Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Photographers PC for around €1000

The time has come for my wife's old photo-shop warhorse is to be replaced. Her photography has become far more serious and this places particular demands on any new machine. When put alongside a fairly limited budget this means compromise as desirable features which are not essential to her core purpose will have to be dropped.

Aside: To be honest €1000 is very very low for a real photographer's PC but my wife is determined to reserve the bulk of her photography budget for cameras and lenses so the computer must make do with what is left over.

Requirements (some desirable some essential)

Processor / Memory: Intel i5 or better + 8Gb Ram desirable. Using photoshop for photo editing (as opposed to video)  isn't as processor intensive as you might think. Yes it does complex number crunching when altering images but reading and writing to disk actually takes more of the over all work flow so a faster processor won't have that much impact. The quad core i5 seems to be the best value compromise at the moment. More memory is always good particularly as my wife has a habit of running multiple heavy applications at the same time.

Graphics Card:  Ability to run two displays is essential. Once you have gotten used to two monitors you can't really go back. A discrete graphics card is desirable because Photoshop can use it to speed up number crunching but  just like a very fast processor it is not essential. The ability to upgrade to a discrete graphics card if one is required later is however essential.

Main Monitor: Screen size is a minimum of 24", resolution to be 1980x1200 or better: Required.  My wife's hobby had gotten to the point where she needs a photographic quality "wide gamut" monitor that covers the adobe rgb colour space so that the colours you see on screen match the colours that will be printed. Most monitors only cover the smaller sRGB colour space. Needless to say wide gamut monitors are expensive and this has turned out to be the dominant requirement of the whole build. Also of note is that IPS monitors are preferred for their wide viewing angle but all wide gamut monitors seem to use this any way.

Monitor Calibration: A wide gamut monitor is no use unless you regularly calibrate the colours. A calibration tool itself is a minimum of €100 and we are going to have to get one but I am not including this in the price of the computer.

Hard Disk Drives: Raw images eat disk space and my wife fills hundreds of Gb every month all of which has to be duplicated externally for back up.  A big internal HDD is essential for storage and processing of current photo's. Fast USB connections (USB3) are essential for connecting multiple external disk drive for backup and access to archives. The ability to replace existing drives and add additional internal drives is highly desirable. When an internal disk fills up it is nice to be able to replace it with a bigger one and keep the old one for archive. It would also be nice to be able to upgrade to a big SSD when they fall to a competitive price.

SSD Drive: At present we cannot afford SSD for bulk storage (also I believe they can slow down if they get too full).  However it would still be highly desirable to have a small SSD for the operating system and key programs. This should make the machine feel much more responsive.

Clutter Free All in One Design: The  ergonomically beautiful iMac has spawned a host of Windows PC lookalikes.These sleek clutter free machines make the traditional big black box seem very old fashioned. It isn't just the appealing looks. I firmly believe that a tidy desk free from the clutter of wires would make the computer more enjoyable to use and speed up work flow. Desirable but not essential and sadly not really compatible with the upgradability requirement.

Software: Operating system Windows 7, 8 or IOS as required. Office. Photo shop, Bunch of other photographic tools my wife has bought / installed.  A new photoshop license would blow the budget on its own so we are going to have to carry over  as much software as possible from the old machine. Given that the existing licenses are for Windows versions that would make a move to Apple very expensive.

Built By Husband (Not): Although I have been building our PCs for more than dozen years I want someone else to build this one for me. This time I want someone else figure out what version of ram to use with this years version of processor and motherboard. I am not looking for state of the art performance so I don't want or need to spend days trawling forums and websites looking for this information.

The bitter moment of truth: What we can afford and what we can't.

The requirement for a wide gamut photographic monitor dominates all else. Entry level wide gamut monitors cost around €500 which is half of our budget.That doesn't leave much room for eveything else so here is what I am currently thinking:

Computer: Primo i50i from overclockers.co.uk with i5-3330,  8Gb Ram, 250Gb SSD, Windows 8
I have regularly bought stuff from overclockers and I trust their judgement. This is a fairly basic i5 system but it comes in a big box with room for expansion. It isn't clear whether or not the rig as supplied has USB3, I am awaiting the response to my query. If not then USB3 could be added as a plug in card. approx cost: €620 with options.

Graphics Card: None for the moment. I want to see how well the onboard intel graphics can handle two displays. If a discrete graphics card is needed then I have an old Geforce 7600GT which should be adequate.

Main Display: Dell U2413-24". This is actually the cheapest wide gamut monitor I could find but it is reasonably well reviewed for the specific job of photography. approx cost €459

Second Display: We will use an existing 17" monitor as a second display.

Additional hard disks:  Due to our habit of replacing HDDs when they fill up the drives in my wife's current computer are fairly new and I will simply move them into the new box. That saves money and also saves time since nothing has to be copied over.

Total cost is currently around €1080. Apart from the display it is a fairly modest machine for the price but it has flexibility and room for expansion should it be required. The SSD should make it feel fairly responsive and the display meets the requirements of photography.  

Side note: Are you sure we can't get an all in one? 
I was surprised to discover that Dell actually make an all in one computer with a full gamut display (something that not even Apple provides) the Dell XPS 27 is advertised as having an Adobe RGB quad HD panel. It also ticks a lot of boxes in terms of processor, memory and ssd drive. The price is 50% more than my big box set up but  I will admit to being tempted by the ergonomic clutter free simplicity of an all in one. Unfortunately I cannot find any reviews of the panel from a photographers perspective though some reviews do mention over saturated / washed out colours which paradoxically is typical of a wide gamut display being used with normal non adobe rgb software (ie everything other than photo shop). Dell do make well regarded wide gamut monitors so they have form in this area. There is the issue of all in one computers being built with notebook components so their performance is a good deal slower than desktops that appear to have similar specs. The lack of upgradability is the real killer though.

Note to non eu readers: Prices include European sales taxes of around 20%. If you read my € price as US $ then you will get a reasonable idea of what these components might cost in a lower tax regime.

Edit: A call to over-clockers support confirmed that  the Primo 150i does not have USB3 as standard. However they are very flexible with regard to component changes so they allowed me to change the i5-3330 for a newer i5-4430 and suitable motherboard that has USB 3 and SATA 6gB built in. As an added bonus the '4430 has considerably better integrated graphics so I am unlikely to need a separate video card. I was particularly impressed with Overclockers sales reps, two of whom I talked to. Both were able to give technical advice in addition to just taking my money. 

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