Building a computer specifically for digital photography post production turned out to be quite the endeavor. This took many hours of research and many more hours of testing systems and forensic analyses of the system this computer was to replace. In looking at the shortcomings of the old system and computers available “off the shelf” it became apparent that what was needed in a PC for photography wasn’t exactly apparent… It’s not all about the graphics, it’s about file handling, massive data crunching, sustained read/write operations and archiving huge amounts of data.
Besides needing to be a Speed Demon-Data Cruncher the system needed to be well organized and simple to interact with in order to keep the “workflow” flowing… The PC this system was to replace was a tangled mess of peripherals, cables and boxes that would confuse almost anyone.
The Digital Darkroom and Getting the biggest bang for your buck
Building the Best PC for Digital Photography
Every component for this build was carefully and thoroughly researched with the focus being not only on performance and durability but a great deal of attention to value vs price. Besides comparing specifications we combed through hundreds if not thousands of customer and professional product reviews in order to sort out the top level components for this computer… A budget was set at $2000 and we fell well within that and had some pocket change to spare when all was said and done. This computer at the time of press has been operating full tilt boogie, with better than demanded results and 100% trouble free for several weeks.
At the core of any PC is the CPU or Central Processing Unit.
After hours of comparing prices and specs and reading dozens of reviews we decided to skip over Intel’s Core i7 because what it amounted to was $100 for another 100mhz and hyperthreading we decided go with the Intel Core i5-3570K Ivy Bridge 3.4GHz (3.8GHz Turbo) LGA 1155 77W Quad-Core Desktop Processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 (Part number) BX80637I53570K. The 3rd Generation of Intel Core processors, “Ivy Bridge”, Dual-channel DDR3 Memory Controller supports DDR3-1333 and DDR3-1600 memory, 22nm 3D transistor technology, 4 x 256KB L2 Cache, 6MB L3 Cache integrated 650MHz Intel HD Graphics 4000, Thermal Design Power of 77W.
This processor is stable and runs remarkably cool because of the 22nm tech even under heavy and prolonged loads. It does everything necessary with the job at hand and has quite a bit of processing power beyond that.
The Mother Board of Choice
There are a vast array of system boards available but we chose Asus based on features and consumer reviews and in particular the ASUS P8Z77-V LK for it’s features, price, relative value and specific reviews. A step up would have been the “Sabertooth” however the cost did not in our estimation warrant the advantages.
The specs: LGA 1155, Intel Z77, HDMI, SATA 6Gb/s, USB 3.0 ATX Form factor Intel Motherboard with UEFI BIOS. CPU Socket Type LGA 1155, Supported CPU Core i7 / i5 / i3 (LGA1155), Supported CPU Technologies Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 NorthBridge Chipsets Intel Z77. 32GB of DDR3 Maximum Memory Supported.
CPU and System Cooling
Water Cooling a processor has great advantages over air cooling because it aids in temperature stability as well as reduction, but liquid cooling in a computer is generally a PITA… The Antec Kuhler h2o 620 has simplified this a great deal.
“The Antec KUHLER H2O 620 delivers high-performance liquid cooling for your CPU in a quick, easy-to-install package. Unlike traditional liquid cooling systems, this self-contained unit comes prefilled and requires no maintenance. The voltage-controlled 120 mm fan, 3rd generation copper coldplate and airflow-enhancing low-profile pump ensure efficient cooling, while the estimated 50,000 hour pump lifetime means this cooler is even likely to outlast the system it cools.”
This CPU cooler is very reasonably priced and has an excellent track record. For our specific application we did however substitute two slim 120mm fans (discussed here later) for the single 120mm fan that comes with this kit for better air flow, positioning in the case and system redundancy.
Cooling the Northbridge Chipset
The north bridge chip, also known as the memory controller hub. is responsible for keeping the CPU, RAM, graphics processors and other motherboard components talking to each other and doing their job. On gaming systems and other computers that require lots of high powered processing, these chips generate heat on a level of that produced by the CPU itself. In an over-clocked system, stability is absolutely vital and every option must be considered to maintain maximum performance.
