I’ve recently built a new computer and now that it’s complete and all is in working order I thought I would post some thoughts on the process and hopefully fill in some blanks on the way to go about building a computer for optimum performance in Photoshop (along with other multimedia applications). This is of course a very broad subject which would be hard to cover in its entirety in just one post, but I will try to hit the main points and provide some links to more in depth discussions. Also, if you’re a computer genius and expect this to be some sort of treatise on the intricacies of processor architectures and FSB speeds, best try somewhere else because I only know my hardware as much as I need to in order to make it work. So you might find that I oversimplify some things, but I am more concerned that things work and not why they work.
Caveat 1: This rig was built to do large scale print work (12×18" @ 300dpi and up). If you are just doing design for the web or screen (72dpi) a lot of this might be overkill. The CPU will still be an issue, but the memory and swap disk’s roles in speeding up performance will be greatly diminished.
Caveat 2: I will be assuming you are using Photoshop CS3 so some of the examples may not make sense (e.g. menu hierarchies) but all of the core concepts will apply to any version of Photoshop.
Caveat 3: I am also assuming you have some level of technical knowledge when it comes to computer hardware / software or you probably wouldn’t be trying to build your own computer.
Caveat Emptor: I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Caveat Googlor: If you need more info than is provided here, the collective super-brain known as Google is your friend and knows a hell of a lot more about all this than I do.
So if you’re feeling brave, click the link below to read the full article.
I will try and cover the whole RAM / Swap Disk concept first as it’s the most convoluted and technically intricate of the concepts I will go over here and in my opinion it’s the most important one.
RAM / Swap Disk: As with any media app, Photoshop performance is to a certain degree dependent on raw processing power, or the speed of the CPU. But the real key is RAM and Swap Disk performance. Why? Because Photoshop is constantly writing very large temporary files in the background while you are working. These files hold information about, among other things, Histories and the image cache and so the faster these files are able to be written and read, the faster Photoshop will perform. Photoshop writes these files to RAM first, since RAM memory is much faster than Hard Disk memory. But when it runs out of RAM memory it uses something called the Swap Disk which can be any Hard Disk on your computer which you define (Edit > Preferences > Performance). It is best to get a dedicated disk solely for this purpose and define that as the Swap Disk as this will speed up performance. Since the operating system itself (Windows or OSX) is constantly writing its own temporary files to the primary drive Photoshop’s Swap Drive should be dedicated and separate from the OS drive; and this means another physical drive, not just a separate partition. For even better performance you can create something called a RAID0 Array which essentially straps several physical disks together and treats them as one virtual disk inside your operating system. Because this virtual disk is actually several disks the performance can increase dramatically since all the disks are working in unison to complete the same task. This is a gross oversimplification of the concept, but for the purposes of this article let’s just say that RAID0 is to hard drives what multi-core CPUs are to processors. Many modern motherboards come with a RAID controller onboard; more info on RAID0 configurations can be found here. While RAID0 is a great option if you really want to eek the last bit of performance out of Photoshop, simply getting an extra drive and using it as a dedicated Swap Drive will be sufficient for most uses.
At the time of this writing Photoshop CS3 still a 32-bit application. Only god and possibly Otto Aicher know why because it makes absolutely no sense, but I’m not here to bash Adobe’s developers for their one flaw. Photoshop is an incredibly enabling application and I can wait patiently for the 64-bit version, but not much longer. Aaaaanyways, 32-bit applications can only reference or "see" up to about 4GB of RAM (memory). So that means no matter how much money you spent packing 40GB of RAM into your kick-ass Mac Pro, Photoshop can only use 4GB of it. This sucks. But if you have a fast enough Swap Disk setup, when Photoshop does have to use that instead of RAM, at least the performance decrease won’t be so bad.
If you have enough memory installed there is a way around this limitation called a RAM Drive. There are various utilities which allow you to define part of your system’s RAM memory as an actual Drive in your OS. Meaning you could define let’s say 8GB of your 16GB of RAM as drive letter "R" and then set that as the Swap Disk in Photoshop thereby allowing Photoshop to see more than 4GB of RAM. But this assumes you have a lot of free RAM in your system since Swap files can be very large with bigger documents.
So that brings us to the CPU. The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is the brains of your computer and handles all the core processing duties. Today’s CPUs are very advanced and can have multiple cores. This means that on the single chip (die) there may be 2 or even 4 separate CPUs embedded. This allows for multithreaded applications to send instructions to all cores at once theoretically increasing performance by a factor of the number of cores on the die. As far as I know Photoshop CS3 is a partially multithreaded application meaning some of its functions use multithreading to access all cores of the processor at once. Because of this it’s a good idea to get a CPU with as many cores as you can.
Overclocking: Many CPUs can be overclocked to run at a higher speed than the factory setting. If you are going to try and overclock your CPU you need to be well versed in the thermal performance of computer systems and how it relates to voltage etc. This is way too deep for me to get into here, try this place. That’s where I learned to do it.
Video Card: In my experience and from what I have read, your video card has absolutely nothing to do with the performance of Photoshop. Photoshop does not access the GPU (graphics processing unit) which resides on the video card nor does it access its VRAM. Video cards only come into play for 3D apps and games. Don’t waste your money on some top of the line gamer card because it won’t help you. The only reason to buy a special card is for more accurate color profiling and even then I am not sure how big of a difference there is.
The following are the specs of my system with explanations:
CPU: Intel Core 2 Extreme QX965 Quad Core ($1000)
This thing is amazing. It’s the best processor you can buy and it absolutely screams. It’s set to 3.0GHz out of the box but I’ve overclocked mine to 4.2GHz and I’ve heard of other people going much faster than that. Of course overclocking generates more heat than the processor was designed to handle to you should use a liquid cooling system if you plan on doing this. See below for more info. I know this is a very expensive processor, but it pays off in the long run if you consider you’ll probably use it for about 3 years or more. A good alternative would be one of the Intel Core 2 Duos which can be had for $200-$500.
Cooling: Thermaltake Bigwater 760i LCS ($170)
This is a very easy to setup water cooling system which is fully self contained and fits in your computer case. Highly recommended if this is your first liquid cooled system.
Memory (RAM): Patriot 8GB DDR2 PC8500 1066MHz ($350)
Getting faster RAM will increase performance, get something with at least an 800MHz FSB speed. DDR3 is out now, but it’s really expensive and not all that much faster than the higher end DDR2 so you might want to wait on that. If you don’t understand anything I just said than just buy some expensive RAM, it’s probably good.
Motherboard: Asus Maximus Formula
I’ve always used Asus as I consider them to be the best motherboards available and this board is no exception. But these days, most motherboards are pretty good.
Primary Hard Drive: Seagate 32MB Cache 1TB drive
This is for the operating system and file storage (split into 2 partitions)
Swap Drive: Western Digital Raptor 10,000 RPM (x) 3
The 3 Raptors are arranged in a RAID0 array and set as the Swap Disk.
Case: Antec P182 ($170)
This thing is awesome, very well laid out and easy to work with. Great cable management too.
Power Supply: Silverstone SST-ST1000 1Kw PSU
When you’re overclocking or just using a fast CPU like the Intel QX9650, you need a lot of juice. 1 Kilowatt is a lot of juice.
Video Card: Gigabyte Radeon X1650 (ATI Chip)
Again, this really doesn’t matter, just get a card with at least 256MB memory on board and you’re good.
So that’s about it. Remember, all of this can be tweaked, it’s just a jumping off point. At the end of the day it’s about being creative, I happen to think that having a fast computer enables me to be more creative in that it opens up new capabilities, but you shouldn’t focus too much on the technology as that can stifle creativity.