Buyer's Guide 2009: Photo Workstations

With so many factors to weigh, deciding which computer best fits your photographic needs is a challenge. Consider power and expandability first.

PROCESSORS
Dual-core processors now are the standard in today’s high-performance notebooks and desktops. With this technology, each chip serves as two processors in one, so the computer performs faster while consuming less power. In some mid-, but mostly high-end machines, “quad” or four-core processors are the norm. The ultraspeedy Apple Mac Pro uses two quads for a total of eight processing cores in its top-of-the-line machine.

RAM
If the processor serves as the computer’s brain, the RAM and hard drive are its respective short-term and long-term memories. The faster the processor, the better your machine will perform, but not if the amount of RAM you have is insufficient. The RAM determines the number of programs that can run simultaneously, how quickly those apps perform and how much data is readily available to them. If you work with large image files in demanding editing applications, aim for a system with 2 GB of RAM. Computers also are designed with a certain number of RAM slots that allow you to upgrade over time.

STORAGE
When considering hard-drive capacity, think about the future. Image files keep getting bigger, so look for at least 80 GB on a notebook and 250 GB for a desktop. Desktops with empty bays for additional hard drives are a plus. You always can expand your storage with external drives, but internal drives are faster.

PORTS
Any computer you buy today comes with multiple USB ports. The more ports you have, the more devices you can leave connected, such as a printer or a card reader, and still have open ports for other uses. FireWire is another high-speed way of connecting devices such as a digital video camera and an external hard drive. Some computers offer built-in card readers, freeing up a USB port. Wireless networking is standard on most laptops and is an optional feature on many desktops as well. Going wireless allows you to transmit large amounts of data quickly by connecting to a wireless network for cable-free Internet and file sharing.

Desktops
While the desk space taken up by the sleekly designed Apple iMac is kept to a minimum, its powerful features are anything but, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor up to 3.06 GHz, up to 4 GB of RAM and hard-drive capacity that tops out at 1 TB. The specs vary depending on the model you select. Offered in 20- and 24-inch screen sizes, the glossy LCDs deliver resolutions of 1680 x 1050 and 1920 x 1200, respectively. The keyboard, which has a thin, ergonomic design, features special keys for one-touch control of various functions. Another plus is that WiFi and Bluetooth are standard equipment.

Basic Configurations

Screen Size: 20 inches
Processor: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory: 1 GB
Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT (128 MB)
Hard Drive: 250 GB Serial ATA, 7200 RPM
Optical Drive: SuperDrive (CD/DVD)
Ports: FireWire 400 (1), FireWire 800 (1), USB (5)
Networking: 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth
Estimated Street Price: $1,199

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If you’re looking for a hand-built machine crafted specifically with a photographer’s needs in mind, the Cerise Quad-Core Workstation is nothing short of a multimedia workhorse. Configurable with up to four 500 GB hard drives, this powerful PC comes with no added software or fancy extras. Instead, simple, quiet operation is a major focus with the hard drives residing in a separate chamber so they won’t heat up the rest of the system when you’re doing disk-intensive work. The spacious silver case, which has a door that hides the optical drive bays, has several vents for cooling, and there’s plenty of room for expansion. An Eight-Core workstation is also available.

Basic Configurations

Processor: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad
Memory: 1 GB
Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 8400GS (256 MB)
Hard Drive: 500 GB, 7200 RPM (2)
Optical Drive: CD/DVD
Ports: FireWire (2), USB (6)
Networking: 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet
Estimated Street Price: $2,499

The sound performance, handsome design and attractive price of Dell’s XPS 420 make it an excellent option for digital imaging work. Among a myriad of upgrades, you can expand RAM up to 4 GB, add a 24-inch widescreen monitor and bump up the hard drive to 750 GB. The machine also comes with some unique extras like XPS MiniView, which is basically a 3×2-inch interactive color display that uses Microsoft SideShow technology. Among other functions, you can use it to quickly view images from your pictures folder. An internal cable-management system makes add-ons and upgrades easier.

Basic Configurations

Processor: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad
Memory: 3 GB
Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 2400 PRO (128 MB)
Hard Drive: 640 GB, 7200 RPM
Optical Drive: CD/DVD
Ports: FireWire, USB (10), DVI, VGA, S-Video
Networking: 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet
Estimated Street Price: $1,299 (with 20-inch monitor included)

Edit large image files without delay using the HP Pavilion Elite d5000t ATX series, which delivers the kind of flexibility and expandability needed to support changing performance demands. Some of the standout features include quad-core processors, up to 8 GB of RAM and a built-in, 15-in-1 memory card reader. A hard drive with up to 1.5 TB of capacity is offered with tool-free installation of up to three additional drives. An Easy Backup button speeds up file archiving, and you can schedule automatic backups. This machine runs Microsoft Windows Vista only. Wireless and Bluetooth connectivity are optional.

Basic Configurations

Processor: 2.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad
Memory: 3 GB
Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 9300 (256 MB)
Hard Drive: 500 GB, 7200 RPM
Optical Drive: SuperMulti Drive (DVD)
Ports: USB (2), FireWire, DVI-I, VGA, HDMI, 15-in-1 memory card reader
Networking: 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet
Estimated Street Price: $999

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