2018 Custom PC Guide for Photography and Video

2018 Custom PC Guide for Photography and Video

Last week Apple introduced new MacBook Pro models and the prices already initiated discussions. Maybe it is still better to build a custom PC for getting the bang for the buck.  

Without a doubt, the newly introduced MacBook Pro and iMac Pro are great computers, but they are not the best. For the last couple of years, upgrading is impossible on MacBook Pros, and this doesn't seem to be changed on the new releases. Also, the pricing strategy on customizing is ridiculous as RAM and hard drive prices doubles when you want to upgrade. Apple is already charging for the base components, however for each upgrade, you need to pay more than the actual price of the component. This has been an Apple classic for a long time, and I don’t think even the newly introduced 6-core processors will save the brand’s reputation.  

But Wait, It’s a Laptop, Not a Desktop!

To be honest, a six-core processor and a 32 GB of RAM in a laptop is great. But, if you’re a professional image creator, you will need total computing power. Therefore, multi-threading performance, clock speed of each core, the power of the graphics card, and the overall cooling performance should be considered. The base specs of a Mac might be sufficient for general Photoshop tasks, but for video rendering, 3D rendering, and some other compositing software, it might be slow. Even Apple is aware of this fact that they even introduced an external graphics card box to accelerate the performance. So, portability is not the case here, it’s performance, and when it comes to performance, there are many other options out there.

Choosing the Processor: AMD or Intel?

If this post was written three years ago, I would recommend Intel. However, AMD has been the game changer recently and their processors are the best in terms of price to performance ratio. The second-generation Ryzen processors are better than the first generation, and they are optimized better for Adobe applications. As AMD boosted the processor race, Intel introduced new processors as well, but with higher prices. Intel also introduced six-core entry-level processors, but not all of them support multi-threading. So for professionals, Intel x299 compatible i7 or i9 processors would be the ideal route. If you are tight on budget, then Intel socket 1151 compatible i7 8700K might be the best option as a six-core processor. If you would like to choose an AMD Ryzen processor, a build with the latest eight-core Ryzen 7 2700x will be cheaper than all Intel alternatives above, considering the motherboard prices.

Here is the current price list for processors and motherboards based on the core count and models.

To give an average idea for the pricing, I chose the Asus Prime motherboard for each socket type. You can find cheaper motherboards made by different brands. Just make sure to buy the suitable chipset for your CPU.

Other Parts

Memory

After choosing the CPU and the motherboard, it’s time to choose the RAM. Memory stick prices doubled since 2016 and apparently they won’t become cheaper soon. Considering a pro workflow, 32 GB of RAM should be the minimum, but if your budget is limited, then you might choose 16 GB for the start. As an advantage of a custom build, you can upgrade the amount of RAM any time. Also, most brands offer lifetime warranty on memory modules, so you can even look for used ones for cheaper price.

Graphics Card

This is the second most important element of a custom build computer, and powerful graphics card are not for only gamers. They have been turning into general processors and besides accelerating various software like Adobe Creative Suite, they are also being used by GPU rendering software like Octane and Redshift as the main computing unit. For video and VR applications, they are vital elements as well. On the contrary to Apple, you are not limited to AMD Radeon graphics cards on your build. You can pick any Nvidia card, which has the advantage of CUDA cores, a parallel computing platform and programming model invented by Nvidia. Here are some specs and prices for the recent graphics cards for your build:

You can find cheaper alternatives in different series and brands, and any option will be smaller, faster and cheaper than Apple’s Blackmagic eGPU.

To complete your build, you will need a CPU cooler, a power supply, an SSD, a case, and a Windows license. You can either use an air cooler or an all-in-one liquid cooling system. Both will do the work, but if you want more silent and cooler operation, it is better to buy a liquid cooler. Ryzen 7 2700x already comes with the Wraith air cooler, so if you choose AMD, you won’t need to worry about the CPU cooler at the first step. For the SSD, you can go with the m.2 NVMe SSD, but if the price is your concern, then you should get a standard 2.5-inch SSD. Even if you upgrade to an NVMe drive in the future, you can always use your existing 2.5-inch SSD as a portable hard drive with an enclosure box.

Before buying a power supply, always check your system’s total power consumption. To do that, go to Power Supply Calculator (almost all brands have this calculate sections on their websites), select your components, and calculate. This will give the average consumption in watts and try to add at least 150 watts on that result before buying the PSU. For example, if your system’s total power consumption is calculated as 450 W, try to buy at least a 650 W PSU. Also, keep in mind to select 80-plus rated units to get at least 80 percent efficiency.

Case selection is a personal choice and there are hundreds of options in the market. You can even buy a decent case under $50. And with a Windows 10 Pro license, an Intel i7 8700K, 32 GB with the Nvidia GTX1070 TI, the build will cost around $1,700. Even if you add one or two 4K monitors, the total cost will be less than any Mac with similar specs. If portability isn’t an issue for you, feel free to build your own PC. If you have been using macOS for long time, Windows 10 won’t disappoint you and adaptation will be easier than you think. If you want to learn how to install the components, don’t forget to check Lee Morris’ PC build guide.

