Sunday, 12 July 2009

Building a PC for photography and Lightroom

A couple months ago I decided to build a desktop PC designed mostly to produce a good price/performance with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The posting and a few follow up ones describe what I built and how much faster it was than my old PC.

My criteria for selecting the components for my new photography optimised desktop PC build were:
  • A good balance between price and performance
  • Reuse my Windows XP software and transfer my existing applications with the least hassle
  • Large capacity storage for digital images
  • Cool and quiet operation
  • Upgradeable
  • A total price of around £600

Processor choice
The core to the whole system is the processor (CPU). After a good deal of research I decided to use an Intel Core2 duo E8400 as it shows up very well in several reviews, including CustomPC’s on image processing (go - here - for a graph from CustomPC showing the relative GIMP performance of a large range of processors). As well as being powerful it also uses less power than most processors and wins on the price/performance ratio scale. I decided to cool it with a Scythe Kama Angle cooler. Also if need be the E8400 is supposed to be highly overclockable.

When I went to buy it I discovered that offered an OEM version of the faster E8500 at only a couple of pounds more than the E8400 retail version – The retail version comes with an Intel cooler so since I planned to use a specialist CPU cooler it was a waste – so I bought an E8500 (£150), along with the Scythe Kama Angle (£28), which came from an eBay shop, with Artic Silver Ceramique CPU coupling compound.

Motherboard choice

The E8500 is a 775LGA socket processor, but my old Foxconn board would not support it – after a bit of looking at reviews (which mostly seemed to focus on the overclocking options of the board) I decided that the Asus P5Q Pro (£108) would “do” – while not the best overclocker it seemed to offer good standard speed and I don’t really plan to go into overclocking unless I have to.

Power Supply Unit
I wanted a good reliable, energy efficient modular power supply unit (PSU), with enough power to allow me to upgrade if need be – I decided that the BeQuiet Dark Power 650W (£106) would do the job.

PC case
I have never really given much thought to such a mundane thing as a computer case before, but I have now realised that if I want to have a quiet, cool case which is pretty easy to build a PC in and then to upgrade that the case makes a lot of difference. After a good deal of web searching I bought an Antec P182 (£105) – which is solid, has three 120mm Antec Tricool variable speed fans and plenty of space for discs and peripherals. It also has sound absorbing side panels and a front door to keep it quiet. This came from eBuyer.

I decided to transfer the 4gb of Crucial DDR2 PC2-5300 from my old PC

Hard disks

I was planning to transfer the Western Digital 640gb Green HD from my old PC with the Windows XP operating system installed on it along with the eSATA external hard disk (a twin of the operating system disk) as backup. During the build I found that the Samsung SpinPoint F1 1tb (1,000gb) which seems to be the current best size/speed deal around at the moment had come down in price at eBuyer (£78), so I bought one of those as well to store images on.

Optical discs

I toyed with the idea of upgrading to a Bluray disc, but decided to wait until the media prices come down. So I transferred the LG & Pioneer DVD read/writers from my old machine to the new one.

Graphics card and monitors

I wanted to keep the twin monitor system from my old PC so I transferred the Asus EAH 3650 256mb DDR3 twin DVi card along with the Dell 24” Ultrasharp and my old NEC 18.5” LCD screens.

The build

Never having built a PC from scratch I asked my brother to supervise and set aside a day to do it. The actual build was quite easy for the most part – I had prepared by watching several videos on the web of people building PCs and read a “How to build your own PC” book – so working slowly and reading instructions I installed the PSU, the motherboard, the processor, CPU cooler, hard discs, memory, optical discs and graphics card (in that order).

I had anticipated that installing the CPU would be the most hairy moment, but it was remarkably easy. I had never really realised that when manufacturers talked about “zero force insertion” that they meant that you simply put the CPU on the socket and clipped it into place with a lever over it – it really was “zero force” and extremely easy.

