Goodbye, XP...hello photo-optimized desktop?
March 10, 2014 12:28 PM   Subscribe

So. I guess they're finally going to pry XP out of my hands after all. As long as I'm updating, I'm thinking of getting a new desktop which would be used primarily for photo editing and storage. Advice? Special snowflake stuff inside.

- Yes, it needs to be Windows. I am only able to use Windows at work, and although I don't generally work from home I need the ability to do so in emergencies.

- I have an iPad for portability, so I'm really looking for a desktop.

- The main thing I'd be using this for is film photography. I scan film negatives with an Epson scanner, and touch them up in an old copy of Photoshop CS2. I really don't want to (can't afford to, really) move to subscribing to the most current version of PS.

- I might start working more with digital photos at some point, but that's not a priority.

- Otherwise, I'd be using it for music (I have a typical MP3 library/iTunes) and web surfing a bit, probably writing and editing some OpenOffice documents too. That's it. I don't game.

- I guess I should spring for a new monitor too, but I'd like to keep this whole thing at around $2,000 or less.

- I can probably bribe my brother into helping me build one from pieces-parts, (like he's done with all my previous machines) but I'd rather just buy something out-of-the-box that maybe comes with some sort of support. I've got very limited/outdated computer skills.

Any thoughts appreciated!
posted by JoanArkham to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
Can you afford to grab a copy of Photoshop CS6? You're biggest gains are going to be from building a Win 7 64 system with at least 16 gb of ram, allowing you to work with much larger images.

Adobe has a page detailing the benefits of using a 64-bit version of Photoshop here.
posted by Oktober at 12:42 PM on March 10, 2014

You didn't give a sense of how old your existing desktop is right now, which is going to be the best marker for what kind of hardware you're updating from. That said, anything is likely to feel like a significant upgrade, even with the additional overhead of Windows 7.

Are you reliant upon a lot of internal hard drive space for images or are you working from a bunch of standalone enclosures? Is your monitor sufficiently good that you'd be fine keeping it?

Perhaps an all-in-one like the Lenovo IdeaCentre or a Dell XPS? Depends a bit on your tolerance of the screen, and you might want to take the leap to a SSD for OS and scratch space, but that gets a lot of the "computer" out of the way. The downside is that there's less room to upgrade over time and more bits inside to break, but the upside is you get manufacturer support and you don't sound like you're pushing hardware to its limit.

The other route might be to get a tiny quiet desktop system and spend the rest on a nice new monitor and a copy of PS6, but that depends somewhat upon your storage needs. There's not much reason for you to get a tower desktop these days.
posted by holgate at 12:56 PM on March 10, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks! I can't really justify a full PS6 purchase for what I'm doing, which is really just touch-ups, dust removal, and color and contrast correction. If I need to get new software, I'll probably just pick up Elements.

My current system was assembled in 2009, so I guess it's not all that old. I've got a hard drive that I'm using for images now (and an external just for backups). The monitor definitely needs to be replaced, it's small and I get this sort of wavy line effect that I assume has something to do with electrical interference.

Since I'm working with film, the process is a lot slower than digital - I'm not uploading hundreds of images at a time.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:04 PM on March 10, 2014

I doubt you'll need to upgrade your photo editing software--CS2 ought to work fine on a new Windows system. I'm anything but a power user of Illustrator/Photoshop so I'm not exactly testing the limits of the software personally, but as far as I can tell they work fine under Windows 7 64-bit and Windows 8.1 64-bit. The only quirk is that Windows 7 has to temporarily deactivate Aero Glass when the Adobe products are running, but that's extremely tolerable. I think I had Illustrator crash mysteriously once, but otherwise it seems to work fine.
posted by wondercow at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, I just meant that from CS4 onwards you have 64-bit support, which means that Photoshop can address more than 2GB of memory at once. That being said, 64-bit support in CS4 was... experimental so you're still better off with CS5/6.
posted by Oktober at 2:09 PM on March 10, 2014

My current system was assembled in 2009, so I guess it's not all that old.

