I had been using a Mac since I first started photography and retouching. Over the years, I upgraded my Macs and used them without a problem, and all software that I have been using worked flawlessly. The Mac has several advantages such as ease of use, a perfect interface (OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is still my favorite by the way), advanced file and folder tagging, and security, but there was a problem that led me to change my mind and switch to Windows: very high price tags and limited customization options.
First of all, I wasn’t after a portable solution, as I already own a MacBook Pro Retina for tethered shooting and on-location use, but I was definitely looking for a reliable workstation to use. While I was searching Mac Pro specifications and price, I decided to look for an alternative solution and that was the time when I started thinking about switching to the dark side: Windows and PC. I had never built a custom PC before, and I haven’t been using Windows since 2004. All I remember about PC and Windows was problems and errors. Everything about picking the parts and building it by myself was exciting but at the same time, I still had hesitation. I finally made up my mind when I calculated the total price of the parts of my custom PC. It cost roughly $1,600, whereas a Mac Pro with similar specs was about $4,700. Mac Pro was really small and its design was really good, but I wouldn’t spend three times more just for that. I thought that I should take this risk and switch all my system and daily computer habits as well.
Choosing the Parts
Processor and Motherboard
I said that I wasn’t after a portable solution, but I always hated the big-sized usual PC cases. To make it compact enough, I decided to go on with a small-sized (Mini-ITX) motherboard and a case. While it has some advantages about size and look, it has also some disadvantages such as limitation of adding extra graphics card or a sound card, as it has only one PCI-E slot. But it wasn’t a big deal for me, as I was only aiming to use this machine for retouching on Photoshop and 3D rendering purposes. Also, as it is stated on Adobe’s website, there is no need for a second graphics card:
Photoshop currently doesn't take advantage of more than one graphics processor. Using two graphics cards does not enhance Photoshop's performance.
Also, I chose a six-core processor over a four-core processor to get better performance in Photoshop and better computing performance, especially for 3D modeling and rendering. According to Adobe:
Photoshop generally runs faster with more processor cores, although some features take greater advantage of the additional cores than others. For most users, the increase in performance that more than six cores provide, doesn’t justify the increased cost.
NVIDIA cards are rapidly evolving and I wanted an affordable graphics card with sufficient specs for my workstation. I chose a compact-sized GTX 970 to run some Photoshop features flawlessly, and so far, I’m happy with it. In the future I can upgrade it whenever I want. Also, keep in my mind that a good graphics card accelerates some specific features in Photoshop.
Having 16 GB of RAM would have been enough, as the minimum requirement for the latest Photoshop version is 8 GB, but if you are working with multiple images with lots of layers you can experience memory problems. Therefore I decided to use 32 GB of RAM in this build.
Photoshop uses random access memory (RAM) to process images. If Photoshop has insufficient memory, it uses hard-disk space, also known as a scratch disk, to process information. Accessing information in memory is faster than accessing information on a hard disk. Therefore, Photoshop is fastest when it can process all or most image information in RAM.
Complete Parts List
- Motherboard: ASRock X99E-ITX/AC LGA2011-v3
- CPU: Intel i7 5820K 3.3Ghz (6-core, 12 threads)
- Graphics Card: Zotac GTX970
- RAM: Corsair Vengeance 32 GB (16 GB x2)
- CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Seidon 120V Plus (water cooling)
- Case: Cooler Master Elite 130
- Power Supply Unit: Corsair CS650M
- Storage: Kingston 480 GB SSD + Seagate Barracuda 2 TB HDD (for backup)
- OS: Windows 10 Pro
Total cost is approximately $1,600.
Windows 10 Experience
To be honest, I still miss OS X, and it really took some time to adapt to Windows and its shortcuts. Within this period, I already started using this PC as my default workstation, and luckily I haven’t seen any blue screen, or unexpected program errors. Also, I modified most things on Windows with native customization options to achieve a OS X-like look, such as a black-colored mouse cursor and top-positioned task bar. So far, the performance is already perfect, and day by day I’m getting used to it. In the meantime, I barely have gotten used to the Windows keyboard and started using a mechanical keyboard which I really like more than my Mac keyboards.
Photoshop and Retouching Experience
I tested my new system with 16-bit 36 MP and 80 MP raw images. Working with these images in Photoshop was really flawless and even with multiple images opened, I couldn’t notice any decrease in performance. The only problem I noticed was in saving 4-5 GB PSB files was taking a bit long and I think it is because of the SSD, which was connected via SATA port. A PCI-based SSD would probably handle this faster, but that would be too much expensive. Other than that, the only thing that slowed me down at the beginning was the placement of "alt" and "Windows" keys, which is used frequently in Photoshop. So, if you are thinking of switching to Windows from Mac, be prepared to learn all of Photoshop's shortcuts once again.
Build and Installation Notes
- When using high capacity RAM, some motherboards don’t recognize them and don’t boot due to an un-updated BIOS version, so it is better to find low capacity RAM such as 4 GB or 8 GB just to boot the PC and update the BIOS.
- The Wi-Fi card on the motherboard that I used was really unstable and some other user reviews also supported this issue, so I changed that with an Intel Wi-Fi Card.
- If you want more options for your system, don’t limit yourself with the Mini-ITX's form factor. You can get a Micro-ATX size motherboard (one size bigger than the tiny sized Mini-ITX) which would allow you to install dual graphics cards or PCI-E based SSD.
- If you are living in a hot place, be sure that your computer is cool enough to run properly. It is better to create good air circulation inside your case with additional fans. If you set your fan speeds properly, you wouldn’t hear any annoying fan noise.
- Building a PC by yourself is really fun and exciting, and it has many advantages such as the ability of changing and upgrading the parts whenever you want. Even if it looks too complicated and technical, don’t hold back yourself, there are lots of tutorials on YouTube and the manuals that come with the parts are very useful. This was my first building experience and it took about 45 minutes with watching some videos and reading the manuals. If I've done it, you can do it.
- If you are migrating from Mac, be aware of the difference in file type systems. On this new PC, I started using my backup hard drives in exFAT format which can also be read and written by Macs. It is better to avoid using third-party file format compatibility software as they can cause errors on your disk which may result in data loss. This is the only thing that bothers me right now as I have lots of archived data in my hard drives which are in HFS+ format (the default OS X format with zero Windows compatibility).
Using a Mac or Windows is like using a Nikon or a Canon camera (Pentax would be considered Ubuntu at this point), however, after a while it is really easy to adapt a new operation system, and the result is satisfying for me. Even though I still miss OS X, the performance that I got for this price point and the new Windows 10 made everything easier. If you have similar experiences in switching systems or custom PC building, please share in the comments below.