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I'm looking to buy a laptop (for a spare) and I'm not ready to spend the amount I did on my first one. The machine will only be used for photo editing. Should I go for the dedicated graphics card or faster CPU? Has there been greater performance differences when using Photoshop with a better/more CPU or GPU?

Specifically I'm asking whether a dedicated GPU will offer a substantial jump in the performance of Photoshop and Lightroom over an integrated one, when compared with a faster CPU.

Note: the question is about comparing hardware performance specifically of the GPU & CPU when using PS & LR (I've done my own tests & research regarding SSDs, RAM, monitors etc. I'm not looking for help in buying a computer, I'll do that on my own...) I'm asking the question here because I assume many people using this site have either experienced or researched the topic and I would like to see what the results were

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Interesting question. There's a little piece on Tom's Hardware that asks the same question as you do. They conclude that it does benefit you if you do a lot of editing with the supported operation. As a bonus there's the benchmark results you can have a look at. You'll notice that integrated GPU's can perform well. Just keep in mind that when it comes to Intel GPU's, they're not built to provide exceptional performance, just enough for the job. –  Peng Tuck Kwok Apr 10 '13 at 2:35

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

You are asking two very different questions, because Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop of course do not have the same system requirements or use the same system resources.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

Graphics Card:

Lightroom does not currently utilize the GPU for performance improvements. It is outlined in the Lightroom documentation here.

Lightroom requires a video card that can run the monitor at its native resolution. Built-in, default cards that ship with most desktop or laptop systems typically suffice for Lightroom.

Processor:

From Adobe:

The minimum system requirements to run Lightroom are just that: the minimum you need for Lightroom to operate. Additional RAM and a faster processor, in particular, can yield significant performance benefits.

Adobe Photoshop CS6

Graphics Card:

Photoshop CS6 does utilize the graphics processing unit for enhanced performance. Here is some detail from Adobe staff:

Some features require a compatible video card to work; if the video card or its driver is defective or unsupported, those features will not work at all. Other features use the video card for acceleration and if the card or driver is defective those features will run more slowly.

Additional info here.

Processor:

From Adobe:

Photoshop CS5 and CS6 require a multicore Intel processor (Mac OS) or a 2 GHz or faster processor (Windows). Photoshop generally runs faster with more processor cores, although some features take greater advantage of the additional cores than others.

Recommendation

If you have already maxed out your RAM and storage options, I would then decide which program speed and efficiency are more important to you. For example if you are a much heavier user of Lightroom, I would choose processor over GPU. If you are much heavier user of Photoshop, it is a harder decision, and really gets into the specific processor model and GPU model(which I won't go into here, and would be better suited for superuser.com). If it is a desktop model, I personally would go with the CPU over GPU since it is likely you can upgrade the GPU anyways.

To answer your secondary question, if you are using an older version of Photoshop that does not have heavy requirements on the GPU, you still need a graphics card to handle things like Windows and the actual display on your monitor, it just won't be used by Photoshop to offload the heavy tasks it does with many new features.

Additional information can be found in other questions already on this site:

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Please note: the "requirements" for Photoshop CS5 & 6 are deliberately pessimistic (to avoid performance complaints). Some features (like the canvas rotate, and for reasons I find baffling, "stamp visible"—CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+E) will not be available if the graphics subsystem is insufficient; others will merely be (sometimes painfully) slow. (I'm running PS CS5 on a 2GB Atom-based netbook until I can replace my dead machine, and while it's no picnic, it works. CS6 has more trouble.) –  user2719 Apr 9 '13 at 19:23
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PCI -> PCIe. I haven't seen a PCI graphics card in over a decade. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 9 '13 at 20:41
    
Know that if something is not required it does not mean that it does not improve performance. A true graphic chip almost always delivers a higher performance for various reasons than embedded graphics of the same generation and that even if GPU functions are not used. Things like bandwidth, dual-ported memory help with the simple operation of sending pixels to the screen. –  Itai Apr 10 '13 at 1:30
    
@Itai - I think Adobe said it best themselves in the quote I noted: "The minimum system requirements to run Lightroom are just that: the minimum you need for Lightroom to operate." –  dpollitt Apr 10 '13 at 1:46
    
