The 2017 High-End PC Buyers Guide for Photographers Running Photoshop

The 2017 High-End PC Buyers Guide for Photographers Running Photoshop

We're going to build our very own photographers PC, capable of working at blazing speeds with 50-megapixel images and dozens of layers in Adobe Photoshop. The high-end system we will be discussing here will have a budget of $1,500 in mind. For this, we're going to build our post-processing dream PC, but it doesn't include a monitor. Let's start comparing specs.

A (Personal) Numbers Game

PC building is about comparing numbers, but also about personal preference. With two major contenders on the CPU market, Intel and AMD, most people tend to stick to either. It’s the same with ATI Graphics (an acquired subsidiary of AMD) and NVidia. Even in a time when the price/performance numbers of AMD/ATI systems look better, I am still an Intel/NVidia guy. I can’t explain why exactly. Maybe because I’ve build PCs since the age of 12 and in only one of those instances (and it wasn’t the first build), an ATI-card died. You’re going to have to forgive me for this manufacturer’s choice, but rest assured that the rest of this comparison is as objective as I can be. If you specifically want AMD/ATI, I suggest that you look at the new Ryzen range of processors and the RX 580 series graphics cards, both of which I’ve heard very good things about.

To be able to write this article, I've used the fantastic spreadsheets of PassMark software, which have been my reference for comparing processors and video cards for over a decade.

Processor: Intel Core i7-7700

A processor is the beating heart of your machine. In photography editing, the power of the processor will determine for some amount how fast and snappy your edits translate into the results you see on the screen. The 7700 is at the top end of the desktop Intel Socket 1151 range, surpassed in performance only by the “unlocked” 6700K and 7700K. “Unlocked” means that these processors are well suited for those who aim to overclock them. Our 7700 operates at 3.6 GHz and scores a respectable 10,816 points on CPU-Benchmark. Some of the specs include 8 MB SmartCache, four physical cores and eight hardware threads.

Now, if these or any of the following specs don’t say a whole lot to you, that’s OK. Let me just say that this CPU’s price/performance index is absolutely top-notch for a current generation Intel processor. It’s going for around $300.

intel core i7-7700

Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-H270-HD3

If the processor is your computer’s heart; the motherboard is undoubtedly its blood circulation system. It connects the individual parts through its integrated chipset. I’ve opted for a H270 board, because the main differences between it and its bigger brother, the Z270 chipset, are the overclocking capabilities and consequently the Z270’s higher price point.

This $100 ATX-board boasts three PCI-e x16 slots for connecting a wide range of fast components such as a video card, sound, or ultra-fast storage. Additionally, we see four USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 connectors. There are four memory slots, which we’ll cover next.

GIGABYTE GA-H270-HD3

Memory: Kingston HyperX FURY 32 GB 2133 MHz

RAM stores instructions temporarily. The higher the amount of this temporary storage, the larger your files can be without your new computer slowing down on you. Because of the ever-increasing resolutions of digital camera sensors, working in layers in Photoshop, and panorama stitching, I rather choose a higher amount of RAM and pay a little extra. The memory speed and latencies say something about how fast a new set of instructions can be added or cleared from the memory. Our motherboard runs 2,133 MHz memory out of the box, so that’s what we’ll pick.

We will fill all four slots with a kit of four 8 GB memory modules, for a total of 32 GB RAM. If you’re knowledgeable about timings, then I think you will agree that choosing CL14 14-14-32 is a good contender among both the cheaper and more expensive choices we have.

Kingston Hyper X DDR4 memory

Graphics Card: ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX OC

So why would we need a graphics card for photo editing? Aren’t today’s processors kitted out with on-board video? In short, yes they are. Although modern software like our beloved Adobe products Lightroom and Photoshop are actually designed from the ground up to work with dedicated graphics cards. Complex operations in Photoshop and Lightroom are a lot (!) faster if you’re using a video card, because these are basically computers on their own. They have their own processor (called a GPU), cooler, memory, and motherboard. That’s the main reason why this part is the most expensive part in our build. We don’t, however, need the most expensive or fastest card out there (unless of course you’re also an avid gamer).

