New inexpensive SFF PC for lightroom?
August 12, 2012 7:31 AM   Subscribe

I would like a small new desktop PC. I would like it to be faster in Lightroom. I would like to spend as little money as humanly possible. What's my best strategy?

So my current PC hasn't had any hardware updates in quite a while. I'd like to get a new one, but I'd like ideally to spend less than $400. Budget is pretty tight right now. Is this possible?

AMD Athlon 64 3000+(Winchester)
Nvidia Geforce 7600GT
2G DDR RAM (I think it's PC 3200)
1 160G HD, 1 320G HD
280W PSU

Lightroom is pretty pokey on this machine. Also, it was built in a time when I was PC gaming, and the tower is huge and not very energy efficient.

What I would like to do is replace it with a smaller machine that runs Lightroom faster. Other than imaging software, I use this computer for productivity stuff and for logging into my work PC via Citrix (and that bit works perfectly on the existing machine). I game on consoles, I do any other computing stuff on mobile devices.

I see a lot of small, low power devices out there (like the various Zotac Zbox models) but I'm not sure whether they would be faster than what I have. I specifically would like the app to be more responsive... processing time of RAWs into JPEGS is not as important.

So to sum up:
Small form factor to clear off my desk
Runs lightroom faster than what I have
More power efficient

posted by selfnoise to Technology (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
2G DDR RAM (I think it's PC 3200)

This should be at least 4 gigs and ideally 8. RAM is the cheapest, most effective means of upgrading your system, often it feels like getting a whole new computer. If money is super tight, that might be cheapest way, as 4 gigs of RAM usually cost about $50-60 US dollars.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2012

How small do you want? The usual size stepping is nettop/Mac mini -> Shuttle -> Micro ATX.
posted by wongcorgi at 7:44 AM on August 12, 2012

Best answer: Adobe has a guide for getting the most performance out of Lightroom. Martin Evening goes into more detail here.

The short version: From a hardware perspective, RAM, the processor, and the hard drive read speed are the primary things to worry about. The GPU, as long as it's powerful enough to render your screen smoothly, doesn't really do much. I'm going to guess based on your former PC gaming experience and the fact that you know how many watts your PSU puts out that you'd be comfortable assembling your own machine: if so, this DIY combo at Newegg looks like it meets most of your needs, although it's a full-sized tower and probably won't be a huge improvement in terms of power consumption (although I would guess that there'd be some improvement simply because components have as a whole gotten more power-efficient). Note that the motherboard does not have integrated graphics. You'll need to either swap in the GPU from your old machine or purchase a new one, but you can get away with pretty much any GPU. You'll want to make sure you're running a 64-bit OS, if you aren't already.

In the meantime, you might try some of the software optimizations Adobe recommends. I'm assuming that you're using internal hard disks: if you're working with photos on external hard disks, you should be able to get a pretty noticeable performance change by changing that, as SATA bandwidth is much higher than USB/FireWire/&c.
posted by nerdinexile at 9:30 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This should be at least 4 gigs and ideally 8.

But that also means you have to use a 64-bit OS. If you are using a 32-bit OS, you can only take advantage of 2G total. Any additional RAM in your computer will be ignored.

In other words, if you add RAM, you need to upgrade to Win7-64 (assuming you haven't already done so).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:37 AM on August 12, 2012

I take it the specs listed above are what your currently have. If you are willing to reuse your current HDD's you can buy a new Case, Motherboard, Processor, RAM, and Video Card for around $300 and build a new computer that would be smaller, faster, and more efficient that what your currently have.

As noted above, if you are running a 32-bit OS only get 1 stick of 4GB memory.

You can tweak the components to your liking.
posted by zinon at 9:49 AM on August 12, 2012

What motherboard do you have?
posted by rhizome at 10:12 AM on August 12, 2012

anandtech system guides from the holiday season have budget boxes in the $400 range. Not SFF though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:26 AM on August 12, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry for the delayed response.

Brandon - I previously upgraded this machine from 1 gig to 2 and it didn't seem to have much of an effect... not sure if maybe I have a bottleneck elsewhere. I do have Windows 7 X64 so there is the possibility of more. I think my MB maxes out at 4gb though.

Wongcorgi - The small size was a request from mrs. selfnoise and I would say, as small as is sensible. Doesn't have to be Zbox tiny.

Rhizome - It's a Gigabyte GA-K8NF-9. Last I looked a straight CPU upgrade didn't seem to make much sense but I could be wrong.