It's old enough that you'll notice the difference. I just replaced a desktop assembled around that time with a 4x4in box that has the same CPU benchmark. SSDs were pretty uncommon back then, too. Like I said, you can get a lot of computer for relatively little money, and your needs fit into the category where you can budget for a nice display and a computer that will run fairly quietly and efficiently.
posted by holgate at 2:11 PM on March 10, 2014

Based on the superb goon parts-picking megathread, get:

Intel i5 4570
Asrock H87 Pro4 Motherboard
8 gig of Corsair Ram
A nice Dell IPS monitor of a size that suits (important that it's IPS)
A 120gig Samsung 840 Evo Solid State Drive on which you put windows and the photos you're working with
A 2 terabyte WD Blue hard drive
Some kind of video card - photo work doesn't really benefit from video cards, so you don't need to spend much money here. If you're playing any games then get a Radeon R9 270X, brand doesn't really matter.
Windows 8.1 64 bit (I prefer Windows 7 personally, but 8.1 is probably better for drivers)

This comes together as an almost magically powerful machine, for around $1300 US (add $100 if you need a fancier video card). Here's a quick link to that build in partspicker.

Putting it together yourself may or may not be scary - I'd recommend it, it's good to have an idea about how your machine fits together, and it's reasonably foolproof these days.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:24 PM on March 10, 2014

I wouldn't bother upgrading Photoshop if your current version does what you need it to do. If it ain't broke... and plus, who really wants to give those jerks any extra money? You can still run 32b Photoshop on 64b Windows, so there's no real compatibility issue.

My standard recommendation to these kinds of questions has always been the Ars Technica System Guide, which they update a couple of times a year (or at least they used to when things were more fast-moving in the hardware world). It's aimed a little more towards gaming than I'd like, but basically anything capable of playing modern visual games is also going to be more than capable of photo editing.

You can get a ton of machine for under a thousand bucks. Their "budget box" is sub-$800 for the BOM, figure maybe a hundred or so bucks extra to a place like Microcenter if you don't want to assemble the parts yourself, plus a Win7 license of course. And that gets you a newish dual-core 64b processor, respectable (non integrated, so therefore upgradeable) graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and a 120GB SSD. Personally I'd ditch the SSD for a 15k RPM spinning-platter drive, but that's because I'm a curmudgeon and I don't trust SSDs. Also, if the old computer is really at the end of its life you can probably scavenge parts (like the optical drive, case, heatsinks/coolers, etc.) from it, and save a few bucks.

The only real concern is whether your film scanner requires a SCSI card in order to work, which can be tricky due to the many flavors of SCSI and general crappiness of low-end PCIe SCSI cards. Assuming it's USB or FireWire, you're fine.

Anyway, so that takes care of the computer proper. If you don't already have one, I'd spend some coin on a really nice monitor. (Heck, even if you have one already — modern graphics cards can easily drive two panels, and once you go to multiple monitors you'll never go back.) Given the relative lifespan of components like processors / disk drives / GPUs compared to monitors, it makes sense to spend on a monitor since you'll probably use it for 3 or 4 computers into the future. Something like the HP ZR24w or the Dell U2410 (currently out of stock), or another 24" 1920x1200 S-IPS panel from a good manufacturer would be my choice.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:46 PM on March 10, 2014

Kadin2048, SSDs are actually a bit more reliable than platter drives these days if you pick a good brand (like the Samsung 840 Evo). And the speed difference is transformative, particularly if you're dealing with large files like the OP. I'd say an SSD and a good IPS monitor are the two task-specific must-haves - the processor I linked is the gilt-edged version.

Plus appropriate I/O stuff, which we'd need more information to help you with.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:05 PM on March 10, 2014

This may be overkill, but if you're going to build your own, go with a Nvidia GeForce 750, they're pretty cheap (~100) and Adobe apps use CUDA to accelerate certain operations on Nvidia cards, and the 750 happens to punch way above its price on this metric.
posted by Oktober at 3:29 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again, all. I was hoping there was such a thing as an out-of-the-box "for photographers" system, but from what I'm seeing here it looks like building a system is still the best option. I may need to bribe my brother after all...
posted by JoanArkham at 7:57 AM on March 11, 2014

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