For Photoshop’s GPU intensive features like blurring, sharpening, and the Camera Raw filter, memory interface width is actually more important than raw GPU-performance. A 2 GB 256-bit video card will outperform a 4 GB 128-bit video card, because of the parallel computing power of that card. This is why professional-grade Radeon R9, Tesla, and Quadro all feature the highest possible memory bandwidth. These cards also cost an arm and a leg, so they’re not for our build.

Most enthusiast, non-professional cards feature a 384-bit memory bus, but also cost anything upwards of $700. Our price range lets us put in a respectable 192-bit GTX 1060 card with 6 GB of video memory. The $350 ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX OC features 1,280 CUDA cores that run at 1,645 MHz.

ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX OC

Main Storage and Cache: Samsung 850 EVO, 250 GB SSD

We’re inching closer to software. Software, such as your operating system, installs on a drive and in 2017 these come in three flavors: traditional hard drives, solid state drives, and combinations of the two. SSDs are the fastest option and can be connected through a so-called SATA-cable or directly on the motherboard for best performance at a cost.

Your main storage is the one on which we’re going to install Windows, Lightroom, and Photoshop. But we will also use this drive for cache. Cache is temporary storage that acts much like an extension of your RAM. If the RAM fills up, the cache folder on your storage device will fill to avoid problems such as blocking your entire system. This is why we need a sizable amount of space on this drive at all times. We’re going for a 250 GB SSD.

The Samsung 850 EVO series has a lot going for it. The 250 GB version reads at 540 MB/s and writes at 520 MB/s. For its $100 price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an equal or better performing drive.

Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SSD

Storing Your Photos: Western Digital Black, 2 TB HDD

When it comes to storing your precious photos, size does matter. This 7,200rpm SATA-600 drive reads at 164 MB/s and boasts 2 TB of storage. That’s more than enough for putting any stages of your edited photography on there; raw files, original PSDs, and JPEGs for the web. And should you run out of storage, there’s always the option of putting another one in there, because our motherboard supports four additional drives. The drive sets you back $136.

WD Black 2TB

Power, Case, and Peripherals

This build, like any high-end system, is quite power hungry because of its graphics card, which requires at least 500 watts of power. All the other components don’t require that much, so let’s stick on the safe side and put in a 750-watt power supply. The Corsair RM750x is an 80 PLUS gold-standard power supply with full, modular cable management. And because it has an active thermal regulation system, the fan is only fully engaged when it’s most needed.

A great case has a good amount of airflow, so cable management is a priority. Aside from that, picking a case is entirely subjective, so I won’t get into this in great detail. As long as it fits your ATX-motherboard and the 298mm long video card. The same subjectivity holds true for any peripherals like a mouse, keyboard, and speakers, assuming you even want the latter.

All of the components in this category will cost around $250, depending on how fancy your case and mouse are.

Corsair CArbide black case

Next

Our build comes to a grand total of $1,426, with all the parts coming from Amazon. But we're not there yet. Because there are so many factors to consider, buying a monitor for photography editing is worthy of an entire article by itself. And once all the boxes of your new PC build arrive, it’s time to put everything together and tweak the system to get the most out of your rig. You’ve guessed it, we’re in for another multi-part article.

If you have any questions about these parts, or have a better idea for any the components selected for this build, you’re welcome to make suggestions. You can also comment with "I have a Mac" to get the discussing going. This is build is just one of the millions of combinations you could make to build your post-processing dream PC. Until next time: Happy comparing.

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93 Comments

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Ariel Martini's picture

definitely not. only gaming performance

Noah Wright's picture

What part of LR you want more speed in? If it is in the developer mode then yes, a newer GPU might be better but a 1060 might not exhibit a significant improvement over your 970.. I don't use LR that much these days (Capture one these days for me), but you would probably see a speed boost if you had another SSD for a larger cache/ temporary working folder before you moved it to a larger HDD for storage.

Valters Pelns's picture

I already have one SSD for Raw, other for catalog and Cache. I want more speed in zooming, loading preview, brushes, cloning.

