Saturday, 21 February 2009

Maintaining and upgrading my desktop PC for photography

As a digital photographer I spend far too much time in front of my PC and I would like to make that time as pleasant and productive as possible. Recently my PC has slowed down and I have had to decide whether to get my old PC running smoothly again or buy a new one – for reasons of both economy and trying not to waste more of the world’s resources unnecessarily I have decided to maintain and upgrade my existing system. This posting is the first in the series that I shall be writing over the next few weeks charting my course and the results.


I do nearly all my photographic work on a desktop PC running Lightroom and Photoshop CS3, along with a myriad of other software I have accumulated over the years.

The desktop I use was a pretty good system back in July 2005 when I bought it – just over 3½ years ago. It was built out of standard components to my rough specification by a small British company which no longer exists…

The main specs for the computer were:
  • Foxconn 925XE7AA motherboard – supports LGA775 Prescott-T processors
  • Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz CPU
  • 2gb DDR2 RAM
  • 200gb Maxtor DiamondMax 6L200MO SATA hard disk drive
  • XFX graphics card with the Nvidia GeForce 6200 TurboCache chip set and 256mb
  • Windows XP operating system, with Service Pack 2
  • + LG DVD drive, 3.5” floppy drive, memory card reader and lots of USB 2 and Firewire ports
  • All in a tower case with lots of expansion options
  • + the NEC MultiSync LCD1850X monitor I already had
Over the 3½ years I have kept the operating system up to date and added in a Pioneer DVD drive to supplement the LG, added in a card to provide more USB 2 ports, attached a Wacom Intuos 3 graphics tablet, hooked up various external hard disk drives and scanners via USB 2 and given up using the internal memory card reader as it was very unreliable in favour of an external Dazzle card reader; as well as investing in a ColorVision Spyder 2 to profile my monitor.

The only time I have had to get inside the case was to install the Pioneer DVD and USB 2 ports card, and to replace the power supply when it died after about 2 years.

Needless to say I have tried lots of software, installed and then moved on many packages and generally cluttered my system up with unused and potentially conflicting software – including changing from Symantec to AVG anti-virus software. I have kept an eye on disk fragmentation and run a couple of defrags, and tinkered a bit with registry cleaning applications, but I am generally wary of playing with the software guts of the machine as I do not really feel I know enough to not do more harm than good.

During this time digital image files have grown and grown and inevitably the PC has become a bit sluggish, and on occasion downright unusable, needing frequent re-boots to clear persistent problems, usually just slowness, which when editing large image files is a major cause of dissatisfaction.

Recently I realised that the time to do something had come – should I bite the bullet and buy a new system, or try to get my current one back to new and upgrade bits that would make a difference? I also wanted to upgrade to a twin monitor system for work with Lightroom and Photoshop.

I am reasonably confident that I can take out and put in bits of kit without zapping them with static, but would not class myself as any sort of computer technician, nor really confident that I have the time or patience to work out what the relative value for money would be for the huge number of options available for my needs; which are to make a system specifically optimised for working with digital images (not video – yet).

Luckily my brother is a computer consultant and offered to advise – without his help I would not know what to do, nor feel confident that I could find a solution if something goes wrong.

So which option to take?
For a new system:
  • 3½ years down the technology track should produce a big performance boost
  • Low power "Green" component options could reduce energy consumption
  • Clean install should eliminate accumulated system clutter
Against a new system:
  • Cash expenditure
  • The days of setting up, installing and configuring the system and software to meet my needs
  • Not environmentally friendly
For maintaining and upgrading the existing system:
  • Should be cheaper than a new system
  • More environmentally friendly
  • Choosing low energy "Green" component options should reduce power consumption
  • Should be able to mirror the old set up fairly quickly; so it should be much quicker to set up
  • More challenging and satisfying…
Against maintaining and upgrading the existing system:
  • It might all go horribly wrong!
  • Probably not ultimately as good performance as going for a new system
I decided to go the “maintain and upgrade” route.

After discussions with my brother I decided on a four phase approach:
  • Do some simple system optimisation and maintenance
  • Upgrade the main components that will make a performance difference that have an easy (and safe) upgrade path
  • Install the twin monitor system
  • Review and see if more drastic (and expensive) options should be considered
The blog postings over the next few weeks will plot my course and hopefully help other photographers faced with the same dilemmas.
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1 comment:

Benita Bolland said...

As a photographer, it is really essential to do an upgrade of your gadgets, especially your PC. But going for the new system might cost you a lot, so I guess it is good that you choose the “maintain & upgrade” approach. With this, you can scout for cheaper but quality parts from computer stores. It would give almost the same performance in a fair value.

-Benita Bolland