@Itai Agree, as a general observation, that "if something is not required does not mean that it won't increase performance". Disagreee with the implication that buying the $1000 nVidia Titan graphics card might improve Lightroom performance over integrated graphics (whatever ships with any computer that's capable of showing the desktop) in any perceptible way: If Lightroom doesn't use the GPU, it doesn't matter which graphics you have. For Photoshop, improvements are limited to the specific features Adobe lists as "these use the GPU". I'd go with more CPU, it's more generally applicable. –  j-g-faustus Oct 28 '13 at 14:57

In this very specific case:

I found an article on tests of GPU acceleration in Photoshop CS6 from Puget Systems -- a small retailer I'd never heard of, but their methodology seems sound. They actually test with the two video cards you're considering, so this is a very good data source. (The GT610 model they use isn't the mobile version, but reportedly there's not much performance difference.)

On their benchmark, which is simply a repeated script of a number of GPU-accelerated actions, Nvidia GT 610 performs about 20% better than the Intel HD4000. (Both are at the bottom of the results compared to more expensive cards.)

Meanwhile, your faster CPU option is about 50% faster than the slower one in clock speed alone. That doesn't translate to a 50% increase in speed, though, because most things aren't CPU-bound.

I think that means that these systems are basically in the same ballpark; half a dozen of one and between five and seven of the other.

Overall, GPUs are very good at the kind of operations done in photo processing. They are graphics processors, after all. As we move into the future, it's likely that the GPU will be more and more important, and the eventual answer is going to be "GPU is more important than CPU, although more CPU never hurts." But in this case, buy whichever one lets you install more RAM, or has a better screen, or is cheaper, or looks prettier.

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The Intel HD4000 is actually pretty awesome if you compare it to integrated graphics of a few short years ago. Just don't try Skyrim :) –  dpollitt Apr 9 '13 at 18:56
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Hey Matt, I wonder if it's better to go more generalist on this question. I think the narrow focus has limited shelf life... –  John Cavan Apr 9 '13 at 19:32
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@John Yeah, I know. I think the general answer is really covered by What should I consider for buying a photo editing computer?, and I voted for this to be closed as a duplicate of that. Computer recommendations aren't as religious as camera recommendations, but they're even more time-limited. –  mattdm Apr 9 '13 at 19:35
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Very good advice and can't help but repeat, when laptop pc in question: choose the one that allows most RAM and has better screen. Lappy screens can be awful for photo editing. –  Esa Paulasto Apr 9 '13 at 19:39
    
A number of Puget Systems computers have been reviewed favorably by Anandtech: anandtech.com/… –  Dan Neely Apr 9 '13 at 20:03

I would recommend the higher CPU in this case. GPU acceleration in Photoshop itself can make a sizable difference, but only with a good GPU. The 610 is a bare bones "desktop" card that isn't really any better than the 4000. The only advantage it offers is the dedicated video memory, but that's going to have minimal impact when working with most gpu assisted calculations.

The CPU difference on the other hand, is very substantial and is going to show a marked improvement in general performance. If it was a 660 or 680m, then it might be a tight race, but there simply isn't enough GPU crunching capability in the 610.

In the general sense, the amount of power of a GPU has to be considered. It may change in the future, but currently the second number in a NVidia GPU and the second and third numbers in an AMD GPU reflect how powerful the GPU is within the model. Anything less than a 6/60 is generally not going to be all that helpful, but that could change in the future if they change their naming conventions.

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good answer regarding specifics but im looking for more general info –  Pastel Apr 9 '13 at 20:40

My answer: disk!

Just some real world observation: I am a user of both Lightroom and Photoshop and recently upgraded from a 4 year old high-end Acer desktop to now a massive Alienware desktop with the ultra powerful GTX960 video card.

Note that I do not have this high-end desktop for Photoshop, but still, there is no visible performance improvement in both LR and PS, despite the enormous upgrade in both CPU and GPU.

Therefore, my conclusion is that typically neither the CPU or the GPU are a bottleneck in Photoshop, given that you meet a certain minimum standard. Disk, however, is likely a far better improvement to invest in, for example in using a fast SSD.

