It was time for my 6-year-old i5-2500-based hardware to get its well deserved retirement and upgrade core components – motherboard, processor, RAM, SSD, and possibly graphics card.
So what is important when selecting new parts for a Lightroom PC and what did I choose in Feb 2018?
While I do all kind of work with my PC, photo editing is the only regular demanding application. I may try to do more videos in the future but for now main focus was to get capable PC for photo editing, mainly on Adobe Lightroom.
The main question is how to divide the budget between PC parts? Where do you get the best return on investment in terms of performance? To understand the requirements, first we need to understand how Lightroom actually works.
To clarify, when talking about Lightroom or LR, I mean Lightroom Classic CC.
How Adobe Lightroom Works?
My main photo editing software is Lightroom where I organise and manage everything and do almost all editing. In addition, I have Adobe Photoshop, Skylum Aurora HDR 2018, and Google Nik Collection (the old collection, the IP is now acquired by DxO so we can expect new release soonish) but I use all of these as plugins from Lightroom.
So what kind of resources Lightroom need? Understanding how it works is crucial in order to optimise performance. I have written another post explaining how Lightroom works. Here is a brief recap of that.
Image data in LR consists of following parts:
- Originals (RAW, JPEG, TIFF, DNG)
- Lightroom Catalog (database)
- Smart Previews (optional)
- Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) cache
- Originals are only used as source data in the background and they are never modified
- Catalog is a database containing all photo information: file location, all edits, keywords, etc.)
- Previews are actual photos shown to the user, created from Originals using Catalog information
- Smart Previews are smaller lossless versions of Originals
- ACR Cache contains some form of partly processed Originals used for faster access
Smart Previews should be used and when they are used, Originals can be stored on HDD or NAS, while Lightroom, Catalog, Previews, Smart Previews, and cache should be on fast SSD. After fast disk it is mostly about processing power when applying edits and generating Previews.
PC Parts for Lightroom
Unless you are in the lucky situation of having unlimited budget, you should be interested in where exactly the money should be put on when aiming for better Lightroom performance? I do not know all internal details of Lightroom but based on personal experience and forums and blogs (see references below), here is what I have found out.
This is where you should put your money on. Because of how Lightroom works, it mainly requires processor power. It seems single-core performance is the most important for real-time editing although I could not find good up-to-date information regarding single vs multi-thread usage on editing tasks.
When generating previews, exporting, and such multi-file batch processing, Lightroom can efficiently use multiple cores.
Note that there has been changes in the most recent version (Feb 2018) of Lightroom, now it can more efficiently use high-performance systems with more than 4 processor cores and over 12 GB of RAM. Prior versions had problems utilising higher-end systems.
Briefly: Processor is the most important part; highest possible single-thread performance but extra cores are very beneficial as well.
My choice: Intel i7-8700k (£330) and Thermaltake Contac 21 cooler (£25). I decided to pick the best possible (consumer) processor and compromise slightly on other components. The processor has 6 cores with hyperthreading, meaning 12 threads. Its maximum single-core clock speed is 4.7 GHz, thus providing excellent single-core performance as well.
If you wanted to save on processor, I would probably pick i5 with the highest single-core clock speed. For example, i5-8600k is £100 cheaper than i7-8700k.
Motherboard is fairly invisible component for casual users but its importance is quickly revealed if something goes wrong. Regarding motherboard choice, first thing is that processor socket and chipset must match your processor. Then choose the form factor to match your case: ITX, mATX, or ATX.
ITX is a good choice if you want to have a small computer. However, you need to make compromise on some expansion possibilities. For example, ITX motherboards have only two RAM slots, while larger boards have four. The number of other connectors such as SATA, USB, etc. are usually adequate for casual use. All motherboards seem to have at least two monitor connectors but some have three, and the connector types differ so check these if you have special needs. I also need optical audio output which is missing at least in many ITX motherboards.
ITX motherboards usually have wifi and Bluetooth as well. However, especially if you store RAW images on NAS, you want to have gigabit ethernet, not wifi. Bluetooth can be handy in some instances. Connect the provided wifi antenna even if you don’t use wifi but may use Bluetooth; Bluetooth also uses this antenna.
Overall, more expensive boards tend to have options for overclocking.
Briefly: Pick motherboard with correct socket and chipset to fit your needs, most important is the form factor. Connections are quite similar across boards.
My choice: Asus ROG STRIX Z370-I (£180 – £45 cashback). I used my old ITX case with power supply so needed an ITX board, and Z370 is currently the only chipset for 8th generation Intel processors. This left me only 5-6 options. This Asus board is among the most expensive ones but Asus had a cashback campaign making it a good choice. After all, Asus are respectable motherboard manufacturer. It is targeted at gamers and overclockers, thus having lots of extra features.
Adobe recommends 12 GB for high-performance setup. It is unclear whether going over 16 GB has real benefits, many seem to think no.
