So Lightroom is slow and you want a better computer to speed things up for you. No problem – but where do you start? There’s more choices than you can shake a stick at, including the big one:
Mac or Windows?
Who cares? Really? Well, you do I assume, but other than that it’s entirely personal preference. They’re based on such similar hardware these days that the real choice is down to the operating system, and you’ll already know which one you prefer.
The rest of this guide is mostly focussed on Windows PCs, but is still worth a read if you plan to buy a Mac. The reason for this focus is simply that PCs can be built to order from many companies, while Macs tend to be more restricted in the choices you can make. However, the same choices and limitations exist for both PC and Mac, the only real difference is in how you go about buying one.
So what makes Lightroom slow?
There are several things which might be affecting Lightroom performance, and there are lots of posts out there already which describe tuning Lightroom. It’s always worth experimenting a little with some of the things mentioned in these articles first, because that’s a great deal cheaper than buying a new workstation unless you’re really pushed for time!
What actually makes it slow though? What’s it doing, or what’s it waiting for? Why doesn’t it just give you the results immediately when you tell it to do something? We need to know this, because otherwise you won’t be able to make an informed choice about your shiny new workstation and could well be throwing money at the wrong problem.
So, it’s either working on something or waiting for something. I’m going to leave a lot of the nitty-gritty details for another article and just offer some general points here, but there should still be enough for you to start making real decisions. What I’m not going to do is to tell you “go buy component X and Y and it will all get better”. I might just be persuaded to say “go buy component X or Y and it will all get better, provided that component X or Y is relevant to the specific problem on your current computer“. Deciding what’s relevant is mostly what this article’s for.
This article isn’t about how to get the most screamingly fast computer that it’s possible to get. That’s easy, just throw 5 grand at me a computer supplier, wait for them to stop giggling, and switch it on. No, this article is about getting the most bang for your buck and sometimes – actually, quite often – that means looking at slightly older kit. One drawback is that you lose the bragging rights you’d otherwise get as the owner of a four-way, 32-core Intel Super-Extreme Unrestricted Limited Edition Hyper-Gateway, cooled using liquid nitrogen at 350bar, workstation. (Yours for only five times your annual income on Amazon at some point in the not-too-distant future, no doubt). On the plus side, you do get to say to the owner of such a machine that yours is 85% as fast but only cost 15% of what he paid.
There are usually four main areas that slow computers down, and one of them is almost certainly not an issue here.
Warning – details ahead, captain!
Highly unlikely to be a problem unless you’ve got all your photos stored on a NAS (network attached storage) device. ‘Nuff said. If you do have your photos on a NAS, this could well be what’s slowing Lightroom down and so upgrading your computer is unlikely to make much difference. This is a big topic in itself and really only for specialist cases, so I’m not going to go into any more detail here.
All your photos, and the database, and the previews of which Lightroom generates many gigabytes, all need to get stored on disk somewhere. People tend to judge disks by what size they are – this is important, after all – but disks don’t just have size, they also have speed, and just to confuse things further they have different kinds of speed. There are lots of different options, each with different price-tags, but in general (and fairly predictably) faster disks are better but also cost more.
Your main choice will be between an SSD (solid-state disk) and traditional hard-disks. The latter are considerably cheaper but also much slower, because they have moving parts. SSDs are basically screamingly-fast USB thumbdrives, so there are no moving parts. This makes a huge difference because all the data on a solid-state disk is available almost instantly, while with a traditional disk it has to physically move parts around and then wait a while to get the contents of the next file lined up. When Lightroom is scanning your catalog in the Library module it will be accessing thousands of preview files, and each of those move-to-the-next-file delays, tiny as they are, adds up.
The downside is cost, of course. It’s much more expensive to get an SSD large enough to store a decent catalog of photos than it is to buy a traditional disk with the same capacity. The answer? Easy – buy one of each!
You can buy older SSDs now pretty cheaply. Having a 60Gb disk might sound useless if you’ve got 500G of photos, but hold on a minute; your operating system (MacOS or Windows) will take, say, 20Gb of that at most. Your programs will take around 10Gb more, probably less. Your Lightroom catalog probably less than 1Gb (I’ve got around 16,000 images in a 260Mb catalog). Take another 10Gb off for luck (or the swapfile anyway) and you’ve still got 20Gb useful high-speed space for previews. Now this may not be enough, so look at the 80Gb ones, or 120Gb, or whatever.
Next you add a standard, boring old steam-driven hard drive to store the photos themselves. Again, remember to check the speed before you buy; a lot of disks are available now which have slower access speeds than older ones because they take less power and are therefore “green”. As a rule of thumb, 7200RPM disks are standard for desktop PCs. Anything slower than this will… ah… be slower. You can also get faster disks but the extra cost probably isn’t worth it in this case.
Doing it this way has other benefits too – check out the “Lightroom Tuning” article hereabouts for details.
This is the thinking engine of your computer, and the faster it can do sums, the faster the computer is, right? Well, yes and no. These days every processor (or CPU) comes with multiple cores. Each core is capable of running a program in its own right, so the more cores you have, the more it can do at the same time. The thing is, some programs work much better with lots of things going on at once, and some are worse.
Lightroom, naturally, sits somewhere in the middle. Some bits only use one core at a time while others will use more cores if they’re available. Happily the Develop module uses more than one but it still doesn’t seem to make that much use out of additional cores. The obvious conclusion here is that Lightroom will benefit from pumping more work through fewer cores. For once, good old-fashioned clock speed – that’s the “GHz” number – will help the most. If you’re comparing benchmarks, take care to look for “single-threaded” numbers to compare. This tells you how much work each individual core can do.
