Lightroom Monster

Last month, my old 2012 iMac needed to be put down. It had a good life, but it was time to refresh the home studio as it was really showing its age while editing. I briefly looked at the new iMac Pro as a logical replacement, but couldn't justify the obnoxious $5,000 price tag. I really only use the computer for Lightroom and the podcast - so I wanted to build an equally powerful machine on a budget (kids in college). 

I only work with my image files in the studio, so portability wasn't an issue. But I did have a one-week tangent where I researched laptops and if I went that route, would have ended up with a maxed out Dell XPS 15 over the MacBook Pro. But by going tower, I was able to get so much more.

I have always been equally at home on a Mac OS machine as on a Windows OS machine. I wasn't a huge fan of Windows for a primary home system until Windows 10 came out (8 was terrible in my book). For work, I had been coding with the various flavors of Windows for 25 years, even through the nasty Windows ME years. For home use, I had been on the Mac OS environment for nearly 30 years - usually for the personal / creative side. I actually still have a 1993 Color Classic in my house running OS 7.1. So I have lived through all of its flavors as well. But again, I was going for most power for the least money - and my software (Lightroom and Reaper) are both OS independent - so again, Windows was for the first time my path for a home studio set-up.

Anyhow, I wanted a box that would be up-gradable and would have a powerful GPU for Lightroom and occasionally Photoshop. I decided I was going to build a monster on my own - just order all the independent parts to my specs, buy a case, and assemble it in the studio. Well, that was the plan, but then came bitcoin mining. Blood pirates. Over the last few months, this trend has taken off and people began to gobble up powerful GPU's like the GeForce GTX 10xx's and the Radeon RX lines and consequentially rocketing their market prices through the roof (talking $700-$1000 on eBay today!). Shops are having to go to back-order in many cases now. 

Due to companies buying in bulk for their builds, I soon realized I could buy a pre-built box with the stats I was seeking for less than buying the individual parts and assembling it myself. And who builds better graphics machines than gaming folks? So, my quest was born to find the ultimate (cost-effective) gaming build that would rock Lightroom. I used Cody as my sounding board through-out this process as he enjoys building his own systems as well. We had days - no, weeks - of conversations on ultimate builds, must haves, and so forth. The specs I wanted and the ultimate machine came from my talks with him. (Thanks Cody!)

Side note: to spec out the same parts individually, the build would have been $591 more than what I paid for a pre-built system.

The specs

So I had a quick-list of specs I desired for the new system. They were to get me through the next few years based on the needs of Lightroom and to some lesser extent, Photoshop. I didn't want overkill, but I also didn't want something irrelevant in a couple years. My basic requirements narrowed down to a desktop tower with:

  • CPU - Intel i7 7700K-7800 Quad-Core or AMD Ryzen 7 (3.5-4.5 GHz)
  • GPU - GTX 1070-1080 or AMD Radeon RX 480-580 with 8GB onboard
  • RAM - 16-32 GB DDR4
  • HD - 256-512 GB SSD and 2-4 TB HDD (7200 RPM)
  • Monitor - 95-100% sRGB gamut and 25-27"

I wanted the SSD for the OS and for working on files in Lightroom, then the HDD for storage. With this wide range of specs, I spent several weeks looking at various builds from a plethora of gaming PC manufactures. During the research phase, I also began looking at mother boards, ample power supplies, and port counts.

What I settled on was a CyberpowerPC Gamer Supreme ($1399) that ticked all the boxes above. (Note, the one I linked is slightly different than the one I ordered, as prices jumped by a few hundred dollars and they have changed the processor to the 8700). But the stats on the one I ordered are as follow:

  • CPU  - 4.2 GHz Intel Core i7-7700K Quad-Core (liquid cooled)
  • GPU - AMD Radeon RX 580 (8GB GDDR5)
  • RAM - 32GB of DDR4 RAM
  • HD - 512GB NVMe PCIe SSD + 3TB 7200 rpm HDD

This build came with an MSI Pro Series Intel Z270 motherboard, which I am quite happy with right now.

The system is fairly quiet, even with 4 fans in the case, thanks to the liquid cooled CPU. When recording the podcast, the floor isn't that noisy and I can clean it up with a simple noise gate. The processor is overclocked to 4.5 GHz and it does not seem to effect the fans right now.

But Lightroom is the center of interest for this post.

Firing up Lightroom CC Classic from the SSD is much more quick than I am used to - just a few seconds load time. The software absolutely flies on this build - even with working on my 43 MB raw files from the Sony  A7R II.  Importing of the files from my SD card is very quick, even with the 1:1 previews. (See my post on Lightroom Workflow).