The real problem was the installation of the Scythe Kama Angle CPU cooler. It took both of us several attempts to clip the four legs of the cooler into place and some sweaty moments before we were reasonably sure that the cooler was installed properly. We then discovered that the secondary power socket for the motherboard was located “under” one of the arms of the cooler’s radiator – having to take the cooler off again to plug in the power did not appeal at all given the problems we had had in getting it installed the first time. Luckily there was just enough clearance and access through the top of the case to work the plug into place without taking the cooler off – but it was a very close run thing.

The rest of the build was just a steady progression with no dramas or problems.

Turning it on…

I never expected it to turn on and work seamlessly – that would have been just too easy, and so it played out.

When I first turned it on it started and then the dreaded “blue screen of death” came up with an error message – the helpful Microsoft advice to solve the error message was to reinstall the old motherboard…

After several hours of booting from CDs and using various pieces of test software (such as Memtest98) we concluded that the hardware was OK and that it was an OS problem, so we decided that we simply had to reinstall the operating system and that the change from the old system to the new one was simply too much for it to handle. This we did, which, along with all the service packs, patches etc, took a couple of hours.

During the installation my brother suggested that I put the operating system swap file in a separate 4gb partition on the faster Samsung to speed up general operation – which I did.

Then it simply turned on again and worked!

In use…

All my original software worked as well and when they were plugged in all the peripherals such as scanners, graphics tablets etc worked too. The only thing that did not work, and after several weeks of trying still does not, was the eSATA disk. It simply refuses to work and stops the PC from booting up if connected. Since the caddy it is in has a USB2 port as well which seems to work fine I have decided to put it down to experience and move on.

The PC is very quiet – in fact I have to put my ear to the box (under my desk) to hear much at all when it started up at first – this is with all three fans set to their intermediate speed setting. After a bit I started to notice that the graphics card fan was making a bit of noise, but compared to the old PC it was much, much quieter.

The CPU seems to run generally at around 37-40°C moving up to just over 50°C under stress testing – so I am very happy with the overall cooling of the system.

The whole package cost £575 (£497 without the extra Samsung hard disk) from a variety of suppliers, along with the transfer of pieces from my old PC. Well within my budget so I am again happy so long as it delivers the promised performance improvement. I could have done it much cheaper by re-using my old PSU & case, but I wanted a more reliable, upgradeable and quieter package than that would have allowed - but it would have saved £211, and without the extra hard disk the whole upgrade could have been done for £286.

Over the next few blogs I am going to report on how the new PC actually performs against my expectations – which previously I thought should be 3x-4x my old Pentium 4 based PC along with a few tweaks that I will make to the system.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Test of Inov8’s replacement battery for my Panasonic G1 digital camera

A month or so ago I said that I was going to try a generic battery from a reputable manufacturer – Inov8 – in my Panasonic G1. Here is my experience of it over the last few weeks.

Inov8 are one of a number of reasonably reputable replacement camera battery brands. Since they were the first one to offer a replacement for Panasonic’s expensive Li-ion DMW-BLB13E I decided to try it, although it was not exactly cheap in its own right at £26.95 from a reputable eBay seller.

Below is a photo of the blister pack that the battery arrived in – followed below by a scan of the back of the packaging with details including Inov8’s stock code for it - B1346.

The Inov8 battery says it is a replacement for the DMW-BLB13 – I don’t know if the missing “E” is significant.

Below are a couple of photos showing the product details printed on the Panasonic and the Inov8 batteries respectively.

As you can see both are made in China, both operate at 7.2v and the capacity of the Inov8 is slightly larger than the Panasonic- 1300mAh versus 1250mAh, so it ought to last longer. The Panasonic also shows a 9.0Wh rating whereas the Inov8 does not offer a Wh figure.

I put the Inov8 into the Panasonic battery charger that came with the camera and charged it up – which seemed to work fine. I then popped it into the G1 and was rather concerned when the warning in the photo below came up on the screen.

A message saying the “This battery cannot be used” is a bit scary. I turned the camera off and on again and the message went away, but it has resurfaced each time I have taken the battery out and put it back in again. After this on/off/on cycle the camera seemed to work fine so I took around 100 photos as a test and all was well, so I charged it up and took it along as a backup on a weeks holiday.

