Building a New Photoshop Computer

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment


By Dusty Demerson


I love technology. Advances in photography software and hardware have made it possible to create images we couldn’t even dream of back in the days of the darkroom. The tools at our disposal today make it pretty easy to deliver any image we can imagine. But there is a downside to technology too.

We have to keep up! Over time, our tools become less effective, slower and changes in operating systems can make them dysfunctional or render them useless until something gets upgraded. Even upgrades eventually require changes in equipment.

That’s where I find myself today. Adobe Photoshop CS6, my “go-to” program for image work, is fine but slow with larger files and more layers. Attempting to upgrade Adobe Lightroom didn’t work at all since it is incompatible with Microsoft XP, my current operating system. So I find myself needing some new hardware to run current versions of some software. New hardware will also be much faster and more efficient in rendering images. It’s not all bad! Some of the bugs that have crept into my 5-year-old PC will be finding new homes as well.

So, what do I have in mind? Here are the components and some thoughts on the choices. If any readers have other thoughts or cautions on these choices, I would love to hear about them sooner rather than later.

I plan on starting with an Intel motherboard: Intel-Desktop-Motherboard-LGA1155-DDR3. This board is optimized for the i7 processor I’ve chosen and, while there are a handful of competing boards a little less expensive, the Intel boards seem to be better-built and have fewer bad reviews. I really can’t imagine taking the time to build a computer to find the motherboard is faulty and must be returned. I’ll hopefully avoid that nightmare. This board will work with a number of processors but I’ve chosen the Intel Core i7-3770K Quad-Core Processor 3.5 GHz 8 MB Cache LGA 1155 – BX80637I73770K. It’s about what I can afford and is designed for the board above. It also will “overclock” if I ever choose to do that. Even if I don’t, it’s a huge step forward from what I’m using now and will run 64-bit software like a champ.

16 gigabytes of fast RAM should be a great start for my system but I can add an additional 16 later if I need to. I am leaning toward Corsair Vengeance Blue 16 GB (2×8 GB) DDR3 1600MHz (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory although I really don’t care what color they are. My reason for choosing the Corsair over the other contender, Crucial, was the lifetime warranty offered by Corsair. All of these memory modules are within a dollar or two of the same price.

Here’s where the computer design begins to look like an imaging machine instead of a word processor. The specs so far would be overkill for a word processing or accounting computer but I’m going to try to take efficiency a little further still. The system will contain four drives; one for Windows 7, another for other programs like Photoshop, a third drive will hold the data (photos) and a final Solid State Drive will be the Photoshop scratch disk. Here’s the thought behind these choices. If everything is on one drive, even if it’s a fast drive, the computer can only work in one direction at a time and with one program at a time. If the operating system, Photoshop and the images are on their own dedicated drives, they can all be written to at the same time. Additionally, if any of these fail, they are easier to replace if everything isn’t in the same place. I’ve chosen Western Digital Black 500 GB Desktop Hard Drive: 3.5 Inch, 7200 RPM, SATA III, 64 MB Cache because they’re fast, have a large cache and a 5 year warranty. I already own three WD Raid drives which I use for my photos and backups. I’ve been very pleased with these external storage drives even though they are a little slower than internal disk drives. They give me piece of mind. These are connected via Firewire 800 cables and cards.

I’ve chosen a 60 Gigabyte Solid State Drive from Corsair for my Photoshop scratch disk. You might wonder why I would spend a ton of money on a scratch disk. Me too! Again, it’s really about efficiency. When using multiple layers and filters Photoshop can eat up more than my 16 gigabytes of RAM pretty quickly when working on large panoramic images, something I do quite often. When we run out of RAM, Photoshop uses space on available hard drives as extra memory. Having a dedicated drive for that purpose fits within the “multiple drive for efficiency” plan above. Another reason for dedicated super-fast scratch disk is that I’m using a 32 bit Adobe Photoshop. Apparently, you can’t upgrade Photoshop from 32 bit to 64 bit for less than several hundred dollars. This approach is cheaper. I’ll wait until I upgrade Photoshop to CS7 or whatever comes next, because the 32 bit version of Photoshop can only use 3 megabytes of my 16 megabytes of RAM before using the scratch disk. Bummer!

I mentioned that I intend to use Windows 7 operating system. The reason is simple. I really don’t want my work computer to operate like my phone. I don’t use touch screens at work. I use a mouse, tablet and keyboard (like most people). I have poked around Windows 8 and I don’t think I would like it for my day-to-day work computer.

The final piece of this puzzle is a graphics card. I could use the graphics capabilities of the CPU but I like using two monitors when I work on images. In Photoshop I have one monitor dedicated to the image and a smaller monitor with all my tools, layers, filters etc. It’s a real estate decision. I don’t like windows popping up on top of my photos. Most graphics cards will work Photoshop pretty well so I’m not spending a ton of money on a card. I think I’m going with an EVGA GeForce GT 640 2048MB GDDR3 Dual DVI, mHDMI Graphics Card because it will run two monitors, has a lot of its own memory and is under $100.

Other than a box to put all this stuff in, a CPU cooler, some case fans and a beefy power supply that’s about it. I have saved all of these items in my “wish list” at if someone feels really generous and wants to help a not-quite-starving artist. It comes to just under $1400. which is about half what my last desktop cost. I would love to hear from you if you think I’m headed down a rabbit hole with my ideas. I’m still open to suggestions for a few weeks. Thanks!

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Crested Butte, Colorado photographer, Dusty Demerson creates fine art photography displayed as prints and canvases and provides private photo tours in and around western Colorado.

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