Want to buy or build a workstation for image and photo-editing but aren't sure what you should be looking for? Or perhaps you are, but don't know where to begin? Or maybe all the benchmarks and tech-talk online is a little overwhelming? Fear not and read on - we'll clue you in and keep it simple.
Here at Novatech, we understand that researching workstations is often a pretty dry, frontal lobotomy kind of experience. One that feels never-ending, with all the different available options, numbers and statistics piling up into some kind of bar chart labyrinth that you don't particularly want to spend days or weeks navigating. We get it - so sit back, let us moisten your dusty eyes and massage your frontal lobes, as we give you a no-BS breakdown of everything you need to know about the hardware which should be in your image and photo-editing workstation.
Let's start with the most important thing to consider - which you might be surprised, isn't actually hardware...
The software you use will decide the most important piece of hardware in your workstation
Ultimately, the main thing you'll want to check is whether your software is utilising the CPU or the GPU. Whichever your software uses will point to where the power of your workstation should be centred.
For the majority, you'll find that image editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom, is primarily CPU-based. That leaves you with only one real decision, and that's whether to have a processor with more cores, higher clock speeds, or a middle ground between the two.
Seeing as these applications don't make much use of multithreading (splitting tasks into multiple 'threads' to be divided amongst cores), we would recommend at least 4 cores minimum, but there is no real benefit in exceeding 8. Higher clock speeds are what you'll benefit from the most.
It's also definitely worthwhile checking whether your software favours a particular CPU manufacturer. Adobe products in particular are often better matched to Intel, for example.
Some CPUs to fit the bill:
So do you need a GPU?
Short answer - yes. You will benefit from discrete graphics (rather than CPU integrated), so definitely keep a graphics card in the picture. Don't, however, worry your cotton socks, since it is by no means the defining feature of an image and photo-editing workstation - most software offers GPU acceleration with certain features but the majority of the tasks you carry out will be handled by the CPU.
You'll need a minimum of 2 GB VRAM, though more likely 4 GB if you're working with QHD or 4K, which in GPU costings translates to fairly low spending. That said, if you want to take full advantage of the GPU acceleration, we would recommend at least an NVIDIA RTX 2060, which will more than cover your needs (and maybe let you do a little gaming in between too).
Some other GPUs to do the job:
Or not. Of course, you will require RAM for your system to function, but frankly, despite what you might read elsewhere in hardcore PC-builder forums, you don't need to pay much attention to how fast that RAM is, or its latency for that matter (Mhz and CL). It's extremely fast by nature - even if you were just using the cheapest old stuff you could find.
You're highly unlikely to notice the difference between say, 2400Mhz and 4000Mhz, in real world use, which means you'd just end up paying a premium for something you can never really appreciate. Honestly, if you can, then you're in the wrong career and should probably go get a job as the first ever human speed camera.
What you really want to focus on is how much you have, which is all dependent on the standard file size(s) you actively work on at any given moment, plus any other applications you might run in the background or alongside your project. Especially if those applications are other projects, and even if it's only a few tabs in Chrome for YouTube, Netflix, Spotify (all three if you're some kind of mutant with six eyes, six ears and three brains), or whatever your preferred form of procrastination might be.
We would recommend 16 GB, which will keep you covered on all fronts for the most part. If you wanted to play it super safe, or say, work with really large 4-8k files, then you could opt for 32 GB instead. But don't forget, in most cases your system will support up to four sticks of RAM (or even 8 depending on your motherboard), so you can always start lower and upgrade later.
You may also have noticed that sticks of RAM tend to come as either a single, pair or two-pair kit, and might have heard the terms single, dual and quad module configurations thrown around. Much like speed, you don't really need to worry about these - the configurations are only really of importance when you build your own system or expect to upgrade your memory at a later date, and generally there isn't a great deal of difference for the average workstation user, especially when it comes to image and photo-editing.
