Your Complete Guide to Capturing Wedding Details

Gear & Apps

Best Computer Specs for Photoshop | Is Your Computer Up to Par?

By Lauchlan Toal on March 30th 2016

Love or hate Adobe, Photoshop is the program to have for anyone looking to go beyond the basics in photo editing. If you use a DSLR, either as a pro or an enthusiast, there’s a good chance that Photoshop is the most used application you have. Because of this, it pays to have a computer that won’t slow you down when you’re blasting through the heavy edits. But what kind of hardware do you really need? Whether you’re looking to buy a new machine, upgrade your current set-up, or just evaluate what you have right now, this article will clear the mists around what computer specs you need for Photoshop.

[Free Tutorial: Crucial Lightroom CC Features to Know]

CPU

CPU

The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is the brain of your computer. It’s the little chip at the heart of everything that does the heavy lifting for almost every application you use, and Photoshop is no exception. It’s also one of the more expensive components in a machine, but these days they really are a bargain. There are two specs to a CPU that you need to know – the clock speed, and the number of cores. Clock speed, measured in GHz, is how many computations a core in the CPU can perform every second. The higher, the better. The number of cores is how many independent computation devices there are – so the more cores there are, the better a computer is at multitasking (or breaking up complex operations). Adobe recommends that you use a 2 GHz or faster CPU, but if you can afford better, it’s worth it. Photoshop uses the CPU for the majority of its tasks, so aim for 3 GHz or higher for best results. I found 2.6 GHz in a Macbook to be great for most things, but it slowed down when applying complex filters and using large brushes. However, the 3.5 GHz processor in my iMac has yet to meet its match.

The other aspect of CPUs, the number of cores, is a little less straightforward. Unfortunately, the number of cores is inversely proportional to the clock speed, so you’re going to have to make some sacrifices in your specs. Luckily for us, Photoshop makes this decision easy by failing to use multiple cores very effectively. Four to six cores is the sweet spot, past that, you really see diminishing returns. I think for 99% of Photoshop users, your best bet is to get a quad-core machine with a good clock speed. This is pretty standard for desktops, though for laptops, you might have to make due with a dual core machine. One thing to look for is “hyper-threading” if you go for dual cores. This effectively makes your processor act like it has twice as many cores though they’re virtual rather than physical. Photoshop doesn’t actually make use of hyper-threading much, but if you only have two physical cores, it will make a difference. For four cores, it’s not a big deal. I ran some tests in Photoshop with a massive 96-megapixel image (1.2 GB), and with my quad-core iMac with hyper-threading to eight cores, the four virtual cores were very rarely used, and the four physical cores were never even pushed to their max. So don’t worry about grabbing an 18-core monster machine – aim for four and you’ll be fine.

RAM

RAM

If the CPU is the brain of your computer, the RAM is the short-term memory. RAM (or Random Access Memory) is the storage space that files are loaded into when you’re working on them. It’s much faster than the storage space on hard drives or even SSDs, so it allows you to make changes very quickly without having to save and reload every time you do anything. As you can probably imagine, Photoshop uses this quite a bit as you adjust your images. RAM is typically measured in GBs, just like other digital storage devices. However, unlike hard drives where 256 GB to even several terabytes is routine, your RAM is likely 4-32 GB. Modern laptops typically start at 4 GB, whereas decent desktops start with 8 GB. Ideally, you’ll want to push that up a little. Even though Adobe says that 2 GB is the minimum, they acknowledge that 8 GB is recommended. 8 GB is a very reasonable amount, and if you’re working with 24-megapixel raw files and not stacking dozens of images, it may be all you need. More is better, though, so if you can spring for 16 GB, it will definitely help. 32 GB or even 64 GB is probably overkill for most users, unless you’re using PhaseOne’s latest 100-megapixel camera, creating large panoramas, or doing a lot of HDR and focus stacking.