The Northbridge heatsink supplied on the ASUS P8Z77-V LK motherboard is sufficient for every day computing however, when tasked with a prolonged and intense use such as huge batch conversions of giant RAW files it gets up into BBQ range of operating temperatures. Liquid cooling would be optimal however that gets us into PITA territory and reliability issues.
For this we chose The XIGMATEK PTR-N881 features H.D.T. (Heatpipe Direct Touch) technology for efficient heat conduction, plus high-density aluminum fins for maximum heat dissipation. The unit also provides an option to add an additional 80mm fan for the best possible cooling performance. This kit came with an excellent array of mounting hardware and worked very well in our application.
This unit coupled with an 80mm fan reduced the northbridge chipset’s temperature by over 12c and with the configuration of our motherboard was also in the perfect position to cool the memory banks as well… (The fan we used has blue LEDs so the thing looks pretty nuclear as well… Woooo).
Random Access Memory
CORSAIR Vengeance 32GB (4 x 8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 Desktop Memory (Model CMZ32GX3M4A1600C9) With a Cas latentcy of 9 (9-9-9-24 latency), 1600MHz with headroom for overclocking this was the RAM of choice at a reasonable price. The “Vengeance” heat spreader/heatsinks work very well in this application. Corsair memory sticks have a good long term track record and a Lifetime Warranty.
File Handling, Data, OS and Software Storage
For speed, using SSDs rather than traditional hard disks was the obvious choice but with so many different brands and models available on the market for solid state drives this was perhaps the toughest one to pin down. It all came down to reliability and for this Intel excelled. Intel’s maintenance software (as well as there data and system migration software) is readily available and just flat works well and all of there system components and controller software plays well together in the Windows 7 environment (no hassles, no conflicts).
“The 330 Series SSD delivers sequential reads up to 500MB over the SATA III interface – you get a faster OS booting, quicker application loading and improved overall system response. Along with the industry-leading Intel quality and reliability, the Intel 330 SSD highlights 1.2 million hours of MTBF for years of hassle-free use.”
This system employs 2 of these 240GB drives, one for the operating system and software and another for file handling and storage.
Long term storage and backups are kept on 3.5 SATA traditional hard disks that are stored separately outside and independent of the computer that utilizes a hot swap SATA drive bay (discussed here next when we get to the case).
The Top Mid Tower Computer Case
The case you choose to build in is important for many reasons and the best case for this application didn’t even come close to being the most expensive. This case has many features including Cooler Master’s “X Dock”, (an SATA hot swap drive bay) and a very well configured ventilation system for high performance computing.
The only complaints about this case anyone had was it can be a tight fit for an ATX motherboard but the solutions for this were quite simple.
“The new Elite 431 Plus builds upon Cooler Master expertise and delivers high-end features in the affordable market space. Cooler Master believes that just because something is affordable, it doesn’t have to lack features or be a “budget” product.”
Case Ventilation and tight quarters problem solved
Case Fans That Totally Blow… And Fit.
The trouble everyone was having with the tight fit in this case came with installing the top case exhaust fans but this was solved with a pair of Scythe Slip Stream Slim Low Profile 120mm Fans (Scythe PN: SY1212SL12H 2000 RPM). These fans mounted in the top of the case clearing the Motherboard and left room to spare. Even at 2000 RPM these fans are very quiet and move a tremendous amount of air. We also used another pair of these (pusher and puller) in place of the single fan supplied with the Antec water cooler for the radiator that was then mounted in the top rear fan position of the case, the 12mm width of these fans allowed for precise fitment and clearance for the CPU cooling radiator (special screws approx. 17mm long were used).
The intake fan supplied with the case is more than sufficient and comes with those cool blue LEDs as well. The use of a bottom fan is going way overboard so this vent was sealed with a thin sheet of foam. All the fans (including the 80mm on the Northbridge cooler are run from the motherboard and required the use of two, two way splitters.
