Part I:  The Foundations

(Jump to Part II  /  Part III)
December 10, 2014

As we go into the holiday shopping season,  I've been thinking about computer builds.

Some readers like to use Macintosh computers for image editing.  Macs are absolutely great computers for that task.  You could pick yourself up one of these for under $1,000, and perhaps it would be all you'll need.

On the other hand, some of us are lifelong PC enthusiasts.  We like to build systems, or buy custom-built ones.   There's a lot of flexibility there, as well as the high performance.  Back when the Pentium II hit the shelves, a friend told me that the days of enthusiast PC's were long past.  Well, call it a resurgence if you want, but there is actually more for the PC enthusiast now than there ever was.

One of the most common questions is "What's the best system for the money?"

That's a broad topic, so let's narrow it down a bit.  Before we start, know that I'll generally focus on systems with AMD processors.  And Linux.  Quite simply, that's because these are my favorites.  (Windows will get some mention, and Intel just a bit.)

We'll also take a look at prefab systems and decide whether they're any good for image editing.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

First Question

Prefab Systems

The Computer Case

The Power Supply


First Question

What are you going to do with the computer?

Gaming systems are probably the most demanding in terms of CPU speed, RAM, frontside bus speed, and all the other technical details that PC builders love. 

Gaming systems especially need a good video card with a lot of high-speed video RAM.

For editing still images, you might not need all the performance of a gaming system.  Or I should say, you won't need the performance in quite the same categories.  Gaming systems demand high-powered 3D rendering.  We're going to be working on 2-dimensional images and maybe some video editing.

First, though, let's talk about the basics. 

On the way, we're going to look at a couple choices in ready-made systems, in case you're thinking you might not want to build your own.

Prefab Systems

One of the coolest new things I've seen is the Compulab Mintbox, and also the Intense PC Pro.  These are passively-cooled mini computers that run Linux

The Mintbox has good specs, but for daily image editing you might be better off with the Intense PC Pro Linux, which has a 3rd generation Intel Core i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU, and 8 GB of RAM.   

These computers have no fans, so they run very quiet.  And they consume only about 10 watts when idle.

Another alternative is the Gigabyte Brix, which has 8 GB of RAM and a solid state drive.  Here you'd have to install the operating system yourself. 

Eight gigs is enough for most types of image editing, unless you are stitching large panoramas all day.   (We'll talk more about RAM later).  I do huge amounts of photo work on my computer and it only has 3 GB of RAM. 

If you're serious about image editing, I would upgrade the Linux Mint installation to Mint 17, which includes the most recent version of darktable (RAW developing / editing software).  I use darktable for all RAW editing.  No need for subscriptions.  (Those are why I will not use Photoshop.)

Even in a pre-fab system, I'm still very partial to the standard ATX mid-tower design.    There's more room to work, they're easier to upgrade, and they allow for better air flow to the CPU, video card, and other components.

If I were shopping for a ready-made desktop PC, I'd be looking at one of these or one of these.  Even better, go for this one with a six-core CPU.

Cybertron (not to be confused with CyberPower) makes good PC's at an affordable price.  They use good components.  I've built a lot of systems over the years, so I can say pretty confidently that they're giving you a very good quality to price ratio.

A quad-core 3.8 GHz AMD FX with 8 GB of RAM is actually more than enough for most purposes.   The graphics card could always be upgraded, but a gigabyte of GDDR3 VRAM is not terrible.   (My video card has only 256MB.)

Whether a better video card would even be able to help will depend on how your image editing software was written.  (More about that in a later article in this series.)

OK, we've taken a quick look at some pre-built systems.  If you want to build your own, you'll probably want to start with...

The Computer Case

This is the physical foundation of a system.  Sometimes it is actually called the chassis, like an automobile frame.

As with a pre-fab computer, I would recommend a standard ATX mid-tower case.  If you don't like something about one of these systems, it is much easier to swap it out for a better part.   Micro ATX is another good standard (it is used in "mini towers"), but I always preferred regular ATX because it offers room to work.

This case or this one would be good if you're building your own system.  Also this case.    Aesthetics-wise, I like this one the best;  it's also a very quiet case with noise / dust filters.

If you have the room for it, a full tower ATX case is even more spacious for extra drives, etc.  In a full tower, I would probably get this case from Rosewill, or better yet this one from Corsair. 

If blue-light LED's are your cup of tea, you might like this one.

Custom-built systems are like the muscle cars of computing.  No fuel-injection, no frills... they just work.

A standard ATX chassis will last you for many years.

A little dusty?  So what... it works!
(Clean out the dust periodically.)

