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Computers for Photographers: What to Look For

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If you are considering a new computer, you will want to make sure it can handle your photography needs.  Even if you are content with your current machine, you might like to see how it measures up.  How do you do that, when there are a million models out there?  And if you start looking at the specs, you might quickly be confused and overwhelmed.

I’m here to help you with that, and show you what you need to know to make sure your machine will run the appropriate software and handle all your photos.  Before we run through that, let me say that this doesn’t matter if you us a Mac or a PC.  We are just talking specs here.

When shopping for a computer, there are really only 3 things you should look at: the processor, memory (or RAM), and the hard drive.  We’ll go through each.

The Processor

The processor is just what it sounds like.  It is the little unit that does the computing.  It is basically the engine of the whole operation.  It is measured in gigahertz (or GHz) and the larger the number the faster it goes.  In addition to the speed, you will want to pay attention to is the number of cores.  As computer manufacturers tried to build faster and faster processors, they found it easier to split the unit into multiple cores (to disperse heat, as I understand it).  Software developers then built their software to run processes on different threads.  For most new computers, you are looking at 4, 6, or 8 cores.

Most processors are made by Intel and currently the state of the art is the eighth generation Intel Core processor.  You’ll see the processor designated as either i3, i5, or i7.  What these numbers represent is quite confusing, as there are many different models available and it is actually different for desktops versus laptops.  In general, the i3 is a budget model.  The i5 version will be very good and usually are quad-core processors in desktops.  The i7 processors are the best, and what you should aim for if maximum speed is the goal.  The i7 processors are better have a feature called hyper-threading that allows the machine to handle multiple threads of data at once.

After the i3, i5, or i7 designation, you will also see a 4 digit number.  This is the model number of the processor.  Intel increases the number with each new model, so if you see two i7 processors with different numbers, the higher one will be newer and will get you better performance.

There is no magic or formula to choosing a processor.  Adobe requires only a minimum of 2 GHz to run Photoshop, which is less than every processor I have been able to find (there is has no stated minimum speed to run Lightroom).  You simply want your processor to be as fast as possible with the largest number of cores.  The best way to choose is just to look first at the i3, i5, or i7 designation and then look to the model number after that.  Bigger is better.

My Recommendation: the most current Intel Core i7

Memory

The next thing to look for is the amount of memory in the computer.  This one trips people up sometimes, because memory sounds like storage.  They are two separate things, however, and we’ll talk about storage in the next section.  Memory doesn’t save anything – it is just the storage of information while the computer is running.  When you turn your computer off, the memory is wiped.  Essentially memory just makes the computer run.  You will sometimes see memory referred to as RAM, which stands for random access memory.

Memory is actually little sticks that plug into the motherboard of your computer.  The sticks come in different sizes, measured in gigabytes (GB).  The motherboard of the computer will determine how many sticks are allowed.  If the computer’s motherboard accepts two sticks of memory, then that is all you can plug in.  However, your computer might allow up to 4 sticks of memory.

How much memory do you need?  You will need at least 4 GB to run Photoshop, so that is a bare minimum.  Most new computers start at 8 GB, and that is generally sufficient for most users.  16 GB or more is what you will want for extreme performance.

My recommendation: Shoot for 16 GB and up, but 8 GB is ok.

The Hard Drive

The hard drive is where you store stuff – like your programs and your photos.  For the longest time, these were spinning drives.  While these spinning drives work fine, they do involve moving parts, which means they are destined to failure at some point.  On the upside, however, they are pretty cheap.  Purchased separately, you can get a hard drive measured in terabytes (TB, which is 1,000 GB) for around $100.

Something interesting happened in the computer world in recent years, however, and that is the development of solid state memory.  This is like what you use in flash drives and it involves no moving parts.  In addition, the computer can access data on these drives much quicker than on spinning drives.  Everyone wants to switch to solid state memory, but there is a drawback.  Solid state memory is much more expensive than spinning drives.   If you bought the component on its own, a 256 GB solid state drive would cost a couple hundred dollars.

To get the benefits of solid state memory without spending a fortune, buy a computer with a relatively small solid state drive on it.  Common sizes are 128 GB, 256 GB, of 512 GB.  You then store all your software applications on this drive.  You can save your operating system, Photoshop, Lightroom, other Adobe applications, the Microsoft Office applications, and other applications on a 128 GB drive and still have a little space left over.  You will get the benefit of increased speed in doing so.

This solid state drive will probably not be large enough to store all your photos, documents, and other information on it.  Store that stuff somewhere else.  Either get a computer with an additional spinning drive or add one to it.  You can also just save it all to an external hard drive.  Since the computer is not interfacing with this data very often (like it is when running a software application) you really don’t need the speed of solid state for this.  In this fashion, you get the benefits of solid state without spending a fortune.

My Recommendation: 256 GB solid state drive to store your operating system and software applications.  Separate hard drive if 1 – 4 terabytes to store all your photos, documents, and other data.

As an Aside

If you are looking at desktops and you use Windows, I heartily recommend that you assemble your own computer.  If that seems crazy to you, I promise you it is much simpler than you think.  It requires no knowledge of computers and it takes no tools beyond a screwdriver.  For the most part you just plug in the components.  You can get exactly what you want and it will cost you much less than it would if you bought one off the shelf (or online).  Not only that, but you can upgrade the system without buying a whole new one.  You can add drives or memory to your system.  It is actually pretty interesting.  If you think you might have any interest, check out the Newegg website.  There are tutorials on there and they sell all the components you might need.  That’s what I did, and I’m very glad I did.  I have now assembled a few different computers.

A System to Handle Large Files

Getting the right computer matters more to photographers than it does to others.  Your standard computer user is creating documents, spreadsheets, and the like.  Those sorts of files are typically measured in kilobytes and are relatively small.  On the other hand, photographers are working with pictures that are measured in megabytes.  Just one RAW file from a standard DSLR or mirrorless camera will be upwards of 25 MB.  That’s a lot of data.  Further, the files can get larger from there as you work with them (combine, add layers, etc.).  You need to make sure your system can handle it.  Looking closely at these three core specs will go a long way toward making sure your computer can handle this data.  Of course, there are additional items you’ll want to consider as well, but these core specs will point you in the right direction.

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