In this instance, I'm not going to give multiple options for RAM, since they're fairly the same wherever you look. The price range doesn't differ too much from brand to brand, and generally just going with something like Corsair's Vengeance modules is fine.
Common sizes/modules available are:
2x/4x 8 GB, 2x/4x 16 GB, 2x/4x 32 GB
But where oh where to store everything?
M.2 NVMe, SSD, and HDD - in that order. Put your OS and applications on the NVMe storage, save your active and recent projects on the SSD, and keep all of your old or archived projects on a larger HDD. It's that simple.
M.2 NVMe is the fastest type of storage (and thus the most expensive), so is great for keeping small or hand-picked software and programmes on. It means your system will be fast to boot and open up applications.
SSD is the next fastest, but is much cheaper than NVMe, making it perfect for saving active projects that you want to open nice and promptly, so you can start work right away.
HDD, the slowest of the pack but by far the cheapest, is the perfect solution for storing older projects that you still may need to access but won't be in a hurry to jump into. That's not to say it'll take days to open a large file, not at all. It'll just take several seconds longer (maybe minutes for gargantuan files), rather than just a few seconds, as is the case with SSDs and NVMe.
When it comes to NVMe and SSD, the Samsung 970 Evo and 860 Evo, respectively, are some of the best around, though many other brands and models are just as good. As for HDD, SeaGate and Toshiba are well-know and reliable too.
The ideal set up for most people is to have a 250-500 GB NVMe, as many TB of SSD storage you need for current projects (usually 1 or 2), and anything upwards of 4 TB for an HDD, should you feel you wanted or needed one.
Storage is available in a variety of sizes, usually:
250 GB, 500 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB, 4 TB, 10 TB and so on, with prices scaling accordingly.
Other components to consider
If you've decided to build your own custom workstation, then there's a handful of other things to think about, namely: PSU, Motherboard and Cooling.
PSU is relatively straightforward - you just need something that can meet slightly more than your actual possible power consumption, usually a minimum of 10% over. You should also make sure it's got an efficiency rating of at least 80, and of course, that it fits your chosen case.
600-1000W is the standard range for most higher-end workstations, but they more than cover the average power requirements. For a frame of reference, our ProStation WSV9-1R, a top-end workstation for image and photo-editing, uses a 750W PSU.
As for your motherboard, that'll be dependent on the other components you've chosen. You'll need to ensure you match up its chipset to your CPU, be it AMD or Intel, and you'll need to check it has enough DIMM slots to hold the amount of RAM modules you want to install. Plus you'll need to check that the case you have can house it by matching up its form factor (most commonly ATX). In Layman's terms, this essentially means a mid or full-size tower.
Equally, if you've opted to use a GPU in your rig, then just check that the motherboard has the appropriate PCIe slots for it to clip into (all details that can (and should) be found in seller item descriptions/specifications).
And finally, if the CPU doesn't come with a cooler by default, you'll need to consider getting a CPU cooler too. A fan with a heatsink is the most common type, and provided you're not building an absolute beast with a 64-core processor like AMD's latest Threadripper, then a mid-range product will be sufficient for CPUs using the 8 cores we recommended earlier. Similarly to with the motherboard, the only other thing you'll need to double check is whether the CPU cooler is compatible with AMD or Intel CPUs. But often, they tend to be compatible with both.
That's all there is to it
With any luck, this post has proven of use to you and I can only hope I've managed to make a usually dry and dense subject a little lighter and more palatable.
If you feel more confident about what it is you want from your workstation, or even enough so to build your own, then follow the links below where you can find some pre-built systems as well as a custom configuration tool, where you can order your very own workstation - designed by you, for you.
And as always, let us know what you think in the comments section down below. We love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
Our workstations are custom-built for the creative industries. From graphic design to video editing, animation and GPU rendering, our media and entertainment range won’t let you down. Check out the full range today and if you have a custom spec in mind, let us know what you’re after and we’ll build it for you.
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