The Best Computer for Photo Editing
I see this all the time. I need to get a new computer, but I don’t know where to start. So what is my advice on buying a computer for photo editing? When it comes to buying a computer for photo editing, there’s A LOT to consider. One of the easier choices is simply whether to get a desktop or laptop. That will depend on your lifestyle. If you’re comfortable staying at home, go with a desktop computer. If you like to travel, go with a laptop. Phew, that was the easy part, and if you are fortunate enough, get both.
From there, the decisions to be made get more and more technical. How much memory do I need? Is it worth spending more for a faster hard drive or bigger video card? Why can’t Dan just come with me when I’m ready to buy a new computer?
Luckily, I’m going to dig into all the components and talk about what’s essential for which kinds of tasks when it comes to using ON1 Photo RAW. While this article is specific to the needs and traits of ON1 Photo RAW, these are universally applicable to most other photo editors as well.
Before we dig into all the components and what they do, some of you are probably saying, tell me what to buy. Okay, if all the computer terms and options are too much for you, here are my suggestions for a few computers that will work well with ON1 Photo RAW or other image editing applications right out of the box. Any of these configurations should serve you well for at least five years.
First, let’s talk about form factor. Should you get a laptop or a desktop? This goes a little deeper than just the choice in lifestyle. Laptops are portable but generally cost more, have smaller screens, less storage, and less powerful video cards. But again, if you need to travel, they are a must. You can easily overcome the smaller screen and less storage by adding a nice external display and hard drive for when you are not traveling. Until recently, there wasn’t much you could do to improve the video card on a laptop, other than buying a good one to start, but with eGPU enclosures nowadays, you can upgrade your video card to desktop power levels.
The processor, or CPU, is the “brain” of the computer in simple terms. It’s where your operating system and applications do work. The faster the processor, the quicker it can work. Again, that’s in straightforward terms. Today most processors have multiple cores. Each core is capable of doing work. It’s like having multiple brains, assuming the application you are running knows how to take advantage of every core. Photo RAW uses the processor in three key areas. First is browsing and opening photos. This opening or decoding step pulls the bits out of storage and assembles them in memory to work on them. Having multiple cores allows Photo RAW to work on multiple photos at a time. For example, if you are browsing JPG photos for the first time, we can quickly extract embedded previews by accessing one JPG for every core. So instead of getting thumbnails one at a time, you can get them six at a time, if you have six cores. The same idea works when you are opening most file types; we can split up the work across multiple cores to make opening a single photo faster. Of course, this all depends on how fast your storage is, more on that later.
The second place the processor matters is when you export in the background. When you use the Quick Export or Export Now options, we can usually use the GPU, which is much faster than the CPU for image processing. However, if you use the Background Export option, this is done in the CPU and only with half of the available processor cores. This keeps resources available so you can continue to work, but the entire export process will take much longer. As a rule of thumb, only use Background Export if you need to do more work in Photo RAW, and you aren’t in a hurry to access your exported photos.
The last place the CPU matters is when using Resize and Panorama. Resize uses the Genuine Fractals algorithm, which is only performed in the CPU. This is a hugely intensive process and can be made much faster by having multiple cores.
There is one other case where the CPU is heavily taxed, and that’s if you have a weak video card. We always prefer to use the video card (GPU) for image processing. Still, on some old or underpowered video cards (such as Intel® Integrated Graphics) that have little dedicated VRAM, we simply can’t. In those cases, we fall back to the CPU. You can tell if this is the case on your computer by looking at the preferences. If the GPU Render option is off and disabled, your video card is the culprit in holding back performance in Photo RAW.
When it comes to buying advice for a processor, I recommend choosing more cores over speed. A quick way to think about this is to multiply the processor speed by the number of cores and pick the higher amount. For example, a 4GHz processor with two cores, we score an eight. Compare that to a 3GHz processor with six cores giving you a score of 18 even though it is slower, the additional cores more than make up for it. This is a simplified view of how this works, and I’m sure there are plenty of electrical engineers who would point out the finer points I’m skipping over.
Next, let’s talk about memory, or RAM. The memory holds on to what you are currently working on. As the processor does it’s work, it’s pulling bits out of memory, doing the calculations and putting it back in the memory. With the advent of GPU processing, ON1 Photo RAW actually needs way less memory. Don’t get me wrong, more memory will make certain things like browsing and toggling between photos faster, but in general having 16GB vs 32GB isn’t going to make a big difference in your daily work. ON1 Photo RAW will use as much memory as you allow it. For example, extra memory lets Photo RAW store more previews for Browse, making the experience faster. This also allows ON1 to hold on to photos you have recently edited, making them faster to load if you need to go back to them quickly.
With that said, most of us don’t work in a single application at a time. We have ON1 Photo RAW running as well as maybe Photoshop, our email client, web browser, music, etc. Each app needs some of your memory and may use quite a bit of it. If you multitask or if you use ON1 Photo RAW as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop, lean towards getting more memory. On the plus side, memory is inexpensive and not hard to upgrade on most computers. For ON1 Photo RAW, I recommend at least 16GB.
Okay, this is where the rubber meets the road. The video card, or GPU, is where we prefer to do most of the image processing. It is much faster than the CPU for these kinds of tasks. Having a sound video card will give you the most significant boost in performance. This is critical when considering purchasing a computer. Especially if you decide on a computer where you can’t change the video card, like a Mac or a laptop.