In develop mode (where Adobe takes advantage of the 4 cores and the 8 GB GPU RAM and 32 GB RAM) there is no delay when scrolling through the various presets. If you like to nerd out on Lightroom optimization, note that Adobe doesn't really look past 4 cores. As Adobe works to take better advantage of GPU's on board RAM, I wanted to position a card that would do well down the road - hence the Radeon RX 580 8 GB GPU. Also, 16 GB system RAM would most likely be enough, but I wanted some headroom there as well and opted for 32. 

In the video above, I have a raw 43 MB file, do a cropping adjustment, scroll through some presets, and do a full export. It gives you a rough idea of the process speeds. Sorry that the drop-down menu's didn't record - I'll need to get some better screen capture software to put up a proper video down the road for you. But what you can notice on this one is when scrolling through presets on the left, the refresh of the preview (top left) is instant as is applying the chosen preset. Also, the final click you see is the full-size export. So you can watch the export progress bar at the top to see how quickly 43 MB exports (just over 1 second). Again, I'll get you some better videos soon.

Inputs

The PC came with a really cheap keyboard and mouse. So I upgraded to the CORSAIR K70 LUX (Cherry MX Brown - $99) as I love a solid mechanical keyboard. This one is built of aircraft aluminum and has a pleasing low actuation force of at 55 cN (resistance) and a 2 mm throw (how far you need to press before it registers a keystroke). The keyboard has various light settings (nice when working in the dark) and has a USB pass-through port. On the geek side, there are also several dedicated multi-media wheels and buttons. I do admit that I love the volume wheel.

For years, my mouse has been a thumb-wheel mouse. The latest one I have invested in is the Logitech MX ERGO Advanced Wireless Trackball. I really prefer these over traditional mice and love that I can throw it on my lap while editing. I honestly still use my goto version, the highly coveted Logitech Trackman Wheel Optical (it's become a cult classic). If you never used one, they take a bit to get used to, but are just awesome once you get the hang. Great to help prevent carpals as well.

If I am (rarely these days) in Photoshop, I usually switch to my older Wacom Bamboo tablet. Honestly, this almost never comes out anymore, but is perfect for doing detailed edits where a thumb-wheel won't cut it.

I also added a webcam, the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920. And of course, it's a ZEISS. I picked this because it had nice reviews and was around $50 - used for the podcast. Haven't recorded since I got this, so only initial thoughts are it's sharp and auto-focus seems fine.

The only other input I wrote about last time, and that's the mic for the podcast.

SCREEN

For the monitor, I went with a 25" ASUS Designo MX259H screen. This is a full HD frame-less AH-IPS LED-backlit monitor with 3 skin tone and 4 color temperature selection modes. The contrast ratio is 80,000,000:1 and the color range represents ~98% of sRGB and ~67% of Adobe RGB. It is also has an anti-glare matte finish which is really good for my eyes. I am not a big fan of shiny screens. With price being a factor, this one seemed to offer the best of all worlds for me needs. I had looked at some 100% sRGB/Adobe screens, but for my purpose this is great. The plan is to eventually get two more of these monitors for a proper control center. 

I do not use this for gaming, so the 60 Hz refresh with a 5 ms response is fine. If you want a gaming monitor as well, I would keep looking. I am not really up on the gaming world, but from what my son tells me, 144-240 Hz or go home.

Installed Software

Aside from the clean install of Windows, I have only added the following software to this build:

  • Adobe Lightroom CC Classic
  • Adobe Photoshop CC
  • Reaper
  • Google Chrome

Nothing else runs on this right now, and will most likely stay this way.  Again, this is a purpose built machine.

Final Thoughts

Building yourself a photo editing machine is really a personal preference. Some can get away with a 15" laptop and that's great. Other's need the power behind a desktop. Either way, it's really good to have a check list of must haves before you begin your journey, no matter which style or OS camp you're in. Like I said, I have owned many flavors of both Mac and Windows based computers and there are pluses and minuses to each. If you're 100% invested in one ecosystem - maybe it's good to stick with them. But if you're flexible, I highly encourage you to explore all options. What will do the job best for you and what gives you the level of flexibility you need? For me, after months of research, this above build was what satisfied my needs.

All in, this ended up costing $1827.95 for the computer, monitor, keyboard, and webcam (and of course, free 2-day shipping). It would have been another $600 if I built it on my own - so in this case, the pre-built was some slight customization was clearly the way to go.  And for $3171.05 less than the iMac Pro, I am one happy camper with one cranking Lightroom box.