Building a Photoshop Computer

Posted by Scott

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. 

For further reading check out these articles.

47 Comments Leave A Comment


Alex / HeadUp says:

March 12, 2008 at 4:43 am

WOW, great stuff here, I did my research a few yrs ago in order to build a gaming rig, so it’s interesting to see how a configuration affects photoshop performance. I’ll definately keep all this in mind to come that day…some day…when I ditch my current rig.

haha i love how you capitalised “Otl Aicher” but not “god” in that one sentence, hopefully there aren’t any hardline religious people out there reading this who might take offense!

I have a question about these temporary files- they are being written in my temp folder in doc’s and settings, and you are saying these are in fact separate from the swap disk’s files? I’m pretty sure I switched the location of my swap disk to D, as Windows and CS2 (yet to upgrade) are on C. Here’s the question– Photoshop was running mind-numbingly slow, so I went digging and found these temp files– 4 of them, each almost 7GB in size, and I deleted them. Now, along with some minor tweaks to other background apps, things are working much better. Is this a suitable practice that wont damage my machine or photoshop?


Moab says:

March 12, 2008 at 5:35 am

I’ve a question though. I think I read you have a dual boot on this computer (Windows/Mac), but now I’m scrolling your post again and again and can’t find it anymore.. did I dream of it? If not, can you tell us how you make the two OS run on this machine?
Great work


drew kora says:

March 12, 2008 at 5:50 am


That’s insanely awesome, man. Great details provided. I have this intense desire to build my own PC now just so I can play around with some liquid cooling stuff. Awesome.

I’ve been meaning to read up on the importance of a video card, too. I need to do some research, but I was pleased to read that the video card isn’t all that important for non-gaming/3D stuff.


1. What’s your opinion on using an external HD for a PS swap disk if installing a second internal drive isn’t an options?

2. Can you explain why a partition won’t work for a swap disk?


Erik says:

March 12, 2008 at 5:55 am

64bit aint gonna happen. they talked about it last year and the costs of rewriting the platform to 64bit was too high compared to the 2% (!) they predicted the customer base for this would be.


thomas says:

March 12, 2008 at 5:56 am

about the 32bit: actually it’s worse, windows applications can only use 2gb of memory (dunno about mac os).

anyway, good post :) the only thing i can really take issue with is the ludicrously expensive cpu – if you’d bought one of those brand new 45nm quadcores, you’d be at 4.5ghz with heaps more cache and a cooler processor for the same money. now i know you’re not going to be losing any sleep at night with your current processor, but also coming from a CS background you probably understand my perspective in pointing it out.

enjoy the new box, hope it helps to get the tycho albums out quicker ;)


Pinko says:

March 12, 2008 at 6:21 am

Eheheheh, not only he DID mention dual booting OS X/WinXP in the original post… he’s been so smart to delete my reply about it and the fact that running OS X on a non-Apple machine IS illegal.



Erik says:

March 12, 2008 at 6:33 am

Actually, a 32bit os can utilize 3gig ram per process. mac os x is still in most parts a 32bit system as well.


Damo says:

March 12, 2008 at 6:44 am

Thank you so much for sharing an informative insight into how and what to look for in building a spec system for PS Scott – you have a wicked sense of humor – very much appreciated. I have taken notes and am now sourcing similar specifications here where I am to see how costing concludes…cheers another great post!

BTW you placed the massive juice box on the bottom – man thats huge! 1KWatts! and 500GB each drive from the 1TB…how big are the WD Raptor swap drives? any fans to assist the water cooling? thanks so much Scott


Sajith says:

March 12, 2008 at 7:08 am

Hi Scott!

First off, just wanna say ive been a big fan of your work since back in the day!

Second, Thanks for the Ram Drive tip, my house mate just got 4 gigs of ram and realized that 32-bit Vista uses only 3 Gigs, so i just made a Ram Drive for him!

Keep up the great work!


Etienne L. says:

March 12, 2008 at 8:42 am

Nice computer. I recently baught a computer from Alienware. Expencive but so great. I can bring and work with a powerfull computer everywhere and it rocks.
Oh, I read that windows can detect 2gb of ram max, how did you do to put 8gb inside your computer ?


kemuri says:

March 12, 2008 at 9:02 am

Great post (& badass system :)!

Isn’t it that photoshop cs3 expert has on option to use the GPU’s processing power? I’m not sure about this, can somebody shed some light on this?


Jason says:

March 12, 2008 at 9:06 am

Thanks for the info. This was a great post. I’m glad you’re not on a Mac, like most suckers.

I built a new machine back in August and I have 4 gigs of Ram myself because I originally (blindly) purchased Vista 64 bit thinking I would have the latest and greatest. But later found out none of the applications worked w/it, so I had to go back to Windows XP. I have Asus motherboard too, the Nic already went out. :( I’m a bit worried about the remaining parts on the motherboard.

