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2009.11.01

A few weeks ago, it was finally time to replace my 5 year old computer for something new.  Every part but the monitor, casing, keyboard and mouse needed to change. All other parts have greatly improved over the last years and no longer connect together due to changes in connectors. There are thousands of different parts available and so the strategy, just like choosing a digital camera, is to find the parts that suit your needs and budget. In this case, the need is to work with digital images.

Here is almost what I got and why each part was chosen. The almost is because one part was discontinued in the last 3 weeks and I am also including a modern case and monitor for completeness:

  • Processor (CPU): AMD Phenom II X4 945 – The CPU is the brain of the computer but it needs to be fed data quickly enough to keep its work.  It is important to choose a CPU with a fast interface to memory. For this I choose the 3 GHz Quad-Core CPU for socket AM3 which is the latest AMD socket and provides support for fast DDR3 memory at 1333Mhz. This particular model has 6 MB L3 cache and 95W power consumption. It is not the coolest but not the hottest either. The retail package comes with a reasonably quiet CPU cooler. From Newegg.com: AMD Phenom II X4 945 3.0GHz Socket AM3 95W Quad-Core Processor
  • Memory: Corsair XMS3 8GB  DDR3 1333 (4 x 2GB) – Big files require big memory. Although the truth is that even the largest RAW files do not need this much memory, this leaves room to grow and for running multiple applications. Having memory in multiple pieces also helps get data to the CPU faster. Also, a 64-bit system requires 4GB or more to show an advantage over 32-bit systems. For extensive image processing such as HDR imaging and panorama-stitching, the extra memory can greatly help. See it at Newegg.com:
    CORSAIR XMS3 8GB (4 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 Desktop Memory.
  • Motherboard: ECS Black Series A785GM-M – A motherboard connects all the parts together, so the most important feature is compatibility. This one features an AM3 socket and DDR3 support up to 1333 Mhz. It has a AMD 785G chipset and embedded graphics with DVI, D-Sub and HDMI out, which I happily ignore. The important features are to have at least one 16X PCI-E 2.0 slot for the graphics card and plenty of SATA ports. In this case, it has 6 SATA ports and 2 eSATA ports. The key is to support lots of storage, both internal for working and external for backups. Note that if you cannot find a motherboard with eSATA, any SATA port can be converted to eSATA with a special bracket. At Newegg.com:
    ECS Black Series A785GM-M Micro ATX AMD Motherboard.
  • Hard-drives (HDD): 3.5″ Hitachi 1TB 16MB Cache SATA II (x3) – While working with images, disk I/O is often the bottleneck. Having plenty of memory helps to work once images are loaded, but getting them into memory goes through the disk. A good idea to keep the OS and applications on one hard-drive and use other ones for images. Be careful, do not confuse drives and partitions. Two partitions on the same drive can slow down performance. With multiple drives for images, performance can be greatly increased by making them into a striped RAID. The size of the RAID depends on how many SATA controllers are available and the space in the computer case. The hard-drive should be chosen for reliability first, since having data beats not having it fast. Seagate and Hitachi brands are considered most reliable but that does not mean fail-proof. Also available from Newegg.com:
    HITACHI 1TB 3.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Internal Hard Drive -Bare Drive.
  • Burner: Pioneer 22X SATA DVD Burner – Essential for backups. It could IDE instead, otherwise the only IDE connector on the motherboard remains unused. DVDs are ideal for backups because they are durable, easy to replicate and distribute. Burned DVDs have no value, so they are the least likely to be stolen. At Newegg:
    Pioneer CD/DVD Burner Black SATA Model DVR-218LBK LabelFlash Support.
  • Case: RAIDMAX Hurricane ATX-248WB Mid Tower – Choosing a case is pretty simple. The first thing to look at is the number of drive bays. This one has 5 internal 3.5″ HDD bays, allowing for one drive for the OS and applications and a 4-disk RAID, which is enough for real-time playback and editing of HD video. An external 5.25″ bay is need for the burner as well. As a bonus, a 3.5″ external bay can be used for a nice Flash-Reader, such as the Atech AFT PRO-35U which I already had two of. It is usually much faster to copy images using a reader than the camera’s processor and use up its battery. From Newegg.com:
    RAIDMAX Hurricane ATX-248WB Black Computer Case With Side Panel Window.
  • Power supply: Antec EarthWatts EA650 650W ATX12V Ver.2.2 – Enough stable and efficient power is always a good idea. This one is rated at 85%+ efficiency which means it heats up less. For the components chosen, 650W is more than enough. See it at Newegg.com:
    Antec EarthWatts EA650 650W Continuous Power “compatible with Core i7/Core i5” Power Supply.
  • Graphics card: SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 4350 1GB 64-bit GDDR2 – This one replaces the one I got and was discontinued. Compared to recent video games, image processing is not very demanding on the graphics card. Most image processing does not use any extra memory, so even it had 64 MB it would be quite enough. 1 GB here is overkill but I chose a similar model due to its silent cooling and dual Dual-Link DVI outputs, something that is needed to drive 30″ displays. From Newegg.com:
    SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 4350 100274L Video Card.
  • Monitor: NEC P221W-BK Black 22″ – This is currently the cheapest wide-gamut LCD which can be calibrated. Such a monitor is essential for anything having to do with digital photography.  There is no point changing image colors or contrast with an uncalibrated monitor unless you look at the RGB values instead of the display. There are larger models such as the 30″ NEC MultiSync LCD3090WQXi which I use or the 26″ NEC MultiSync LCD2690WUXi2. NEC monitors are sometimes packaged by LaCie. There are also wide-gamut monitors which can be calibrated from Eizo. See the NEC P221W at Newegg.com:
    NEC Display Solutions P221W-BK Black 22″ 8ms(GTG) Widescreen LCD Monitor.

Today, the entire system described here, excluding monitor, comes to $1026.85 USD or $1113.39 CDN before taxes and shipping. Add $500 USD / $550 CDN for the 22″ monitor, about $1200 USD / $1400 for the 26″ one or $2400 USD / $2800 CDN for the 30″.  It’s hard to do any better. Although major PC manufacturers sell excellently-priced machines, they usually skimp on quality for many parts like memory and hard-drives and certainly do not choose everything to fit the needs of photographers.

Those who also edit and process videos, particularly HD videos, have more demanding needs than for still images. The system here is also well suited but try to get as many disks as possible and a RAID controller on a PCI-E add-on card, for maximum sustained performance.

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