The Ultimate Video Guide to Building a Photo and Video Editing Desktop Computer

The Ultimate Video Guide to Building a Photo and Video Editing Desktop Computer

I've always been a Windows desktop user, but until this point I've never built my own desktop from scratch. I finally decided to teach myself how to build the ultimate PC for video and photo editing and I'm bringing you along for the ride. 

At the start of this article I will explain the basic process of choosing components for your desktop. The second half of this article will be about our specific build. We have created a video of the entire process and a list of each component we used.

How to Build Your Own Computer for Photo and Video Editing

The absolute best resource I have found for building a PC from scratch is PCPartPicker. This website allows you easily compare and purchase every possible component for your build while also warning you of any incompatibilities and finding you the best price for each part. You can use the tips I give you below to easily build a completely unique computer from scratch using PCPartPicker. Now let's get started. 

Choose a Processor First

Every PC build should begin with choosing a processor. The processor socket size will determine your motherboard, and your motherboard will then determine which case and other components you buy as well. First, you'll need to decide what your computer will be used for. Some Adobe programs, like Premiere, can take advantage of multiple cores while other programs, like Lightroom, utilize more clock speed. If you're only going to be using your computer for photo editing, you may want to buy a chip like the Intel Core i7-7700K 4.2 GHz simply because it has a native 4.2 clock speed. If you're working in Premiere like we are, you may want to buy a chip with more cores and a slightly lower clock speed. 

AMD vs Intel

AMD has recently released the "Ryzen" series of processors which are (at least on paper) more powerful and cheaper than the Intel competitors. Sadly, at the time that this article was written, Adobe software doesn't seem to be totally optimized with these processors. Puget systems has done a bench test with these new chips and Adobe Premiere and found that Intel may still have the edge. If you want to go the AMD route stay tuned for Adobe updates, these chips may be a far better choice than Intel in the future but they aren't necessarily today. 

Choose a CPU Cooler

Your computer's case will have its own fans but each processor will need it's own heat sync and fan or a water cooling system. A fan is the cheapest option but water cooling will allow you to overclock your CPU if you want to get that deep into this (we won't be overclocking our machine). PCPartPicker will be able to show you which coolers are compatible with your processor.

Choose a Motherboard

After you've chosen a processor, you'll need to choose a motherboard with a compatible socket size. Make sure you consider how many DIMM slots for ram you will need, if the board has onboard Wi-Fi, how many SATA jacks are available for hard drives, SSDs, and optical drives, and other perks like USB C, Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, and Ethernet. If you want your computer to have more than one graphics card, you'll need a motherboard that is SLI capable. 

Choose Your Memory or "RAM"

At this time, in 2017, you're probably going to either want 32 GB or 64 GB of RAM. We built ours with only 32 GB because we know it's an easy upgrade to 64 GB if we find that our computer is using 100 percent. RAM also has its own clock speed and different boards and processors allow for different speeds. Again, PCPartPicker will be able to help you with this.

Choose Your Storage

If you're building your own computer in 2017 you are going to want at least one solid state drive to house your operating system. SSDs are more expensive than standard hard drives but they are about three times faster, quieter, and more reliable. For our build we will be using two different SSD drives. One for the operating system and one for storage and to edit from. 

M.2 is a new type of solid state storage that some motherboards accept. These cards can perform much faster than standard SATA SSDs and they may not necessarily cost more. In our build we didn't use our M.2 slot but we probably should have. I may end up replacing my 500gb main SSD for an M.2 SSD. 

Choose a Video Card

Depending on what you are doing with your PC, a video card might be the most important piece of hardware or the least important. Playing current video games and editing in Adobe Premiere require high end video cards while Photoshop and Lightroom may not utilize the video card at all. If you're only interested in editing photos I would suggest a much cheaper video card like the GTX 1050 that can still push dual 4k monitors and is a quarter of the price of the one we put in our machine. 

Choose a Case

Cases come in all shapes and sizes and after choosing the components above, PCPartPicker will help you to find the case that will hold them all. For me, I wanted to have a case that had USB 3 on the front and had a glass windowed side panel.

Choose an Optical Drive

I almost never use an optical drive but once every couple of years I might need one. It's also easier to install Windows with an optical drive if you have a disc. If you don't have an optical drive you'll have to create a bootable USB drive and it's very time consuming. I would suggest buying the cheapest optical DVD drive on the market if you don't plan on using one very often; they're only $20. 

Choose a Power Supply

Once again PCPartPicker is going to be your best resource for choosing a power supply because it will keep track of the power draw of each of the components in your machine. A seasoned  builder recently told me that he prefers to overpower his machines because he feels that the power supplies will last longer and give him the option of upgrading components in the future without buying a new power supply. 

