This is a great question that Vlad asked me. I’ve done special builds now for file servers, gaming PCs of course, but what about just doing image editing, what’s the best build. Here are some criteria:

  • Very quiet. I know this shouldn’t be, but why not, who need a roaring fan when you don’ have to have one. This machine is going to live in your office space you really don’t want a huge noisy set of fans. That really argues for an all SSD design and going with a bigger case with a large heat sink and big 120mm and 140mm fans. You also want to think about your graphics cards and how you are going to cool them.
  • PCI Express lanes Haswell 28 vs Haswell-E or Xeon v3 40. One of the more interesting questions is that some Core i7 only support 28 lanes vs 40 lanes. They are more expensive, but you get DDR4 memory and also lots and lots of cores as well as 40 lanes of PCIe. I’m guessing that Photoshop probably likes fewer faster cores so a Haswell desktop processor is the right answer, but I haven’t found benchmarks to back this up. So to get 40 lanes, you need to go to a Xeon server chip or a Haswell-E 8 core at $700. It’s also interesting to see that in SLI configuration games there is almost no difference in performance between 16x/8x and 16x/16x, so it is hard to saturate that many lanes in real life for video. Each Intel P3500 PCIExpress SSD needs 4 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 and saturates it, so you can definitely run out of PCI for a big build (16 for video, 8 for second video leaves taking up four slots would leave you with 40-24=16 lanes or enough for 3 P3500 cards). There are also slower PCI Express 2.0 lanes for peripherals though and 6-10X SATA that are on a separate bus.

  • Motherboard. <a href=”“>X99 and 2011R3. This is the latest Haswell-E motherboard chipset. It supports DDR4/2166 vs DDR3/1600 with 40 lanes of PCI Express video. And 10 SATA 6GB ports, on board USB 3.0. So if you want more performance and PCI capacity, you need more the higher end i7-59xx cores not the i7-58xx. The enthusiast Haswells like their server based Xeons ship at a slower rate than the mainstream Haswell. The equivalent server side chipset is the C608 and it has SAS ports in addition to SATA

  • Three Different Disks (aka PCI Express and how much if any SATA SSD). Also Photoshop really has three separate disks you need to worry about. The boot disk which is nice to have fast, the swap disk which must be very fast and also separate and the data disk where the long term storage lives. Going all SSD for all of them seems like a good idea if you can afford it, but the highest priorities are swap, then boot then data. The more important thing for the data disk is that they should be very fast on sequential reads and writes as you load your files in.

  • Graphics cards. Finally another consideration is the video screens. Ideally you want 10-bit screens (that is the really high quality true 10-bit screens, not the 8-bit ones that are faking it). And for photos, having a 4K display makes a lot of sense. While you are not trying to push millions of pixels, that does mean that you will be limited to Quattro or other professional class video cards as the consumer ones don’t do 10-bit. Most of the time you will want one main display and then another one to have your palettes and so forth.

The really bogus part of about this is that workstation cards are a generation behind (Kepler and not Maxwell) and they are 2x more expensive. To add insult to injury, they are just use hardware straps to tell a card what it is?!
Modulo this, here look like some requirements for an amazing desktop system based on Adobe recommendations and also looking at benchmarking such as the OpenGL test at Tom’s Hardware, here are some specific thoughts about how these requirements affect hardware:

