Spec’ing a Lightroom desktop for performance and budget

In the past month or two I became aware of how I was losing a lot of time and personal sanity editing images on my primary work desktop, the performance of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.3 on my old system was both poor and erratic, so I’m replacing it. In this article I’ll share with you my limited investigations into Lightroom performance and configuring a Lightroom-centric photography computer on a budget.

My first step was deciding if I needed to upgrade my computer at all. I worked through all (or at least many) recommendations from both Adobe and various on-line fora. In the end, those suggestions helped, but not enough. My existing system had a (aged) Pentium 4, a motherboard that didnt allow me to upgrade memory as much as I’d like, and my images were scattered across internal and external disks, it quickly became clear it was time to start from a clean slate.

My next step was trying to determine what sort of specifications I should be looking at for a fast machine for Lightroom. While I use Photoshop in my work, the longest and most frustrating hours have been spent with Lightroom, so I decided to focus on that (and, to a lesser extent, Photoshop) as the primary applications I’d optimize to. While Lloyd Chambers has written extensively and cogently about Photoshop optimization, in particular on Mac systems, there was little information out there specifically on Lightroom, and Adobe’s minimum specifications for Lightroom clearly weren’t doing the job for me (my old system met those requirements.) So I was forced to “wing it” a bit based on theory and a bit of experimentation, looking at processor choice, memory, disks and video card.

I quickly decided to aim for a 64-bit processor. One of the few performance tests I was able to find on Lightroom 2.1 showed a 20% increase in performance using 64-bit Lightroom, this also let me consider large memory configurations. Lightroom can support many cores, so I settled on “at least quad core” as a basic spec that I felt would give me headroom for the future.

Disk requirements were in some ways the easiest. Much of my image library had been stored on an external (and, as it turned out pathetically slow) NAS device. With only about 800GB of image library in-house it seemed entirely possible to move my entire library to internal storage. I decided to provision for twice that, settling on 1.5TB of needed storage for image files, plus additional disk space for operation system, applications, Lightroom catalog, etc. I also decided that all disk space would be mirrored using RAID1 (not RAID5!) as an addition to my existing backup strategy. So, 1.5-2TB disk, doubled for RAID. (I decided against RAID 0 early-on, as much as speed is important to me, keeping my data secure was a higher priority.

While it appeared Lightroom would probably work well with 3-4GB of RAM, the fact that I do use Photoshop, plus wanting headroom for the future led me to double that to 6GB as a minimum spec.

I also had to take a stab at video card needs, I don’t play computer-games, so I knew I didn’t need the highest-end graphics cards. I considered this the least critical of the four requirements. Lightroom doesn’t use graphics acceleration, but Photoshop CS4 does make use of graphics cards for some operations. I settled on a minimum spec of a “moderately fast” video card with a half a gig of video RAM, the latter based on Adobe recommendations for CS4.

Having decided on specs, it was time to shop! In my next installment I’ll continue the story with what options I considered and how I eventually made my final selection.

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