Choose Your Operating System

If you've never built a PC before you may not realize that you do actually have to buy Windows. B&H sells an OEM version of Windows 10 Pro for $139. Make sure that you buy the "Pro" version because other versions will not take advantage of our RAM. 

Other Items to Buy

If your motherboard doesn't have Wi-Fi or Ethernet built in and you need those features, you'll need to either buy a USB adapter or a PCI card with those features. You'll also need to purchase monitors. We prefer 1080 or 1440 monitors for photo editing machines, and 4K for video editing and all around machines. You'll also need a mouse and keyboard. Our favorites are the Logitech K800 keyboard and Performance MX Mouse

Now that you know the basics of building a PC, lets me show you what we chose to build and how we did it. 

Our PC Build

We created a video that takes you through our entire build

Below I've created a list of every component that we used plus recommendations for cheaper and more expensive options. If you want to build our exact machine you can simply buy the parts and follow along with our video. If you want to customize your machine, each of your parts should be run through PCPartPicker to check for compatibility issues before purchasing. 

Processor

Intel Core i7-6850K 3.6 GHz Six-Core

We purchased this chip because it has the perfect balance of extra cores and clock speed. We purchased it with Adobe Premiere in mind and if you aren't going to be working in Premiere very often, you won't need to spend this much. 

For Photoshop and LightroomIntel Core i7-7700K 4.2 GHz Quad-Core

Budget OptionIntel Core i5-7600K 3.8 GHz Quad-Core

No Budget OptionIntel Core i7-6900K 3.2 GHz Eight-Core

CPU Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO CPU Cooler

The CPU cooler we purchased may actually be a little underpowered for our build. Multiple people have commented that we might be wise to purchase a better cooler for both better performance and chip lifespan. You may want to splurge for the option below. 

No Budget OptionDeepcool Captain 240 EX White Liquid CPU Cooler

Motherboard

ASUS X99-A II LGA 2011-v3 ATX Motherboard

This motherboard is relatively cheap but still comes with USB 3.1, USB C, 8 DIMM slots for RAM, and 6 SATA. My only wish is that this card had Wi-Fi. 

No Budget OptionASUS X99-DELUXE II LGA 2011-v3

This motherboard comes with Wi-Fi, and will accept a Thunderbolt 3 add-on card. 

RAM

Corsair 16 GB Vengeance LPX DDR4 3200 MHz

This is extremely fast RAM that comes with two 8 GB chips. We purchased two packages for a total of 32 GB but you could buy four for a total of 64 GB of RAM. 

No Budget OptionPatriot 32GB Viper 4 DDR4 3200 MHz (buy four for 128 GB)

Storage

Samsung 500 GB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

Samsung 1TB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

I failed to realize that the motherboard that I chose does in fact have an M.2 slot that can be used for a new type of SSD drive. This port allows for much faster speeds compared to the SATA SSDs that I used. I may end up switching my 500GB SSD for a 500GB M.2 SSD. Keep in mind this upgrade costs $70. 

No Budget OptionSamsung 4 TB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

You may also consider buying multiple drives and running them in RAID to get better performance and redundancy internally. You may also want to look into M.2 SSDs which can be far faster than SATA SSDs. 

Graphics Card

ASUS Republic of Gamers Strix OC GeForce GTX 1070

This graphics card is currently considered the "best bang for your buck." It's not the top of the line but it's extremely powerful and allows 4K gaming and extremely fast video rendering in Premiere. 

Budget OptionEVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti

No Budget OptionZOTAC GeForce GTX 1080 Ti

Case

Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5 Mid-Tower Case

This is a nice metal case with a windowed side panel. It gave us plenty of room to work and the fans are extremely quite. If you're building a cheaper computer you may not need a case this big and you could save a little money. 

No Budget OptionCorsair Crystal Series 570X RGB Mid-Tower Case

Optical Drive

LG Internal SATA 14x Super Multi Blu-ray Disc Rewriter

I'm not sure how much I will use this but since it was only $55 I decided to throw it in. 

Budget OptionASUS DRW-24B1ST Internal SATA 16X DVD Disc Rewriter

Power Supply

EVGA SuperNOVA 650 G1

We put a 650 watt power supply in our computer but an expert builder recommended that we suggest the 750 watt version instead for a longer lifecycle. It's only $20 more. 

Operating System

Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit, OEM DVD)

Make sure that you buy Windows Pro and not Windows Home as it will not take advantage of all of our RAM. If you don't put an optical drive in your machine you will still need to buy this DVD and use the product key. To install windows 10 you will need to create a bootable USB thumb drive using another Windows computer. 