Anyway thanks for the info. I really dig your blog, you a rock a lot of the same music I do. By the way, where can I get some more Dusty Brown? Your blog might be my new one (I can only handle reading one – no time).


Landon says:

March 12, 2008 at 9:25 am

I’m curious, and perhaps you could write an equally compelling post on the subject *please*… What OS are you running? I’ve been stuck with XP, and I’m currently looking for other options. I thought about XPx64, and failed miserably trying to get OSx86 running on my rig.

Please shed some light: did you bite the Vista bullet?


pauL e. says:

March 12, 2008 at 11:08 am

is that a flux capacitor i see? let me know when youre ready to go back to the future. god speed.


Dan Vulk says:

March 12, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Thanks Scott,

First i really love your work and mostly the blog, thanks for sharing your daily research with us all, its almost a vocation!

Very nice overview of a good graphic and multimedia computer,
learned alot mostly on the RAM subject. Great work keep it up!


Matt says:

March 12, 2008 at 10:59 pm

Type displays horribly on PCs, you have to constantly mess with them, they’re not user friendly or intuitive. I think the real suckers are fighting with their PCs instead of using industry standard, more efficient macs.

However, I will give props to scott hansen for being able to do what he does. Very awesome and inspiring.


Scott says:

March 13, 2008 at 2:49 am

Thanks everyone for the comments…I’ll try to answer all the questions in this reply:

I use Windows XP Professional 64-bit primarily for graphics and XP Pro 32-bit for music (there are some driver compatibility issues with 64bit XP and my audio hardware).

Yes, I do have Mac OSX installed on this computer and am really loving it. I wanted to get it running on here to see how I liked it before I bought a real Mac Pro. So the plan now is to get a Mac Pro for design and keep this new PC dedicated for music.

The WD raptors are the old 36GB versions, I am getting new ones this week.

Alex: Yeah, the files you deleted were probably left over from a time photoshop shut down unexpectedly. When this happens it will leave it’s temp files there because it didn’t have a chance to delete them. Photoshop writes other temp files I believe, but the ones you need to worry about are the big Swap files. Those contain the bulk of the info and dictate the performance.

Drew: The reason a partition will not be effective in this scenario is that a partition is merely a way to split one physical drive into multiple parts. But the data that needs to be read / written to them still has to travel through one connector and that is the bottle-neck. If you get a completely separate physical drive then it has it’s own connector and can be read from / written to independently of any other drive. Hope that makes sense, let me know if you need further clarification.


drew kora says:

March 13, 2008 at 7:51 am

Your explanation of the partition makes perfect sense. That’s sort of what I figured. Thanks.

I’m still curious if a fast external HD would work for a swap disk, though. I work off a laptop and adding a second HD isn’t feasible. From what I’ve read it seems like a fast external would work well via FW or USB2, though there are some who say otherwise. I guess I should just try it out.


Mike Gowan says:

March 13, 2008 at 8:05 am


I love your music, you’ve inspired me a great deal. I was just wondering why you would choose the pc over the mac for music production? I’ve been running Ableton Live for midi and recording on Os X for 7 years and have had hardly any headaches getting the hardware set up. Unless you have some special soundcard and devices for the pc already, then that would make some sense.


Scott says:

March 13, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I learned on Cakewalk on a PC so that’s what I use. I have ableton Live too which I use for playing shows. I know both apps inside and out and Live just doesn’t cut it feature-wise for me. Sonar is a full featured DAW, whereas Live is sort of a grown up performance app. I’ve also had nothing but success with setting up audio hardware and / or software on the PC. although I have been messing with this OSX installation and am really seeing that on the Mac it’s even easier. I am going to try Logic out and see if it can hang with Sonar, if so I might make the switch over.

An external HD is always going to be dependent on the interface through which it connects to the PC. Firewire and USB2, while fast, are not nearly as fast as a SATA2 bus (SATA is the modern internal connector type) What you can do is get a eSATA express card for your laptop and then get an eSATA drive and then you’ll be set. This is pretty simple, just get a SATA HD, then an eSATA enclosure, then an express card (unless you still have PCMCIA in which case you need to get that)


Lars Hedemann says:

March 14, 2008 at 1:26 am

Hey Scott
Great breakdown of the tech stuff. I am a DTP / Graphic Designer married to the Mac platform and has been for many years (especially after OS X entered). So you should definately look forward to use Leopard and the multitude of other small, insanely great graphic apps out there, built for Leopard (besides CS3 ofc). Now, what I am REALLY interested in, is: What screen do you use? Apple (hope not), Eizo etc? Your colour sense and reproduction is so fab, that the screen you work on must be one with a large colour gamut (which Apple’s unfortunately does not have).
Needless to say btw; love your work.


BingeBOy says:

March 14, 2008 at 6:29 am

I had that same mobo but was having major heat issues with my NB and SB. I ended up scrapping it for the new DFI LP LT X38. Either way your system is looking good, but you need to crank the cores up a little more. ;)
Great post!


