you've already got a mouse, keyboard and monitor, I highly recommend a Mac Mini. I own one and am really REALLY pleased with it. I use iPhoto and Photoshop, not lightboom, however.

$799 will get you a 2.53 ghz Mini with 320 gig HD and 4 gigs of RAM. Buy it online and you can get it for around $760 shipped.

I like the Mini because it's... well... mini. It sits on my desk, whisper quiet. I've got a bunch of external drives attached to it for storage and backups.
posted by 2oh1 at 7:06 PM on January 10, 2010

I'm a graphic designer and do photo editing. Do yourself a favor and get a Mac. Shop around. Buy a used one. A fairly newish imac with a 20' screen would do it. imacs don't make any noise. Avoid anything that has a noisy fan. I had a fan in my last computer that I found very fatiguing. Oh, you also want to make sure you have a good flat panel monitor, and iMacs are all-in-one. Shop around. Over the years I've bought and sold a number of used Macs. You can sometimes buy one with the AppleCare service plan still intact. Macs are tough and in my experience, pretty much trouble free. I had my last one (with the noisy fan) for 11 years!
posted by cosmicsister at 9:55 PM on January 10, 2010

I love Macs, but if you're on a budget and already own a Windows-based computer, it just isn't worth it to switch for your particular needs. The hardware cost isn't the problem, but you likely have a good deal of money invested in Windows software (Lightroom, your other photo-related software, games, utilities, etc) and replacing those with Mac equivalents can really add up. Instead, focus on getting the best (IPS-based) monitor you can afford and a speedy multi-core system with at least 4GB of RAM (more is always better, but you can add RAM later as your budget allows). A monitor calibrator is something you should save for eventually as well.

posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:40 AM on January 11, 2010

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