Monitor

Dell P2415Q 24" Ultra HD 4K Monitor

These are our favorite 4K monitors. At $369 they are relatively affordable and the color and clarity is fantastic for the price. Keep in mind that if you are looking for the fastest Lightroom performance, you may not want to buy a 4K monitor. If budget is important, I personally would much rather have two, cheaper monitors, rather than one nicer monitor. After working with dual monitors, you'll never want to go back to just one. 

Budget OptionDell U2415 24" Widescreen LED Backlit IPS

No Budget OptionDell UP3216Q 31.5" 16:9 UltraSharp 4K

Keyboard and Mouse

Logitech Performance Combo MX800 Wireless

This is our favorite keyboard and mouse by far. The mouse specifically is the best I have ever used. I think we own around 10 of them. 

Speakers

Polk Audio TSi100 Bookshelf Speakers 

Sony STRDH130 2-Channel Stereo Receiver 

Polk Audio PSW10 10-Inch Powered Subwoofer 

Speaker Wire 

Headphone to RCA Cable 

This speaker system is the best sound for the money that we have ever heard. We did an entire post about this system here

External Storage

Synology DiskStation DS1515+ 30 TB

We have been running six computers off of this NAS for the last few years and it has never let us down. Now that we are moving to 4K video we are starting to see some lagging in Premiere and so we are about to upgrade to the 10 Gbps option

Total Cost

Desktop Cost: $2,500

Dual 4k Monitors: $740

Mouse and Keyboard: $115

Speaker System: $380

Total cost for our build: $3,735

Conclusion

Up until this point I have purchased almost exclusively Alienware desktop computers. These computers have worked well for us in the past but recently our building was hit by lighting and many of the components on these PCs were destroyed. Repairing these computers was very difficult in some cases and impossible for two of them because many of the proprietary parts were either unavailable or wildly expensive.

As I was choosing the parts for our build it didn't feel like I was going to build an ultra expensive machine but when you add everything together, the whole setup was over $3,300 which is higher than I expected. I tried to build out a similar Alienware machine and although I wasn't able to choose identical components, our build was hundreds of dollars cheaper. If you buy a cheaper processor, SSD, graphics card, and monitors, your build should easily be $1,500-$2,000 cheaper than ours. 

Although it can take an hour or two to build one of these computers by hand, I really appreciated the ability to actually choose every single component myself and I have gained a new understanding of how computers work. Inevitably in the future we will have hardware failures again and I feel far more confident about finding the parts and repairing this machine myself. From now on, all of our computers will be built in house. 

This is the first time we have covered this sort of thing on Fstoppers. If you appreciate this content please let us know in the comments below and we will continue to update you guys on the hardware that we build in use in our office. 

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90 Comments

Lee Morris's picture

Shout-out to me for resisting the urge to crack any Mac jokes in this entire 2200 word article.

Leigh Miller's picture

But it works...really well.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Not a dick comment, but I am curious about read/write speeds of your system storage device. Is it SATA, or PCI-E, M.2? If it isn't much problem, I would love to see those numbers [or at least name of the device]. This is one thing that isn't shown here, thus my question.

Leigh Miller's picture

Getting close to 1000 mb/s read and write.

https://www.apple.com/mac-pro/specs/

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Doesn't specify what kind, still 1GB/s is great. I do wonder if it's RAID for more performance, or just one die doing it on it's own...

On the other hand I noticed how cryptic everything is presented, there are no names of companies that made components, no model number/name etc. It's like buying a cat in a bag. I am sure all is made with good quality parts, but why leave this info out eludes me... I mean, they could do it so that people think it's made by Apple, but surely people aren't that dumb... I think. I am referring to core components, such as CPU, mobo, RAM, storage, etc. Weird, cryptic.

Anyway, thanks for answering the question, this is great performance machine, and made with balance in mind.

Matthew Odom's picture

Nothing beats building your own rig! I can understand those who don't want to be bothered with building one .......but I absolutely love my beast!

David Nagy's picture

Just buy a workstation and throw it out when it feels slow and buy a newer one. HP Z series or Mac Pro for example.

Some of this advice is questionable at best. The new Ryzen processors destroy the Intel chips in both price/performance and multicore performance, and are roughly on par in single core. If you're only using Photoshop and Lightroom amd vgas are better suited, especially in the budget segment, because of the better opencl support. Stick with Nvidia for premiere and cuda stuff though. And 4k on 24" is not a pleasant experience on windows because of the dpi scaling. 27-40 is much better suited, and there some great offers now in this category.

Adobe as usual is very much behind the times with hardware support, hw specific optimizations should come though. There are also a lot of tasks where you can take advantage of the extra cores now, like video transcoding, 3d and rendering, multitasking, batch processing, etc.

