Photoshop CS6: Time to Update the Digital Darkroom

  • March 14, 2013

There was a time I used to upgrade my PC regularly. As a former gamer I used to try out all the latest games, and when my PC struggled to keep up with a decent 60+ FPS frame rate in the most demanding of games (24-bit colour and 1024x768px resolution), I would feel the need to upgrade the trio of components – motherboard, CPU and RAM. This was a fairly costly exercise to maintain!

After my last big upgrade in about 2009, I found that my PC was fine for all current tasks, as I was only was playing games on the PS3 every so often, and nothing was severely taxing my system, until I got into high-end Photoshop processing within the last year or so.

What’s so “high end” about my processing you may ask? Well I choose methods that really chew up the CPU, RAM and disk storage:

  • I use only the 64-bit versions of Lightroom 4 (LR) and Photoshop CS6 (PS). This is so that I can address more that 4GB or so of RAM per application.
  • I only shoot RAW, which has bigger file sizes than JPEG.
  • I export to PS as 16-bit TIFFs in the ProPhotoRGB color space. This is so that I don’t lose any information during the image processing workflow.
  • I use a non-destructive editing technique in PS with selections, channels, layers and masks.
  • I use multiple image blending to recover highlights and shadows.
  • I use multiple image stitching to create wide-angle panoramas, sometimes in conjunction with blends.

So lets take a look at my existing system, and where it falls down. Please note that my existing display panel is quite crappy, but I only want to discuss the raw horsepower under the hood for this blog post.


The Existing Rig

I can never remember this stuff, but with the help of the awesome AIDA64 tool I bring you my current “beast”…. well it was once upon a time!

  • OS: Windows7 64-bit
  • Motherboard: Asus P5E3 Premium. Intel X48 chipset
  • CPU: Intel Core2 Quad Q9450 2666Mhz “Yorkfield” with LGA775 socket  (95W TDP)
  • RAM: 4x 2GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3-1066 (533MHz)
  • GPU: Asus EN8600GT 256MB DDR3 (nVIDIA GeForce)
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda ES 500630 500GB  (SATA-II 300Mbps) 16MB buffer

…basically an old quad-core CPU, 8GB RAM, low-end GPU and old-style hard drive.


The New Rig

Every single part is going to get swapped out for new equipment, if I’m going to have a rig that can cope. Breaking it down:

Operating System

I’ve heard good reports that like-for-like, Windows8 takes up less system resources than Windows7. This alone is a selling factor, but also it supposed to work natively with USB3 and have better support for solid state drives (SSD), so this makes the choice to go to Windows8 a no-brainer. Yes I did consider Mac, but the system I was looking at is around $4200 and I can build that considerably cheaper with DIY. Also, all my apps are purchased on Windows and a lot of them are recent purchases – I don’t want to throw that away. I’ll consider OSX in say another 3 or 4 years during my next upgrade cycle. I’m not an OS zealot. OSes mostly bore me and I just want them out of the way so I can use PS and LR, and browse the web with Chrome.


I’ve always used ASUS. They are often a bit pricer than the next Taiwanese brand, but I like to think they are made better with higher quality capacitors and other components. I could be wrong but they’ve done really well for me in the past, so feel no need to change.

I don’t have a model in mind as the CPU I want is not out yet. I’ll get one with as little legacy I/O as possible – serial/parallel ports, old PCI slots, older USB2-only ports…they can all go. I also have no need for eSATA if there’s USB3.  I’ll be looking for something that has plenty of PCIe and all USB3 ports, and would also like Intel’s Thunderbolt/Lightpeak as used in the latest Macs. It will definitely need 4+ RAM slots for max memory.


It just so happens that Intel have a new CPU micro-architecture ready for launch called “Haswell“.  The wikipedia roadmap for Intel shows that this will be released around June. I’ll let the motherboard manufacturers catch up and would think that around September would be a good time to buy, thus I’m looking at about a 6 month wait. I think it’ll be worth it (as I flog the life out of my existing system!) as it promises 2x the vector performance which I think would come in handy for PS, as well as the 10% overall performance boost over the previous micro-architecture. There also supposed to be big power savings, which will be very handy for my power bill, as my computer is on more often than off.


I thought I was sitting pretty with 8GB or RAM, but just having LR and PS open with a single RAW file exported to PS can chew up above 6GB of RAM alone! I went sniffing around the Internet to see what others had to say and found this zdnet article on PS CS6 .  I definitely agree with the that 8GB can nowadays be considered the absolute bare minimum of RAM for running CS6 64-bit. I had a look on EYO and see that a 16GB stick of DDR3 ECC RAM is just $160 (where were those prices 4 years ago?!!) I would get 2x 16GB sticks for a total of 32GB RAM. That would give me the expansion capability to go to 64GB RAM if need be (huge!) ECC (Error Correction Code) RAM, just for added piece of mind. I run ECC RAM now and not once in the last 4 years of so has Windows7 crashed. I only trial software in a Virtual Machine and only install “decent” software, which I’m sure helps!


For all the talk about PS’s new Mercury Graphics Engine, It doesn’t seem that there’s a huge difference between the ultra-expensive GPU and an above-average current one, so I’ll just aim for a “decent” modern GPU, possibly fanless to keep the noise down. I’ve always used nVIDIA, so think I’ll stick with whatever’s current in the GeForce line of cards. I do want one that outputs DisplayPort, as I’ll need that for whenever I upgrade my monitor. 2x DisplayPort outputs would be ideal.


I will get two solid state drives (SSD) – one for installing Windows and applications, and another drive which will be dedicated to Photoshop for its scratch disk, and also files as I process them. Think of this as a C: drive for Windows, and a D: drive for Photoshop. I have a home NAS that I built myself using FreeNAS which has four 2TB drives, but I use redundancy so it gives me about 3.8TB in total.  After I finish processing my files, I can move them within LR onto my iSCSI NAS drive (my windows Z: drive). This NAS has decent performance as I’ve optimised with with Intel server NICs, jumbo frames and IPv6 point-to-point, and have tuned the iSCSI parameters.  I chose iSCSI as Windows Networking (Samba) was too slow. The LR catalog will remain on the D: drive for the lowest latency and best performance.

As for backups, everything on my NAS is pretty safe due to RAID, but I still have an eSATA 2TB drive plugged in my computer that I turn on from time to time and sync across my photography files and other important files on the NAS and on the local computer,  in case of human error or other catastrophic failure like power surge, fire, flood or theft. I really should store this portable drive offsite in a secure location and use full disk encryption.

Now I just have to wait, and save!