When looking for a video card, it can be hard stuff. If you zip over to Amazon, you will see “gaming” video cards starting at $50 and going all the way to over $600. How do you know if you are getting a good one? Well, there are a couple of other factors to consider. The first is the number and size of displays you plan to drive with it. If you are using a single 1080p display, you can get by with an inexpensive card (NVIDIA GTX-1060 or AMD Radeon RX 570) with VRAM as low as 2GB. However, if you are driving multiple 1080p displays or a single 4K display, you will want a more powerful card (NVIDIA GTX-1080 or AMD Radeon RX Vega 56) with 4GB or more VRAM. Keep in mind that a single 4K display is equal to the work of four 1080p displays! If you are going to purchase a higher-end card, you need to consider if your computer case is large enough and if your power supply can drive it. The common mini-tower cases that most off-the-shelf PCs come in are not large enough, and their 200 Watt power supplies are not strong enough to power high-end cards. The amount of VRAM is essential. The more VRAM you have, the more we can store in it and operate on it at once. Shuffling data in and out of the video card is slow, so keeping more in the VRAM improves performance.
For Windows users, before considering an upgrade to your current video card, there are a couple of things to check. First, make sure you are using the correct video card. Some computers come with both on-board integrated graphics as well as more-powerful discrete graphics cards. This is common on gaming laptops and an increasing number of desktops. If ON1 Photo RAW can detect a discrete video card, it will use it, but sometimes the better video card is disabled or has the incorrect drivers installed to take advantage of it. See this knowledge base article on how to troubleshoot this.
Today, there is another option for video cards. If you have a laptop, macOS computer, or a Windows computer where you don’t want to upgrade the case and power supply, you can get an eGPU or external GPU. An eGPU enclosure is a box that can house a high-end modern video card as an external peripheral. They are about the size of a breadbox and connect to your computer with a Thunderbolt 3 connection. Your computer needs to be new enough to have Thunderbolt 3 for this to work. Starting around $500, you can combine a powerful desktop-class video card and enclosure to boost your editing performance to a whole new level.
The display, or monitor, is your window to your photos, you are going to spend a lot of time looking very closely at it, so don’t skimp on this item. If you are purchasing a laptop or all-in-one, you are stuck with the built-in display panels. However, you can always add another display. If you are purchasing a desktop computer, the choice is yours. First, decide on the size and resolution of the screen you want. Today, 4k displays are quite common, but the performance and quality of them vary quite a bit. While 4k displays can be beautiful, you need to make sure that your video card can service it adequately. Some 4k displays can only refresh at 30Hz, half the speed of standard displays. If you are sensitive to flickering or do quick brushing or panning, you will see some stickiness. The surface of the display can also have an impact. Some displays have the panel sealed behind glass and have a glossy finish. These tend to protect the display panel, are easier to clean, and can have a deeper black appearance. They will also reflect light facing the display and can cause glare. Matte surface displays don’t have the glare issue but tend to have a weaker black point unless you are working in a dark space. Displays designed for graphic arts will often have a larger gamut or range of colors they can show. This is often shown as a percentage of Adobe RGB 1998 that it can display. No matter what display you choose, it would help if you characterized it (profile it) with a custom display profile using an external colorimeter tool, such as an X-Rite i1. This will ensure that the colors and tones your displays show are accurate to what is in the file.
How you store your photos and videos has another big impact on performance, especially when browsing. Many photographers store photos across various external drives. Depending on the speed and interface of those drives, it can make a big difference in browsing and opening files. If you have an old spinning hard disk and you’ve had for four or more years, it is likely a 4200 RPM drive in a USB 2 enclosure. A drive like this can read about 50MB/s, whereas a modern SSD using USB 3 can be 10x faster. You can see how simply upgrading your storage to SSD can have a huge impact. If your system volume (c: drive) isn’t an SSD, moving your browser cache location to a fast SSD will also make browsing much faster. You can learn how to relocate the cache here.
Always think about your back-up strategy when you think about storage. Keeping your photos spread across multiple drives can lead to unintended duplicates, lost edits, and if a drive fails, lost photos. I always recommend a backup strategy that includes redundant drives in different physical locations that sync together. A cloud storage provider like Dropbox or Back Blaze provides a great solution to back-up and access from multiple computers. However, cloud-based solutions can get expensive if you are a prolific RAW shooter. Hardware solutions with multiple redundant drives (RAID 0) are also a good option. It’s two hard drives in one, where they are mirror images of each other. If one drive dies, the other drive still has a back-up of everything. In our studio, we use a fast RAID 0 drive to store the originals, which in turn is backed up to a NAS (network-attached storage) in a different location. This gives us two back-ups, in two different locations, that all stay synchronized.
What About Upgrading What I Have?
When does it make sense to upgrade the computer you have versus just buying a new one? That decision is often easier with a laptop or Mac due to the limitations of what you can upgrade. If you can’t upgrade the video card, if the boot volume isn’t an SSD, you can’t upgrade the memory, or you can’t update to the latest operating systems, you probably need to purchase a new computer. If you have a Windows desktop computer, and the processor is less than three years old, it’s relatively easy to upgrade the memory, storage, and video card and make big improvements in performance.
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