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Wednesday, 04 May 2011


"A big advantage of desktops over laptops has been their RAM capacity. Note the past tense."

To be precise, it's the PRESENT tense, but the PERFECT aspect.

Meaning that: at the present moment, the action described by the verb is complete (perfect = total, see?).

For the foreseeable future, this statement may therefore not be true.

Sort of like the conversion value of an ounce of gold into useful things (not dollars) like a suit of clothes, a car, a new camera, etc. The cost of technology goes down but the need for new technology continues!

I always used $2500 as the conversion but that was for a really useful business computer. Now that I'm shopping for photography computers I agree with Ctein - spend the $5000 and don't worry about a new computer for a few years.

"In recent years, it's been hard to break the $4,000 barrier."

Uhhhh..... not quite. We've been buying Engineering CAD workstations for $4500-$6500 apiece (2005-2009) and just last week I received quotes in that price range again from HP and Dell. However, I have capped our unit cost at $1900-$2200 and gone with white-box custom machines and a quicker life cycle rather than spend that kind of cash. But its not hard to run up and over $4000 on a heavy-duty machine (ie, not a best-buy web-browser-in-a-shiny-box special).

But then I guess I must somewhat agree, since after all I'm buying custom bleeding-edge machines for under two grand that will absolutely run circles around those six-grand macs. That's 16gb ram, 128gb solid state drives (our massive storage archives are on the network servers), 3.8ghz quad cores (single threaded turbo-mode, 3.4 otherwise), and entry to mid level 3d graphics cards.

Its the processor and system bus advantages that let me confidently say 'run circles around', because the other specs put the mac in the running. And the portability thing, that's worth some bucks to some people.

I like the way you think! That would be a great system.

BTW - don't throw away the hard drive that came with the computer, but get a USB/Firewire enclosure for it. You can use it as an external hard drive when everything is working properly, but in case of a crash, you can re-install the drive in the computer and have a bootable drive with your original copy of the OS.

I've never paid the sort of price Ctein needs to for his ideal machine, but it is true that my various computers have all cost £1300 over the years. A Wyse 286 machine with CGA graphics in 1990, then a Compaq 386SX in 94, then a Dell laptop in 98 and another in 02, then an HP laptop in 06, now an iMac 27 in 2010.

They all cost the same, they all last about 4 years, and I still do pretty much the same work on them. Moore's Law clearly does not extend to price or longevity, at least for me. The displays have however got much glitzier. Watching a DVD on the iMac is a real treat. I could probably get better functionality than my original Wyse (with a software package called "Frameworks") on a sub-notebook for about £200 and save my money, but my tastes for screen glitz have swollen along with disposable income over time, so it's still £1300 every four years.

Just buy the latest iMac quad 27" released today, save all the moving stuff about and invalidating warranties, lose a bit of performance (not much) and you are there.

I recently bought a similar system: MBP 15" 2.2 GHz, 256 GB SSD, 8 GB RAM, straight from Apple. It screams. I take immense/perverse pleasure running my (work) text-based statistical software on it.

SSDs are still not quite ready for prime time, though. Some TRIM issues and according to this post they might die on you within a year - still, he equates them to a woman so beautiful that you don't mind her quirks.

Actually, if you buy the upgraded 2.3GHz 15" MacBook with Apple's own 512GB SSD, hi-res anti-glare screen and AppleCare for 3 years and add the 16GB of RAM and 27" NEC, the cost will be around $6650. Find someone in education to get it for you, and drop those prices around $400.
It's funny Ctein, because I've worked in IT for 32 years and the $5000 has almost always been the "magic number" for the ideal system! Well done again!

I was wondering about SSD's as well. I bought a small one a little over a year ago and have been pretty happy with it. At that time the recommendation was not to go over 128 GB, because the larger ones had issues.

And, that is not really the perfect computer for me. It is good, but not perfect.

My single core G5 Mac desktop is showing it's age, so I have been pricing a New Mac Pro, quad-core, two monitors, upgrade to Intel apps, and I am at about $7000. Problem is that my clients are still using the G5 apps, so used dual core G5 $600 for now.

Thank you! You are really helping the cognitive dissonance process in my brain justifying the 17" 2.3 MBP I just bought a few weeks ago. :-)

Actually, the iMac quad-i7's released this week will beat the MBPs for 'Shop work, but only by a little bit. Too bad Adobe barely takes advantage of the GPU, or that 2GB video card would add to the advantage... but when it arrives in a few days I won't remember to care.

