Plugged In: Photo processing takes computer capacity

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although most currently produced cameras and computers are adequate for casual use, any limitations become quickly and painfully evident when using computationally demanding photo programs.

We’ll finish our look at photographic computing, begun last week, by evaluating which computer components have the most impact on photo-processing performance and which provide the best balance between solid reliability, speed and price. Because every program places different demands on a computer, these results won’t necessarily hold true for other business computing needs. Serious post-processing of high-resolution photo files requires serious computing power. Wimpy notebook computers and smartphones need not apply.

My timed performance tests included in this week’s article used various Windows 7 Professional computers running DXO Optics Pro 9.5.2 with maximum sharpness and noise-reduction settings, and then exporting the processed Olympus RAW files into Adobe Lightroom 5.6. Your mileage may vary.

When buying or building computers for computationally demanding business needs, I’ve always found it wise to get the best affordable components. It’s false economy to “save” $50 or $100 by buying too-slow or potentially less-reliable computer systems and upgrade parts.

Heat is the archenemy of reliable computing, and higher computing performance inevitably means more heat. I’ve found that heavy photo and video processing places extreme demands on the computer’s central processing unit, often running the CPU at 100 percent for minutes to hours, even though the 64-bit Windows version of both DXO and Adobe Lightroom efficiently use all processing units built into multicore CPU chips.

That’s a lot of processing and, thus, a lot of heat. You’ll likely hear your computer’s high-temperature alarm sounding nearly continuously when processing a video or a large batch of still photos. When that happens, it’s worth checking the CPU performance monitor within Windows 7’s Task Manager. You’ll be amazed at how much is going on “underneath the hood.”

Good cooling is essential under these circumstances. Unlike compactly built systems, which are more likely to overheat, a medium tower computer case with several large exhaust fans usually provides adequate cooling. Large-diameter, slow-turning fans exhausting interior air cool a computer better than fans that force air into the computer case, and they’re also quieter. I also like to install a fan that blows cool outside air around the disk drives. A photo-processing computer should include a power supply rated for at least 600 watts.

My timed tests indicated that CPU performance has by far the biggest impact on overall photo-processing speed. Video card and disk drive/data storage speed seemed to have little effect. In contrast, computer gaming benefits primarily from faster video cards, while general business computing tends to be more dependent on data storage performance.

I tested a variety of 64-bit CPU processors on various computers running my preferred Windows 7 Professional operating system. All were multicore CPU processors and all were used efficiently by the programs. Below are the times required by DXO for maximum image quality processing of the same Olympus RAW format photo file by various CPU processors that I happened to have on hand. All processors ran at their standard rated speeds. Lower times indicate better photo-processing performance.

  • AMD FX 8350 (eight-core CPU running at 4.0 Gigahertz), 95 seconds.
  • AMD FX 6350 (six-core CPU running at 3.5 Gigahertz), 135 seconds.
  • AMD Phenom 955 (four-core CPU running at 3.2 Gigahertz), 150 seconds.
  • Intel Core i5 (two-core CPU running at 1.7 Gigahertz), 235 seconds.

I wasn’t surprised that the newest generation AMD FX 8350 had the best photo processing time by a wide margin, nor that the older, two-core Intel i5 was the slowest. What startled me was that the newer AMD FX 6350 was barely faster than the out-of-production AMD Phenom 955. The newer, faster FX 8350 is only about $30 more expensive than the FX 6350 and, in this instance, the more-expensive FX 83560 CPU is clearly the better value.

Intel’s Core series CPUs generally perform better than AMD processors in photo-processing applications. The fastest Core i7 is about 50 percent faster than the AMD FX 8350 in real-world photo applications, but the i7 is much more expensive. Intel’s Core i5 CPU processors are slightly faster than AM’s FX 8350 but cost about $100 more. In addition to the higher cost of Intel processors, system boards for Intel processors also tend to be more expensive. Overall, my sense is that computers using the AMD FX 8350 and some versions of the Core i5 processor are the best choice for consumers and hobbyists on a limited budget.

The system board is really the heart of any computer. Newer system boards integrate virtually every desirable function except video onto the system board, and it makes sense to buy the best system board that you can afford. If you’re building or upgrading your own computer, first decide on the CPU processor that best fits your needs and budget and then buy a system board that’s explicitly rated to use that CPU.

I’ve used many Gigabyte-brand system boards and found them to be among the most consistently reliable but be sure to first check user experiences and professional evaluations. Any modern computer/system board should include at least the following features:

  • At least four, preferably six, internal SATA 3.0 disk drive connectors and at least one external eSATA connector.
  • USB 3 capability, including front panel and rear connectors.
  • Gigabit speed Ethernet networking.
  • RAID disk array capability.

16 gigabytes or more RAM capacity, preferably able to run PC12800 and faster memory at its full-rated speed.

There’s no need for video output on a high-end system board. Onboard video is always slow and thus included only with low-end system boards.

v RAM: Fast RAM helps the computer’s working memory keep pace with the system board and its fast multicore processor. Eight gigabytes of RAM is sufficient for most still photo processing but upgrading to 16 gigabytes is inexpensive and useful if you decide to do any video processing. PC12800 or faster RAM is the current standard.

v Disk drives: A solid-state disk, usually termed an SSD, is preferred as the primary disk drive to boot the system and load programs. SSD drives are now very inexpensive and improve perceived overall system performance a great deal. Use a SATA 3.0 solid-state disk with at least 120 gigabytes capacity. These now cost under $75 from Amazon. A larger, 240-gigabyte version costs about $50 more.

I strongly urge installing a second, higher-capacity mechanical hard disk for primary data storage. At this time, the 2-terabyte Western Digital Red series seems to be the most reliable. These modern drives cost less than $100 each. That amount of storage should be sufficient for a few years.

DVD read/write drives are now an inexpensive generic item, although I still prefer Sony’s models. Archival DVD media is available that remains readable longer than regular DVD and CD disks, but archival media requires special DVD read/write drives.

That’s enough hard-core technology for a while, so over the next few weeks we’ll move along to new camera gear recently introduced at the 2014 Photokina trade show.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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