I finally upgraded my computer, and what a difference it has made to my photography workflow. Here’s how I worked out what to buy.
For the last year or so, I have been struggling along with my now nine-year-old computer. It’s been great, but it’s starting to get slower and slower. It started having a negative impact on my business, especially when I was culling and editing big photoshoots. Here’s what I have upgraded to and what I found out along the way.
Should I Build a Computer Again?
Historically, I’ve built my own computers. Compared to some of the work I did in the past, it’s relatively easy to do; everything just plugs and screws together. However, now I am busy with my photography work, and time is money. Building a computer takes time that I just don’t have, and I needed it relatively quickly. But I had to balance this with the extra cost of buying a pre-made machine, and the possibility that I would not find what I wanted. I did a lot of research, and this time I looked at the option of buying a complete machine.
This went against the grain with me a bit because there are components in my old computer that are perfectly serviceable and some parts I had replaced not long ago. For the sake of our planet, I’m a great believer in using things until they work no more. However, overall, it just wasn’t up to the job. Photography apps were slow as wading through mud, and downloading images from memory cards took forever. Also, it struggled when it came to using any of the AI-based tools like noise reduction and culling. Furthermore, working with large video files became impossible, and I had some video-editing work coming up.
Two Strange Advantages of an Old, Slow Computer
There were two advantages to me having a slower machine. Besides giving me time to make a mug of coffee while it worked on my photos, it did show up the differences in speed between different programs, perfect for when I was reviewing software. For example, PhotoLab 6 still worked like lightning on that computer compared to Lightroom Classic, where the word "sluggish" was an understatement.
With a new computer that does everything quickly, would I be able to tell the difference in performance enough to write about it? I am very aware that a lot of readers here work with older machines and with far less capacity than it had, and I want to make sure they were aware of some programs’ deficiencies. I’ll answer that question a bit later in the article.
Working to a Budget
When choosing computer specifications, there comes a point when tiny increases in performance make a lot of difference to the price. But, in the real world, those tiny increases are not worth it. If you are a gamer playing at a high level, I can understand it, but if I must wait half a millisecond longer for a photo to load, it’s not going to make a huge amount of difference to me. Consequently, there is no real need to buy the very top-spec machines. However, the better the specifications, the more likely the computer will be future-proof. My last computer ran happily for nearly nine years because I over-specified it. I want similar longevity with the new machine.
Researching What I Should Buy
My first thought was whether to go with AMD or Intel.
Checking speeds, number of cores, and number of threads, and reading lots of reviews, AMD gave me a better bang for my buck. There are, of course, those that will swear undying loyalty to Intel, but it’s a Canon/Nikon argument; they both work.
I had a fixed budget, so value for money was important to me, I needed to balance performance with cost. I wanted something like the 5th generation AMD Ryzen 7 5700X, 8 Core, 16 Thread, 4.6 GHz Boost AM4 chip. It performed respectably well in benchmark tests against similar processors. Furthermore, it had great reviews.
Similarly, the AMD-compatible motherboards were of better value too. The well-respected Gigabyte B550M DS3H Micro ATX Motherboard had some superb test results.
Importantly for future-proofing, it has four memory slots, which support up to 128 GB of dual-channel RAM that can run at up to 4,733 MHz. I was going to buy 32 GB Corsair Vengeance LPX (2x16GB) DDR-4 RAM, plenty for what I needed at the moment. I had considered going for a setup that incorporated DDR-5 RAM. But that pushed the system beyond my budget.
I would also need a powerful graphics card.
Seeking Expert Advice
Never be afraid to ask for help! I'm relatively knowledgeable about computers, but there are always plenty of people who know much more.
With this sort of specification in mind, I joined a Discord group for a UK retailer of computers and components, AWD-IT.co.uk. I previously bought the components for my son's machine from that company and had been very pleased with the price and the customer service.