GPU

GPU

The Graphics Processing Unit is a bit of a luxury compared to the CPU and RAM. You don’t necessarily need one, since most low-to-mid range CPUs come with an integrated graphics processor that can power your monitor. The GPU is a little harder to explain, but it’s kind of like if you took a single core from a CPU and really beefed it up into a powerhouse of computing power. It doesn’t have the same multitasking abilities of a CPU, but it focuses a massive amount of computational energy into any given task. GPUs are primarily used to power your monitor, which is actually a pretty big consideration for photographers. If you want to use a 4k display, you’ll want a dedicated GPU. Additionally, Photoshop does benefit from the extra muscle the GPU brings to the table – for some tools. Most of the time, it’ll be relaxing while your CPU handles the brunt of the work. However, when you get into a few advanced tools like Perspective Warp, Oil Paint filter, and Blur Gallery, the GPU will jump in to speed things up. Unfortunately, it isn’t used for many of the workhorse Photoshop tools, so if you don’t have a dedicated GPU, it’s not a dealbreaker. It’s nice to have though, so if you do decide to pick one up, go for at least 2 GB of VRAM (preferably 4 GB). Even if you don’t need it for Photoshop, it’ll support a good monitor rig, and if you’re interested in video editing at all, you definitely want a decent GPU. Rendering video without a GPU will have your computer running all night.

Storage

samsung-850-evo-2tb

[REWIND: TOP 7 TIPS TO GET THE MOST FROM YOUR SSDS]

A final, and often overlooked aspect of Photoshop performance is your computer’s storage. There are two basic kinds of storage, classic spinning hard drives and SSDs (Solid State Drives). Hard drives are very inexpensive and give you oodles of storage, but SSDs are much, much faster. This speed will be welcome whenever you’re opening files, saving files, or booting up Photoshop. However, if you can’t spring for a full SSD set-up, you can mix a small SDD with a large hard drive (often call a fusion or hybrid drive) so that you have the speed of an SDD for booting up and accessing recent files, with the large, inexpensive capacity of a hard drive for archiving. It won’t be quite as fast as a 100% SSD kit, but if you don’t need the absolute fastest performance, a fusion/hybrid drive may be for you. If possible, avoid a hard drive only set-up, and if you’re currently using one, look into upgrading. SSDs also have the advantage of being less prone to failure, so they’re ideal for storing important photos and other files.

[REWIND: How I Built My Custom Photo/Video Editing PC for Under $800]

Summary

It can be hard to know what you need for optimal Photoshop performance given all the competing theories out there, but in reality, you can do quite well with a decent, mid-range machine. Aim for a quad-core, 3 GHz CPU, 8 GB of RAM, a small SSD, and maybe a GPU for a good computer that can handle most Photoshop needs. If you’re a heavy user, with large image files and extensive editing, consider a 3.5-4 GHz CPU, 16-32 GB RAM, and maybe even ditch the hard drives for a full SSD kit. Mac or PC, you really can’t go wrong with specs like these. If you want to save some money and don’t mind being patient with Photoshop from time to time, you might even be able to get by with a dual-core, 2.5 GHz hyper-threaded CPU, and 4 GB RAM – if you don’t deal with heavy edits or large files much, you might not even notice a difference.

So is your computer up to par? I hope so, but if it’s not, you know what to look for in your next upgrade.

Questions about specs for Photoshop? Want to share your experiences and what kind of hardware you think is necessary? Feel free to chat in the comments section!

Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

22 Comments

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Desmond Downs

    “though for laptops, you might have to make due with a dual core machine.” “so that you have the speed of an SDD for booting up” – should be “make do” and “SSD”

    | |
  2. Motti Bembaron

    Just putting my new PC together. Hopefully, I get everything right. I did upgrades to computers but never put one together from scratch…

    I originally wanted a GeForce gtx 970 but after a lengthy talk with the guy in the store, I ended up buying a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti. The 970 is a great gaming card but way overkill for photo editing (I do not edit videos). Saved just over $300 (CDN) on that.

    My new system contains Intel i7 6700K CPU with Gigabyte z170 gaming 7 motherboard and 32GB of RAM. I also decided to get the M.2 1TB Samsung 960 EVO hard drive, Whatever I saved on the card I put into this drive, I think that would make things really quick.