  • Memory. Seems like Photoshop just loves, loves, loves memory, so the more the merrier as in memory is of course way faster. In the latest Windows 8 64-bit, there is no ram limit in Photoshop itself, so it sounds like 64GB at least seems sensible since that’s the easiest way never to go to disk. The new Haswell-E is DDR4 and is 4-way interleaves, so you want 4 cards at minimum for best memory performance.
  • HD, SATA SSD. PCIExpress. Makes sense as well, since it is constantly paging in and out as you search for things. These new PCI Express cards seem perfect for it (and beside Vlad himself worked on the Intel P3500 line). It sounds like this is best used for the scratch disk (e.g. temporary file system). One big question is whether you want to go all PCI Express SSD or whether you need to have the traditional tiers of SATA SSD and then Hard disk. With the price of PCI Express SSDs coming down so much and knowing that most of your archival storage will be on a file server it’s practical to imagine a system with a Boot (256GB), Swap (512GB) and Data (1TB) as an architecture.
  • Haswell (Haswell WS named Xeon E3 v3 is equivalent server ship) vs Haswell-E (Haswell-EP is server variant names Xeon E5 v3). These names are so confusing. Haswell-E are the new enthusiast desktop chips that correspond to Xeon E5 v3 which is the brand name for Haswell ES There are two considerations. First how many cores do you need and second how many PCI Express 3.0 lanes do you need. They don’t say it, but they can multi thread. I’d suspect you don’t have too much concurrent going on, so that implies relatively few cores with relatively higher clock speed. Sounds like a Core i7 is going to work well. Tom’s hardware’s latest benchmarks definitely show the new i7-4790k scales and handles OpenCL processing as well. It’s a $400 part running at 4GHz. But you do get a little less with the Core i5 as noted in their Gamer CPU recommendations, so there is definitely a tradeoff between $200 more processor and say more memory or more GPU. And if you are CPU only the 2013 benchmarks does show the diminishing returns for single threaded performance with the Core i5-4570 with 4 cores and 4 threads doing very well for a $190 part.
  • Single or Dual GPU. The latest Photoshop CC uses OpenGL and the GPU for certain operations, so you want a decent card. I need to see how much performance it really can use, but if it is linear, then sounds like you want a very fast gamer GPU or maybe a graphics oriented one. AMD uses OpenCL acceleration and it looks like that can deliver 2x (?!) performance improvements, so maybe an AMD chipset is in the works. Only certain Photoshop routines are using the GPU right now, so the main issue is how to get a fast display and refresh. Given that photos are not video, the requirements are much lower, so ideally we should look at benchmarks, but a single big GPU would be great!

So putting it all together, here is guess at what makes sense for a good high end but still reasonably priced system

  • CPU. The new Haswell-E are nice but super expensive, actually the Haswell-EP (Xeon E5 v3) don’t look so bad. they have lower clock rates, but lots of I/O and DDR4 memory which should help. Seems like taking a close look at the smaller Haswell-E or a mid range Xeon E5 v3 is the way to go and that will depend on a close look at pricing
  • Motherboard. This leads you to the X99 or the C608 chipset which gives you all that wonderful set of features like DDR4. You will need lots of slots though as you have 2 dual slot graphics cards plus 2 PCI Express 4x lane card so 6 cards in all.
  • Memory. 4 way interleave, so 4x16GB seems the best although this RAM is new and the only question is with desktop you go non-EEC and buffered which is cheaper.
  • Graphics. If you are moving to 4K seems like dual nVidia Quadro’s are in your future because only they support 30 bit color monitors. Sigh, more cost.
  • SSD Disk. This is actually the big variable but the maximum performance looks like really pushing on this, with the 40 lane Haswell-E you can have up to two PCI Express screamers. That would be one for boot, one for scratch and you saturate PCI Express 3.0 (2 x 16 video + 2 x 4 = 40 lanes).
  • Hard Disk. Then for backing storage you can use the onboard SAS drives to get nearline quality and get three of these (the X99 and the C806 support 6 in RAID configuration).
  • Power supply. I haven’t done the math, but dual SLI plus probably means at least 1000 watts and I’d probably get 1250 to be sure.
  • Chassis. The main question is whether you want hot swap or not but it looks like this will be an ATX size motherboard so a smaller tower. You can now get inserts that put 5 3.5” hot swap into a dual 5.25” drive area.
  • Cooling. You need a massive Prolimatech Genesis scale cooler plus the graphics cards are going to be loud which is the main problem.

One response to “Best hardware for photo editing”

  1. […] Haswell Tower for ultimate gamer or a/v editing. This build uses a mini tower mainly for multiple video cards (2x is the sweet spot, but 3x still works) or for expanding your drive arrays. With these 5-drives in a 3-height 5.25 plus lots of internal bays, you can build a truly massive server but note that for really big server, you probably want to move to the reliable rack. […]

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