Part III:  Hard Drives, Video Cards, & Operating Systems

(Back to Part I  /  Part II)
December 20, 2014

In previous articles (here and here), we looked at some components for a good image-editing computer.  Those articles covered cases, power supplies, CPU's, motherboards, and RAM.

In this article, we'll look at hard drives, video cards, and operating systems.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

Hard Drives

OpenGL and OpenCL

Video Cards for Image Editing

The Operating System


This one is not going to be for bulk storage.  Keep reading to see why you might not need mega-gigs for this drive.

(OK, kilo-gigs, but you know what I mean.)

Hard Drives

Much could be written about RAID arrays and such, but I'll keep this section brief for now.

Here are three of the biggest performance gains you can make for an image-editing system:

1.  Put the operating system on a solid-state hard drive.  (120 GB drive available here;  240 GB drive here.)  This doesn't have to be for bulk storage;  just a place for system files and programs. 

2.  If you have only one swap partition, place it on its own hard drive.  Better yet, make sure there is a swap partition on each of your internal drives.  You could use another low-capacity SSD just for swap, or use it also for second-tier files that you don't access very often.

Both Windows and Linux can manage multiple swap spaces on different hard drives. Usually you're better off with two or three moderate-sized swap partitions on different drives than with one large swap on one drive.

3.  If possible, install the image editor to its own drive, separate from the operating system and the swap file. 

Ideally, as many of your drives as possible should be on separate channels.  This will speed things up even more.

Also, there's a fourth thing you could do, mostly for convenience...

4.  If possible, use another drive for bulk storage of your image files.  I would probably get one of these units and install a 7200 rpm hard drive.  Connect it as a USB device.

Unless you're working with 300-MB TIFF files every day, it should take you a while to fill up a 1-TB hard drive.

OK, now let's talk about video cards.   First, we have to talk about....

OpenGL and OpenCL

OpenGL is a programming standard for graphics.  Adobe Lightroom 4 requires OpenGL.  Most 3D gaming video cards support OpenGL, which means they would work with Lightroom 4.

OpenCL is a newer standard that is not specific to graphics, but it can do graphics, too.  It is more versatile from a programming standpoint.

Expect more software in the future to support OpenCL.  Photoshop CS6 supports both OpenGL and OpenCL.  (Too bad CS6 is subscription-based...)

GIMP 2.6 requires OpenGL, because some of the plugins won't work unless you have the OpenGL packages installed on your system.

OpenCL is a different story.  There is supposed to be experimental support for OpenCL in GIMP 2.8, but it won't be fully supported until GIMP 2.10. 

All this stuff might seem irrelevant, until you start shopping for...

Video Cards For Image Editing

Better video cards today have something called a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit).  This takes a lot of the workload off of the main CPU.  That means your system will run faster, as long as you're using programs that can make use of the GPU.

Most graphics cards with a GPU support OpenGL. 

A few support OpenCL.   This is the wave of the future.

PCI Express Compatibility

If you're building an Athlon 64 X2 system, you'll have to keep in mind that many of the motherboards are PCI Express 1.0 or 1.1.  You'll be able to use any card that's made for PCI Express 1.0, 1.1, or 2.0, and probably 3.0... but not 2.1.   There are a lot of 2.1 cards out there.

Biostar TA790GX motherboards are PCIe 2.0, so there's no problem.

The MSI K9N Neo V3 is PCIe 1.1.  This might take PCIe 2.1 cards if you do a BIOS update.

Video Card Specs

If you don't know for sure, it can't hurt to get more video card than you think you'll need.  If you're going to spend the money for a good card, try to get one that is known to support OpenCL.  They all support OpenGL, though, and probably most programs will support that for a while.

Preferably it should have GDDR5 video RAM, which is much faster than DDR3 video RAM.   DDR3 might have a memory clock speed of 1.8 GHz;  with GDDR5, we're talking about speeds of 4.5 to 5 GHz. 

GDDR5 video cards have almost triple the memory bandwith of a DDR3 card.

If you are looking ahead to GIMP 2.10, or you're using a Photoshop version that supports OpenCL, then by all means get a good graphics card that supports OpenCL. 

If you can budget it, consider getting this graphics card or perhaps this one.   Both are based on the Radeon HD 7950 chipset, which is almost top of the line in 2014.  Just make sure your motherboard supports PCI Express 2.1, or at least 2.0.  (The Biostar TA790 boards are PCIe 2.0).

These cards won't work with boards that have PCI Express 1.0, but they may work with PCI Express 1.1 if you get the most recent BIOS update.   (The MSI K9N Neo V3 has PCI Express 1.1).

If you're willing to spend more, you could always go directly for the best.  This is PCI Express 3.0, which is supposed to be backwards compatible with all PCI Express slots before it, but I still don't know about the version 1.0 boards.


Just want to use GIMP 2.6?  Or maybe your motherboard has only PCI Express 1.0 slots?  Just pick up an old Radeon 1900 or something along those lines. 