On holiday I recorded the number of shots I took with each battery (the original and the Inov8) to try to get a feeling for the comparative battery life.

The first use of the Inov8 to exhaustion only yielded 110 photos – although I probably used the image viewing more than usual and had liveview on more than normal I was alarmed by the low number – I measured 300+ when I first got the G1 in much colder Winter weather. You can find my earlier battery life results posted – here.

I was also surprised how quickly the battery meter progressed from two bars (three bars indicates it is full) to “Red” to exhausted – around 10 shots. This was much quicker than I remembered from previous tests on the original battery.

Somewhat alarmed I then repeated the test on the original Panasonic battery trying to use it in a similar way – This yielded 195 photos; much less than my original tests, but nearly double the supposedly larger capacity Inov8.

To be fair I repeated the test with the Inov8 battery and the second test yielded 135 photos and again the progression from 2 bars to exhausted was very rapid. The second test almost certainly used liveview much less as around half of the shots were taken in quick succession in one session.

After my tests I am very disappointed in the performance of the Inov8 battery. It seems to have much less capacity than the original Panasonic, despite rating itself as having a slightly larger one. It seems to fail much more quickly than the original (e.g. it goes from 2 bars full to exhausted) very quickly – within about 10 shots. The opening message saying “This battery cannot be used” is not at all reassuring, even if it is easily cleared. Perhaps the “E” on the Panasonic battery code explains all this – perhaps it stands for something like “Electronic” and this explains the error message and rapid exhaustion with little warning.

All-in-all I am pretty disappointed with this battery – it is not dirt cheap at around half the price of the Panasonic version and while I shall use it and keep it as a back up battery I don’t think that I can rely on it. It certainly does not live up to its billing on the packaging of “Superior lasting performance”.

I suppose that it is possible that the battery is not a genuine Inov8 battery and that someone is selling cheap imitations repackaged in Inov8 packaging, but I have no way of telling – of course if anyone from Inov8 reads this review and wants me to try one from them direct I would be only too happy to oblige.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Canon G9 – test of image quality after “Lens error, camera restart” incident

In my last posting I worked through what I did when my G9 suddenly experienced a “Lens error, camera restart” incident – go here for more details. At the time I did a quick image quality test to check that all was well. I have now done a more detailed test and here is my experience.

I am about to go away for a week and want to take a compact camera with me and the G9 would be ideal, but after the recent incident I was only willing to do this if I could convince myself that the image quality had not been impaired by the fairly robust treatment I had had to give the lens to get it working again.

In order to do this I decided to try to replicate an image that I took a few months ago that I was happy with and which had printed up well. This is an image of a window from my local church which has quite a lot of fine detail all over the image – the original image is below.

I looked up the original EXIF data to replicate it; this was ISO 80, f5.0 with aperture priority, auto focusing with a focal length of approximately 29mm.

This afternoon I set out to replicate the image, which is shown below.

Apart from it being a different season (there are leaves on the tree now), totally different light conditions and a slightly shorter focal length (25mm vs 29mm) the image above is good enough for my test.

I synchronised the settings in Lightroom so that the same settings that might affect image sharpness etc were used on both; such as clarity, contrast, vibrance, sharpening and noise reduction etc.

I have looked over the whole of both images and found that the image quality on the post incident image is as good as the earlier one – in fact it may be better… I have checked centre to edge and the two 100% extracts of the same part of the image below show that there is no loss of detail in the post incident image and the auto focusing is working fine.


The G9 is behaving itself again and its image quality is as good as it was beforehand, so I shall be taking it with me on the trip.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Canon G9 – “Lens error, restart camera” error

I went to use my Canon G9 compact digital camera recently after a long lay off for it while I explored the Panasonic G1. I charged up the battery and turned it on just before putting it in my suitcase for a three day trip – all I got was some whirrs and bleeps and a message on screen saying “Lens error, restart camera”…

The lens shutter opened, the lens projected a bit then stopped, with the whirrs and bleeps and then a message on the LCD screen saying “Lens error, restart camera”. It then turned itself off. The photo below shows the screen error message (please excuse the finger marks - I was in a hurry) and the one below that the position the lens stopped in.