If budget allows, I'd get an M.2 for OS/Apps, 4x faster than SATA: https://www.amazon.com/Samsung-960-EVO-Internal-MZ-V6E250BW/dp/B01LYFKJR7

Lane Shurtleff's picture

M.2 is the only way to go if building a new system. It's the same price as SSD but the architecture allows much higher data transfer.

Yeah, I think you should change the no-budget option to: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LY3Y9PH

Actually it's NVMe protocol drives over SATA, you can get both for m.2 depending on what you buy. Plus pay attention to the m.2 slots, as most are still x2 rather than x4 so you're constraining your bandwidth, this is why I use a PCIe card for m.2 rather than the mobo to get full bandwidth.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

You can just check if it's PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe. If the slot has this bandwidth it doesn't matter what you use, still PCI-E devices are too large for my taste.

Paolo Veglio's picture

a couple of comments on the article.
1. You can save a few bucks if you go for the "non K" cpu, which is the not overclockable version. That is, if you don't plan to overclock it in the future, which requires a motherboard that allows it.
2. For software that uses multiple cores a good choice could also be the new AMD Ryzen. Their top of the line cpus have 16 logical cores (8 physical) and they are quite cheap for the specs. The downside is the loss of thunderbolt support because it's an intel proprietary port
3. The builder expert is correct to suggest a more powerful PSU, but not only because of future expandability. Power supplies have a rating that tells you how much of the power output is made available to the component instead of being wasted as heat. For this reason is good practice to look for high ratings on top of allowing some extra wattage

Leigh Miller's picture

Precisely why I love my Late 2013 Mac Pro...low power usage, lower heat, more reliable and runs FCPx fast.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Dunno about Ryzen, but my 6700k goes from 4GHZ to 5GHZ with air cooling alone, giving it much, much more performance. I live mainly in domain of LR, but there is difference in speed in basically any application I use when OC'd.

Harley Pan's picture

Lee....it does seem like you missed March 2017's biggest news. Ryzen 7 series CPUs outbeat any of the Intel CPU you listed in this article. And their prices are lower. Max made a detailed comparison video in that month.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

It's all relevant to the software you use in your daily photo/video editing. As Lee posted, Adobe is late to the party (as usual) getting the new Ryzen 7 CPU architecture to function at peak performance. If and when Adobe catches up, then maybe it will matter.

I build many massive video rendering computers for VFX editors and compositors, All of the proprietary software I implement for these systems will only run on Intel chipped systems. Hopefully as more of the graphics industry adjusts to the Ryzen architecture, software will be written to take advantage of it.

Harley Pan's picture

Thank you both. Good to see updated info!

Photo Kaz's picture

Depends what you need it for. Intel and AMD are trading punches (good to see AMD back in the game). One is not faster than the other at all tasks, benchmarks support this.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Because 99% of PC software is designed around Intel architecture, AMD has had to design emulation into its cores to be able to work smoothly with most software. Yes, AMD "can" run fast, but the coding used for that software can be very tempermental. depending on the entire system design (specific video cards, bus and PCI designs etc).

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

That's part of the 'game' between those 2 giants. AMD slept for a long time, and there is no surprise that most software is better suited to run on Intel. It doesn't matter which is actually faster, some CPU can have 128 cores, but as long as there are no apps that use it, it will not perform as expected [or better, as hoped]. I base all of my workstations on Intel because of that fact. Not because I am a fanboy, or any such nonsense. Ultimately it comes down to software, and if I get 20% more performance, even though I have 2x less cores, I don't care! People should understand that, before they decide on a platform. I see you understand that very well, AMD is an underdog, trying very hard to hop thru all those obstacles posted by software almost 'dedicated' to Intel, and we both know that emulation eats up a lot of resources.

Great breakdown man! Much needed article with Mac continued lag un updating their desktops.

Mike Kelley's picture

The problem with building a new computer is all the people that are going to tell you that you're doing it wrong.
As someone considering a switch to PC, (Jobs is rolling in his grave fast enough to provide electrical power to all of California these days) I found this quite interesting

Get the best of both worlds and build a "hackintosh". Just pick parts from this list and you can run a mac on "windows hardware". Or you can easily install Windows on it and bee just where Lee is with his new machine.

https://www.tonymacx86.com/buyersguide/april/2017

I'm doing that now and it's rock solid and 1/2 the price of a Mac Pro...or iMac. And twice the horsepower. And of course, I can always update it to a new graphics card or CPU or whatever down the road much easier.

Lee Morris's picture

maybe this should be our next computer build

Leigh Miller's picture

Not if reliability is high on your list. Anytime there is an update to the OS it's "break city" for you. Too much tinkering for a production environment.

Hakintosh are for tinkerers...