Desktop System. I have been tinkering with and building my own PC-based systems for nearly 20 years, and thus most of my desktop systems are custom built. I tend to look for bargain components and mix-and-match features striving for a reasonably high level of performance.
My current desktop workstation consists of the following components:
- AMD Phenom 9500 2.2GHz Socket AM2+ 95W Processor : powerful quad-core multi-tasking on a budget.
- ECS A770M-A ATX AMD Motherboard : feautre-rich AM2+ motherboard allows for future processor upgrades.
- Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB 3.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive : my new system drive, this is an enterprise-class 2.5″ SATA II with built-in 3.5″ form-factor heatsink and a 10,000 RPM rotational speed. Yep, it’s fast.
- Western Digital Raptor 74GB 3.5″ Serial ATA150 Hard Drive : I have two of these drives in a RAID 0 (striped), used for my PhotoShop scratch disk. 140GB of swap drive space may be overkill, but it won’t go far as storage space. I have a fourth Raptor, a 36GB original, dedicated to my Windows page file.
- Lexar Professional UDMA CF Firewire 800 Reader : Fast, stackable CF reader supporting UDMA cards. I have a stack of three.
- SYBA PCI 32-bit Firewire 1394b Controller Card Model SD-FWB-32B : Provides inexpensive Firewire 800 (and 400) capability. Few motherboards support Firewire 800 directly today.
- BFG Tech GeForce 8500GT BFGE85256GTE Video Card: Bargain 256MB video card with excellent performance. Supports the new OpenGL features in Adobe PhotoShop CS4.
- COOLER MASTER Centurion 5 CAC-T05-UW Black Computer Case : A very sleek-looking case with great airflow and lots of room in a fairly small package.
- Thermaltake A2309 iCage 5.25″ bay convert to 3 x 3.5″ HDD Module : This inexpensive little cage converts three external 5.25″ bays into 3.5″ bays cooled by a wild-looking blue-LED illuminated 120mm fan. Great for RAIDs and high-performance drives (it holds my three Raptors).
- Westinghouse L2410NM Black 24″ 8ms Widescreen LCD Monitor Built in Speakers : This is a bargain-priced 24″ monitor with an MVA panel, which means better colors than discount monitors with TN panels, though not as good as premium monitors with S-IPV panels. (All the lingo is explained nicely at Anandtech.) Mine cost $360 after a $50 rebate, with free shipping.
- VANTEC NexStar NST-D100SU Hard Drive Dock : I recently ditched my motley collection of external drive enclosure for one of these units. Since my external drives were only for backup, I never really need more than one at a time, and this dock fits the bill nicely. I can now swap out my backup drives easily and simply, and store them away safely when not in use. Much faster than USB/FireWire external drives and only takes up one SATA connection.
- BOSE® Companion® 3 Series II multimedia speaker system : These are some awesome speakers, turning my PC into an excellent sound system. You won’t regret a Bose purchase and these are amng their most reasonably priced speakers.
- Kensington Expert Mouse trackball: I just can’t believe how scarce true trackballs have become. This one is supposedly one of the best, and I’ve had my eye on one for a while after using a Microsoft MarbleMouse at work and Trackball Explorer at home. I’ll write more about the Kensington once I’ve gotten used to it.
Laptop. I’ve given up on Toshibas, since my last one gave up the ghost at about 15 months (right outside the warranty period, naturally). I’ve replaced it with not one, but two smaller portables (both together for less than $1,000):
- Lenovo s10e. This 10″ netbook features the ubiquitous Intel Atom processor. I’ve made the following noteworthy upgrades:
- Intel X25-M 80GB SSD hard drive. This baby screams along with a 91 MB/sec transfer rate, more than double the speed of your typical 7200 RPM notebook drive.
- Added 2GB of RAM, for a total of 2.5 GB.
- Adobe PhotoShop Elements 7. This is what PSE should have always been. Forget the “organizer” and guided modes, put the editor into “Full” mode and you have a scaled-down version of PhotoShop. Aside from the fact they’ve rearranged most menu items, it’s a reasonably good substitute for full PhotoShop.
With hindsight, I probably would not have opted for the Lenovo. It has only a 3-cell battery, has one RAM slot permanently occupied with a measly 512MB module, and screen resolution tops out at 1024×600. But I got it for a song and can’t complain. It slides into the notepad compartment of my Think Tank Speed Racer and is great when I’m traveling light.
- HP Pavilion dv2z-1100. This is a 12″ based on AMD’s new dual-core Neo processor, which runs circles around the Atom but comes in under 3 pounds total. Key features:
- Upgraded to 4GB RAM.
- Hard drive upgraded to 7200 RPM.
- 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium.
- Discrete graphics – definitely useful with PhotoShop CS4, this machine only has ATI Mobility Radeon 3410 HD. Yes it’s dedicated graphics memory, but rather low-end. Gets the job done, though.
- Limited expansion capability. This machine has NO ExpressCard slot – a near-fatal flaw. Three USB ports just aren’t sufficient for expandability.
File Server. I maintain a dedicated file server on my home network which basically serves as a home for my photo and document backups, although it can serve as a backup workstation in a pinch. It is equipped as follows:
- Basic components: AMD Athlon 3200+ single-core processor; 1GB dual-channel (2×512) RAM; Windows 7 Home Premium.
- Foxconn 6150BK8MC-KRSHN2 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard : This very inexpensive motherboard provides two essential components for a file server: gigabit (1000 mbps) LAN and RAID 5. I recently had to rebuild my RAID 5 array and the system handled it without a hitch.
- Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB 3.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive : My RAID 5 array is built with four of the very similar 7200.10 Maxtor-branded Barracuda drives (STM3500630AS) which provide a sustained throughput of 187 MB/sec in my RAID. I use the Seagate-branded IDE version of this drive (ST3500630A) as my system drive and for additional backup storage, which by contrast achieves sustained throughput of about 65.4 MB/sec.
- Thermaltake Xaser V Damier Silver Computer Case : The server is housed in this massive case, which features great fan and temperature monitoring capabilities.
What to look for in an off-the-shelf system. If you’re looking for a desktop or notebook system, here is what you want to look for:
- Processor. In a desktop system, you want a quad-core system. Intel if money is no object, otherwise AMD gives you more bang for the buck. For notebooks, I’d opt for an Intel Core 2 Duo processor at 2.0 MHz or higher.
- Memory. 4GB of dual-channel memory. Don’t scrimp here, memory is the cheapest and most effective upgrade you can make.
- Hard drive. Speed matters as much as or more than size. You want 7200 RPM drives without exception in a desktop; 7200 RPM drives in a notebook make a big difference too, but it’s often a slightly pricey upgrade if you don’t want to buy an OEM drive and do the upgrade yourself.
- Monitor. You’re better off getting your own monitor for use with a desktop. I consult the Anandtech LCD Thread for the latest panel recommendations. At least as important as your monitor is a calibration tool – an essential item for serious photographers. I use the X-Rite Eye One Display 2; the Pantone Huey is a more economical alternative. (I have not tried the Huey personally, however.)
- Video card. Discrete graphics is the key; do not go for video adapters that utilize “shared memory.”