New Computer – Digital Darkroom

Ron Niebrugge Miscellaneous 24 Comments


Well, it is year end, and we are in that position of either spend it, or give it to Uncle Sam – so we are spending baby! 

With today’s large image files, my old Pentium computer just isn’t cutting it anymore, so we made the logical decision to get Janine a new computer – yeah that’s right, Janine.  Since she does all the important parts of the office work, it is fitting I get her computer hand me downs, and she gets the screaming machine.  Actually, Janine does a lot of the image adjustment work.

 Anyway, I have been anguishing over this decision for the last couple of weeks as I researched and read countless forums, reviews etc., so I thought I would share my thought process as it may be beneficial to other photographers in a similar situation – I know I found similar write-ups valuable.  Janine thinks I’m an over-researcher 🙂 , and she is right.  Warning, this may get long!

Mac vs. PC

First I had to make the Mac vs. PC decision.  I have used PCs since the very beginning, but it seems like I know a lot of photographers who have switched to Macs in the past year, so I figured I better take a close look at this decision.  It makes sense, Macs now have Intel processors, and with an extra piece of software you can now run all your old PC software.  They look nice, and everyone raves how easy and reliable they are.  As I worked my way around the Mac Pro website I felt right at home – the hardware looked very familiar, it is the same stuff you find in a PCs these days.  But then came the surprise; the Mac Pro cost about $1,500 more then a similar spec’d high end PC, and this doesn’t include the cost of changing software.

The base systems for both cost about the same, but Apple is really proud of their add-ons.  When you add 8 GB of ram and raid capability the cost difference is really magnified.  My friends like to tell me how easy Macs are, but then in the next breath say that the only cost effect way to buy a Mac is to get a bare bones system and add the extras yourself.  To me, that didn’t sound easy. 

So it seems to me the real difference between the two these days is the operating system, and I think by all accounts the Mac’s is far superior.  I had to ask myself is the operating system worth an extra $1,500?  Now many of my friends complain about blue screens and locked up computers with their PCs – if that was my experience, for an extra $1,500 I would switch as well.  But really, our PCs have been very stable and reliable, I really don’t have a complaint.  Couple this with the added hassle of changing and learning new software, and I decided to stick with a PC.

What Brand?

I think one of the reason PCs get such a bad wrap is because the market is flooded with really inexpensive computers full of cheap components – think Dell Dimension.  I was only going to consider a systems with top notch components, and North American tech support.  I looked long and hard at the Dell Precisions.  The Precsion costs a lot more then the Dimension because it is made with better components and does have dedicated North American support, but Dell’s reputation isn’t that great right now.

The more time I spent researching the top PC companies, one name kept coming up over and over, and that was the Medford, Oregon based company Falcon Northwest.  When it came to customer support and performance, they seemed to be consistently ranked well ahead of everyone else.  I hadn’t heard of them, but I understand they have been very popular with the young gamers looking for very high-end machines.  In fact you can get them with all kinds of custom paint jobs – something I might have thought was really cool when I was younger.  Falcon Northwest seems to be expanding their marketing efforts to other high demand users such as digital darkrooms.

There were two things I really liked about Falcon Northwest.  First was their warranty.  Three years on parts and labor, and the first year even includes overnight service – basically if they can’t fix the problem over the phone, they will have an overnight carrier pick up the system at their expense, fix it, and then overnight it back to you!  They obviously have a lot of confidence in their components and testing!  The Mac had a 90 day warranty – three years was another add-on at an additional $250.

The other thing I really liked about Falcon Northwest – every time I had a question as I contemplated my purchase, I picked up the phone and called.  My call was always answered within two rings by a very knowledgeable human being.  No voice mail, not even a receptionist – a lot of companies can learn from this.

What version of Windows?

None of these choices are easy anymore.  Windows XP was very tempting – it has been rock solid for us, and I liked the idea of sticking with a known quantity.  It is interesting to note that Falcon Northwest, Dell and most others now offer XP as an option. 

