Which is the best desktop PC for photo editing?
I saw your response to a question about a laptop for a photography student and noted the suggestion that a desktop would be a better option in terms of actual capability, not to mention the ergonomic advantages you’ve mentioned in previous articles. What specification would you recommend for someone with a mid-range DSLR using Adobe Lightroom for RAW files, but only as a hobby?
Although I think I probably could build my own PC, I’m not sure I want the additional faff and the risk that some components just won’t talk to each other properly. On my last desktop, built with a friend, I had never-ending problems with the graphics card, which were only fixed once I replaced it.
Looking around, I found a PC on Chillblast’s website that seems to tick all the boxes, but I’m concerned it may be over the top for my needs. Paul
When I wrote about the best laptop for photo editing a month ago, several readers asked for advice on desktops. As you already know, you want the fastest processor, the most memory, and the fastest hard drives and SSDs that you can afford. The problem is balancing the different requirements.
However, buying or building a desktop PC to run Adobe Lightroom is not the same as buying one for general-purpose use. General purpose computing rarely stresses today’s processors. It’s often better to spend your money on more memory, a fast SSD, and a high-quality screen and keyboard.
Designing for Lightroom
Unfortunately, Lightroom is still mostly dependent on the power of the processor, so it’s best to go for a quad-core Intel Core i7, if possible. There’s currently no great advantage to having more than four cores, though such chips will benchmark faster because they can turbo-boost two cores to higher clock speeds.
Memory is the next most important thing: 16GB is OK, but more is better, and pros want 32GB or more. Of course, it depends on what you do, and how quickly you need to do it. You can run Lightroom in 8GB, but you will start to run into problems when combining HDR images and so on.
Lightroom also likes fast disk drives, so it helps to have an SSD. RAW files take up a lot of space, but big SSDs are expensive. The compromise is to run the program from an affordable SSD while having a big traditional hard drive to store images.
Finally, there’s the graphics card. This is the dark side of Lightroom. The first five versions didn’t use graphics card acceleration. LR6 only uses it in the Develop module, and then only with the right combination of graphics card and driver.
Generally it’s best to pick an Nvidia GeForce card for Adobe software (look for Cuda cores), but – with one exception – it’s not worth spending a lot of money on one at the moment. If this changes with LR7 or LR8, you can upgrade the card later.
The exception? A fast graphics card is important if you are using Lightroom on a high resolution 4K or 5K monitor showing, perhaps, 3840 × 2160 pixels. If you’re using a 1920 x 1080 screen, it doesn’t really matter.
Either way, read Adobe’s GPU troubleshooting and FAQ page. You will note that the most common solution to crashes, freezes and slowdowns is to disable the GPU.
It really depends how much you want to spend, bearing in mind that you must have a 64-bit processor and a 64-bit operating system.
Today, the quad-core Core i7-7700 is the best value. Intel sells faster chips with more cores, but they are much more expensive. However, the quad-core i5-7600 and i5-7500 are cheaper but not much slower. Either would be fine for hobbyist use, where time isn’t money.
AMD’s Ryzen 5 1600 and 1500 also look very competitive, but these are new chips, and Adobe has been optimizing for the Core range.
There are Lightroom benchmark results at, for example, Puget Systems and Hardware.fr. These should give you a good idea of the relative speeds. Notebookcheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors (CPU Benchmarks) is also useful.
Intel has just launched a new range of Core i9 (Skylake-X) desktop processors, but prices start at $999. However, it has also added 4.3GHz Core i7-7740X ($339) and 4GHz Core i5-7640X ($242) processors. Like the i9 chips, these need a new LGA266 socket on the motherboard and X299 support chips. All the main motherboard manufacturers – Asus, Gigabyte, Micro-Star International (MSI) and ASRock – are shipping new designs, but it may be a while before they appear in mainstream towers. However, Chillblast is offering a new Core i7-7800X in its Fusion video/photo editing PC for £1,699.99.
The new motherboards are more expensive and may not be worth the marginal increase in speed. The advantage, as Puget Systems points out, is that you can upgrade to an 8-core i7-7820X in the future.
Note that all these chips run hot. The TDP (thermal design power) of the i7-7740X and the i5-7640X is 112W, so they will work best in a big tower case. For comparison, most current laptop chips run at 5W to 17W, and still get throttled when they overheat.
Buy or build?
The main desktop PC suppliers are Dell, HP and Lenovo. Part of their appeal is that they offer on-site next-day support, which is important for business users. It also means there’s a supply of ex-corporate and refurbished machines at low prices. Sadly, you also won’t get a recent processor or the customisation options that come with buying a new system.
As you have found, there are also some smaller British companies that assemble PCs to order, and Chillblast is a great example. See my earlier answer, Should I buy my next desktop PC from a UK company?
Finally, you could build your own PC with the assistance of PC Part Picker, though I can’t see a Lightroom-oriented build. Well, Greg7579 has specced a High-End Photo Editing Rig for £3,974.51, though that does include £1,174.94 for a 32in Asus monitor.
Your suggested Chillblast machine looks pretty suitable for Lightroom. It has a Core i7-7700K, 16GB of memory, a GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card, a 250GB Samsung 960 EVO SSD, two 1TB hard drives, Blu-ray and Windows 10 Home for £1,449.99. However, I don’t see the point of having RAID hard drives. It would be better to spend any extra money on more memory.
Instead, you could switch to Chillblast’s Prestige 7700i. Configured like your original but with a single 3TB hard drive and a 500W power supply, the price drops to £1,295.45.
A Dell XPS 8920 tower with a Core i7-7700, 16GB of memory (expandable to 64GB), 256GB M.2 SSD, 2TB hard drive, GeForce GTX 1060 with 6GB of memory, DVD, Windows 10 Pro and one year of on-site service comes to £1,342.80. You can have up to four years of on-site service, at extra cost. Extra memory is sold separately, or you could buy from an alternative source, such as Crucial.
A similar Lenovo ThinkCentre M710T with 24GB of memory (expandable to 64GB), GeForce GT730 graphics, 1TB hard drive, 256GB M.2 SSD, DVD and card reader would cost £1,254.79, including three years of on-site service. However, the power supply is only 210W.
You could save £177.60 by dropping the M710T to a Core i5-7500 and £93.60 by dropping the memory to 16GB, bringing the total price to less than £1,000. You could also forgo the M.2 storage card (£141.60) and install a 240GB SSD with a SATA drive interface for around £80.
Remember that, with a desktop, you can always give it a speed bump after a couple of years by adding memory, a new hard drive and a faster graphics card. This also spreads the cost.
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