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.


Unknown said...

Hi there,
Thanks for writing about this. I am also considering putting my own PC together; I'm currently running Lightroom and PS CS3 from a MacBook Pro with an external Dell monitor.
I'm looking forward to reading about your experiences with your new system!
Best from Canada,

Unknown said...

For next time, remember to install the new hard disk controller drivers on the old machine *before* you transfer the hard disk over to the new motherboard.

If you don't, you'll end up with a blue screen 0x7B STOP, as the OS no longer knows how to access the disk.

Microsoft's free Sysprep tool can also be helpful to prepare a system for transfer to new hardware.

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