How Long Should My PC Last?

How long should I expext my Photo PC to Last?

Desktop PC in NZXT tower caseOn the 10th January 2013 my Windows Desktop PC reached it’s 5 year anniversary and what was once considered state of the art is now indubitably antiquarian in the computing world. Once able to whiz through Windows at a relatively lively pace, it plods like the PC-pensioner that it has become. It bears little resemblance to the original specifications when first acquired, as I’ve added, replaced and pushed this mysterious black box to the limit, just to cope with my burgeoning library of ever-more-processor-demanding software and an image library that now stretches well over 2 terabytes. To be honest, it’s really struggled through the last couple of years, with a seemingly endless number of failures including several hard drives, the DVD drive, RAM chips, and some odd boot up and BIOS problems to name but a few. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had the PC out from under my desk and the side panels off, but I bet it must be pretty close to a hundred times by now. It’s now got to the stage that when I switch on my PC in the morning, I may as well go and have a cup of tea, because like me, it takes quite a while to wake up and get ready for work.

A Dedicated Photo PC

My PC was not cheap affair either, being marketed as the Fusion Photo OC II PC, built and designed by a reputable computer company especially to meet the needs of  a digital photographers needs. I’d  researched and scoured the reviews, this was going to be it. Fusion hey, that sounds really fast doesn’t it, as if driven by some nuclear powerhouse of a processor that will last for years? Well it looks as though I’m now suffering from the fallout. It arrived with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 processor, over-clocked to a whopping 3.2GHz, combined 8GB of onboard RAM. Plenty of processing power and memory for Photoshop manipulation then, but I soon began to realise that the boffins that put this box together didn’t understood all the needs of a digital photographer, as I’ll demonstrate below:

Inadequate Card Reader

Firstly, my PC came with an in-build 17-in-one card reader, but unfortunately it was woefully slow right from the start, even with the 2GB and 4GB CF cards I used then. I acquired an 8GB CF card not long after, but transfer files using the inbuilt card reader proved quite unbearable. A small USB card reader from Sandisk came to the rescue and proved to be around 3 or 4 times faster than the inbuilt offering. The original card reader gave up the ghost a while ago, but just recently I’ve added USB 3 via a PCI express card which drives a new internal card reader which is even faster still tan the Sandisk.

Storage and Hard Drives

My desktop came with two 250 GB, 7200 rpm, SATA-II, Seagate Barracuda hard drives, configured in a RAID array as one 500 GB drive, plus and second 500GB drive for storage. Whilst these are still pretty fast drives, 1TB is pretty paltry in terms of disk space for a photographer now. Then I was shooting with the Canon 5D (mark-I) generating RAW files of around 12MB, but took over 14,000 frames that year alone. I upgraded to the 5D mark-II towards the end 2008 which saw the average RAW file increase to around 32MB, so storage space, never mind back-up, became an almost immediate problem. I knew this of course, and rather have the supplier fit additional drives at great expense, I chose to fit them myself. I soon added another 500GB drive, then a 1TB drive, followed by a 1.5 TB drive, as I also planned to eventually rip all my DVD’s and CD’s to disk too. Pretty soon my two 320GB, and 1TB My Book (a huge brick of a housing) external backup drives looked woefully inadequate too. On top of that, one of the 250GB Barracuda system drives failed quite early on, and not long after the graphics card died too. The supplier was pretty good in replacing these it has to be said, but those problems were followed by my LaCie 320GB external drive giving up the ghost, as well as one of the drives within the ITB My Book. I stripped out the remaining good 500GB drive from the My Book to reuse, but gradually, over the intervening years, a succession of drives have been added and upgraded as each in turn began to fill up. My current internal HD configuration includes 2 x 2TB, 1 x 1.5 TB and 1 x 1TB, all in additional to the original 500GB RAID system drive.

Graphics Card and Screen Calibration

I already owned a pretty decent 22-inch Samsung monitor prior to my desktop purchase, and planned to run twin monitors in my new setup. I was informed by the vendor the Nvidia Geforce 8800 GT graphics card in my system would support this, having twin DVI outputs, so I choose another identical Samsung display as my monitor of choice. I use the term Identical very lightly here. Of course being a photographer who prints at home, I’d regularly calibrated my monitor using a colour profiler, but soon found my Spyder-II software didn’t support twin monitors, so upgraded to an X-rite ColorMunki. No matter how hard I tried though, I could not calibrate both monitors to look the same. I even tried a professional but he drew a blank too. Thankfully, one the clever folk at X-rite casually pointed out that the a graphics card needs to support dual LUT’s (Look-up Tables) to be able to store 2 sets of calibration figures. My Nvidia graphics card of course, only supports one LUT, thus allowing only one monitor to be calibrated correctly. If monitors were identical it wouldn’t be a problem, but I found out my Samsung’s come from different batches and are not even close. I could perhaps buy a new dual monitor graphics card, but almost none of the manufacturers seem to list whether they have dual LUT’s in their specification. The other alternative would be to add a second graphics card, but this is one option so far I have refrained from taking, and have had to make do calibrating just one, then adjusting the other match as best as I can. Not ideal.

Windows Operating System

I’ve waited till last to deal with operating system, as in my case it was the dreaded Windows Vista. As we all know now this was a complete disaster, not only for Microsoft, but for all existing Windows users. Vista was possibly the most successful advertising Apple have ever received and was probably the final nail in the coffin for Microsoft’s Operating System supremacy. Vista drove me up the wall too, with constant crashes, the dreaded BSoD (blue-screen-of-death), and failure to support existing peripherals. Hardly a week would go by without something going wrong. Like many, I think I’d hate to know just how much time I wasted trying to locate online fixes, upgrading, or re-installing software and updates. I never ever did manage to get my Printer working on the firewire cable again, which had worked perfectly under XP. At work we even downgraded (or should that be upgraded?) several Vista laptops to XP, and for quite a while I considered doing that to my desktop. I purchased an OEM version of XP Professional, 64-bit, just in case, but thankfully Windows 7 came to the rescue just in time, albeit at a rather steep price.

