Each new version of Photoshop has new and wonderful tools, but each version requires more and more computing horsepower. If you are buying a computer today, what do you need to run Photoshop?

Tim Grey answers that question in the Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter (formerly called Digital Darkroom Questions or DDQ for short).  With Tim’s permission, I periodically reproduce a Q&A from his newsletter.Today’s edition follows:
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Today’s Question:

Similar to the question in the December 11th email, my computer is also out of date. Instead of upgrading, however, I have decided to replace it . Given today’s Photoshop environment, what capabilities do you suggest for a PC?

Tim’s Answer:

There are, of course, countless possible variations on the specific configurations you could choose from based on the huge number of components you could choose from. It is very easy to get overwhelmed quite quickly. This is much less of an issue for those purchasing an Apple computer, because in that case you’re dealing with only a single manufacturer and there is a relatively limited number of possible models to choose from. While each of those models does in turn provide you with various options to choose from, on balance there are many fewer decisions to be made. For example, if you’re interested in purchasing a Macintosh desktop system, I can simply recommend that you get a Mac Pro with 6GB of RAM (the Mac Pro is offered in multiples of 3GB of RAM), and you’d be in good shape.

On the Windows front things are a bit more complicated. This is the result of something I consider to be a very good thing: There are more manufacturers available, and thus more choice and a greater likelihood you’ll be able to find a computer that is perfectly suited to your needs and preferences. But you’ll also have to contend with the complexity involved and the difficulty in comparing one model to the next.

In order of priority, the key components to consider are RAM, processor, hard drive, and display adapter (video card). While your decision isn’t as simple as choosing basic specifications, here are some guidelines:

For RAM I recommend having 4GB, and if you’re working with a 64-bit operating system and 64-bit version of Photoshop, more might provide some benefit if you don’t mind spending the additional money.

For the processor, I recommend a dual-core processor at the higher end in terms of clock speed. That means, for example, a Dual Core processor running at around 2.5 GHz. Most photographers won’t get much benefit from more than a single dual-core processor (some utilizing specialized applications will, but most won’t see an appreciable benefit most of the time).

When it comes to the hard drive, the best performance specification to look at (if you can even get this information) is the sustained transfer rate. The RPM value is a good rough guide to the potential performance of the drive, but that really only measures how fast the platters are spinning, not how quickly your data is getting transferred. Just be sure to look at the actual sustained transfer rates, not the number indicating the theoretical maximum throughput speed for the drive based on the interface being used. For example, a drive is capable of supporting transfer speeds of up to 150 MB/second, but more common sustained transfer rates are around 90-100 MB/second. Note that many manufacturers are starting to use Gb/second, which is gigabits, not gigabytes, to convey this performance information. One gigabit is equal to 128 megabytes, so for example 3Gb/second would equate to 384 MB/second. And yes, I’m sure this is only being done to add confusion to an already confusing situation…

Finally, the display adapter can be rather important, especially if you’re taking advantage of the GPU acceleration capabilities of the latest releases of Photoshop. In short, look for a display adapter that gets good reviews among the gaming community and that is listed as being compatible with Photoshop, and you’ll be in good shape. That generally means a display adapter with around 512MB or more of video RAM, among other specifications.

These key specifications will get you a long way toward a top performing computer. Naturally you need to balance all of these considerations with your budget, and also take into account other factors such as the reliability ratings for a given manufacturer, support offered by that manufacturer, ergonomics, personal preference, and other factors.

I wrote about computer specifications more extensively in an article called “Dream Machine” in the Winter 2008 issue (slightly dated, but still largely relevant) of Digital Darkroom Quarterly, my full-color print publication that features in-depth articles of interest to photographers. You can sign up for a subscription through my online store at www.timgrey.com/store/, and even choose the Winter 2008 issue as the first issue in your subscription if you’d like to have the full article.

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