If you have a board that supports PCIe 2.0 or better, you could just get this card which has 4GB of DDR3 VRAM and supports OpenCL.   Not as good as the $300-level cards, but at least it has OpenCL support.   And it's a single-slot card.

If you prefer AMD Radeon, another alternative is this card, based on the Radeon R7 240 chipset.   It seems like a good deal.  It, too, has 4GB DDR3 and supports OpenCL.


Comparatively speaking, these are economy video cards, but think of it this way.  They have almost triple the memory speed of that old Radeon 1900GT, which is the card I still use every day.   If my old system works OK for all the basic image-editing stuff, then the newer computer you're building will work even better.

Compatibility Note....  be aware that the Radeon R7 250X, 260, 260X, etc, will require two slot-widths.  They are wide cards, thanks to the big cooling fans.  You may not have room for other cards next to them.

The R7 240 and 250 take up only a single slot-width.  These will fit on some of the less-spacious motherboards that have a PCI Express slot.

The Operating System

First, a progress check.  We've been talking about a system based on the AMD Athlon 64 X2  or the AMD Phenom II, with 8 GB of RAM, built in a standard ATX case. 

That's an older-generation system.  Why bother?  Well, you could save some money.  Or, maybe you just have an old 64 X2 kicking around and don't want it to go to waste.

Another reason is the standard BIOS.  These older boards don't have UEFI or Secure Boot.  That means your computer can't suddenly refuse to proceed because it can't find the partition with everyone's favorite, expensive, big-name operating system.  This happens on some motherboards.   It is very easy to install Linux on a machine with standard BIOS.

Now, the operating system


Linux users are everywhere, and there are more of us every day.    Linux has the major advantage of being completely free for download.   There are many different distributions or "distros".  This one is another good distro.

Some people will try to convince you that "no one uses Linux" or it has a "1% market share".  Both of these are bogus.  It's pure FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).  It reminds me of the times back when the digital-only crowd would actually get irritated that anyone would use film.   It took a while for some to realize that it doesn't have to be an either / or proposition.

Just ignore the haters and use what you like.  

Linux is looking even better than ever.   When 48-bit image editing is fully implemented in GIMP, there will be even more reason to use Linux.    Another nice thing about Linux is that you can use different window managers.    Some of them are very lightweight, meaning they don't eat up system resources.

We're building a 64-bit system, so make sure you download the 64-bit version of your Linux operating system.  It's free.


Maybe you're a gamer, or maybe you really want to use Photoshop.

For a system like that, you could run Windows 8.1.  The OEM version is OK if you're sure you'll stay with one motherboard.  If you ever switch boards, you'll want the full version.  Get this one, since we're building a 64-bit system.  Expensive, but that's how it goes with this OS.

John Dvorak deserves some credit here:  the Classic Shell is the only way to go.  I can't stand touchscreen operating systems.  If you're doing serious content creation such as photo editing, go with Classic Shell for Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 should work just fine with non-UEFI motherboards.   But I don't care, mostly, because I use 64-bit Linux. 

What about older Windows versions?  Windows 7 in theory wasn't all bad;  the interface was more like XP, which was the best OS that Microsoft ever made (in my opinion).

If you have a completely self-contained image editing program (i.e., no "subscriptions" and no "cloud"), you could even use Windows XP.  Just don't connect it to the Internet;  there's no support for XP anymore.  Windows 7 will be joining it shortly, if it hasn't already by the time you read this.

If for some reason you're going to use XP, though, get the 64-bit version.  All 32-bit versions of Windows have a limit of 4 gigabytes of system RAM.  That includes Windows 8 in 32-bit versions.

Even on a 64-bit system, Windows 7 Home Basic can't handle more than 8GB.  (The 64-bit Windows 7 Pro can handle up to 192 GB of RAM.)

64-bit versions of Windows 8 can address more RAM than you'll need in the foreseeable future (128 GB for regular;  512 GB for Pro).

More Thoughts

A dual-boot configuration would allow you to use the widest range of image editing programs, should you so choose.

No matter which operating system you use, remember this.  Your system performance will also depend on how many other programs you have running at the same time.  Close anything that's not being used right this minute.  Monitor your system for resource-hogging programs. 

Also remember that a 64-bit operating system can use larger swap spaces and more system RAM.  Make sure you have a 64-bit CPU to go with the operating system.


This wraps up the third article in a series on building a system for image editing

As of late 2014, computer technology has been around long enough that you can mine nearly decade-old parts to build a good system.  The main obstacle there is to find the motherboard.

If you build with stuff made in the past couple of years, you'll have an easier time finding the boards, and the rest of the parts will fall into place.   However, if you find a good deal on a "new-old-stock" or gently-used AM2 board, I say go for it.

For image editing, any of these systems will do passably well, as long as you have 4 to 8 GB of RAM and at least a dual-core CPU.

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