With any Windows system however, the longer you seem to use it, the more software you add, upgrade, remove or reinstall, the more garbage is left in the registry and on your hard drive, and no matter how much maintenance you do, the slower your PC gradually gets. Mine’s well overdue for a fresh Windows re-install. I’ve already done this 2 or 3 times over the past 5 years, but I know once I start it’s a good 2-3 days to get my PC back to the way I want it with all my software installed. I know I really should do it now, but I just can’t face that daunting prospect at the moment.

So How Long Should My PC really Last?

I guess 5 years is reasonable in PC longevity, but if I count up the price of the additions, repairs and replacements I’ve made over that period then I’d be well over the price of a new PC and then some and I haven’t even delved into the cost of my back-up kit. My PC is definitely plodding, but it is still working.

I was at friend and fellow photographers house a couple of days ago, and couldn’t help be slightly jealous of his shiny, 27-inch, new iMac, not just because of just how good it looks, but just how much more responsive it seemed compared to mine as he scrolled through his photographs in Adobe Lightroom. Mind you, Lightroom to me, has always appeared to be more attuned to running under MAC OS than Windows. I’ve tried the Apple way though, and have owned a 15-inch MacBook Pro for over 18 months or so, but to be really honest I much prefer the Windows environment and find it much more productive and less restrictive. The iMac does looks fabulous though, but you are stuck with that box too, and really can’t upgrade anything inside. I just wonder how long those will last too.

If I wasn’t dealing with a vast number of RAW files, and the power needed to process those, then I guess I’d be happy to keep chugging along my old PC for a few more years. But the pace of cameras development seems to show no sign of abatement. RAW file size and the space to store those are on a seemingly never-ending upwards spiral, needing faster, more able processors to run increasingly demanding image manipulation software. Software developers keep issuing new, faster, more versatile and more functional versions, and pretty soon your version becomes obsolete and no longer supported.  It’s catch 22; you’re stuck in a never-ending upgrade sequence. I guess I’ve done well to get 5 years, but it’s been at some considerable some cost.

Time for a New PC perhaps?

The more I write the more it really seems that I should just bite the bullet and get a new PC. Mine is surely on it’s last legs photographically, although I know I need to try at least one more fresh Windows install to try and breath a little bit more life into the old box. It’s just summing up courage to set aside a few days and get on with it that’s putting me off. I’ve already priced up a few potential replacements on several occasions too. Usually that’s after something has gone wrong again, more often than not at some critical moment, resulting in lost work and wasting some considerable time. It’s moments like those when I almost have a Basil Faulty moment, with a desire to thrash the PC with a branch!

Replacing a desktop PC, especially one that is custom configured, is not cheap these days however, and while laptops seemed to have dropped in price quite substantially over the years, desktops still seem pretty dam pricey for a good high spec machine. Lets face it, I’d want at least an Intel Core i7 Processor, 16GB RAM,  blue-ray drive, fast card reader, and several terabytes of hard disk space for starters, not to mention a highly desirable large solid state system drive perhaps. None of that it going to come cheap! Mmmm …






  • Daniel Fascia

    I have to agree, that you cannot just compare mac spec to PC spec, there’s a lot more going on…

    Apple have perfect version control over their hardware selection, so you can guarantee it all works synergistically together – none of this graphics card chopping and changing. The dual screen support is legendary, and has been there for years. Even a modest spec Apple can churn through raws off the newest cameras.

    I work with a Macbook Air 11″ (max spec) as my main computer. It handles 100Mpix images in Aperture in near realtime and I just plug it into monitors and use it in clamshell mode as a desktop with bluetooth peripherals.

    I used to use Windows, but they lost it long ago and are nowhere near the path to recovery yet

    April 7, 2013
  • Great blog as always, John. Well written and interesting. I well remember the wasted years I battled with PC’s telling myself they were the business and how much cheaper than Macs they were.

    What I didn’t factor in was how much of my life (at x pounds per hour) I spent fixing the things, upgrading them, running scans, defragging and generally nursing them along because of all the hard and software design flaws and conflicts that abound.

    It all changed for me when I opened my iPad box. Within a few minutes I was in love with the design, the simplicity and flawless way it worked. It did what I wanted the way I wanted. I decided then to get the 27 inch iMac and abandon PC’s for good. I have never looked back.

    They are not upgradable (apart from RAM and maybe a hard drive upgrade) because they don’t need to be. They are fast, smooth and efficient. They don’t need constant “windows updates” (read “disaster recovery fixes”) and all the software communicates with each other and other Apple devices seamlessly. The Timemachine backup is so simple and flawless. And you actually get to get some work done. They pay you back the premium price many times over.

    Oh, and they look gorgeous.

    So I urge you and your readers to abandon PC’s and join the growing band of Mac users. Why is it you never hear of any one leaving Apple Macs and moving to Windows based PC’s? Because once you have got some work done without stress you realise how wonderful Mac World is 🙂

    C’mon John. You know you want to. Have a crummy old laptop for work stuff and enjoy your photography world on a Mac. I promise you will never regret it.

    Did I mention they are gorgeous to look at too? 🙂

    February 14, 2013

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