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Digital Darkroom Computer Builders?

Gannet -- , Oct 20, 2002; 01:24 p.m.

I'll apologize right up front for the cross-posting, in case you see this same question elsewhere. My excuse is that I'm not doing this because I'm lazy or in a hurry. Rather, I've been poking at this question for a while in various places and I'm getting zero answers or leads. I also think this question may be of interest to many besides myself.

The question is: does anyone know of any PC builders who are offering machines specifically tailored for the digital darkroom (DD)?

You can get specialty gaming machines, digital audio workstations, 3D graphics workstations, digital video workstations, etc., etc., but I'm not seeing any PCs optimized for DD work.

Yes, I can certainly spec out my own machine from a custom builder, and in fact I'm looking around at various builders to do just that. The problem is that there is a dearth of machines and options applicable to DD work. For example, massive RAM and massive storage are a given. Data redundancy and dual processors are highly desirable. Absolute max CPU speed is nice but not really that important, and 3D graphics speed is not important. The usual "custom machine starting points" you see on websites simply aren't geared for this. Server class boxes are usually the only ones that come close, and they often have other unneeded features.

As an editorial comment, I think these vendors are missing out on a market. Why is it that we have lots of people lined up to pay multi- 4-figure and 5-figure amounts for digital SLR systems, and yet these same folks are expected to limp along with an inadequate computer or else learn to be a hardware guru themselves and put one together? I think there's money laying on this table.

Maybe I'm all wrong and these vendors are out there. If so, please point me to them.




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Gene Wilburn , Oct 20, 2002; 01:36 p.m.

Gannet, there's nothing special about a digital darkroom from a computer point of view. For years graphics artists have used "multimedia workstations". These are really nothing more than high-end Macs or PCs with memory, disk, CPU, CD-ROM, DVD-RAM, etc maxed out. With lots of connectors such as firewire, USB, SCSI, etc. The upper-level Macs were (and still are) optimized for this kind of work but you can spec a Windows PC to the same level. Both Mac OS and Windows XP have built-in multimedia toollets. Mac is still in the lead IMO, but I use PCs due to cost constraints.

Kelly Flanigan , Oct 20, 2002; 01:53 p.m.

Most all the HP computers hawked at the local SAM club are marketed for digital photography. They run from 599 to 2100 bucks. The boxes, computer cases and signage is plastered with references to digital photography. the computers are on the same row as their digital cameras; printers; and ink cartridges. It looks like SAMS and HP have a good system; they computers turn over very quickly. The mid range systems have alot of front ports; 2 USB ; 1 firewire; and 1 gig ram; and are labeled on their cases "for digital photography".

Kelly Flanigan , Oct 20, 2002; 02:00 p.m.

Here there is no local store that has ever sold MACs; so PC's rule the roost for the average persons needs. The nearest MAC dealer is a 4 hour round trip away. The local newspaper and many advertising companies us MACs; and they mailorder all to get their systems.

Scott Eaton , Oct 20, 2002; 03:37 p.m.

You can get specialty gaming machines, digital audio workstations, 3D graphics workstations, digital video workstations, etc., etc., but I'm not seeing any PCs optimized for DD work.

You are a victim of marketing, and PC's are a lot like print films; most of them suck, and you need some experience to pick the ones that stand out. There is very little difference in the machines you mention except perhaps the video card, case, cheap speaker system, and 10% faster processor you pay 2x as much for. The difference between the $3,000 AlienWare game machine vs the $800 Dell desktop used by an office secretary is the video card being used (which cost $100 more) then fancy speakers (which cost $50 more), and the 10%faster processor (which cost $200 more). Do the math. AlienWare essentially charges you $1,500 for the the ugly plastic case.

With PC's, the basic fundamental variables are integrated vs non integrated components and dual vs single processor. The rest is baloney marketing or a case of simply getting what you pay for, which in one respect I envy Mac users for because they don't have to deal with this.

The only difference with servers vs PC's is data/hardware redundancy in the case of RAID configs and storage. Most servers all use the same chipsets and motherboards anyways and there's actually less diversity under the cover than standard PC's.

My old Celeron 333 with 1gig SDRAM makes a better Photoshop workstation than a 2.5ghz P4 with 256 meg of RDRAM. So, why should there be a specialized market? The absolute cheapest E-machine with a gig of RAM and a generic GeForce3 card makes a better Photoshop workstation than IBM's top of the line E-commerce server.

Paying somebody to build a PC for you assuming it's a technically daunting task is like paying somebody to wash your car because winding up a garden hose requires a Ph.D. If you can wire a home theater system without blowing a fuse or put together 90% of your kid's christmas toys without requiring a hacksaw and plumbers drill, you can build a PC. If your still not comfortable doing this, I can guarantee you have a relative with a highschool kid who's be more than happy to do this for free and can do the same quality work as any specialized shop. The kid might at least know to slipstream Win2K SP3 into the operating system install before hand saving an incredible amount of time.

