Building a Photoshop PC

My wife is a photographer who uses Adobe Photoshop CS extensively in her business. She does most of her photo editting on our home PC which has the following specs:

Asus A7M266
Athlon XP 2100+ (runs at 1.7 ghz)
3 Western Digital hard drives (2 x 120 GB + 1 x 300 GB) all with 8MB cache and 7200 RPM
No RAID setup
Audigy 2 sound card
ATI Radeon 9800 Pro All-in-Wonder card
Antec power supply (420 W if I remember correctly)
Samsung 19 in Syncmaster 191t+ monitor
Miscellaneous other PCI cards (network, USB 2.0, modem)
Lian Li aluminum mid-tower case

The system works well but is getting a little slow for the amount of work she is performing. She shoots RAW format with a Canon 1Ds Mark II 16.7 megapixal camara. The unadjusted files are large and the photoshop files she creates are even larger. The other program she uses quite often is a program called Proshow Gold which she uses to produce slideshows.

I am looking for some hardware and setup recommendations on a new PC built to run Photoshop very, very well. Any advice you could give me would be appreciated.


P.S. Can Photoshop CS take advantage of a dual core CPU or do you have to upgrade to CS2?

Do google search for tips on optimizing photoshop (PS) for your PC. I think it mostly involves putting the PS cache on a different disk form where the PS prgram files reside. There are probably other tips.

If that doesn’t help, you should look into 64 bit computing and see if you can increase RAM past the 2G barrier, which I think is probably the bottleneck with manipulating big photoshop files.

If, on the other hand, you’re seeing slow down not when you’re manipulating files, but when you’re doing CPU intensive tasks, like redrawing the image, or batch processing large numbers of files, you may benefit from a bigger CPU, dual CPU or possibly hyperthreading technology.

Not sure about the limited version of PS question, but probably if the full featured program supports multithreading, the limited version does too. I bet it does, since it’s like the industry standard in pushing pixels.

Athlon 64, X2 if you want to spend some big cash, otherwise just get whatever the sweet spot is.

2 gigs of ram. (If you need more (can’t see why) you can go to 4 easily enough in a 64 system)

With RAW files, one of your biggest slowdowns is the hard drive, so get a couple good 300 giggers and mirror them (RAID 0?)… That’ll up your read performance a fair bit, write should stay about the same. If you want go really crazy, get 4 and raid 0+1 them… That kicks ass. :)

Other than that, everything else is not needed for photoshop. Vid cards are not limited in 2d. You just need ram, processor and HD bandwidth.

Are you sure you want an Athlon? I recall that image manipulation is the one area where Intel beats AMD because these algorithms are usually heavily optimized for Intel’s CPUs.

You are correct up until AMD released their X2 processors. AMD finally can compete in this area now.

See some benchmarks at


PS…I am not set on an AMD processor. I just have an AMD processor now.

David are you a CPA?

Also I would say check out the 10k raptor drives they are fast as hell.

Yes, I am a certified public accountant.

I have seen those Raptor drives as well and they look like great performers.


The high end drives are good, but remember that a 0+1 setup with “slow” modern drives will beat the pants off any fast drive.

0+1 meaning the RAID configuration where you need 4 hard drives to provide redundancy and speed. Sounds good but complicated.


Well, not really. Good raid controllers come with good software. Set it up once, and then only worry about it again if it starts beeping (a drive died)…

That gets you 600 gigs of space and it’s damn fast. You can also have 2 of the drives die at the same time (as long as they’re not both the same part of the stripe), and still keep your data.

It’s a great setup, and with what drives cost these days, it’s pretty cheap.

  1. Get a G5 Mac.

  2. Get dual CPUs or a multi-core chip.

  3. 4 GB of RAM is a minimum value. If her files are really huge, go to 6 GB.

  4. Set up two different striped raid partition to make Photoshop read/write faster.

Use the largest partition for the scratch disk.

Use the other for temporary storage for your works in progress. Once you’re done working with a photo, move it somewhere more permanent.

Thought about it, but we are sticking with the Windows world for now.


Weird. phpbb2 seems to have eaten a post. huh.

Anyway, I found some time and modified my semi-flippant post with information I hope is useful to you.

