Infocus Blog

An “ideal” imaging workstation

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about repairing and minor upgrades for my imaging workstation and I mentioned that I would be upgrading my entire workstation later this spring.  Since, several people have asked me exactly what makes a adequate imaging workstation and what I’ll be upgrading to myself.

Interesting questions.  I’ll be happy to share my current upgrade plans with the caveat that by the time I actually order parts newer or differently priced technology might sway my choices.  The hard part is trying to determine what makes the ideal imaging workstation for others when I don’t know your budget or needs.

What I’ll do, is divide this into two different systems.  One being a low end system that will perform just fine for someone who doesn’t process tons of images, and a higher end system for someone who does process a ton if images and computing speed is a great factor.

Minimum system:

Keeping current price points in mind I don’t think it would pay to go any lower than these choices.  The prices are rough estimates in USD based on what I’ve seen on-line.  Also, I’ll only be discussing the motherboard, RAM, CPU and power supply because the rest of the system (case, optical drives, hard drives, keyboard, monitors, etc) are based on user defined requirements.  I will share what I’ll be building though.  As you’ll see, the main cost of a system is in the parts I’m not covering.  The motherboard, CPU, and RAM costs becomes relatively insignificant compared to the total cost of a complete system.

Motherboard:  Intel 975xbx  Roughly $110.  This is a very reliable and stable board that had been on the market long enough to expose any bugs or reliability issues.  It has none.  There are many choices of great motherboards in this price range.

CPU:  Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66ghz  E6700 series.  Roughly $90.  This was state of the art three years ago, but today is the minimum CPU I’d recommend.  It has the large caches and is fast/capable enough to crunch images at a moderate pace.

RAM:  4 gigs of DDR2 800mhz.  Approximately $85 at current prices.  There is no need to buy more for most purposes and it doesn’t make sense to buy less at current prices.

Power Supply:  Antec, Thermaltake, or PCpowerandcooling brands.  Buy at least a 500 watt model.  These are top brands and will cost you from $125-$200.  You could buy 500 watt supplies for as low as $25 but I’d recommend against it.

Input and output devices should be as good as you can afford.  The best mouse, keyboard and monitor will only allow you to work faster and enjoy the system more.

You don’t need a powerful graphics card for imaging workstations but you should get one powerful enough to run the Vista Aero interface, not for the Aero interface, but because a card that is rated for the Aero interface will tend to be very compatible and have all the power you need for imaging processing.  This means almost any card in the Nvidia 7000/8000/9000 series.  You can find these for under $75.

Monitors, look for S-IPS panels, the largest size and best quality you can afford.  You can find 19” S-IPS LCDs for $150-$200.

Hard drives, top quality pays here for reliability and not losing data, as well as speed and size.  I’d recommend nothing smaller than  a 1tb (terabyte) drive because they’re now under $100, unless you’re using multiple hard drives and you want to buy a faster higher performance drive like Western Digital’s Raptors series.  In this case a 150 gig Raptor makes for an ideal system drive, and at least a single 1tb drive for your storage needs.

My current planned upgrade:

Motherboard:  Asus PB6T Deluxe.  This is about $250 and allows overclocking and very stable operation.

CPU:  Intel i7 at 2.66ghz.  This is a quad core chip that allows 8 threads.  It runs about $280 and can easily be overclocked to a reliable 3.8gig if you so desire.  This makes the 2.98ghz i7 at near $600 not the economical choice, especially when you know they can both be overclocked to the same speeds.  I’ll be cooling the CPU with the Thermaltake 120 Extreme tower with a quality 120mm fan mounted to move airflow through the fins.  This is one of the best air coolers available with easy installation.

RAM:  A minimum of 8 gigs of 2000mhz DDR3 RAM.  Current prices are about $380.  Slower RAM that would work fine in this system can be found for less than half this price.

Power Supply:  I’ll be choosing the PCpowerandcooling Silencer 920watts.  This is a superbly built power supply with enough power for my system components and is fairly quiet in operation.  I try to choose power supplies that not only provide very clean power under heavy load, but that typically output twice the power I’d normally use.  This means that no matter how heavily I use my system the power supply will be supplying ripple free clean DC voltage and staying cool and quiet at the same time.  If for instance I installed a 500 watt power supply, it would have enough power to do the job, but it would be working very hard at its limits, which means much more heat and noise and the power would be less clean (as a rule). This power supply retails for under $300.