Dear ILTim,

Well, this is about personal computers. Obviously you can spend lots more than $5K on workstations, minis and mainframes. In fact, in the early bad old days the price gap between personal and workstation was much worse. The performance enhancers we take for granted (caches, arithmetic processors, graphics processors, etc.) were all expensive add-ons.


Dear Jim in Denver,

Very good advice, but don't bother with external USB, just get the case with the FW800 interface. The USB is so slow as to be near-useless.

Every external drive I own has a bootable OS installed on it. Can't have too many, I say.


Dear David,

Let's try to drive the stake through one persistent myth-- modding your machine does NOT void the Apple warranty. Apple will not cover failures directly attributable to your moddish meddling, but otherwise you're fully covered. I know this from firsthand experience.

Of course, the new iMac was announced after I wrote my column.

In terms of primary performance, it doesn't benchmark much faster than Mike's machine. Its big gain is in the GPU, where it screams. Unfortunately, most photo software doesn't make especially effective use of GPU's yet. Mebbe that'll change in a generation or two; meanwhile it's a plus but a modest plus.

SSD's make a huge difference in performance the moment your app starts hitting the disk cache. Not as much as more RAM, which delays or avoids you hitting the the cache at all, fer shure. Lloyd Chambers and I have dissected this at some length in our various performance articles.You can start here:

"Photoshop Performance: The Saga Continues"

and work your way back through the links to the previous columns and outside articles.

My Dream machine will run rings around a new iMac the moment Photoshop starts into serious disk use.

'Course, you can pop OWC's 480 GB SSD into the iMac's second drive slot and use it as your primary drive. Combined with the high-end CPU and 16GB of OWC RAM, and you're out the door for $4,000.

But it's not portable, so it's not perfect.

(Why yes, my rules are arbitrary. Thanks for noticing!)

But... you really wanna max out that iMac? OWC can cram 32 GB of RAM into your 2010/2011 27" iMac! That'll save most users from ever, ever swapping to disk in Photoshop, so we can probably forego the SSD (yeah, the system and apps will launch more slowly, but that's not where we spend most of our time) and the RAM'll only set you back... $2997.99. Eep.

pax / Ctein

If you're really going to go tricked out, spring for the 2.3 GHz quad core MacBook Pro. The trivial clock speed increase is not what you're after -- the extra $250 bumps you up from 6MB to 8MB of L3 cache RAM. If you're going to use all four cores (as you should if you're going to bother), this can make a significant performance difference. Intensive Photoshop users, take heed.

For my part, I went with a 240GB SSD and put the 500MB 7200rpm spindle into the optical drive's slot using an OWC Data Doubler. This setup can still be conveniently backed up to a single bus-powered 750GB USB hard drive.

This system is also outstanding (in a laptop, no less!) for running multiple virtual machines simultaneously for server-side software development work.

Screw the portability. Get a Mac Pro with a big monitor. Done!

Thanks for reminding me to check my lottery ticket... Ed

Prices are dropping, machines are becoming faster, smaller and more useful. Computing is finally becoming interesting!

Incidentally, I was looking at components the other day and calculating. The fastest Intel 4-core, motherboard, 8GB RAM, a really good video card, 2TB of disks, Blu-ray recorder, a good case with lots of air cooling and a good PSU, speakers, mouse and keyboard - less than $2500. 8GB RAM more would cost me several hundred dollars more. And that's here, where we have prices 20-30% higher.

Of course, a good monitor like that NEC would probably cost $2000 more...

Invalidating warranties? Nope.

Um... and that doesn't include peripherals -- like a mouse or a keyboard! Better add on a couple of hundred there Ctein!

In all seriousness, this article reminds me of another post where Mike recalls a auto journalist recommending ferraris to everyone. You can't go wrong recommending the best I suppose...


I bought the same computer nine months ago but the hard drive just failed. I would recommend the OWC 240 Gb SATA III 6 GBPS for $580 if you don`t want to spend $1800.

But, wait, how do you cram those 5 hard drives that are needed to support RAID and a (slightly paranoid) backup strategy ?

What I find really amazing is that for about half the money you can get something that gets you most of the way there. Here's my "real world" ultimate machine:

15" MBP 2.0 GHZ - $1800
HP ZR24w - $400
OWC 8GB RAM upgrade - $100
OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6G 120GB SSD - $320

Add another $75 for a Data Doubler if you don't care about DVDs, or $100 for an external FW enclosure for the mechanical drive that comes with the MBP. The extra storage will come in handy for overflow storage or Time Machine backups.

Total cost: ~$2700.

Perfection always comes at an exorbitant price. Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that the 80/20 rule (Pareto's law) applies here. That means that you can get a computer that is 80% perfect for 20% of the price. My $1,000 Dell PC runs Photoshop CS5 just fine; it's not perfect, but then, neither am I. And guess what? The most it can depreciate is (get your calculators out!) $1,000.