Paulo Macedo's picture

You won't notice that much improvement, since LR is a more dependant on CPU.
The 970 is still a great GPU, that is still on pair with GTX1060 and RX580.
Put some bucks aside and go for a 1070 or wait for these new RX Vega GPU's from AMD.

Brian Johnson's picture

I have a AMD OC'd 1700x, GTX 1080, Samsung 960 m.2 evo (boot & programs), 4 TB WD Black...Lightroom is still not the fastest. It's the code and just not optimized for modern PCs. I've done extensive work looking at LR performance and if you monitor CPU and GPU performance while you work you'll see it needs serious work. Hopefully this year we get a new release because the multi-core CPUs are on the rise.

David Boyars's picture

I don't see the point in full sized computers anymore. Is there any downside to the Micro ATX standard? The parts cost less while taking up less space.

Ariel Martini's picture

Big cases makes everything easier, from swapping a part to upgrading to watercooling, for instance. You may find more problems with overheating while overclocking in smaller cases. Also I wouldnt agree that the parts costs less, maybe they don't cost extra anymore, but not less. But yes, smaller cases are much more viable nowadays.

Ariel Martini's picture

I agree with this article if you replace "high end dream pc" for "easy to build so-so whatever"
For high end you need an unlocked CPU, a watercooler (AIO watercooler are just as easy to install than air cooled), an overclock-able motherboard, an M.2 SSD (huge difference from SATA).
Also I wouldn't recommending 750W "just for safe", it's really NOT necessary unless you're running two graphics cards or too many HDD.

Vitor Kelm's picture

Video card for Photoshop and Lightroom?! No! They dont even touch your GPU, only CPU usage!

Instead of buy a powerful GPU take this money and get a better SSD/HDD.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Photoshop and Lightroom [as well as video editing apps] use OpenGL. After Effects, Premiere and Photoshop even use CUDA cores to apply rotations and other filters. It's giving a noticeable boots, but only in certain things inside the application.

David Boyars's picture

I agree! It can help if you're rocking a 4k display, but a GPU shouldn't be a deciding factor. Lightroom doesn't even use multiple cores when editing. Cheaping out on an i3 for example will probably make adjustments just as fast. Rendering previews is another story

Anonymous's picture

Nothing was mentioned about the cooling fan for the CPU. That has to be robust enough to run 24/7 and suck away all that heat from the quad core. What did you pick?

Bill Peppas's picture

Noctua NH-D15, NH-D14 and their "S" variants, and the NH-U12S ( if your case ain't big enough to fit its bigger siblings ).

Bartek Winnicki's picture

I really recommend reading this article: https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Photoshop-CC-2017-1-1-CPU-Com...

and also this one if you use Lightroom too: https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Lightroom-CC-2015-10-1-CPU-Co...

For me personally I'd choose i7-7820x for best Photoshop&Lightroom workflow and this is what I'll be buying soon, but want to wait for better motherboards as it seems that the ones that are currently released have some bad heatsink designs and the temps are too high...

David Boyars's picture

I love Puget's articles! Most reviews on hardware is nowhere as helpful as what Puget provides for free.

Bill Peppas's picture

The recommended system is quite unbalanced.
The motherboard choice is not great, and the whole point of overclocking the 7700K to the max ain't happening with it ( that's the whole purpose of going with an unlocked processor anyway ).
A Z270 motherboard ( for a cheap choice you can go with the ASRock Z270 Extreme 4 or a little pricier, the Taichi ).
For storage, an m.2 Samsung 960 Pro or Evo is a better choice than the old 850/860.
For data storage, if reliability is a key factor, you should go with HGST hard disk drives of 2TB, 3TB and 4TB capacities.
No RAID, just multiple backups for critical data.

And last but not least, a good cooler is required for the CPU, I prefer air cooling, the Noctua NH-D15 than an AIO watercooling kit.

Depending on your luck of draw with the 7700K, you might or might not need to delid the processor to lower the temps and/or reach higher operating frequencies.