Case:  Lian li makes excellent cases.  I’ll be getting something along the lines of what I have now, a V1000b.  It’s a high quality aluminum case with great airflow, silent fans, very easy access, space for 12 internal hard drives and 8 external drives.  It’s a huge case, but when it comes to cases the bigger the case the less heat build up and usually the most airflow.  The Lian li case I have now makes any repairs or maintenance very easy.  This quality of case runs about $250.

Graphics Cards:  I’m not a gamer, but if you are the graphics cards are major considerations.  On the other hand I use multiple monitors and I expect to be processing a lot more HD video in the future so the gamer graphics cards will fit my needs better than anything else.  The big question these days is do you go with ATI’s Crossfire system or Nvidia’s SLI system.  At the moment Nvidia’s drivers are significantly more stable for x64 bit operating systems and in my experience a lot more user friendly for running a HDTV.  Chances are I’ll be going with two dual GPU Nvidia cards such as the new GTX 295’s in Quad-SLI mode.  This will give me four LUT’s (look up tables) which means I can run four color profiled monitors.  I color profile my HDTV and my image monitors so I need the four LUT’s.  This choice of cards is more personal and luxury than necessary, and will run approximately $600.

Monitors.  I’m still researching this.  Chances are I’ll end up with two 21.5” 1600x1200’s, a 30” 2560x1600, and finally a 50” 1080p HDTV driven at 1920x1080p.  I use my system not only for image processing, but also as a sort of TIVO that drives my HDTV.  Four monitors might seem like overkill, but if you ever use a system with 3-4 monitors for any length of time you’ll soon learn how productive multiple monitors can be.  There have also been many studies showing that using dual monitors over a single monitor can increase productivity something like 40%, and adding a third of fourth monitor even more.  People with doubts have watched my workflow and after a few minutes comment they can’t believe how easy everything seems to be with multiple monitors.  Soon, they’re on the way to the stores to buy an extra monitor for themselves.  I wish I could give you the cost on these, but since I haven’t made my selections I don’t even want to guess.  I can tell you my current monitors and HDTV cost in excess of $10,000.  I expect prices to be a lot less this time around.

Hard Drives, Storage:  This is another area I haven’t decided yet.  It’s also another area where new products are announced almost every week so my choices could change.  I plan on one SAS (these are very fast compared to SATA) system drive with a capacity of 300gigs or more, and three 1-2tb SATA II drives (this will be changed to SAS drives if they come out with them by then) for my working storage.  In addition I’ll be driving eight (8) 1-2tb SATA II (or SAS) drives in a RAID 50 configuration using a Promise Technologies EX8350 RAID Controller.  This will give me 6-12tb’s of primary RAID storage in the case in addition to the 3-6tb’s of working storage.  This probably sounds like overkill once again, but I keep my systems for years and I suspect in 2-3 years this amount of storage will be common.  Currently I have 4tb’s of RAID storage and 3tb’s of working storage, and 3 years ago that was considered overkill.

Other extras like my Wacom graphics tablet(s), Logitech diNovo Edge Keyboard, Logitech MX mouse, and other small items will also be upgraded.

This all sounds rather extreme doesn’t it?  Some of you may think I actually enjoy “living” on my workstation?  Nothing could be further from the truth, the less time I spend on the computer the more happy I have.  Less time in front of the workstation is my goal.

The hard reality of my profession is that a significant amount of time must be spent on a workstation to complete my workload.  There’s no getting around this.

The more powerful the workstation, the more productive it is, the easier it is to use, the more reliable the system, this all means the less time I need to spend using it.

How much difference does it make?  Several years ago when running my studio in Oregon a computer upgrade saved me over 30 hours PER WEEK in workstation time!  30 hours is a lot of time.  Much of this was spent running files through a process, letting the computer crunch the files, and then coming back to further process them when the computer was done.  This had me jumping back and forth through 4-5 tasks in the studio while trying to maximize my time.  This sort of thing can make you feel hurried and even a bit nervous.  A simple computer upgrade allowed me to process the files in real time and greatly simplify my life.

How much time will this next upgrade save me?  Probably not 30 hours a week, but perhaps as many as 10-15.. time which could be better spent behind the lens of my camera or traveling to interesting places.  This is worth the actual cash it will take to build the system.

I hope all this helps you when considering your own computer upgrade.