Would you consider switching to Windows and build your own PC? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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23 Comments

Mark Niebauer's picture

I have always built my PC's from scratch and it has always been the best way to go for horsepower.

David Bengtsson's picture

Important to mention is that if you only use Lightroom and rarley Photoshop or video editing software a 1000US rig will be almost as fast as a 2000US one. Lr is so badly optimized that it doesn’t utilise GPU or much more than 2 cpu cores. Some improvement have been made on exporting with several cores but the improvements are minimal. However if you use photoshop or premiere and after effects a fast CPU and lots of ram will help. But if you are almost only using Lr a cheaper rig with highly clocked i5 and fast storage is what makes the difference.

Very important is to get a good PSU too, don’t get the cheapest thing. If it dies it may kill a lot of your other hardware. More expenisive models are often quiter aswell.

I also reccomend going for air cooled cpu if you don’t wanna risk downtime. I’ve had watercooling die on me which sucks. A lot of troubleshooting and time consuming to swap for an new cooler. Noctuha makes great air coolers that are silent.

Ken Hilts's picture

My installation of Lightroom uses the GPU, and the performance improvement is significant. Some may find the following link useful:
https://helpx.adobe.com/nz/lightroom/kb/lightroom-gpu-faq.html

David Bengtsson's picture

I’ve got it enabled but rarley see any real use of my GPU. (Got a gtx1060 6gb) but it looks like it should use it, but I have never seen any real use that uses anywhere near the capabilities of the GPU.

Chad D's picture

ditto this when you truly look at what is going on its nill !!! adobe GPU support sucks !! Capture one though uses them really well

michael andrew's picture

I want a rig designed for Lightroom, Photoshop, After effects and Preimere. What is the best solution for those in that order of importance? Lightroom has been pretty lame lately on my loaded macs

I think this is a good summary. I highly recommend Gigabyte Twinfrozr cards or similar, low price and low noise and very overclockable if you need to push it a bit after owning it for a while (if you also happen to play games now and then). I like MSI too, but Asus is for me way too overpriced for what you get.

I also recommend 32GB RAM, I've had 32GB RAM for 5-6 years, and I really love it. Especially as I don't restart my computer and use it for 3D applications, video, images, games etc. etc. You really help the memory management with that as a minimum amount of RAM.

Personally I'd recommend a professional graphics card such as a FirePro or Quadro, I've seen too many weird glitches with Photoshop over the years that's been down to the graphics card and more so with Premiere/After Effects and you can pick up second hand ones far cheaper than gaming cards.

All of my workstations are 64Gb bar the master workstation with 256Gb (dual Xeon rig) the extra RAM comes in handy when dealing with multiple applications being open simultaneously and/or having to deal with high resolution imagery such as medium format RAW files in Ps. I have multiple rigs for redundancy, if one fails the other can pick up so there's no loss of business with data being stored on a NAS and I've set up a roaming profile.

Chad D's picture

and some of them will offer 10 bit support if you want or need that :)

Nathan Nellans's picture

Puget Systems has some great benchmarks to reference:

Photoshop CC 2018 (Intel 8th gen vs. Ryzen 2 CPUs): https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Photoshop-CC-2018-CPU-Perform...

PhotoShop CC 2017 (CPU benchmarks. A little old at this point, but it does list the X299 processors, where the above benchmark does not): https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Photoshop-CC-2017-1-1-CPU-Per...

Photoshop CC 2018 (nVidia GPU benchmarks): https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Photoshop-CC-2018-NVIDIA-GeFo...

If you dig around their "Articles" section, you'll see tons of benchmarks, like Premier Pro, After Effects, etc.

Chad D's picture

for capture one users you might know this thread
https://forum.phaseone.com/En/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=27609

if not worth a look before building if you are using it for C1

I built up a 7820x and a Nvidia 1080

I wanted the Ti but budget :)
NVME1 TB and boot on a noramal SSD since I had the normal samsung 850 around

the one thing I hate beyond anything is the file explorer in windows it flat out sucks compared to OS X IMHO anyway color management is horrid and a few other things :) but yeah apple has left us in a bad place and $$ wise the push of making us buy memory and so on is silly :) its a bit like looking at a 1990 ad in computer shopper :)

but I do say OS is a choice and like pizza where we love certain types etc... it is all personal so no hate overall just not what I like
I still do more of my work on a mac :) but I used my pc only for 6 months to make sure I was using it

my history I started on PC and a apple ][e and main frames then when the first 128k mac came out I had one :) and then the 512 then so on but left around os 4 or 5 ? to PC and came back to macs with OS X IMHO its a superior OS

as far as C1 the PC I built is insane fast not only export but moving image to image menus layers and so on

ironic that LR though is IMHO a dog no matter what hardware and adobe IMHO has so many bad performance issues lack of proper GPU use etc..

nice to see the article mention power supplies :) since that is where many cheapen out and introduce problems big time never cut corners on the parts and prices are more but it will be well worth it for stability etc..