When you buy a case, I'd recommend buying the power supply separately.  It's actually one of the most important components in your whole system.  We'll talk about that next.

One more thing.  I used to fit some towers with carrying handles.  It was a lot of work.  Today I would just get one of these

Or, get a computer case that already has them, such as this one from Corsair. 

Power Supply

What To Avoid

There are at least two things that will wreck your computer before you even know what happened.

One of those things is a cheap power supply.

Cheaply-made power supplies cause system instability.  They also fail more easily. 

There is a reason why better power supplies cost more money.  The overvoltage protections and voltage regulators are so much better.  In fact, a lot of cheapo power supplies don't even have most of the circuitry to clean up the voltage. 

I've seen a lot of cheap power supplies that failed, and many times they took out the motherboard or some other component.  You're running one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology available to ordinary human beings.  Use a power supply that's good enough for it.

Don't bother with any power supply that sells for less than $40 new.   For the bare minimum, I would be shopping in the $45 to $65 range.

What To Get

Get the best you can afford while still being able to buy the other parts you'll need.  Choose a well-known manufacturer.  Try to get more wattage than you think you'll need.  Underpowering a computer system can actually destroy the motherboard, CPU, and probably other components after a while.

The absolute minimum supply would be about 430 watts.  In that category I would get this one from Corsair. 

If you can, try to get at least a 550-watt power supplyThis power supply from Corsair would be a very good choice.
This unit from Rosewill would also be good.  Better yet, get this one.

This 550W unit from Thermaltake is also good.   Another reasonable choice is this power supply, also by Thermaltake.


Any of these supplies rated 550W and up should work with anything up to and including the AMD FX systems, unless you have dual video cards.   We're not building a super high-end gaming system here.  If you're planning to do that, start thinking in terms of 800 to 850 watts.

If you plan to use only one video card, a 550 or 600-watt supply should be enough.

All of these power supplies will have the 6-pin PCI-E connector.  This is required for newer PCI Express video cards that need their own power cable.

6-Pin PCI Express Power Connector

Watch the generic (or early) units.  They may lack a PCI-E power connector.  Besides, as I mentioned before, the generic units tend not to have most of the power protection circuitry.  It's not designed to take big surges, but it smooths out the power and removes noise.  That's important.

Wall Power

Earlier I said that a bad power supply can wreck your computer before you even know what happened. 

Another thing is bad power from your wall.

Bad power can eventually destroy any power supply.  The filtering circuits in a good power supply can withstand only so much. 

Over the years, I've seen a lot of good equipment ruined by bad power.

In every case, the person had one of those "power strip"-type surge protectors.  Sometimes it looked like more than a power strip, but all of them were based on a 25-cent part.  (OK, maybe the part is a dollar now.)  That part is called a metal oxide varistor (MOV). 

These so called "surge protectors" can destroy even your best power supply.    Or, they'll shunt the surge onto your building wiring and fry something else.

Don't mess around with cheap surge protectors.  I would get one of these immediately.  It uses a completely different technology.  In my experience, this is one of the best things you could possibly buy for your computer in 2014 or any year. 

I have been using the same power supply that I've used every day for at least seven or eight years.  It's been through lightning storms and everything.  The main reason is the series-mode surge protector.  (Read more about them here.)  I've had a lot of other devices go bad, but they were all plugged into cheap power strips or directly into the wall.

Note that an MOV "surge protector" elsewhere in your building can damage equipment, even equipment that's on a series-mode surge suppressor (I haven't had this happen yet, though.)  The reason is that MOV's divert the surge... onto both your ground and neutral wires.  The diverted current can destroy your equipment on its way out. You can't really protect the ground and neutral wires, because they have to provide unimpeded paths for the current. That's why it's so bad to be polluting these lines with stray voltages.

(The ideal solution would be to get rid of all MOV surge strips and replace them with series-mode protection.  Just sayin'.)

If the branch circuit has nothing that uses an MOV, and the cable / DSL line is unplugged during thunderstorms, I find that a series-mode surge protector will keep your stuff working for many years.

Think of it this way.  You had to work hard to buy the equipment and maybe even build the computer yourself.  It makes sense to protect it.  The money you would spend replacing fried equipment really adds up.   I know, because I used to have to replace a lot of equipment that got wiped out by lightning storms. 


This has been the first article in a series on building a system for image editing.   So far we've looked at the foundations of a system build:  the case and power supply.

In the next article we'll look at more of the components that go into a good system.  We'll also talk about using previous-generation CPU's to build a workable system.

I hope you enjoyed this article or found it helpful.  Please help me keep this website going by purchasing any of your stuff through the links on here.

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