This is a post about building the ultimate PC for photographic processing. While the principles are useful. it is fairly technical and for most people the other article Computers for Photography will be more appropriate.
(Note: This is still an interim update).
- Priority for Speed
- Some Component Considerations
- A normal approach to a fast photographic PC
- The approach I’ve taken
- Concluding Comments
- Appendix 1: Links about computers
- Appendix 2: Links about building a PC
The super-fast tongue
(Panther Chameleon, Peyrieras Nature Reserve, Madagascar).
From the images I took, at 9 frames per second, I estimate the full extension of the tongue takes about 1/5th of a second.
COVID-19 may impel many people to upgrade their PC, either for working from home or because they are now going to spend more time there. I am also going through this process, though both my cause and my objective is different. I need to replace the motherboard of my PC and I am looking to upgrade my PC specifically for heavy duty photographic processing.
I have both Nikon and Fuji cameras. My main Nikon camera is 47MP which produces very large files (52MP) and for either Nikon or Fuji I may perform computer-intensive operations to combine many exposures. This can be for increased depth of field, extending tonal range, creating panoramas or some combination of those. Processing infrared images in Photoshop and scanning film can also be demanding on resources.
Many of these operations I either was not performing or with much smaller files when I last upgraded my motherboard. Therefore I prefer to take account of these greater tasks and the possibility they may increase in the future in ways I now don’t anticipate. I hope that if I have a more efficient computer I may be able to free up some of the time I now spend processing.
I’m hoping that anyone can understand what I write and that it will also be useful to people with detailed knowledge. I’m definitely aiming at a high-end PC but I’ll also cover alternatives for people who have lesser financial resources or lesser processing needs. Feel free to ask questions.
I have already written an article on Computers for Photography which is more general than this one and which contains links to other informative sites. This article includes new technology that is not covered in any of those links.
Priority for Speed
My main objective is a search for processing speed. As linked to in my earlier article, Image Science suggests that the order of priority for spending money on a computer is:
- Monitor and Calibrator
- Fast Ram
- Video Card
Some Component Considerations
– Types of Hard Disks
I’m going to ignore the monitor and calibrator here (See information on that in the other article). The next priority is disks and the reason for that is that different types of disks and different combinations of them have very different speeds. Note also that I’m talking about disks and not drives. You might have a C drive and a D drive that are merely logical partitions of the same physical disk. Here I’m referring to the physical disks.
- Disks can be SATA or NVMe. SATA disks are usually powered by SATA cables though sometimes can mount directly to the motherboard. NVME disks mount directly to the motherboard and are much faster.
- HDDs or spinning disks are those big heavy things that have been around for decades. They are one kind of SATA disk. An example is the Western Digital (WD) Black, which spins at 7200rpm. Another example is the WD Blue, which spins at 5400rpm and is slower.
- Standard SSDs are small and oblong but squarish, and also SATA. They don’t have moving parts and are rather like a big USB stick. They are faster and more expensive than HDDs and many people use them as their C Drives or boot disks.
- M.2 SSDs are a more recent standard. They are long and thin and smaller than a “normal” SSD and mount directly to the motherboard.
- SATA M.2 SSDs have about the same speed and cost as a “normal” SSD.
- NVMe M.2 SSDs are more expensive and significantly faster.
- Your motherboard can also allow you to combine disks in a RAID array either for increased speed or increased security or both. They are usually of the same model and capacity of hard drive and can be SATA or NVMe and HDD. or SSDs. There are four different kinds of RAID. Let’s say we have four hard disks.
- RAID 0 writes to all disks simultaneously and appears as one disk. The four disks make it four times as fast as a single disk but if one disk fails, you lose all the data on the RAID.
- RAID 1 appears as two disks but each of those virtual disks contains two disks, one of which has a copy of the other disk. You lose no data if a disk fails and the speed is the same as a single disk.
- RAID 5 appears as one disk, simultaneously writes to three disks and uses one disk for data validation. You should able to recover your data if a disk fails. It is about twice as fast as a single disk.
- RAID 10 appears as one disk, simultaneously writes to two disks and uses two disks for data validation. You should able to recover your data if a disk fails and maybe also if two disks fail, depending on which ones. It is twice as fast as a single disk.
- Some people have experienced problems with the reliability of HDD RAID but this has improved over the years, and SSD RAID should be more reliable than HDD RAID
– The Hard Disk Race for Speed
So how do these disks compare for speed? Let’s have a race to find out.
Serpent Column and Thurmose III’s Obelisk at Constantinople Hippodrome.