I also do gaming :) so PC for me is capture one and some PS but prefer working on my macs for PS

agree anyone into PC build one !!!! you learn your machine and its fun and you get a way better build over all

Paulo Macedo's picture

Indeed OS X is superior to Windows when it comes to file management and creative tools, like color management.
As for stability, I now find my Windows machine on par with any Mac when it comes to stability and ease of use, Windows 10 was a true refresh on all this.
Still, I miss a lot of tools, but Apple has all their efforts now on the iPhone side, leaving professionals with machines that will not allow for modular upgrades, like the Mac Pro allowed, before the trash can came along. Also, iMac is no longer upgradable, much less the iMac Pro.
By the end of 2017, I was on the mood to lay hands on the "normal" iMac 27" 5K, 2500€ for mid specs, 4 core CPU and passive GPU. But then, I've started putting some numbers together, and ended up buying a way faster machine for half the price, thus allowing me to chose a panel (monitor) with a wide gamut and 2.5K resolution, the 5K is overkill lol.
Also, it runs Crysis.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Oh and i forgot, there are rumors out there, that Adobe is developing the full Photoshop and Lightroom for iOS and Android, to use on tablets and so on. If this comes out to be true, the Linux port of these apps will be much easier, possibly we'll see Adobe on Linux once and for all. If this happens, bye Windows, hello Linux. :P

Chad D's picture

agree on all that :)

my main thing is C1 that wont be going linux :(

my mac pro I work on old silver 5,1 updated has a R9380 GPU card inside ? cheap enough to balance price bought a while ago when it was cheaper then now thanks to mining
multiple SSD held back of course by now outdated south bridge (trash cans got PCH if I remember correct) so very limited on speed but the latency and seek are great and do give a modern quickness to many things

but yeah its outdated and with a computer that is 8+ years old its just a matter of time like driving on bald tires :) hahahahahahahah

I did hear windows is working on OS based color management ?
if they could copy what the finder does and put that into their explorer :)

I do hope they could bring full PS to the iPad that would be cool if we could tether native into a iPad somehow with no delay or other dongles and so on that current solutions have us do that would be awesome to

I have affinity just need to play with it ? and never find time so just have to make myself do that

I do hope we see a nice quad core mac mini for the 1k price point tops ?

my future might be something like that as a NAS controller if you will where I work in PS and C1 on the PC have everything sync out to my nas syncing to my OS X to then do what I do post email and so on kinda a work around

Paulo Macedo's picture

Built mine by the end of 2017, 1300 european credits total.

Ryzen 7 1700X
Asus Prime X370-A
16GB DDR4 3000MHz
MSI Armor GTX 1070 Ti.

As for MacBook or any other laptop. One will never get the full benefit of having an i9 or whatever processor on a laptop. The form factor will not allow for the full efficiency, due to cooling restrictions of the machine thus allowing for CPU and GPU throtling, slowing the machine down after a few minutes of use.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Exactly, and I wonder how the tiny fans and passive cooling will handle that i9 in the new macbook pro...

Paulo Macedo's picture

The same is also true for the new iMac Pro. I've already read some news on throtling after a fair use. Sure, the CPU will still deliver, but not to its full potential, meaning that one paid for a machine that will never deliver what it was supposed to.
The new MacBook Pro with the i9 will be dependant on a lot of throtling to keep thermals on a safe measure, won't be the kind of laptop to use on the bed and possibly will require passive cooling.

I'm struggling a lot choosing the best monitor (27") for photography. Any thoughts on it? Thx everyone

Paulo Macedo's picture

There's a cheap BenQ monitor, 27", QuadHD, 100% sRGB, 98% Adobe RGB and P3. It's in the 500ish euro price tag.

Chad D's picture

ditto the BenQ I have one SW2700 and a 27 inch NEC PA and in many ways I prefer some things with the BenQ

IMHO the Eizo are top notch but nobody has proven they are better than the NEC ? so either one pick the one you love on those two and if someone has a argue point I would say sure you can argue which is better in super cars but they are all super :)

the NEC are often cheaper in US around $1000 for the 27
the BenQ about $550

IMHO 4k for 27 inch is not needed ? your GPU just has to drive more pixels but I am not a video guy so for video the 4k might be a good option
4k for a 32 inch could be nice since that size can take advantage of the pixel density more and again NEC Eizo BenQ all have monitors that are higher end come with hoods etc...

Don't forget to mention that every computer purchase for photo editing/processing should include some kick ass accessories like a gaming mouse for smooth control and extra buttons and a gaming keyboard with lots of macro keys. Lastly, always, always, always mention buying a display calibration tool upfront even if you use a lousy monitor at time first.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Great advice Boris, thanks

Chad D's picture

IMHO bottom line to all this is Apple needs to sell OS X as a retail item :) I know they wont but I can dream