Selecting a Lightroom desktop for performance and budget

In my post a few days back, I walked through my own process of setting some specifications for a new desktop machine to run Lightroom, but having gotten my intentions in order it was time to actually go out and buy something, somewhere.  But what did I buy, and why?

To recap, I’d decided I was looking for a faster quad-core processor, 1.5TB of effective RAID 1 disk space, at least 6 gig of RAM and a 64-bit OS. I excluded any necessary OS-switching costs from the analysis.

Looking first at Apple, my need for RAID meant I was looking at a Mac Pro, the iMacs and the Mini only offer a single-drive, and none over 1TB. With the Mac Pro I could specify 2 1TB drives and 2 640 GB drives, 6GB RAM and a single Xeon quad-core. A hardware RAID card isn’t required (or necessarily even helpful) for the mirroring, without a monitor I priced this out at about $3450. Simple, powerful and upgradable.

Had I been more willing to compromise on my specs, the brand-new ::amazon(“B001U0OHMQ”, “24 inch IMac”):: is an amazing offering. The fully loaded version has 1 TB of disk, 4GB RAM, a Core Duo processor, a beautiful 24″ monitor, all for under $2200. If you’re willing to take 640GB of disk and slightly slower processor you can drop that to under $1600. Either will run Lightroom well today, depending on your own needs 24″ iMac is going to be at the top of many photographer’s buying lists. But it didn’t meet several of my specs, so I had to exclude it from consideration.

I was initially disappointed in my efforts to find a machine from Dell that offered anything like what I needed, but then I came across their new offering, the Studio XPS 435. It can be configured with a pair of 1.5 TB disks in a RAID 1 configuration, 6GB of memory. With a monitor, and with the i7-920 processor, it comes in at about $2250. While similarly priced to the 24″ iMac, the 435 is a lot more upgradable in terms of drive bays and memory, in fact you can already order it in 12GB configurations. (The monitor offered at that price point with the 435 is not nearly as nice as the iMac’s beautiful display, Dell has a much nicer 24″ monitor for a $500 upgrade.)

Next I visited a local “white box” vendor (Central Computer) that had come highly recommended, and started with specs similar to the 435 above we came up with a number well under $2000 based on parts from high quality vendors. This was cheap enough that I was able to consider paying up, a little, for a little extra performance, so I upped the processor a notch to the i7-940, and added a pair of small, fast (10K RPM) disks, where I put the OS, applications, and Lightroom catalog. Separating out disk functions like this on separate disks can significantly improve performance for many applications.

In the end, budget and performance targeted at my needs won out, I walked out with that “white box”, over three terabytes of disk (half that much usable space, but all mirrored), 6GB of memory, a lot of expandability in terms of RAM and disk for the future, and a $2300 bill out the door.

And yeah, it runs well.

My machine isn’t going to be the right solution for everyone, or even most of you. I hope that, rather than selling you on a particular machine, I’ve shown you how to approach putting together a dedicated machine for your photographic work, in the ends, let your own needs dictate what you buy.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Over the years I’ve primarily put together my own systems from scratch because of the reasons you so eloquently state in this article. The cost and customizability advantages tend to always win out for me and I can selectively choose only the best components for my needs. Of course, the deciding factor for many folks will be the operating system of choice and OSX can be a major influence on which direction to go. I’ve used both platforms for many years and don’t have much loyalty either way because the applications are what’s most important to me and they function almost exactly the same regardless of platform. I’ve definitely hit the RAM wall on my 32-bit XP system which can only realistically address about 3.5GB of RAM, so I’m very curious to see how Windows 7 64-bit turns out when its released in a few months. I’m scared of unexpected compatibility issues when I migrate, so I’ve been avoiding any OS upgrades for a while now. How did the transition to 64-bit go for you? Any problems with applications or plugins?

  2. I only had two problems, both fairly easily solved, that may have been related to 64-bit Vista. Emphasis on the word “may.” Because I got the system new with 64-bit installed, I never did a simple apples-to-apples 32-vs-64 bit comparison.

    I had some very weird issues in Photoshop with graphics acceleration which were easily solved by upgrading to the latest NVidia graphics driver for my graphics card. I see that Microsoft has “pushed out” a new driver as an optional update since then, I grabbed it from the web site. From what I’ve heard about early NVidia / LR/PS compatiblity I’d call this only a 50-50 chance of being 64-bit related.

    The other was a driver issue for a little hard disk drive dock (a “toaster” for your internal hard disk drives). My guess is that the problems I had here are not 64-bit specific but I haven’t tested on 32, I think instead that using that product via eSATA with the drivers that came creates conflicts with systems that have preexisting SATA drives in a RAID configuration. I think it’s 90% likely I would have had the same problem on 32-bit.

    Other than these two, everything I’ve personally used has been 100% functional and stable. I haven’t made use of many third-party plugins, so I can’t speak to them.

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