Not panicking I decided to turn it off, leave it a few minutes and try again - no change. I tried it a couple more times; still no change. I then took out the battery and left it for 10 minutes; still no change.

Since it was now time to catch the train I took out the battery and left it on the shelf with its lens partially extended to sulk and consider its future until I came back and picked up the Panasonic G1 instead.

When I returned three days later from my trip I popped the battery back in and tried again – no change. I tried a few times with the odd prod of the lens to try to encourage it to move. Nothing happened so I left it and had a search on Google for solutions.

The general message I got from various sites was that Canon was unlikely to be interested in fixing it as they nearly always claim that this sort of problem is due to sand/grit etc in the mechanism or being dropped and hence not covered by any sort of warranty.

My camera is about 18 months old, but very lightly used – it has only taken about 500 photos as it has only really been used as a back up to my DSLRs and rarely needed. I have taken a good deal of care of it and when not in use it has been kept in its Lowepro D-Pods 30 case that I reviewed earlier and that review can be found – here. I have certainly never dropped it or abused it.

I’m not wildly patient and after reading about the problem and its solution on several web sites I followed the most comprehensive advice that I found – here.

The 7 Fixes...

I followed the suggested fixes - which as you would imagine are progressively more risky – through to the final level – Fix 7.

Fix 1 - Essentially what I did initially – turn it off and on again.

Fix 2 - Again essentially what I did next – taking the battery and memory card out; putting in a new battery and then trying again.

I rummaged around in the loft to find the USB AV cable as recommended when I reached Fix 3.

Fix 3 - Insert the AV cable in the camera and turn it on – the idea is that this turns off the screen and diverts a little extra power to the lens motor and that might do the trick. It didn’t for me.

Fix 4
- Lay the camera on its back and press the shutter release while turning on the power – this might trick the camera into moving the lens as it tries to focus while powering up – didn’t work for me though.

Fix 5 - Blow compressed air around the lens to try to shift any particles clogging up the works. I didn’t have any compressed air, but I do have a large Giottos “Hurricane” blower which I tried – to no avail.

Fix 6 - Tap the USB cover on the camera against a hard surface a few times – This is getting into serious “you do this at your own risk” territory as it may make things works or solve the problem but damage something else inside the camera in the process. Not feeling as if Ihad much to lose I gave it a go – again to no effect.

Fix 7
- “Try forcing the lens” is the advice. It could really do terminal damage, but if you don’t fancy a big repair bill and the camera is out of warranty then … I didn’t feel that I had much to lose so I did some extensive wriggling of the lens, pushing it and pulling it – all the while listening for the telltale click that says it has reseated itself. I thought I heard it a couple of times and occasionally the lens moved and the lens changed the position it ended up in, but for probably about twenty tries I kept getting the same error message.

Naturally I got a little less gentle as time progressed and eventually the lens closed as I pushed it back in against a flat surface.

When I turned it back on the lens came out and protruded much further than before, but it was still not right. After going through the cycle around five more times the screen lit up and instead of the error message I got a camera settings screen – progress at last.

I pressed the shutter release and the flash fired and an image appeared on the screen – but the image was very out of focus. I tried zooming which worked and then gently (now I was beginning to think that it might be OK I became more cautions) wriggled the lens about.

I turned the camera off and the lens retracted and the shutter closed – when I turned it on it seemed better, although the familiar "Powershot G9" turn on screen did not come up; just the camera settings screen.

After a few more tries the camera started working normally again and the focus seemed OK.

I took the camera out for a quick test and viewed the images in Lightroom at 100% - they seem OK.


After several on/off cycles it is still working fine – so it looks as I have brought it back to life; but more by luck than skill I feel. In reality most of the movements I tried with the lens were firm but not sharp shocks or knocks.