Scott says:

March 14, 2008 at 9:00 pm

I don’t have anything real fancy, a couple samsung lcds… the 244t and the 204t. the 204 is alright, 244 sucks.. been thinking of an eizo but not sure its worth it. some of the new NECs are getting good reviews.

I was in Muir Woods today, I saw a thousand trees, they were real, they were growing. Now I am on the internet, it is real, it is growing.


morgan says:

March 14, 2008 at 11:56 pm

The tangibility of the internet is just hard to grasp. All data, at any moment could be halted from producing new information to be instantly distributed. It is such a beautiful, yet bitter tasting device that seems to be shrinking reality.


morgan says:

March 15, 2008 at 12:10 am

That computer is insane!!! This guy staying with us was telling me about his job with computers in 1978. He worked for an oil drilling company, plotting out wells using some sort of wave frequency pattern. His friends known as “computers” would try to eliminated flaws in the waves in giant algorithms. His job was to fly to Wyoming every week and take out four giant chips (54kb) and bend them back and forth to loosen up the corroded metal on the motherboard? It reminded me of blowing in the Nintendo cartridges. I can’t remember the exact words and technicalities of his job, but it was just amazing how far we have come. Sorry about my weird tangents on this thread!


Scott says:

March 15, 2008 at 3:48 pm

I know what you are saying… the internet is pretty creepy in the sense that we are becoming completely reliant on it as a society. I guess I have to just accept that fact though since my livelihood is primarily internet-based. I was thinking the other day what I would do if everything fell apart and we didn’t have power for all the electronics that make my work possible, I guess I would have to learn to draw again.


Joram Oudenaarde says:

March 17, 2008 at 4:47 am

Photoshop does benefit from a better videocard ;)

Although it hardly uses it for it’s effects, it greatly benefits when it comes down to rendering the image on screen. I especially noticed it when working on a G4 Cube a few years back (CS1); the stock videocard was already ancient, but we put in a custom sized ati9800pro, which made an immense difference.

When i tried that same trick with a G5 later that year (from the stock nVidia card to an Ati upgrade), we noticed a similar increase. So it might not give a huge impact in speed when it comes down to using filters, swap disks and such, it does impact the imagerendering ;)

Oh, and Photoshop can read up to 3GB of ram.
What Photoshop really loves, is using a scratchdisk like the Western Digital Raptor 10.000rpm. Just a 37GB HD would be sufficient of course, but the speedincrease will be delicious!


Morgan / Scott says:

March 18, 2008 at 9:08 am

Is funny you guys are talking about computers, internet, etc influencing the way we live our lives. I recently sent an email out to my entire creative team at work, asking them what would they be doing if the internet was never invented, got some insane replies:)

What would you guys be doing?


micael says:

March 18, 2008 at 1:21 pm

I love you for running a PC for anything at all. I’m in design school right now and am tired of trying to explain a seemingly endless amount of times as to why I prefer to build my own 100% custom PC rather than buying a mac pro. Starting to get mildly bothered by all these hipster kids telling me I should absolutely just buy a Mac when their knowledge of computers extends about to: more ram is better.

Glad to see another intelligent designer/musician with an actual understanding of what’s going on inside of his computer.

Cheers and keep up the amazing work.


polypus says:

March 23, 2008 at 5:11 pm

micael, and other mac bashers: i’m an artist/musician/programmer and linux geek. i’m moving to a mac pro because i’ve just done a ton of research and i believe it to be the best bang for the buck for a workstation on the market today, period. this is not to start a flame war, it’s just to point out that it might not be such a bad thing to look into, coming from somebody (forgive my horn toot) who knows a great deal more than “more ram is better”.

scott, if you go mac, for sound, have a look at the apogee stuff especially the duet, i’ve read great reviews. i’m also seriously looking at the NECs especially this one:

and thinking of combining it with a cheaper smaller dell in portrait mode for palettes and such.


polypus says:

March 23, 2008 at 5:14 pm

scott: i have a few questions for you. i’ve been on a not too powerful laptop running ubuntu for the past three years and am about to get the pro to do fine art printing on a large format epson printer. either the 7880 or 9880 not sure which yet.

the cs3 tech site says that it’ll do 300K x 300K images, but what is the max resolution, you have found photoshop really capable of in practical terms (w/o crawling) with a multilayer image, say 20 layers, on a machine like the one you have just built? nice job btw.

do you find the raptors to be noisy? i have read that they are, and since i also want to do audio i am concerned about that. also what is the minimum size for a scratch disk you would recommend for very large high rez images destined for print? (i’m getting 16GB ram btw).

thanks for the info!


noTanks says:

July 7, 2009 at 10:33 am

Heya at the time of building this could you give the approximate cost? Just for comparision because I tried to build a mac pro on the apple site with the same specs and it came to just about $4,900.00 w/o tax….

Of course they dont come overclocked and there were not options for liquid cooling, but they did include shipping ;)