I think that's a terrible way to spend the money; easier to get a really tricked out desktop and a semi-powerful notebook for the same or less. I know my ideal combination of a desktop and notebook will run under US$5k and I get two computers to boot!

In PC land I'm convinced that it makes more sense to buy lower spec / lower cost machines more often. Rather than buy a high priced machine and cling to it until you feel you've got your money's worth. I would rather have a $3,000 machine every two years than a $6,000 machine every four. I guess with that rationale you've pretty much given up on chasing perfection though.

FYI: I just priced my "perfect" Mac Pro out at $17,897 :)

"Obviously you can spend lots more than $5K on workstations..."

You sure can. The most recent computer I ordered (it was for work) has 4 quad core processors and 128GB of RAM. It weighs about 90 lbs and mounts in a rack, only has a 70 GB harddrive, and no monitor. You'd never want it at home, but for certain tasks, it rocks.

And it rocks to the tune of nearly $20,000.

Fascinating. And the NEC monitor looks great - and only $1100 in the USA. And the Australian dollar is now running at about $1.09 to the US$1.00 - so even with our GST (10% sales tax) it should be about the same price here.

Oops! - prices start in Australia at about TWICE the US price for that monitor. Given that, I'll stick with what I've got.

Let's not forget the costs of Apple's planned obsolescence. In five years your new Apple computer will barely function on the latest OS. You'll need to spend another $6K-$7K, plus the cost of updates for all your software.

I remember buying an IBM PC AT back around 1989 (could be wrong on the date) and it cost $7,000 with a monitor. MS DOS only.

Oooops - got my conversion rate the wrong way around (see above) - my comment on prices is valid for the real conversion rate.

I don't know why some companies have such different (real) prices in different countries.

Same thing happens with downloading Adobe software from their internet store - cheaper from the US store than from the relabelled Adobe stores in other countries. Someone explain?

I can see why Macs are more expensive over here - freight costs, if they're still made in USA. But internet downloads? Not that the degree of markup is as great as on the NEC display. That must be close to a record.

One big problem for us poor mortals in Europe is no OWC and posting x1000 miles both ways will cost an ipad.

At Scott,

That's why I don't do Apple and buy my Windows or preferably Linux computer per definition second hand.

At the rest,

My HP Pc cost a whopping 600 dollars (including monitor) second hand (and 2 years old when I bought it). I use an old Epson 2400 printer.....untill it stops and will be replaced by an old 3880 printer. I have added some memory up to 2 Mb and I soon will invest in an upgrade to 4 or 8. I have added a high speed diskdrive (7200 rpm) so large files load at acceptable speed. I use Gimp instead of that other program so I don't have to worry as much over performance. Okay 16 bit is not my game but since that other program doesn't do all it's tricks in the 16 bit domain and I can color correct in Silkypics and Silverfast AI if needed) I do not worry to much over it. And guess what, people ask me for advise how I print my stuff since they are fond of my soft, natural colors. Now Ctein is by no means a gearheaded dillitant (and by no means comparable to mr. Clarkson) but instead of seeking the ultimate computer he could use his knowledge and wisdom also for seeking out a system that gets the job done at an acceptable speed for as less money as possible. He does so in his book by the way so it can't be that hard for him.

Greetings, Ed

I absolutely agree. This would be a dream system.

There are a few ways to make this a lot cheaper, though, without compromising too much:

Get a smaller SSD. Replace the optical drive with a 2.5" HDD of your choice. Put your system, apps, library, lightroom catalog, adobe RAW cache, lightroom previews on the SSD. Put everything else on the HD, especially the downloads, music, movies folders, and create symlinks to those locations in your home directory. This requires a bit of (simple) work in Terminal to set up once, but after that runs smoothly, and you just forget about it. I've ran this way for about half a year now on my MBP. A 120 GB SSD should suffice. Saves you over a thousand bucks with only little compromise in speed. Tradeoffs: You have to open your computer (warranty?), you'll have that old-timey spinning-disc harddrive again, you'll need a cheap external DVD drive (if you need one - I do every few months).

Get only 8 GB RAM. Again, over 1000 bucks saved. Get the 16 if/when you need them in the future, it'll likely be a lot cheaper then.

If you don't need 27", get a 24" HP zr24w. It's not very fancy, but it's got a 16:10 IPS panel, 1920x1200 (not 1080!) resolution, and costs 420 USD on amazon. I use this daily, and it's pretty good (not fantastic).