Adobe engineers have reported 40% speed gains in Photoshop by increasing RAM from 4 GB to 6 GB. On a Mac, it’s easy, because you just buy it with 6 GB and it arrives at your doorstep like that. On a PC, I think you can go up to 4 GB of RAM easily, but you have to jump through hoops afterwards. I’ve not looked at what it takes to get 6 GB of addressable memory on a WinXP box. Certainly there is some motherboard / Windows 64 combo that will get you there. I just have no personal experience with it.

I found the article where a Photoshop engineer is quoted espousing the benefits of 6GB of RAM:

The article also provides some basic Photoshop tuning advice that you can probably use on your computer right here right now.

Thanks Roger. I found this post on the Photoshop support site regarding some memory capabilities of Photoshop CS2:

Unless we upgrade to a 64 bit OS, I think 3 GB may be the useful limit for now.


Thought about it, but we are sticking with the Windows world for now.


Good for you. Despite Apple’s demos about how much faster Photoshop is on a Mac, it’s simply not true. Independant magazines run photoshop tests all the time and the PC always beats the Mac. At a fraction of the cost. You don’t have to do much googling to find out. The difference used to be HUGE back in the G4 days. The G5s close the gap a lot, but PCs are still faster and cheaper photoshop machines.

My advice would be to buy an Athlon 64 X2 (the 3800+ model is a good deal at around $350 or so), load it up with tons of RAM. With 16.7 megapixel images in RAW format, you’re going to blow past 2GB pretty quickly once you get a few layers going, especially with multiple levels of undo. If this system is just for Photoshop, you might want to go with 64-bit Windows XP.

I wouldn’t necessarily worry about RAID, unless you want RAID 1 for security. But I would get a very small, very fast drive and use it for nothing but the Photoshop cache file. That can make a really big performance difference.

As was suggested here, a little searching for photoshop performance tips can speed things up a lot. Reducing the # of undo levels a bit can sometimes free up tons of RAM without actually impacting the way you work. It sort of depends on the user.

Thanks for the comments Jason.

On the current system, I am clearing off one of the 120 GB drives to use only as a photoshop scratch disk. The windows swap disk is on the 300 GB drive to prevent any conflicts with the scratch disk.

Dual core AMD processor plus a Raptor drive as a scratch disk may be a workable solution. There was only one AMD 939 motherboard on that supported 8 GB of RAM so I suspect 4 GB may be the practical limit for the time being.


Very small = 74GB

Very fast = Ultra SCSI 320 or SATA-150 drives in RAID-0 configuration.

The fastest UltraSCSI drives are 20% faster than the fastest SATA drives. Look at Seagate Cheetah and Western Digital Raptor.

Note: When you are dealing with large files in Photoshop, everything depends on the speed of the scratch disk. This is exactly the kind of application RAID-0 was designed for. I am usually the first person to advise people to stay away from RAID-0 stripes. This is one of those rare applications where I would choose to embrace it. Because, hey, it’s a scratch disk. You’re not using it for long-term storage.

If you go the SCSI route, the SCSI controller will have a RAID controller built in. If you go the SATA route, the motherboard will more than likely also have a RAID controller built in. It’s there. Use it. Give your wife the scratch disk she deserves.

Ultimately, you want to get accurate work done, and there are benefits to using a Mac for photo editing that do not show up in benchmarks, but that DO show up in your workflow. For example, Mac OS X has color calibration / color management built into the operating system.

Benchmarks are a bit like engine horsepower in that by looking at them, you can evaluate only a single aspect of the whole package.

Ultimately, you want to get accurate work done, and there are benefits to using a Mac for photo editing that do not show up in benchmarks, but that DO show up in your workflow. For example, Mac OS X has color calibration / color management built into the operating system.

Benchmarks are a bit like engine horsepower in that by looking at them, you can evaluate only a single aspect of the whole package.[/quote]

There definitely is some truth to this.

I would assume that since David’s wife already uses a PC with Photoshop for her work, she has the color calibration stuff nailed. Adobe has their own color calibration stuff built in, and once it’s set up, you pretty much don’t have to fiddle with it. It’s only a real time saver if you’re starting from scratch, or if you’re moving files around to different machines with different monitors/printers.

You guys had to bring up color management. I think my wife would sacrafice a limb to get a better handle on color management. She has her monitor calibrated using a Spyder calibration device. The big problem is getting things together with the portrait printing service she uses. She had some problems with how they were printing some of her pictures. They sent a photo to calibrate our monitor to so we’ll see how that works.

Thanks for the input.