Clearly extra RAM is more beneficial if you want to use many heavy programs simultaneously and swap between them constantly. For example, my old machine had 8 GB of RAM. It was enough for Lightroom but when using Nik Collection, Aurora HDR, or Photoshop with Lightroom caused increased memory swapping (using hard drive as temporary RAM storage, slowing down the process). However, while RAM is in its own speed league, occasional swapping on SSD is still a lot smoother than on old HDD.
Briefly: Get 32 GB if your budget allows, otherwise 16 GB. Choose RAM speed according to your processor (unless you plan to overclock). For example, i7-8700k has native RAM speed of 2666 MHz.
My choice: 2x 8GB Corsair Vengeance 3000 MHz (£180). After picking the best processor, I made slight compromise here considering that small ITX motherboards only have two RAM slots. Therefore, possible future upgrade means replacing the old ones. I picked 3000 MHz model as it was basically the same price as 2666 MHz. I may try small overclock one day.
As explained above, Lightroom stores various types of files: Catalog, previews, cache, and original photos. The software itself and fast-access files such as Catalog, previews and cache should be stored on fast SSD drives. If Smart Previews are used for editing, original photos can be on slower disk or NAS.
While the jump from HDD to SSD was huge in terms of speed improvement, the differences between SSD types are smaller. Although new NVMe SSDs are faster than older SSDs using SATA bus, practical differences are smaller than benchmarks make them look like.
One thing to remember is that SSDs do not last forever either. In fact especially older drives may have quite limited endurance. Therefore, even if your old SSD is still up and running, it may be worth considering buying a new one when re-installing everything anyway. The old one can still be used as Adobe preview and cache drive, for example.
Size-wise 250 GB is the minimum. If it’s only for Windows and software and you don’t have high number of massive software (such as games), it is probably enough. But if you can afford, go all the way up to 1 TB. In fact, newer NVMe SSDs are faster in higher capacities – for example speed difference between 250 GB and 1 TB drive sold under same name can be significant, at least in benchmarks.
Briefly: Any SSD model is huge improvement over HDD but choose one of the newer NVMe models, as big as you need and can afford. However, large image files can be stored in HDDs or external drives.
My choice: Samsung 960 EVO 250 GB (£110). This was also slight compromise after the processor choice. I could have picked 500 GB although I never used over 150 GB on my old drive. I also still have the old 250 GB 840 EVO drive to use aside.
Lightroom supports GPU acceleration which can be enabled in Preferences. However, support is still very limited. According to Adobe and some discussion forums, only some functions in Develop module can benefit from GPU. Moreover, the impact becomes apparent only with high-resolution 4K and 5K monitors. Therefore, it seems it is better to allocate the budget on other parts than GPU. However, if you are a gamer and want to buy a powerful graphics card anyway, it may give some performance boost. GPU support is also likely getting better over time.
I chose not to buy graphics card for now. They are very expensive at the moment due to cryptocurrency mining and seem to bring less return on investment than other parts. It is also easy to add later if I want to.
Case and Power Supply
I upgraded the case and power supply last summer. My case is Thermaltake Core V1 with Corsair CX450 power supply. This case is not the smallest ITX unlike my previous tiny Silverstone ML06 but it allows good airflow and supports larger (but not the largest) processor coolers and full-sized graphics cards. It has huge 200 mm fan in front and placeholders for 2x 80 mm on rear panel. When tower-type processor cooler is placed in between, this allows very effective air flow.
Bright LEDs are not really the most important feature of a PC but that is what you get when buying parts aimed at gamers…
The price tag for this upgrade was £800, using my old case, power supply, monitors, and accessories. With bigger budget the first thing would have been to choose 32 GB of RAM, then 1 TB SSD. Only then if I still had £500 to spend, I would go for a graphics card. Or if I wanted to play games.
Upgrading from a 6-year-old then-mid-performance kit to the newest-generation high-end kit obviously brings huge performance boost, nothing less can be expected. Use of resources does not tell how well they are used but Lightroom seem to at least utilise available resources. In first runs I have seen it using even 7 GB of RAM and loading all cores especially when generating previews.
I am using Skylum Aurora HDR 2018 sometimes to create HDR images. The Windows version is still quite immature with missing features, bugs, and it was barely usable on i5-2500. Now it is quite fast although still not perfectly smooth; however, at least it is not about the hardware anymore.
It was time for an upgrade and now it really gave huge performance boost. I hope this kit remains fairly capable for the next five years.
References and Further Reading
Note that some articles mention Lightroom being not well optimised for multi-thread operation and higher-end systems but the newest version in February 2018 saw quite some improvements on those.
- Adobe forum, “What graphics card for Lightroom in July 2017”
- Adobe help, “How does Lightroom leverage the graphics processor”
- Adobe help, “Optimise Lightroom performance”
- Adobe help, “Lightroom system requirements”
- Adobe help, “Smart Previews”
- Puget Systems, “Lightroom CC 2015.12 CPU Performance: Core i7 8700K, i5 8600K, i3 8350K” (good comparisons between processors)
- Photographylife, “How to optimize Lightroom speed and performance”
- Tom’s Hardware, “Samsung 960 EVO NVMe SSD review” (highlights speed difference between drive capacities)
- The Lightroom Queen, “Lightroom performance – previews & caches”