Bear in mind that with the new MBPs, external storage can potentially be very, very, very fast through Thunderbolt. Remains to be seen how connecting both external disks and a display works out, though, and what this will cost.

I've always gone for the Good Enough computer, one or two steps below the Perfect. Back in the late 80s and 90s, that cost me about $3000 per upgrade. Last month, however, I updated my desktop PC with all new components, excepting the chassis, a floppy drive, and the peripherals, for under $1000. That bought me a P67 motherboard, Core i5-2500K CPU, 8 GB RAM, a Radeon HD5770 graphics card, 1.5 TB in hard drives, a Seasonic 650 W power supply, and a new optical drive. I considered also adding an SSD, but with the technology changing rapidly and the best reviewed models not available yet, I decided to hold off for now.

With four SATA II connectors, four SATA III connectors, one eSATA connector, four USB 3.0 connectors, and two empty RAM slots, there is also plenty of potential for future expansion.

At the same time, I upgraded my OS to Windows 7 x64, and this has been more problematic, as neither of my scanners (an Epson flatbed and a Nikon CoolScan V ED) is officially supported in the new OS. However, I was able to find workarounds on the Web, and both are now successfully installed.

Dear Rob,

Apple's SSD doesn't have anywhere near the performance of OWC's, which is why I recommended theirs over Apple's. But any SSD is better than none.


Dear John,

You are right; I slipped up. Should have recommended the 2.3 GHz machine.

Kicking out the optical drive and replacing it with a smaller SSD is a very sensible approach. I'm not quite ready to give up the optical drive yet, although I admit I'm getting close.


Dear Erlik,

No, you need the SSD to max out the performance. You'll be amazed how much of a difference it makes. And, really, that additional 8 GB of RAM will come in useful sooner than you'd imagine.

Actually, if it comes down to a choice, always spend more money on RAM before anything else, if you're running Photoshop.


Dear Pak,

Last time I checked, MacBook Pros still came with a keyboard built in. Do they strip them off where you live? [VBG]

This article isn't a recommendation, it's a description. It is a very important difference.


Dear Pavel, Bill, and Friedrich,

Entirely correct. A usually, unstated corollary to the law in the title is that the perfect computer usually costs about twice what you'd be willing to spend for a really good system. The Law was intended originally more as a statement of frustration than anything else.

Understand, though, that 8 GB versus 16 GB of RAM makes a HUGE difference in Photoshop performance once you get into serious work. After all, your medium-high-end DSLR (or film scans) saddle you with files in the neighborhood of 150 MB. Add just a few image or adjustment layers to that and you've got something that opens up in Photoshop at half a gigabyte or more. Unless you really want to skimp on the number of history states (not recommended) Photoshop will burn through 8 GB of RAM so fast it will make your head spin. Really, it's appalling.

Also, cramming 16 GB of RAM into one of these laptops (or 32 GB into the new iMacs) requires custom memory modules. They are never going to get very cheap, until new generations of memory chips come along. Which will need new generations of computers to support them. That's always the way of things; it gets cheaper in the future. The perfect computer is defined in terms of now, not several years from now.


Dear YS,

You do realize you described pretty much the setup I operate with now? And I find it far from ideal.


Dear Scott,

I think you got lost. The Computer OS Religious Wars Forum is one floor down and three doors to the right. Have fun there, and don't forget your flak jacket.


Dear Ed,

This is not a recommendation. It is not the system I am buying. I have written many columns here about cost-effective ways to get more performance out of your Photoshoppy stuff. This isn't one of them.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I like good enough, which for me has always been about $2,500 through the years.
My next issue is a light portable notebook to do fieldwork while having aN iMac 2010 at home.
I have been waiting for the announcement of a MacAir with thunderbolt. That will overcome the past lack of FireWire 800 in the Air.

I didn't realize this until Jack said it, but he's exactly right with regard to me too...My first computer (1985) cost just about the same as my present computer, about $2,500.

Guess that's where I'm comfortable...considerably short of perfect. Although, I have to say, I considered it a lot of money then and I still consider it a lot of money now....


David Aspinall:

No OWC makes things harder to find, and it of course makes OWC stuff expensive to get. But The OCZ Vertex 3 SSD is (more or less) the same internally as the OWC SSD, equally fast, and readily available for a reasonable price.

I've had less luck with 8GB SODIMM RAM modules, but I haven't looked very hard.

Dear Mike and Jack,

Whether it's PC or Mc, that's more or less where I've been, too, for over 25 years.

Actually, as I think about it, my first laptop, which stood me good for SEVEN years, was a $5K machine... but I got it through an employee, so it was $2.5K to me.

pax / cheap Ctein

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