As a point of interest, there’s an article over on TomsHardware which compares various modern CPUs for gaming. Why gaming? Games are largely if not entirely single-threaded, just like Lightroom. Their conclusion is that a £180 processor is pretty much as good as one costing £800.
My own pick right now – largely theoretical, my toy quota’s been exceeded this month – would be this one: Intel Core i7 3820 3.6GHz 10Mb . What do those numbers mean? OK, first we have the “Intel Core i7 3820”. That’s the maker (Intel), type (Core i7) and model (3820), simple as that. Intel tends to be faster (and more expensive) than AMD, and as the model numbers go up they also tend to be faster so an i7 is faster than an i5 which is in turn faster than an i3.
The next two numbers are the important ones. First we have “3.6GHz”, which is the raw speed of the processor. Higher is better, of course. Last we have “10Mb”. Thats megabytes, not gigabytes. Megabytes is a measure of memory capacity, but that’s not a great deal of memory these days, surely? Well, this isn’t main memory (which is measured nowadays in Gb, or gigabytes). This is a special, extremely high speed memory that’s built into the processor itself. It uses this to keep a super-fast copy of whatever it’s been doing recently. As usual, more = better = more expensive.
So what’s the deal with the AMD processors? Some of those have higher GHz (processor speed, or “how many things can it do in a given time”) numbers and higher Mb (processor cache, or “how much stuff can it keep handy without having to send all the way over the other side of the motherboard to get it”) numbers and yet are a third the price of the Intel ones. It’s a case of efficiency. The two manufacturers went down different routes some time ago; AMD went for higher speeds while Intel went for more efficiency. In other words, AMD processors take small steps really quickly while Intel processors take big strides moderately quickly. In other other words, it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it. As the bishop said to the actress.
The forgotten component. Many places just say “buy as much memory as possible”. That’s not necessarily bad advice, but it’s also not the whole story. Just like all the other components, memory has speed as well as size. It’s easy to buy much more memory than you actually need, but because it’s slow memory, you don’t get as much benefit from it as you might expect.
When your computer runs out of memory it doesn’t just break. It takes some stuff that’s in memory that it’s not used for a while and stores it on disk so it can get it back later. It then clears the memory it just stored and re-uses it, and you carry on totally unaware of what’s going on. Problem solved, right? Wrong! RAM is a chip – no moving parts, extremely fast – while disk, even an SSD, is vastly slower. Every time your computer swaps something out of memory onto the disk, it slows things down dramatically. A reasonably fast traditional hard drive will transfer stuff at around 80Mb per second; a good solid-state disk at about 450Mb a second if you’ve got a really up-to-date one. Real memory transfers stuff at around 17-23Gb per second or even higher. So, when I said that lack of memory slows things down “dramatically”, we’re talking something between 50 and 250 times slower. In practise it would be rather slower even than that, because those disk speeds are “maximum” transfer speeds, under ideal conditions, not “real world” speeds. Therefore, more memory is a good thing. Sermon over.
But wait! What about having too much memory? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t matter because it simply won’t be used. However, something not being used is the same as something being wasted, in my book. As with all the other components, there are different grades of memory available and you’re almost certain to just get the cheap stuff unless you ask for something else. Having a brand-name on it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any faster; if anything it means that you’re paying for quality (i.e. less failures, but RAM tends not to fail much anyway) and the ability to run it faster than it was designed to go. This is called “overclocking”.
Memory comes with different speeds, just like processors do. Because Lightroom is working on large chunks of memory, giving the processor faster memory will speed things up. I’ll spare the details, but as with the other bits and pieces, higher numbers are better so DDR3-1066 (the basic stuff) is slower than DDR3-1333 which is slower than DDR3-1600 and so on. I recently upgraded my main Windows PC from DDR3-1333 to DDR3-1600 and to cut a long and number-filled story short, got about 10% better performance from Lightroom. If you’re buying an entire new PC, this kind of upgrade will be about 2% of the total cost of the machine.
The fifth component of the four. Although Lightroom is graphically intensive, it doesn’t actually use the graphics card to do anything more than display things. That’s what a graphics card is for, right? Well, these days it’s increasingly common to have real computing tasks – photo editing, just to pick one entirely at random – done using the phenomenally fast maths processors that exist on graphics cards. Sadly, Lightroom doesn’t do that – at least not yet – so for now, a cheap graphics card is all you need. If Adobe change things and start using GPU (graphics processor) power in the Develop module, you can just add on a more powerful graphics card later. Lightroom works perfectly cheerfully on a “free” Intel 3000 or 4000 graphics chip that is included in the price of most motherboards.
If you want to use more than one monitor – and I highly recommend it – then you night need a separate graphics card but even the cheapest ones usually offer multi-monitor capability these days. Oh, and a second monitor, of course.
Er… OK… So what do I buy?
OK, from the top:
- An Intel processor, at least i5 and preferably i7, with the highest GHz number and highest Mb number you can justify. If you’re going over about £250-£300 it might be overkill.
- At least 6 Gb of memory and ideally 8 or 12Gb. Make it as fast as you can, ideally DDR3-1600 or better.
- A smallish SSD, say 60Gb or 80Gb, as your main disk plus a larger “normal” hard disk with a speed of at least 7200RPM for storing photos. In fact, buy two and have them set up as “mirrored RAID” by the supplier.
- Nothing special for the graphics card, unless you plan to use the computer for games too.
- Come back and read the “Tuning Lightroom” article to get things set up the best way.
- MacOS or Windows 7… The choice is yours, I’m not going anywhere near that bunfight!
Or, you could just hit the “Services” link at the top of the page and tell me who you want to buy it from, and I’ll spec it for you. It’ll save you time…