    The thing is, if I bought a premade PC from Dell, HP or any other company, those specs would set me back well over $3,000 CDN (more like $3,500). I checked.

    The whole thing cost me just over $2,100. Can’t wait to see it working :-)

    Happy New Year!

    | |
  3. Sedric Beasley

    I just got a 5k Imac retina with 1TB SSD and 16GB memory I will use my IPAD mini for displaying my pictures and light editing. I use Eyefi to tether and I have tether areo kit to tether my Imac. I do video so I have Final cut pro and the photoshop and lightroom are installed also. I thought a brief second about a laptop but; you can get that nice 27 inch 5k and the performance to do video editing in a laptop.

    | |
  4. Dave Haynie

    When you’re comparing CPU cores, also keep in mind that all the modern Intel chips at least (latest i-series) play clock-speed games. That’s a good thing. Basically, the speed rating of the CPU isn’t the whole story. The speed will drop with more cores, mostly because, well, more cores, more heat. So the CPU in my desktop, a 6-core i7, has a standard clock rate of 3.2GHz. But if you’re running an application that’s mostly using a core or two, it can upclock itself to 3.8GHz, as long as some of the other cores are more or less idling. All modern application CPUs (from desktops to smartphones) down-clock when they’re idling anyway, though mobile chips are usually more aggressive.

    Clock speed is an indication of performance, but other factors matter, too. While both my desktop and laptop have i7s, for example, the i7 in my laptop has two 64-bit buses for DDR3 memory, while the one on in my desktop has four 64-bit buses for DDR3 memory. So the desktop has more cores and a faster path to memory. — it will go much faster.

    | |
  5. Justin Haugen

    Regarding screens and laptops, I’m looking at getting one of these USB3.0 powered ASUS IPS displays to accompany my ASUS laptop.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B013XFJKGI/ref=psdc_1292115011_t1_B00FE690DI

    | |
    • Motti Bembaron

      I wonder, do you think this thing can connect directly to a camera? :-) That would be amazing. Maybe if connecting with a USB, Liveview can be viewed on the screen.

      | |
    • Justin Haugen

      Motti, it won’t connect directly to a camera. I really love mine though and it’s working great with my laptop. I highly recommend it.

      | |
    • Motti Bembaron

      I see, good to know. Thanks.

      | |
  6. Yael DeFaye

    are laptops still a good answer for photo editing? With your descriptions it looks like a desktop is the way to go

    | |
    • Alex Kartashov

      Desktop is indeed the way to go if you’re looking for productivity but Laptops have to suffice when you’re on-the-go. If you still want desktop-class performance, make sure you shell out the cash for a CPU with an “HQ” or “MQ” suffix.

      | |
    • Justin Haugen

      latops have come a long way. I’m working on an i-7 laptop with 16gb of ram and an SSD and I notice no drop off in performance in Lightroom compared to my 3 year old desktop setup with superior specs.

      | |
    • William Irwin

      Laptops have their purpose for mobile editing and tethering. Its also good if you travel a lot (destination or travel photographers).

      Desktop is definitely easier to edit from. If you can build your own PC, the initial outlay is similar to buying a pre-fab or pre-built PC. If you can do your own troubleshooting and fixing PC and do not need the technical support then building your own becomes a cost-saver down the road when it comes time to upgrade. I’ve had upgrades for less than $300 that essentially gave me a brand new computer.

      | |
    • Anders Madsen

      It’s a trade-off between mobility and performance.

      I have a late 2013 model MacBook Pro with a 2,4-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-processor, 8 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD and while that is still a respectable computer, my even older desktop with a 3,4-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-processor, 8 GB RAM and an ordinary 7200 RPM harddrive actually beats it hands down when running Photoshop. However, since I do a lot of photography on location, the Macbook Pro is nevertheless my main computer for work.