This is an image from the Hippodrome of Constantinople/. This is where they did their chariot racing, at least until Constantinople was occupied during the Second Crusade in 1202. The first event of the ancient Greek Olympics is also believed to be a chariot race. Chariot racing was the pinnacle of speed in the ancient world.
In the background is the Obelisk of Thutmose III, Pharaoh 1479-1425 BC. It was brought to Constantinople in 390AD, and only the top third survives. In the foreground is the Serpent Column. This was originally erected in Delphi in 478 BC to commemorate the final defeat of the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. It originally had three serpent heads that supported a golden bowl but the bowl was lost or stolen during the Third Crusade and the heads fell off in 1700. (The upper jaw of one remains in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum). Both of these were on the Spina, or the ridge in the middle of the Hippodrome that the chariots raced around.
These days we have various kinds of football clubs (though currently inactive due to COVID-19). The Hippodrome crowds divided into Blue and Green factions (and originally there were also Red and White). They were also a bit like criminal gangs, and disputative to the extent of starting civil war. The Constantinople Hippodrome was 750 metres long and 220 metres wide (including seating). A lap was about a kilometre and a race was 7 laps, so the race was over 7 kilometres. There were two very tight turns at the end of the track for each lap. For the main races, the chariots were pulled by four horses.
– and we’re off and racing!
The Hippodrome is U-shaped and the mouth of the U houses the starting bays. We have six chariots lining up for the race, representing different hard disks. We have a WD Blue HDD, a WD Black HDD, a 4 disk RAID 5 array of WD Red HDDs, a Samsung 860 EVO SSD, a Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD and a 4 disk RAID 0 array of Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSDs. (Times will correspond to read times, write times are somewhat slower.)
The 7 kilometre race is over in 8 minutes 25 seconds, won of course by the 4 disk Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD RAID 0. After all, it is a new chariot pulled by four strong horses. In that time, the WD Blue has covered 90 metres. I guess you can’t expect too much from a donkey and a cart. In the same time, the WD Black covered 125 metres, the WD Red RAID 5 array 200 metres and the Samsung 860 Pro SSD 460 metres. All of these have been lapped seven times and didn’t make the first turn, at 500 metres. The single Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD did better, completing one and three quarter laps, or 1,750 metres, and was lapped only six times.
– Costs of Horses and Chariots (or Hard Drives in modern parlance)
Of course there’s a cost for better and more high tech chariots, quicker stronger horses and more accomplished charioteers, or in general, for increased performance. This also applies to the different kinds of hard drives. If we take one terabyte disks as an example, a WD Blue HDD costs about $70, a WD Red HDD $95, a WD Black HDD $135, a Samsung 860 EVO SSD $260 and a Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD $350. (Current prices in Australian dollars, though they may change quickly in these times). There are always compromises but square wheels don’t help much in chariot races while only the generals can afford horses from the Arabian Peninsula.
The kind of disk you choose and whether you combine them can have a huge effect. So this is why disks are the most important component in computer speed these days.
– USB and disks
Speed of disks is one thing, if you need to connect an external disk to your computer, the connection speed or USB speed is another. This should be straightforward but a number of aspects are unnecessarily confusing. Speed is commonly given in Gbps – but that’s not Gigabytes per second, it’s gigabits per second and there are eight bits to a byte. Also, the changes in naming conventions have become downright bizarre. I’ll give a summary here and express speeds as megabytes per second with Gbps in brackets. Then I’ll explain how that compares to speeds for the different kinds of disks.
- USB 2 has a speed of 60MB/sec (480Mbps)
- USB 3.0 has a speed of 625MB/sec (5Gbps)
- but its name has changed to USB 3.1 Gen 1, then USB 3.2 Gen 1 and all names are concurrent (!)
- USB 3.1 has a speed of 1250MB/sec (10Gbps)
- Name changed to USB 3.1 Gen 2, then USB 3.2 Gen 2. Equivalent to Thunderbolt 1.
- USB 3.2 has a speed of 2500MB/sec (20Gbps)
- Name changed to USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. Equivalent to Thunderbolt 2.
- USB 4 will have a speed of 5000MB/sec (40Gbps) but is not yet generally available.
- It is equivalent to Thunderbolt 3.
- Note that USB-C merely refers to a different plug though is usually USB 3.1 or higher.
Now let’s compare that to hard disk speeds.
- A big heavy clunking hard drive (HDD) has a speed of say 120MB/sec to 150MB/sec. So connecting it with USB 2 will slow it down by 50% or more but USB 3.0 will work fine. Anything more than USB 3.0 will work but will be superfluous though because the HDD can’t match the connection speed.
