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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!