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In this age of digital photography (and other imagery) it is pretty much necessary to interface with your camera via a computer. It will store your image files, allow you to edit them, and upload to various platforms. However, like your camera, your computer is an expensive piece of technology that needs to be understood in order to be used properly.
On Facebook photography groups, you will see a lot of questions about what hardware specifications people need when buying a new computer. Should they go with PC or Mac? Laptop or desktop? What do all the words and numbers mean? Do I need an SSD or an EHD or both?
For simplicity sake, the term PC (personal computer) will be used in this article to cover the generic concept of a computer – regardless of brand or operating system. Whether you buy a PC or a Mac the hardware inside is the same.
This is also a beginner’s guide to hardware terminology for people without IT experience and backgrounds. For the technical readers, yes there may be some oversimplification of terminology. Unless it is genuinely incorrect, please reserve any comments about that. The non-technical people really don’t care about the details.
Photographers working with very large image files can often need a more powerful machine than normal. If you are doing editing in Photoshop with lots of layers, then the technical demand on the hardware is even higher.
As with everything, the faster and more powerful you want the hardware to be, the more expensive it will be as well. So being able to make decisions and choices to suit your budget and requirements is important.
Above is a standard description of the usual components found in a PC or laptops these days. In general, the list of specifications is done in a consistent order, listing the important features and functionality of the machine. Let’s break it down individually:
If the computer is a desktop PC then the first definition will be the form factor or type of case. Desktop PC cases come in several different tower sizes – full tower, micro, small form factor (SFF), and mini. Does it matter which you choose? Yes, if you want to put lots of hard drives in, or a really grunty graphics card, then you will need a bigger case. A powerful graphics card needs a bigger power supply to run it and is also a full sized card (usually) so will need a full sized tower case.
If the computer is a laptop then the description in the first line will usually define the screen size and type; e.g. 14″ FHD 1920×1080. Small, sleek, thin, and light is fashionable with laptops at the moment, however the sacrifice you make is that limits the options for upgrading your hardware over time. Laptops in general are not easily expandable and often have a shorter useable lifespan than desktops as a result. However, laptops are portable which is an added bonus.
Smaller cases also limit the choices you have to make in relation to the hardware options. With a mini case, it will only fit the smallest components, like an SSD (solid state drive) and that can often drive the price up as well.
So the choice of the form factor matters. Laptop versus desktop is a key decision, and then the size of the chassis makes a difference as to what you can put in it.
CPU stand for Central Processing Unit, and is essentially the brain of the PC. This does all the calculations and thinking and can affect the speed and performance capability of the computer. CPUs are classed by performance capability so an i7 is top of the range, i5 middle of the range, and i3 is entry level.
For standard everyday use an i5 is sufficient. For many photographers on a budget, an i5 with enough memory and an SSD will still be powerful enough to edit in Lightroom (or your program of choice). Those who edit really big files, especially in Photoshop will probably want to look at an i7 option.
Within each family there are several choices, again relating to speed and performance. This is defined as the number of cores they have and the clock speed. As is typical with technology, the faster and more powerful, the more expensive the option will be. Here is where it can get tricky because the software you are running on the computer may have been designed with certain requirements as to the hardware specifications. It may prefer to run on a single core, or need multiple cores or even multiple CPUs (i.e. it has more than one processor in the machine).
So you also need to know what requirements your specific software might need to run at optimum efficiency.
If we think of the computer in vehicle terms, the form factor is the style and shape of the vehicle (2-seater, coupe, sedan, SUV, etc.), the CPU is the engine, and that means the memory is the fuel tank. Fuel limits how fast and how far a vehicle can travel, and memory does a similar thing for a computer. The more memory it has, the more capacity the computer has to process and run lots of operations at once. Memory provides the resources the CPU needs to do the computing.
Memory (RAM – Random Access Memory, or essentially the working memory) is available in 4, 8, 16 and 32 GB sticks. Most consumer PCs and laptops only have capacity for a maximum of 32GB with usually two slots available for memory. At least 8GB should be the minimum purchase in 2017. For anyone intending to use Photoshop heavily I would recommend at least one 16GB stick initially. That allows you a second slot to upgrade into if you have performance issues – if you buy two 8GB and want to upgrade, you will have to throw one away.
If CPU is the engine, and memory is the fuel, then the hard drive is the storage capacity. So how much stuff can you fit into your PC? Is it a snazzy 2-seater, a roomy sedan, a people mover, a van, or a long-haul truck as far as storage capacity of your data.
Data isn’t just your image files either. Everything you load onto a PC takes up storage space, the operating system, all the programs, games, videos, music, emails, etc. Everything that somehow gets downloaded onto the computer needs a place to be stored. Over time, that can take up a lot of space. Add in large file formats like RAW files being downloaded by the hundreds or thousands on a regular basis, and suddenly you need a LOT more storage than you thought.
Today there is the added complexity of two different technology choices for hard drives in consumer PC devices. Traditional spinning disc drives that connect via SATA (usually referred to as SATA drives for short) or SSD drives (solid state drives) are available. SATA drives have come in very large capacity options 4, 6 and 8TB at the top end, but they are a slower performance option. Due to having lots of moving parts, they are prone to breaking but they are the most cost effective option.
SSD drives are a newer technology that stores data in a different way without any moving parts. Hence they are physically more reliable, but have smaller storage capacity options and are quite expensive compared to the SATA option. Some of the newer slimline tablets and PCs only offer the choice of SSD.
How do you get data onto your computer? Does it come with a DVD drive? Most of the modern notebooks and tablets are so slim in design there is no room for such a device. You can get external DVD drives that plug in via USB if you need one to install software that comes in disk format.
If you have a PC tower you can install a fitted memory card reader which is faster than an external one for importing your image files.
Every motherboard comes with some graphics capabilities. Essentially, this is the bit that generates what you see on the screen. For basic image editing an onboard option is sufficient. However, if you are using Photoshop or Lightroom you may want to consider a specialized card that comes with dedicated graphics memory to boost the performance. Most low-mid range gaming cards will suffice. An added benefit is they will also offer support for multiple monitors, generally at least two. People wanting to process and edit video files may want to consider a dedicated specialized card for that purpose, they generally will only fit into a large PC case and can be quite expensive.
This is an additional option which will only fit into a tower case option – the bigger chassis have space to fit these. Extra graphics is not an option for laptops and similar form factor devices (unless you purchase a high-end mobile workstation or gaming laptop which are expensive). I would recommend getting a silent card as they can be quite noisy, generally the more powerful the card the bigger the fan it requires (too cool it down) and the noisier the card.
So designing your computer means taking into account all the technical requirements of the software versus the capabilities of the hardware and your available budget. If you’re not interested in technology this might be a bit frustrating. However, investing some time in learning about what the components of your computer do, and how it relates to your specific requirements may be useful for making strategic computer purchases.
If you have the budget to purchase a more powerful machine, with the idea of hanging on to it for 3-4 years, instead of 1-2, that might be a better return on investment. Buying a larger PC tower case allows you to upgrade all of the components, depending on technology changes. You might even stretch out use of the PC to 4-5 years for a small outlay on upgrades – perhaps some extra memory, and maybe some SSD to boost performance.
Conversely, if your requirements are low and your budget is limited, being able to make an educated choice around what compromises you might have to make (i.e. maybe get a PC instead of a laptop as it’s often cheaper) can be helpful as well.
Do a bit of reading or research, or find a technical friend and offer to buy them lunch if they will assist you with your next computer purchase, that is always a viable option.