Friday, September 14, 2012

Guide: Building a Photo/Video Editing PC

Who said people aren't easily influenced? I certainly am, I saw this post on Gavin Hoey's new website, and I was instantly intrigued, I didn't know that more RAM affected Photoshop that much, I was intrigued about the fall of the prices for the SSDs, and the idea kept hunting me for almost three weeks until I succumbed to the lure of an even faster PC (I already had a fast one) and I built a new one, more details after the jump.

A couple of years ago, when I learned how to use Lightroom, I wanted a powerful PC to process my RAW files and store them, so I built the most powerful PC (at that time) I can on a budget, here's a quick rundown of my old PC specs:
  • CPU: Intel Q9550 2.8 GHz, 12 MB Cache, overclocked to 3.4 GHz
  • Cooler: Gigabyte fan and heat sink (can't remember the model), the stock intel cooler didn't fair well when I stressed my CPU during benchmarks, and thus would limit my overclocking.
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte EP45-UD3R, it was a well known board for overclocking.
  • RAM: 2 x 2 GB DDR2 Kingston HyperX, at that time 4 GB sounded like much, and it still is today, I bought two sticks instead of one to utilize the dual channels (i.e. faster), and low amounts of RAM meant I could overclock it faster, and that's what I did.
  • Graphics Card: MSI Radeon 4890 OC, at that time, this was the fastest single graphics card, and I didn't know about nVidia's CUDA processors back then.
  • Storage: 3 x WD Caviar Green 500 GB @ RAID 0 + RAID 5, I bought the green version (slowest and least power consuming) of WD HDDs by mistake, I didn't do my homework and ended up with three of them, to solve the issue, I configured a partition of all three of them as RAID 0 for OS and games, and the remaining partiotion was configured as RAID 5 for redundancy and backup, more on that later.
  • Case & Power Supply: Remember that I was only able to buy whatever was sold in the Egyptian market at that time, I chose a nice Gamma branded case with an HEC 500 watts power supply.
  • Monitor: Again, I had to choose between whatever was available in the market at that time, I chose a 20 inch Samsung LCD with a maximum resolution of 1600 x 900.
Here's a picture of the above mentioned PC (excuse the dust):
My old PC, you've got to love the red/blue theme
When I decided to upgrade, I started from scratch since my younger brother took the old one, all options were possible, now I am going to list the final specs and take you through the thought process:
CPU: Intel Core i7 2600K overclocked @ 4 GHz
Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212
Motherboard: Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H
RAM: 2 x 8 GB DDR3 G.Skill Ripjaws 1600 MHz
Graphics Card: Gigabyte GeForce GTX 570 OC
Storage: 120 GB Kingston HyperX SSD for (OS & applications), 2 x 1 TB WD Caviar Blacks @ RAID 0 (for storage), 1 TB WD Caviar Green (for backup)
Case & Power Supply: Cooler Master HAF 912 & Cooler Master EX2 725 watts power supply
New PC Components
Now let's see how I ended up with these components and why I chose everyone of them:

That was the easiest part, the latest two generations from Intel are called Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge, clock for clock (i.e. same running frequency) the Ivy Bridge is slightly faster, it features a smaller (22 nm) fabrication process and is more optimized than Sandy Bridge, however because of the smaller dye, it gets hot very quickly when overclocked, and I didn't want to spend any efforts in the cooling department.
Why overclock? I hear you ask, easy, you get more performance without paying more money, the drawbacks are the increased power consumption (you must make sure you have an adequate power supply) and the increased heat which requires a good cooler.
I chose the fastest Sandy Bridge processor available, the Core i7 2600K (you can ignore that 2700K, same processor with 0.1 GHz higher stock frequency) with 4 cores and hyper threading (8 effective cores), I didn't go with the Ivy Bridge because of the extra cost and because overclocking would require better cooling, I chose the Hyper 212 Evo cooler made by Cooler Master because it was cheap, effective and silent. My old PC made a lot of fan noise when I turned it on, and I did my best efforts to make this one silent, the Hyper 212 had a large fan, and larger fans make less noise, they can achieve the same airflow as a smaller fan but at a lower RPM/speed.
The processor's stock frequency is 3.4 GHz, and it can be overclocked up to 4.5 GHz without the need for liquid cooling, however, I decided to keep it running at 4 GHz to keep the temperatures safe and the power consumption down. I could safely run 4.2 GHz with my cooler, but I didn't find a significant difference, and the temperature was significantly higher.
An alternative cheaper processor would be the Core i5 2500K, it's a great processor and can be overclocked to 4.5 GHz as well, however it doesn't have hyper threading. I don't know about recent AMD processors, but they never had a good market in Egypt, so I didn't consider them.
Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo

I love everything Gigabyte and Logitech, through the gazillion PCs I have built (I worked as an IT admin for sometime), all of them had Gigabyte motherboards. For my older PC and this one, I bought high-end boards because I wanted good features and stability during overclocking, so I went for the Z77-UD3H board, I won't bore you here, but you can check google for reviews.
Gigabyte Z77-UD3H, lots of features and ports
During my previous build, I chose 4 GB of RAM for two reasons, they were a lot and I didn't imagine they'd be ever full, another thing is that 4 GB would be more easily overclocked and can run faster than 8 GB of RAM. However, this time I chose 2 x 8 GB G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3 1600 MHz. According to Gavin Hoey, lots of RAM made a noticeable difference with photoshop, and I thought that lots of RAM would never hurt.
The thing to consider when buying RAM is the speed (1600 MHz, the faster the better), the timings (9-9-9-2N, the lower the better), and to buy them in a two piece kit (2 x 8 GB instead of one 16 GB stick), that way you would utilize the dual channels and have your RAM running faster. More technical details can be found on hardware websites.
For my older PC, I bought an ATI Radeon 4890 OC made by MSI, it was the fastest single card (i.e. not dual cards fused into one card) available, it was shortly eclipsed by the 5000 series and currently the 6000 series, it was a great card and ran all the games I played at the highest graphics settings, and it provided hardware support during encoding and transcoding videos.
One thing that irritated me that I found lots of programs that benefited from nVidia's (ATI's main rival graphics card company) CUDA processors, mainly video editing programs like Sony Vegas Pro and Premiere Pro, although I am not a video editing guy, I was jealous when I saw videos on YouTube that demonstrated realtime video playback with filters and effects applied during the processing and before rendering. So this time I decided to go nVidia, the latest series was too expensive, so I decided to get the best of the previous series which was the GeForce GTX 580, but it was too expensive, so I went with the Gigabyte (yay) GeForce GTX 570 OC with 1280 MB DDR5 RAM, it is very fast and always found on the top of the charts.
To make sure you have hardware enabled with Adobe Premiere, you have to have a supported nVidia graphics card (or an unsupported one with a simple text file hack, search google) with more than 896 MB of graphics memory.
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 570 OC 1280 MB
Lots of fans means less noise, imagine one fan trying to do the job of these three
The most important and critical component in your PC, if you have the fastest everything but slow drives, everything will load slower and you will learn to keep looking at the HDD loading lamp for long intervals of time. HDDs are the slowest component in your PC (excluding DVD/Bluray drives), processors are extremely fast, processor cache memory is very fast, RAM is quite fast, but your HDD is in the order of 100x slower, that's why you need to make sure it won't slow down everything else.
A typical solution would be to get a faster drive, but do they make fast enough drives in the first place? Let's take Western Digital for example, they have the Caviar Green drives which are the cheapest, slowest and least power consuming drives, it rotates at 5,400 RPM, I had three of these and on average I could get around 90 MB/s continuous transfer speeds on a single drive. Blue drives are faster with 7,200 RPM speeds, Blacks are the same as Blue with larger cache and dual controllers, continuous transfer speeds average around 140 MB/s. At the top of the WD HDD pyramid lies the Raptor series, these are 10,000 RPM drives and very expensive, I never saw one before, they are not common in Egypt.
I told you about continuous transfer speeds in the previous paragraph, but that is not the only important issue, during normal operations (Lightroom, Photoshop) you're not transferring large files, but rather accessing several pieces of files all around the drive, HDDs are mechanical, there are platters that rotate and a needle that moves around to read the data, the time it takes between for the HDD to fetch the requested data (move the needle to the required position) is called the seek time, this time is usually in the neighborhood of 20 milliseconds for average HDDs, so everytime you want to access a piece on the HDD, it takes 20 ms to reach that area before reading the data itself, that's a lifetime to the processor and the RAM who are capable of processing a bazillion instructions during that time.
Here is where SSDs (Solid State Drives) come into play, think of them as a huge memory card, but much faster, and with zero mechanical parts, due to that lack of moving parts, seek times for SSDs can be as low as 0.1 ms, that's 200 times faster than an HDD, but what about continuous transfer speeds? Well, they kick butt, SSDs can easily do 500 ~ 600 MB/s read and write speeds!!! Crazy fast, completely silent, consumes less power and reliable as well (no moving parts), what's not to like? That would be the price, SSDs are relatively new technology, and despite prices coming way down, you will find that you can buy a 120 GB slow-ish SSD for the price of a fast 1 TB HDD, so what to do then?
Left: Kingston HyperX 120 GB SSD - Right: WD Caviar Green 1 TB
When I built my first PC, I dreaded slowing down everything with slow storage, and I ended up buying WD's slowest Green HDDs, so to solve this issue I joined all three of them in a RAID setup, here's a quick summary about the important RAID configurations you need to know:
RAID is short for "Redundant Array of Independent Disks", it makes use of more than one HDD or SSD configured as one volume (i.e. you only see them as one drive in your Windows) to get more speed, data redundancy or both, here's how:
  • RAID 0: this setup requires at least two drives, when you write something to your storage, half of it is written to one drive and the other half is written to the other drive at the same time. This will instantly double your drives' speed, since both drives are writing/reading the same amount of data instead of one drive, you also get the full storage area, i.e. if you used two 1 TB drives, the total storage area would be 2 TB. The bad side of this setup is that if one of the drives fails, you lose all your data, the second drive only holds half the data, and you won't be able to extract the other half. You can get more speed by adding more drives, but speed won't double for each extra drive, it will rather be like speedlites, you need to add another two for doubling the speed, another doubling would need four more drives, and so on.
  • RAID 1: this is called mirroring, assuming our two drive setup, the same data is written to both drives at the same time, so if you lose one drive, the whole data is available on the other drive. What you lose is space, two 1 TB drives would give you a 1 TB volume, speed is the same as one single drive.
  • RAID 5: this is a compromise between both of the above systems, but the minimum number of drives is 3, data is split between the three drives, and a few parity bits (don't want to complicate it by more explanation) are written to all three drives, the end result is that if you lose any of the drives, you can install a new empty one and use the other two drives (with the parity bits) to regenerate all the data on the lost drive. You get redundancy, more speed than a single drive (but slower than RAID 0) but you lose storage space (three 1 TB drives = 2 TB volume).
  • RAID 10 (or 1+0): the best of both worlds, it starts with 4 drives, each two of them would be configured as RAID 1 (redundancy), then both RAID 1 arrays would be configured as RAID 0 (speed), but as you imagine, this is quite expensive.
In my new PC, I bought a Kingston HyperX 120 GB SSD (550 MB/s read and write speeds) for my OS partition, I figured Windows would take around 25 ~ 30 GB of space, and I'd have lots of space for my programs, any huge game installations would be installed on my main storage drive and not the SSD, you have to keep at least 25% of empty space on an SSD for optimum operation. One more thing to note, you'd need SATA 3 support on your maotherboard to get the full speed of a modern SSD, but almost all boards now supports this. By the way, Windows boots in around 15 seconds, and all programs load instantly, check out this video:
My main storage is a couple of WD 1 TB Caviar Blacks configured at RAID 0 (double the speed), but what about backup? I had a spare WD Caviar Green 1 TB drive that I use for backup, everytime after Windows boots by 10 minutes, a sync program (Microsoft's free SyncToy) backs up all my important data and changes to the spare drive, this way when if I lose one of the RAID drives, I still have the spare drive, and vice versa, however I never access this spare drive or use it for any storage because it is slower.
My storage, SSD, a couple of Fast Blacks and the humble Green
One of the most critical things for me because I enjoy building PCs myself, I love a clean, easy to use case with lots of space and good cable management options. Another important issue is the noise, fans create a lot of noise, especially compared to small; over enthusiastic ones.
Let's count fans, one processor fan, three fans on my graphics card, one fan in the power supply, and most modern cases ship with three fans for good air flow, that's a total of 8 fans!!! My old PC made lots of noise form all the fans except for the power supply fan, it was like a spaceship taking off, so when I was shopping this time I considered the noise factor, I'll give you an important tip:
"Larger diameter and slower fans can create the same air flow as smaller diameter and faster fans"
Rear case fan, check the size of both fans
And because slower translates to quieter, larger fans are a good thing. I bought a Cooler Master HAF 912 mid-tower case, it had lots of nice features (and a manual, a first for me), but more importantly, two of its fans were 20 centimeters in diameter instead of the regular 12.5 centimeters and even smaller ones. The processor fan I bought is larger than usual, and because my graphics card has three fans, they don't run as fast as if it was a single fan alone, the end result is that my new PC runs completely silent, the loudest noises I hear are the grinding noises of the WD Black drives.
HAF 912 Advanced
Empty case
Easy locking system, in the days we used 4 screws
As for the power supply, with such a configuration, I wouldn't dare running less than a 500 watts supply, more is better (future proof), I found a good Cooler Master EX2 725 watts supply for a good price, it had dual rails so I got it.
Power supply
And here's how the PC looks after being assembled:
All components in, you might not appreciate it if you haven't tried it yourself, but this is quite neat cabling
New PC on the left, old one on the right
It runs quieter, faster and with lots of more space than my older one, a happy ending indeed. If you need any support or more technical details, I'd be happy to help.
Dell Inspiron 14z Laptop for Photography


  1. Wow. That video just left me speechless. My laptop looks like a turtle next to that. :))

    Best regards,

    1. Thanks Mic, it was satisfying when I finished the assembly and found out that it was as fast as I hoped.

  2. I just upgraded my laptop (my only computer) from a very basic at the time and now 3 year old 4gig integrated graphics unit, to an ASUS G53 i7 w/ 16G ram and SSD OS drive(still a 1 year old computer). I have to agree with pretty much everything you state. Boot is near instantateous, as well as LR3.6 function (i'm still working the configuration out). The RAM/SSD combo I think make the most difference. As a gaming computer it is configured with heavy duty cooling. I ran Gavins PS test on CS4 with what I consider a respectable 52 second result.

    1. You guys are torturing me with the temptation to switch to SSD...! :)

  3. Isn't that great? SSDs are speed demons.
    I ran Gavin's PS action in 31 seconds. :-)


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