If you do video work too, I'd suggest a 6 or 8 core processor, either a Ryzen 7 or a Core i7 6800K ( 6 cores ) or a 7820X ( 8 cores )

Louis Novak's picture

MSI makes great motherboards with their OCG technology that allows the user to press a button to overclock based on MSI pre-configuration if you are not comfortable changing voltage on parts yourself. Plus many of their motherboards have built in RAID controllers. Just a little tip for anyone new to making a computer: make sure all your parts are compatible with each other when you make a build. Different processor generations have different socket sizes. Happy Building!

Bill Peppas's picture

I'd steer clear from MSI motherboards.
Plenty of reasons and the bitter taste from totally unjustified CPU killings of the past and recent past guides me away from them ( plus their BIOS is far from what I'd call "stable" and "mature" ) [ compared to Asus, ASRock and Gigabyte ]

Auto-overclocking is generally a bad idea, and I'd be ok with only very low auto-overclocks if you had to force me to accept that thing :D
Taking for example a 7700K to 4.5GHz would be ok, assuming that the predetermined by the manufacturer Vcore ain't ridiculously high.
Anything above that, I highly recommend that the user reads a few guides and perhaps see 1-2 videos from decent overclockers and then proceed to manually overclock his rig.
Lower temperatures, safer voltages, and fun from learning :D

p.s. Onboard RAID controllers are software-based ( they lack the ASIC [ microprocessor ] that is needed to perform the parity checks for RAID 5,6, 50, 60, etc levels.
and p.s.2. RAID is NOT BACKUP.
Whoever wants his data to be safe needs at least a 3-2-1 backup for his precious data

3-2-1 as in
data stored on 3 local disk drives
same data stored on 2 cloud services ( e.g. Google Drive + Dropbox )
same data stored on a 4th hard disk drive which is used for backup once or twice a month and then stored offline for safety ( ideally at another place from your office/home, theft & fire protection )

David Boyars's picture

Agreed! I have access to unlimited free cloud storage (I know right) Unless I really mess up, I have no reason to worry about multiple backups.

Bill Peppas's picture

Just make sure those cloud services are two, because small companies, perhaps even big ones like DropBox, can shut down with no warning ( I've seen everything happen in my 32 years of life time )

Yakir Pollak's picture

Thanks for the piece you wrote!

the recommended GPU in the article is not tested by adobe.
see list of tested card in the link- https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/kb/photoshop-cc-gpu-card-faq.html.

I own a Geforce GTX 1050Ti and its a rocket as well . BUT some functionalities like the most frustrating one -using ALT + wacom in liquify filter to increase or decrease brush size is jiggery and leggy , the cursor moves weird.
and only works fine after turning off GPU acceleration (which slows down PS speed by a bit)

Though probably the GTX 1060 will preform like a monster some little things might be annoying.

Josh Bryant's picture

I built a new PC back in January with a GTX 1080. Haven't had issues in Lightroom or Photoshop, but it still doesn't work for rendering in Premier or After Effects.

Frank Visler's picture

ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB

Can anybody help me with understanding why a 6gb version was selected ? Can the 6 gb be used at all by LR/PS ?

Fritz Asuro's picture

Here's the thing.

If you're on Apple's ecosystem. Just buy what you can afford.

For PC, most mid to high end gaming build will be good enough. But the only difference is you have to focus on more memory, if you can dish money out to get 32GB, the better. (especially if you use a lot of adobe products). And a fast SSD is a must.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

What? Motherboard without M.2 slot? this is PC built without any thought about future upgrade, sadly, whole build is just made by someone who has little knowledge about current tech. I mean 850?

Raphael Bruckner's picture

I got a Dell XPS 8900 desktop that fits the bill for 1000.00 plus a 34 inch monitor.....also running a graid 8 terabyte external HD.....

Louis Novak's picture

Here is a link to a power supply calculator if anyone is interested: http://www.coolermaster.com/power-supply-calculator/

Stuart Green's picture

My PC's more powerful than that already

Robert Grenader's picture

Do not forget the utility of storing your working and archived files in a cloud storage directory. I have everything in the Dropbox folder and have the benefit of realtime backup plus access on line to all my connected devices. This coupled with a NAS RAID 1 is 2 layers of security.

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