Cooler Master’s X Dock Drive Bay
The “X Dock” is perhaps the nicest feature of this case and is exceptionally handy for backups and image file organisation storage. The relatively inexpensive SATA hard drives can then be stored and transported in handy protective containers like BYTECC HD-BOX35K 3.5″ Hard Drive Protection Boxes.
The drive bay gets very good air flow due to spill from the factory installed front intake fan and the draw of the exhaust fans so no additional cooling is necessary for the removable hard disks.
The Power Supply is bottom mounted and makes for a generally clean build. Because of the features like SSDs and relatively low power consumption built into the processor and MoBo tech we only needed a 500 watt PSU and used a COOLER MASTER eXtreme Power Plus RS500-PCARD3-US 500W ATX12V v2.3 Power Supply rather than a more expensive modular unit, the extra unused molex connectors were snipped (except for two to allow for expansion) and all the harness were sleeved for this build to keep things clean.
Media in / Media Out
With the advances in digital photographic technology the image file sizes are approaching gigantic… We started with CDs, then came DVDs and now there is Blu-Ray.
Based on price, features and reviews we chose the ASUS Black 12X BD-ROM 16X DVD-ROM 48X CD-ROM SATA Internal Blu-ray Drive Model BC-12B1ST/BLK/B/AS – OEM
“ASUS BC-12B1ST is a powerful and energy-saving Blu-ray Disc drive capable of reading from 12X BD format and writing to 16X DVD±R format. With OTS strategy, it assures the best burning quality. The BC-12B1ST supports Blu-ray 3D entertainment, creating a fantastic 3D world for users. Furthermore, the BC-12B1ST is designed with E-Green engine which auto-closes drive applications when not in use, saving power to decrease ultimate CO2 emissions.” … As if CO2 is really a problem?
Anyway, it’s a really good optical reader/ burner.
Multi Card Reader
Finding this was a major pain… Do you know how many Multi Card Readers are out there? AFT PRO-37U All-in-one USB 3.0 3.5″ Media Card Reader … This is the only one that performed as advertised and we almost skipped over it because of some bad press (apparently many thought this unit added USB 3.0 functionality to older systems). After RMAing two other card readers due to poorer than advertised performance finding this one was a delight… It tears right through 16 GB UDMA CF cards in a flash.
Best Windows Based PC for Photography
Because this system has more than 32GB of RAM Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Ultimate is required to address the memory over 16GB and as an OS it is a bit pricey, but when time equals money and doing large batch jobs of RAW image conversion it can be well worth it.
“For a busy wedding, event photographer or photojournalist that deals with high volumes of images anything that cuts down on the time spent in post production is a godsend” – Wedding Photographer in Ventura, County Dan Colegrove
This PC is used primarily to run Nikon NX2 for RAW processing and Adobe Photoshop CS in conjunction with NIK Filters and various other “Plug Ins” for Image Post Production both of which it will open on this computer in less than one second. One of the problems this system has solved over it’s predecessor (besides being 3 times faster) was the propensity of Nikon’s NX2 to crash in the middle of large batch files… Many photographer users blamed this on Nikon’s code, however, what we found was that the prolonged processor and RAM intensive operations were simply overwhelming and then overheating the North Bridge (Memory controller chipset) and causing a system wide lock up.
As far as Computers go and getting the biggest bang for your buck... PC is where it’s at… Sure, Apple produces a slick product (and their promotional campaigns of said Macs is even slicker… They certainly grabbed the Hipster crowd). The bottom line here is this computer out performs all of the “off the shelf” systems for it’s intended purpose for less than half the cost.
The entire cost of building this computer (excluding Software) was $1700. Many hours were put into hunting down, testing and reviewing these components and hopefully it will save you the time and headaches of doing it all for yourself. All of the components were obtained from Newegg.com, Xoxide.com and some various odds and ends from Fry’s Electronics… We are still waiting on about $100 in Rebate money to throw a party.