      There is no doubt that the clock speed of the processor has a very significant effect on how fast Photoshop runs (like Lauchlan says, much more than the number of cores) , and I sometimes wonder if the owners of Mac Pro computers with the insanely expensive 2.7GHz 12-core Intel Xeon E5 really are getting their moneys worth with Photoshop and other Adobe products.

      | |
    • Yael DeFaye

      Next year I would like to have a laptop, I teach photography classes and it’s nice to be able to bring your environment with me and when I’m home I would like to plug a big screen. But at least now I know I need a fast clock, 8GB or RAM and a SSD going to have to see what price is all of that. Thanks for that article!

      | |
    • Lauchlan Toal

      The good thing about laptops is that most of them come with an SSD by default anyway, but you do have to shell out a bit more initially since they’re much harder to upgrade. For your needs, it sounds like a laptop would definitely be handy.

      | |
    • Lauchlan Toal

      Laptops can be good enough, though you’ll pay a premium and make some sacrifices. If you want the same specs as a desktop it will cost a lot more, and the small screen makes editing a bit less enjoyable. However, laptops can usually be good enough if you don’t need to do anything too complicated and don’t expect instant performance, and being able to edit on the go (and use tethering on location) is a big benefit that you’d have to consider.

      | |
    • William Irwin

      With Macs and Some PC Laptops using external display can be done. For Mac you have the display adapter and PC’s you can use HDMI on a monitor. It won’t beat a good PC for display purposes but can alleviate the “pain”.

      | |
    • Anders Madsen

      Agreed on the external monitor. While in the studio I use my MacBook Pro with an Eizo CS230 monitor through a Thunderbolt cable and it works very well as a substitute for a dedicated desktop.

      That being said, the dual monitor experience with a 13″ laptop monitor and a 23″ desktop monitor is nowhere near as seamless and intuitive as having two 23″ monitors right next to each other.

      I usually run e-mail and other secondary applications on the laptop monitor and Capture One or Photoshop on the Eizo, rather than having parts of Capture One or Photoshop run on the laptop monitor.

      | |
    • William Irwin

      I just replaced my old monitor with two new 23″ IPS monitors. Colors are soooo much better. Its nice having the extra room in Lightroom and photoshop.

      | |
    • Bryan Ackerman

      I have a 2015 Macbook Pro and plug in to a 27″ Apple Display. I love the convenience of having my network connection, USB keyboard, and external drive connected to the monitor so all I have to do when I get to work is plug the power cable and Thunderbolt cable in from the monitor to the laptop.

      | |
    • Dave Haynie

      It very much depends on whether you’re comfortable using a laptop. There are several issues. Laptops use much lower power processors, naturally, since they’d like to run from batteries as long as possible. That means aggressive power management as well, and that’s fine — that’s what keeps you laptop cool on a lap. But when you start really cranking the CPU or GPU, as you will at some point in time while photo editing, you will see your battery life drop off a precipice. So just keep that in mind.

      The other is the screen. I use dual screens for nearly everything I do on a PC: music, CAD, video, programming, etc. But I don’t actually mind a single screen for photo editing, particularly if it’s a great screen. My laptop has a 4K quantum dot LCD screen, which is the absolute best laptop screen I’ve used (I suspect better than my home monitors, too, but I have ignored that fact to save money). It’s got a quad-core mobile 2.3GHz i7, 16GB RAM, mid-range nVidia GPU, and a wicked fast PCIe SSD. This is faster than most desktops, though It misses on every spec of my hex-core desktop other than its SSD being about twice as fast as my desktop’s SATA SSD, and it’s a very comfortable photo editing system, unless I need to merge 75-100 images into one composite. That’s why the desktop has 64GB of RAM.

      Of course, you can buy two fully functional desktop systems for photo editing for the price of something like this (it was $2700 new, and my employer got the bill) — mine also doubles as a usable road machine for CAD work.

      | |
    • Yael DeFaye

      I was looking for something like that, it seems powerful enough with IPS screen and I could have an extra big screen when I’m back home working on the pictures: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B015PYYDMQ/

      | |