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What things should I consider for buying a photo editing computer? Specifically, here's a few of my needs:

  1. I will install Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe Creative Suite. I'd like to make sure all of those programs run alright. All of them are the newest versions (CS5 and Version 3 for lightroom).
  2. I want to make sure it has Windows 7.

Thanks for the tips!

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The Adobe Creative Suite -- depending on exactly which package you buy -- can include programs for vector image creation, Flash creation, heavy-duty page layout and video/audio editing. If all that other stuff is important to you, cool. But if you are just starting out you might save a little money (like $1,400) by just getting Lightroom and then seeing how at all you are limited by that. If what you most want to do with images is color correct, control contrast, crop and sharpen you might not even need Photoshop. –  David Rouse Dec 17 '10 at 20:05
I already bought it, with student editions (I'm not sure how much I'm going to get into it, but I'm graduating tomorrow, so I thought I'd buy it before it's too late...) –  PearsonArtPhoto Dec 17 '10 at 20:06
Very cool, in that case have fun exploring -- Adobe has some interesting technology. –  David Rouse Dec 17 '10 at 20:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The most important thing for photo editing is to get a good monitor, one that has a wide-gamut and can be color-calibrated. Those vary in price but can be gotten for as low as $450 USD for a new NEC Multisync P221W. Can spend more and get a similar model up to 30" in size but that depends on your budget.

NEC sells them with or without calibrator. What I did is buy the 30" model with and two P221W without (Refurbished for $237 each!), since the solution is the same and the difference is relatively smaller on bigger displays.

Now I am not sure if you intend to buy a pre-built computer or build one yourself. Regardless, make sure you get one with a lot of memory, 4GB or more and make sure it is a 64-bit computer with a 64-bit version of Windows 7. Nowadays, almost all computers other than small laptops are 64-bits but they do not always install the 64-bit OS which gives application limited access to memory.

You need to get a computer with a graphics card. Which one? Pretty much any will do but you have to have one. Cheap computers come with embedded graphics which is not as good.

Those are the basics but read more considerations here. The exact parts have probably changed since the article is 1 year old but all the recommendations are still good.

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Funny that I'm up-voting an answer with a different "the most important thing", but I am. Monitor -- good call. Since that's outside the "computer", per se, I wasn't thinking of it, but yes, it's very important to proper photo work. –  lindes Dec 17 '10 at 17:18
@lindes - :) If you don't have a good monitor, there's almost no point editing your photos in any way that requires Photoshop, so there is not need to worry about the rest. –  Itai Dec 17 '10 at 17:32
Thanks alot. I really like the recommendations from the article you mentioned. I'm considering getting one of the HP higher-end machines (I'm not afraid of building one on my own, but frankly it's more expensive for the same computer...). The monitor is a bit trickier, but I'll keep my eye out for a good NEC monitor. Thank you so much for your help! –  PearsonArtPhoto Dec 17 '10 at 20:05
very true, very true. I was just thinking "inside the box"; shame on me. :) –  lindes Dec 17 '10 at 22:20
If you have a small budget, a screen definitely is not your most important consideration. Getting a computer that functions well is your top priority, i.e RAM, processor, graphics. A cheap monitor will serve you fine until your budget allows. –  JamesHenare Dec 20 '10 at 3:47

I the single most universal and important thing will be to make sure the machine has an abundance of RAM. Memory needs for photo (and, if you follow the market into this space, video) are significant, and the one thing you want to make sure you're not doing a lot of is paging, as doing a lot of that will wreak serious havoc on performance.

Now, what is "an abundance"? Well, that's a moving target. These days, I think it's safe to say you'd want an absolute minimum of 4GB, but I'd recommend 8, or even more. And thanks to Moore's law, and the side effects of that law on software, those numbers will keep getting bigger and bigger as time goes on.

There are sure other things you'll want to consider, and I hope other answers will go into them. I think this is the single most likely to make a huge difference, though.

Happy editing!

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Just my two cents: it's possible to have "too much" RAM, in the sense that your PC will be outdated and replaced before you start using all that RAM. I have a S/W development machine with 6GB RAM, and I edit photos and 1080p60 video on it and have never once maxed out the RAM. If it comes down to going over the ~6GB mark and getting a SSD drive or faster processor, I would go with one of the latter two. –  HiredMind Dec 17 '10 at 19:11
@HiredMind: I'm not sure I agree that there's "too much" in absolute terms, but you're right on the money (pun intended) that there might be "too much" if you're buying more RAM than is actually useful instead of something else,t hat would be. Thanks for sharing that thought! –  lindes Dec 17 '10 at 22:19
Yeah, not in absolute terms... That mark just happens to be around 6GB right now - it moves up every year :-) –  HiredMind Dec 20 '10 at 16:30

A computer with a good processor and a high amount of memory (4GB or more) should run Adobe software very well. You should also consider a graphics card. It doesn't need to be a high end card but it should have plenty of VRAM.


Processor speed is important because graphics editing software (anything that deals with graphics really) does a lot of math under the hood.

RAM is there to hold all the data you're working with. Plenty of RAM gives you more space to work in.

Now, a graphics card may minimize some of the problems above, by providing what is called hardware acceleration:

  • Mathematical operations may be performed on the graphics card instead of your processor.
  • Data, specifically and most likely the images you load with the software, may be allocated on the graphics card's memory instead of your computer's memory.

It lessens the load on your processor and makes more of your RAM usable by other software. Do note, however, that it's entirely up to the software to use hardware acceleration.

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RAM and SCREEN. Those are really the primary needs.

The large screen iMacs are a joy to use for this. Granted, they don't come with Windows 7 installed, so you'd have to fork out for that separately which adds to the cost.

Otherwise, I don't think you need to over-think this. Get a relatively new PC with maxed out RAM and Video Card and put the rest of the money into one or two really nice LCD screens.

re: software...Photoshop is great, of course, but you pay a lot for a lot of features you may never use. Whether you go with Windows 7 or OSX or even Ubuntu, you might want to spend a bit of time looking at the alternatives out there. Might save you several hundred $$ that you could roll over into the monitor/hardware costs.

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Not most important, but definitely worthy of consideration is the harddrive where you want both lots of space and fast access.

If you have lots of RAM, an ideal disk performance/cost balance is to have a current generation SSD Boot drive (aim for 80GB+), and a larger spinning disk storage drive.

also more information on scratch disks (and other things) from John Nack:

Disk: Use a separate disk for Photoshop scratch. If you spend a lot of time opening / saving large data files, another separate disk for data files will speed that up. Faster disks are better. RAID0 is faster. SSD is faster yet. RAID0 of SSDs is fastest but super expensive. If you have plenty of RAM (meaning your Efficiency readout is 95% or more), separate/faster disks for scratch provide minimal benefit. If Efficiency readout is low, a separate SSD for Photoshop scratch will be a big win. SSD boot volume will speed booting and app launch, but not Photoshop operations.

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