Thanks everyone for the advice so far, I'll look at the links/guides etc to get a sense of what's out there.
posted by selfnoise at 12:33 PM on August 12, 2012

Misc considerations
  • AMD Fusion, Intel Atom, Via Nano CPUs are bad for nearly all uses.
  • Ram is good. Do not consider anything less than 4GB, I would recommend more for lightroom.
  • You want a 64 bit OS, both for Lightroom and make proper use of ram beyond 3ish GB. New systems with Windows 7 are usually 64 bit.
  • SSDs are wonderful. You need an SSD for your OS and Lightroom catalog. While you want an SSD for the photo storage, a fast spinning disk is fine (a 10k velociraptor is strongly recommended, but a Momentus XT, or even a 7200 rpm drive is fine). Your current drives are almost certainly slower than average good drives now, do not reuse them for anything but backups.

posted by fief at 12:36 PM on August 12, 2012

Athlon 64x2 4800+: $125+
That board takes 4GB DDR-400, so max that out: $60
GeForce 550Ti: $140

There don't appear to be any mATX motherboards for what you already have, so that's a bust. You could get a small ATX case to alleviate some of the space issues.
posted by rhizome at 2:31 PM on August 12, 2012

Best answer: The first thing that strikes me is that your CPU is an absolute dog. That AMD chip is at least 4 generations behind current technology: as a rule of thumb, you will see something like a doubling of speed every 2 generations. Intel is so far ahead of AMD in the CPU game at this point it's not even worth thinking about an AMD, despite their lower prices. This is also true because for your use, the integrated HD4000 graphics in the Ivy Bridge CPUs is a perfect fit - it has a good pixel fill rate, it can drive very high resolution screens at max FPS - but it's weakness - 3D gaming - is not something that you might care about. If you go the AMD route you will need to spend money on a graphics card, negating some of the cost savings you got by going to AMD in the first place.

I'd avoid the temptation to go for small cases: they are a novelty item, tend to cost a lot more than regular sized ones and frequently have problems with cooling and have finicky installs. Just hide the big box under the desk.

Just off the top of my head, prices may vary depending on where in the world you are

Cheapest i5 you can get - maybe an i5-3470 ~ $190
Any kind of motherboard ~$60
Any kind of RAM, 8G ~ $40
Any kind of SSD, say an Octane $128G ~ $80
Any kind of case with small power supply, say 400W ~ $50

That's just somewhat over $400, and it will be a bazillion times faster than what you're using, you just need to fit your existing hard drives and optical drives into this new case. It will beat the performance of an equivalently priced AMD solution by a very large margin as well.

If you must get in under $400 the first place to cut costs would be dropping the i5-3470 to an i3-3240 (save about $55? pricing isn't firmed up everywhere yet). Availability of the Ivy Bridge i3 might be limited though (it's a very newly launched product) so you might need to get a discounted Sandy Bridge i3-2120, it's one generation behind but should be adequate and save you even more, about $70.
posted by xdvesper at 5:29 PM on August 12, 2012

RAM for a CPU that old is going to be way more expensive than it needs to be, but you can probably find it used if you have a second-hand PC place near you. I'm not surprised that going from 1GB to 2GB didn't make much difference, but 4 might.

I think your best bet is going to be an upgrade of the whole machine, short of that, I'd suggest.
1) Upgrade to 3 or 4GB if you can do it for less than $30.
2) Get a decent SSD drive, ideally one with enough room for your OS, Apps, and the batch of photos you need to work with.

Apparently Lightroom isn't GPU accelerated, so the video card isn't going to make a difference.

I suggest this not because I think it will be good enough, but because I think it will be better than what you have now, and because the SSD will come in handy when you end up upgrading the rest of it.
posted by Good Brain at 5:58 PM on August 12, 2012

Best answer: - Do not try upgrading DDR RAM, it's just throwing good money after bad.

- An SSD is essential.

- You don't need a discrete graphics card, Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge integrated GPUs are more than plenty for Lightroom. As far as power efficiency goes, the main sources of power will be the CPU, GPU, and chipset, so going with a modern Intel processor with integrated GPU should definitely result in savings there. Your current CPU has a TDP of 67W and your current GPU has a TDP of 65W. You can replace them both with something like a Core i5 3475S (which should be hitting stores soon, it was released in June) with a TDP of 65W. This has the integrated HD Graphics 4000 which Tom's Hardware puts in the same performance bracket as the 7600 GT, which is pretty impressive for an integrated GPU, and the CPU is just worlds ahead of that old Winchester. Right there you've halved your power consumption. Things like cooling fans (~3-5W) and 7200 RPM hard drives (~9 W) are really just blips on the radar. And remember the power rating of the power supply is the maximum it can put out, not what it will put out -- that is entirely dependent on the load. However, there is an efficiency factor to the power supply, and since this scale factor is applied to all the power drawn by all devices, it makes sense to spend a little more for an efficient unit. Not all are created equal, so check the ratings.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:03 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: Ok, thanks for the advice everyone! I think I've decided to suck it up and spend a little more to get a machine that I think will keep me happy for a while. I think it incorporates all the various suggestions.

Here's my current build config:

The case seems ideal since it's small but has space for both of the drives I need (my data drive will be making it over from my old machine, the SSD is for Windows/Lightroom catalog). Not sure how much of an advantage an i5 would be but I can always upgrade.

Also not sure if I should wait for the Ivy Bridge i3s, since it seems really unclear when (if?) they're coming out.
posted by selfnoise at 3:54 AM on August 24, 2012

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