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+1 for the SSD. I'm a software engineer, I use/update/tweak my computer configuration a lot. In the past years, the most improvement I've gotten (and the best bang for the buck) is to buy an SSD. If you can't afford a large one (my 1st was only 40gb), put your pictures on an external hard drive, but leave your Lightroom catalog on your SSD. –  Max Sep 29 '13 at 0:28
    
emphasis on the disk speed. of course capacity is important, but a fast hard drive will positively impact the performance of adobe products. first hand experience. In fact, I have not seen any single program benefit more from a fast hard drive than Adobe Photoshop. –  Octopus Dec 6 '13 at 4:47

Short answer: CPU more important than GPU, but disk and memory even more so

The extent to which photo-editing software can utilise the GPU is limited. Most filters and processing steps aren't currently GPU-enabled, and many can't practically be GPU enabled. CPU is more important.

On top of that, those features that do already utilise the GPU will complete quickly even with a cheaper, low-end GPU. The situations where you have to wait longer for some processing to finish are usually going to be times where you are CPU-bound, and spending more money on the CPU will improve these times.

However, you should not discount the following:

  • Memory (RAM)

    Image processing demands increasing amounts of memory, especially when working on many layers (say, in Photoshop) or batch processing/previewing many images at once (say, in Lightroom).

    For now, 8GB is a comfortable amount of RAM for pretty heavy image processing. If you have less, consider upgrading. Obviously, you need a 64-bit operating system for this, or each application (e.g. Photoshop) will be limited only to 2GB of its own RAM.

  • Hard disk access

    I'd highly recommend an SSD for your main drive, and HDD for long term storage (plus backup methods, which could be external drives). Your SSD should also act as the "scratch" drive for Photoshop and as the drive used for your swap file (neither of which should be heavily utilised if you have 8GB+ of RAM).

    The increase you'll get from an SSD as a main drive instead of an HDD will far outweight pretty much any other upgrade you can do. As an example, with a typical HDD your system can write maybe 80 to 150 small files (for example, thumbnail cache files) per second - with an SSD this is likely to be 5,000 or more. Boot, and loading programs for the first time, will also greatly benefit.

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8GB depends on the camera... I have an iMac which, at one point, had 12GB of RAM and that was more than fine with a Pentax K-5. Then I switched to the Nikon D800, and 12GB was not so comfortable anymore when you have 36mp at 16 bits. So... 32GB later, for the massive price of $180, my RAM situation is comfortable again. It's also worth noting that, in Windows, there's a boot.ini switch that enables 3GB per process for 32 bit systems, if you're still so unfortunate as to have one... –  John Cavan Apr 10 '13 at 3:06
    
36MP at 16 bits would be 216MB memory usage per layer so if you have 10 layers plus things like adjustment layers and internal buffers I can see how that would add up. For others with, say, 16MP images in 8-bit, 8GB would be more than enough. My main point though was that anyone with 4GB or less of RAM, or 32-bit OS, should really consider upgrading. –  thomasrutter Apr 10 '13 at 3:42
    
For sure, it was just to note... Don't forget, however, that undo functions also eat RAM. –  John Cavan Apr 10 '13 at 3:50
    
there's a lot more memory usage under the hood. My 10MP images easilly eat 200-300Mb on photoshop elements 9, after opening, tranforming and contrast alone, no fancy stuff. without layers. It is probably worse in the CS6. –  Michael Nielsen Apr 10 '13 at 6:02
    
I agree very much with this answer. I recently upgraded to a new desktop system with on board the GTX690, one of the fastest GPUs currently available. It makes zero performance difference compared to my older entry level system. That's because the true bottleneck is typically in RAM, and in my case, storage. –  Ferdy Apr 16 '13 at 18:43

I'll add to the school of thought that directing the money towards the faster base system, since you are using both programs, and only some things are accelerated by GPU. I'd pick the one with 4 cores with hyperthreading to 8, and a good amount of cache. Also the memory bandwidth is important here, as image processing is always moving a lot of data around in the system under the hood, converting between colourspaces, making cache copies, resolution changes, etc. So both the CPU and the motherboard RAM bandwidth specs will be important to look at carefully.

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Any decent modern multi-core CPU will run LR fine.

Fast storage helps a lot.

I run Lightroom on a SSD (solid state disk). I have 8Gb performance RAM and use 2Gb of that for a RAMDisk and use that as a temp/scratch disk. Store your photos on a decent HD (7200rpm+). SSD is still too expensive to use for data.

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protected by John Cavan Dec 5 '13 at 22:50

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