- A smaller squarish SATA SSD (or a SATA M.2 SSD) will have a speed of around 500MB/sec. In this case, connecting it with USB 2 will slow it down by nearly 90% but USB 3.0 will be fine and anything higher will work but be superfluous.
- The very small oblong NVMe M.2 SSD (and not the identical-looking SATA M.2 SSD) will have a speed of 1700MB/sec to 2400MB/sec. So you need USB 3.2 to take full advantage of this one. This is an emerging option but you can already get relatively inexpensive and compact NVMe M.2 enclosures and plug them into a USB port. (This would be the ultimate option for backup while travelling).
A normal approach to a fast photographic PC
Now the usual approach to upgrading the motherboard for a reasonably fast photographic PC would be as follows:
- You’d want a motherboard with DDR4 RAM and it would be good to have at least two M.2 PCIe ports. There are lots of choices, one is an Asus Prime H370-A for around $200. It needs to be able to fit into your case though (This one is for an ATX motherboard. You can have micro ATX, ATX and extended ATX cases).
- Then the CPU, though you really don’t need the fastest and most expensive CPU. You might get an Intel i7-9700 CPU, perhaps an i7-9700F for about $550.
- You’d also need an appropriate CPU cooler from maybe $60 to $150. (Also needs to fit in the case).
- Then you might add say 32GB RAM from a good brand such as G.Skill or Corsair for between $230 and $300. (You could also get by with 16GB though 32GB is better for Lightroom and Photoshop).
- You’ll also need a suitable graphics card but it doesn’t need to be a high end one, perhaps a GTX 1660 with 6GB memory for around $360.
- Then you’d need to add hard disks which you might be able to transfer from your existing PC. With this motherboard you could add up to six SATA disks, which could include an SSD as a boot drive (C Drive). Then you have two M.2 PCIe SSDs as fast processing drives. Alternatively, don’t have the SSD and have one M.2 PCIe SSD as your boot drive and a larger one as your processing drive.
The approach I’ve taken
I’ve opted for seriously fast processing disks, including four M.2 PCIe SSDs combined in a RAID array. This is the chariot and four horses that can blitz the field at the Hippodrome. To do that I’m using an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card which can mount four such SSDs. You can see a detailed overview of it in this review (which has six pages, in case that’s not obvious).
– CPU, Motherboard and PCIe Card
You will have a number of slots on your motherboard called PCIe slots that you can mount cards in and they come in different lengths. You probably have a graphics card in one of the full-length ones. You can also have different cards for different purposes and one such card is the Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card. It is only $90 which makes it sound like a cheap option but to mount all four SSDs you need another fully powered full length (x16) slot. This requires an expensive CPU and motherboard. Specifically, you need a CPU that supports at least 44 “PCIe lanes”. So in terms of Intel CPUs, neither an i7 9700 nor an i9 9900 fit the bill and I went for an i9 10900X ($1070). For the motherboard I went for an Asus Prime X299-A II ($600).
I have 6.7TB of data, including 6TB for photographic images. The old computer had a 2TBx4 RAID 10 array for 4TB of storage plus a 6TB WD Black and a 500GB M.2 PCIe SSD. I had 2.9TB on the RAID 10 for images, 3.4TB on the WD Black for older images and other files, and 365GB on the M.2 SSD for the Lightroom Catalogue. There was also a 256GB SSD for the boot drive. (It is essential to have at least 10% free space on a drive and preferably 20% or it may become unreliable.)
I intended to have both a SATA RAID 5 of HDDs on the new computer as well as a RAID of NVMe SSDs. It was only later I found out in Intel FAQs that I couldn’t have both (Asus documentation didn’t cover that and Asus Support didn’t know). So since the NVMe SSDs are much faster than SATA HDDs, I’ve opted for an NVMe RAID and single SATA HDDs. So I’ll keep the 6TB WD Black, I’m currently using another HDD and I may replace that with a 4TB WD Black later. I chose an Intel option because it seemed to offer a SATA RAID 5. Had I realised that wasn’t going to work, I probably would have opted for AMD which is currently cheaper and more powerful.
– M.2 NVMe SSDs
The new motherboard allows up to three M.2 NVMe SSDs on the motherboard. I have a Samsung 960 EVO in one as my boot disk and a Samsung 970 EVO Plus in another for my Capture One catalog. I also expect to have four 500GB M.2 NVME SSDs on an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card which I have specified as a RAID 0 array using Intel Virtual RAID from CPU or VROC. They are Intel 760p SSDs and for X299 motherboards they have to be Intel SSDs which is another thing not mentioned in the Asus documentation but that I found later in an Intel FAQ.