The members of the group were incredibly generous with their knowledge, and somebody called Keira suggested a customized machine built in a Fractal North case. That was the winner of the prestigious Red Dot Design Award 2023. It has three front USB ports including one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C with fast charging support and speeds up to 10 Gbps, easy-to-unclip panels, and can accommodate up to four SATA drives.
The computer included a Nvidia GeForce RTX 4070 12 GB graphics card. I had been considering an RTX 3070, but the 4070 was 20% faster. The power supply is a Gigabyte P650B 80 Plus Bronze certified unit.
The processor is cooled with an Arctic Freezer A35 CO Tower CPU Cooler. I considered a liquid cooler, but reading up on it, the air cooler was more than sufficient for the job, especially as I would not be subjecting the computer to a prolonged heavy load like gaming. Also, an air-cooled processor costs less. That allowed me to increase spending in other areas and stick to my budget.
What About the Hard Drive?
The machine arrived with a 480 GB SATA Solid State Drive with an unregistered copy of Windows loaded onto it; I already had a keycode. Its read speed was 550 MB/s and write speed 500 MB/s. As I would only be using it for Windows and installing software, that was sufficient. After loading everything I needed, it’s still only ¼ full.
I subsequently added additional solid-state drives to the machine for storing my images and documents. I had some 1 TB and 2 TB solid-state drives that I could transplant from the old machine to the new one.
What I Liked and What Could Be Improved With the Computer
The UK-based company I bought the computer from, AWD-IT, is very much focused on gaming, although it also produces business machines. USA readers can get great deals from B&H. I’ve always found that gaming machines have the same specs that we need for photo and video editing. However, there is a trend for gaming computers to be lit up with what my son calls “puke lights.” I don’t like them either. Through the glass panel on the side of this computer, it is dark.
It has a lower profile than my old machine and runs almost silently.
It’s so quick, too. It’s always been a bugbear of mine that I must wait for Photoshop to open an image from Lightroom Classic. Now, from pressing Ctrl + E to Photoshop loading and the image appearing in there takes nine seconds. If Photoshop is already open, it is faster, of course: about three seconds. Switching between modules in ON1 Photo Raw 2023.5 is faster (less than one second), and ON1 NoNoise, Topaz Denoise, and Photolab 6’s Deep Prime are much quicker and better than Adobe’s Denoise.
So, the good news is that Lightroom is no longer a complete slug when it comes to processing raw files, and my caffeine intake has reduced because I am not waiting around for so long for things to happen.
I was worried that with the power supply not being modular, and there were a lot of cables hidden in the base of the machine. I thought it would make it a little awkward fitting the extra drives, but that’s not a major headache at all.
The GeForce graphics card is big. If I fit a fourth and final SATA drive, I will have to remove it to plug the cable into the socket. It also sits very close to the spare PCI socket. So, if I ever need to use that, it will need to be with something small. There are also two M.2 connectors on the board that are hidden behind the graphic card, but the card sits far enough away for NVMe SSDs to slide in between.
I didn’t choose a wireless option, as I have my computer hardwired into local area network. AWD-IT did offer a wireless adapter, but I am unsure how a wireless adapter would fit.
I am always concerned about my carbon footprint and environmental impact. Checking my new setup against the old, it uses less power, which is great. Sadly, the new computer arrived with no small amount of plastic packaging. Considering that almost all plastic that has ever been produced still exists and is gradually working its way into our ecosystems, that’s not great news. Most camera companies are catching up with this, but computer manufacturers still have a way to go.
My other concern on that front is what to do with my old computer. It is still serviceable for lesser tasks like writing and browsing the internet. So, I am loading Ubuntu onto it and trying to find it a home. In these days of increasing hardship, there must be a child somewhere needing a computer to do their homework on. So, my friends are searching for someone it would suit.
Overall, I am really pleased with my new setup. My workflow is now fast, and my blood pressure has dropped because I am less annoyed with Lightroom and Photoshop than I was.