FYI - Dual processors are a near waste of time for Photoshop work. They are great for multitasking, application servers, and power desktop users, but inefficient and expensive horsepower on a PC platform for single tasking Photoshop work. If you have cash to burn on a dual 2.8ghz P4 Tyan i7500, be my guest, but most people are on a budget and it doesn't make sense to go this route unless you have a really good deal.

Carl Smith , Oct 20, 2002; 04:06 p.m.

If you do want to go with a dualy, I suggest that you have photoshop 7 to do so. It appears to make better use of a multiprocessor system than its predecessors, in both PC and mac. What little comparison I've done of this does indeed confirm it.

I wouldn't suggest a pentium 4 for photoshop however. A pentium 3 will far surpass it in cost effectiveness for a capable processor for graphics. In some ways a P3 can even surpass the P4 for photoshop. The Athlon processor is also an excellent choice.

HP does make some fairly respectable machines, however their stability has dropped recently. Regardless, if you can get an HP without integrated graphics that has respectable RAM handling, it would suffice. I ran a Celeron 466 HP for quite a while doing more than most people I know with their shiny new macs and pcs were doing.

Scott Eaton , Oct 20, 2002; 05:23 p.m.

I agree with Carl that the P4 in many respects was a paper tiger upon initial release, but the continued belief that a P3 is faster than a P4 is now a fairy tale.

With prices dropping so fast on processors only a fool would buy a $100 1ghz-'ish P3 vs a $150 2ghz-'ish P4. The higher bus speeds, faster chipsets and more state of the art motherboard of the P4 is going to run rings around the P3 for Photoshop use. If you are on a really tight budget, go older Athlon vs P3 and a Motherboard that still supports SDRAM. SDRAM is running about 1/3 to 1/4 the price of DDR, and still gets the job done.

A dual processor Athlon motherboard costs at least double the price of a single one, and a dual P4 Motherboard costs 4x as much, which doesn't make the price/performance ratio worth it for Photoshop use if you ask me. Buy the fastest processor you can afford first, then start playing with dual CPUs for digital imaging if you have money left over.

Jack Flesher , Oct 20, 2002; 05:34 p.m.

I'm having a custom box built next week, and while I don't think it's "over-priced" for what I'm getting, I'd appreciate some of the "experts" here input. BTW, my main use is digital imaging running PS7:

  • PIV 2.4 Ghz, 533Mhz bus
  • 1 Gig RAM
  • TWO 120 Gig Hard drives
  • Matrox G550 Dual DVI Graphics card (I want be able to run two DVI monitors)
  • CDRW
  • Floppy, but you have to wonder why ;>)
  • Firewire card
  • NIC card
  • Win XP Pro

    Total cost is around $1500.

    TIA for your comments,

  • Carl Smith , Oct 20, 2002; 08:38 p.m.

    Overall system performance wise however scott, I've found every P3 machine I've run for photoshop to be much smoother and more stable than any P4 machine. The P4 is faster, but I'll take the stability that's been proven to me by the P3 any day.

    However, if you should choose a P4, there are some excellent systems available from Dell actually. P4s are more readily available and their prices are dropping. Another thing to consider is that for the majority of what most people do in Photoshop, once you get above 1 ghz, you're not going to see drastic improvements in performance with a faster processor. Some things will improve, but again, I continue to run a P3 because I simply find it to be more stable and reliable than any P4 machine I've used. My next step is to build an athlon system.

    Scott Eaton , Oct 20, 2002; 10:24 p.m.


    I'm still deploying mostly P3 Tualatin based servers, and even have two dual P3 servers to set up and integrate next week. Fun to load Photohop on them for, er, uh, software compatibility testing, but single P4's above 2ghz are simply faster for Photoshop use than any P3 I've used - first hand experience.

    I know what you mean about stability and have seen it first hand, but it has nothing to do with the P4. A lot of the hardware produced at the start of the IT recession suffered from really bad quality control because of emergency cutbacks, and it took awhile to get this junk out of the system. Everything from power supplies to motherboards and floppy drives. First generation P4's were coupled with really sloppy chipsets, mediocre motherboards, and other issues not due to the chip itself. For that reason higher end P3s can smoke your typical 1.7ghz P4 in terms of Photoshop speed and system stability. With mature chipsets and improving quality control I'm seeing the tables turn though and the P4 is starting to crush everything in it's path as I expected. I'm hoping that VIA or SiS soon come out with an economical dual processor chipset for the P4. That would cover the bases for both digital dark-room'ing and general desktop.

    Jack - gig of RAM, XP or Win2K...it's fine for Photoshop.

    You need to get a case like this though. Aids in color management.

    Attachment: case.jpg

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