People with older PCs can potentially add an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card to get an M.2 slot even where the motherboard doesn’t already have one. Your CPU won’t support a VROC RAID but depending on your CPU and the PCIe lanes on your motherboard, the card will support one or two M.2 SSDs, though not the full four.
– RAID 0 Precautions
RAID 0 gives a very fast drive but if any of the SSDs fall over, all the data is lost. This may be a bridge too far for some people but here is why I am comfortable with it.
- I have everything backed up to a local Drobo and to the Cloud. The Drobo is a black box of drives connected to the PC and I back up using Acronis. For my Cloud backup I use CrashPlan though for most people BackBlaze is cheaper and would be sufficient. For more on backup see my article Backup for Photographers.
- My Lightroom catalog will be on the RAID 0 drive. I have a separate and frequent backup for just that catalog. Lightroom working files can take up a lot of space but most of that is previews. Currently my Lightroom working files take up 350GB but the catalog itself is only 2.4GB. It’s not essential to get the previews back because you can always regenerate the ones you need in Lightroom whereas restoring the catalog itself should be very fast.
- I will have a copy of my working photographic images on a SATA HDD (in the computer) as well as the RAID 0.
- For both Lightroom and Capture One, I save changes to the catalogue rather than to sidecar files. The RAW files are unchanged. So if I lose the RAID 0, I would simply need to point the catalogue to the SATA HDD with the other copy of the files. This would cover all of the original files and any changes in Lightroom. The only files I would need to restore from backup (as needed) would be JPEGs and TIFFs I have generated in other programs such as Photoshop, Zerene Stacker, Autopano Giga, SNS-HDR or Capture One
- The SSDs have a 5 year warranty so failures should be infrequent. They should be much more reliable than HDDs.
Iceland Farmhouse uploading to The Cloud.
– Intel and AMD
My Intel X299 motherboard only supports Intel SSDs for RAID (VROC RAID), either on an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card or the motherbard. If you want a RAID 5 or RAID 10, this requires a $250 hardware key but RAID 0 does not require a hardware key. Other SSDs such as Samsung SSDs are not compatible for a VROC RAID either on an Asus card or on the motherboard though they are fine to operate as single disks.
You can also get hardware keys for non-Intel SSDs such as Samsung, at $170 for RAID 0 and $400 for RAID 5. They definitely don’t work with X299 motherboards, either for an Asus card or directly off the motherboard, and Intel’s X299 VROC FAQ says only Intel SSDs are compatible so I’m not sure where you can use them.
I understand AMD motherboards don’t have this problem, you don’t need to pay extra for a hardware key and you can use non-intel SSDs. An AMD alternative, specifically an Asus Prime X399-A motherboard ($460) and an AMD Threadripper 2920X CPU ($800) is quite a bit cheaper than the Intel alternative and appears a better option though you can’t have a RAID 5. I haven’t checked out the fine print for this option though.
You can buy an off the shelf PC or get a custom one; if you want a high performance PC specifically for photography you may prefer a custom one. You can buy a custom PC from somone like Aus PC Market (as recommended by Image Science) or specify it yourself and either get someone to put it together or do that yourself. You can get a new PC or upgrade the components inside your case.
The prices I cited above will of course change over time and new options will become available.
Some thoughts on issues when renewing a PC:
- You should read all manufacturer specs and the manual, and also consult the Qualified Vendor List (QVL) to make sure the components are compatible.
- I found the Asus documentation was deficient in important respects and I also needed to consult Intel FAQs.
- If you are upgrading RAM, you need to replace all your RAM rather than adding more, even of the same specification. Otherwise, your RAM is much more likely to fail.
- Some vendors are better to deal with than others, especially if you encounter compatibility problems and need to return an item. I recommend Scorptec.
- Back up your computer image and make a boot USB
- Acronis lets you transfer your operating system to different hardware.
I don’t claim to be an expert, I just investigate what seems to be appropriate, do my research and follow my own path. I’m also not responsible for what you may encounter if you follow my example. Not many people would need a PC like this one, it all depends on your processing requirements and your budget. What you already have may be quite sufficient.
Also consider my earlier article, Computers for Photography which is more general and contains useful links.
Feel free to make comments or ask questions, though, to which I will respond to the best of my abilities.
Appendix 1: Links about computers
- Computers for Photography
- Backup for Photographers
- How Motherboards Work
- How USB Ports Work
- Data Transfer Rates Compared (RAM vs PCIe vs SATA vs USB vs More!)
- List of Intel Core i9 Microprocessors
- List of AMD Ryzen Microprocessors
- SSD vs HDD: which is best for your needs?
- Best SSDs 2020
- Compare two HDDs or SSDs, eg Samsung 860 EVO vs Samsung 970 EVO Plus