Due to all the complaints, Vista didn’t have much appeal, except for the 64 bit version.  Certainly going forward, 64 bit is the future.  The new Mac operating system is 64 bit, and I’m sure all future Microsoft offerings will be as well.  They should have made Vista in only the 64 bit flavor.  A 64 bit operating system has a lot of appeal.  For one, I would be able  use more the 4 GB of ram – valuable with big photo files.  In addition, it is just a matter of time before Photoshop and other software is offered in 64 bit versions – this should offer additional performance benefits.

 The big drawback, the lack of 64 bit drivers.  Not only the lack of drivers, but if it isn’t an actual Windows approved driver, it won’t install,  period.  There isn’t an “install anyway” option you get with the other MS operating systems.  From what I have read, many, if not most PC problems are due to poorly written drivers.  It sounds like MS is tired of getting the blame for other people’s poor software, and this is a way to exert more control.  It is interesting, with Vista 64 anyway, Microsoft is closing the door to the barn ever so slightly, while Apple seems to be opening it.  Time will tell, but I wonder if Apple will begin experiencing PC type problems – things like viruses for example. 

I checked my printers, fax, network storage and was able to find 64 bit drivers for everything except my Nikon scanner which we can keep attached to the older (my) computer.  By the way, Nikon came out with Vista drivers last week, so hopefully a 64 bit version isn’t far off.  So given that, I made the choice to go with 64 bit.  Truthfully, this decision has me the most concerned – as time goes on, I think I will be glad.

The Hardware

This was the relatively easy part.  Thanks to 64 bit, I could go with 8 GBs of ram, this will be great for those large panoramics.  I went with a mid-speed quad-core Intel processor, PhotoShop with its multi thread capabilities should really shine here.  I also went for two mirrored (raid 1) 500 GB hard drives.  Losing a system drive is a giant pain, I really like having the redundancy. 

So there you have it for what it is worth.  I should point out, if it isn’t already evident, I’m certainly not a computer expert – I know some readers here can run circles around me with their knowledge.  I should have this bad boy in a few weeks – I will report back with my experience then.

Comments 24

  1. Sorry you didn’t consider 3rd party RAM for the MacPro. How do you manage color in Windows and you peripherals?

  2. Looks like you did your homework Ron. I have a six yr old Dell PC myself and it has been reliable for the most part. I’ve never really wanted to switch to Mac because it costs more and because I’m used to the windows explorer folder system. To be honest, I’ve used Mac when I had a day job and PC’s at home and it makes little difference in my opinion. Apple has done a better job at marketing than any of the PC manufacturers so that probably plays a role in how fanatical people are about it.

  3. I loved my 64 Valiant—my first car. I knew exactly which button did what. Custom gold paint job and Leopard material covered the back window area which gave it a very customized look. That car served me well. Heck I even changed the oil and tuned it by myself.

    My next car was a Cougar. It was very different. It took awhile to get the hang of driving a column shift. Eventually I grew to love that car even more than my old Valiant.

    years later…

    I finally dumped the crappy Cadillac and now the wife drives a new Jaguar. I still love my Honda Ridgeline. It’s hard to believe that neither of these use push buttons for the transmission.

    How does this relate? My first computer was an Apple II, my first Mac was an SE. Last week I learned that I had registered 42 Macs with Apple for our small business. My fourth Xserve and two more iMacs arrived just last week. With so little downtime and virtually no reliability problems I see no reason to replace my Apple’s with PCs.

    I must have transfered my lust for push buttons to keys on a keyboard. That’s a good thing—because it’s hard to find a car with pushbuttons anymore. And, I once again enjoy seeing the Leopard look in great abundance.

    Life is good. I hope that you enjoy your PC as much as I enjoy my Macs.

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    Hi G,

    I use Colorvision Spider for my monitor profiling. I just upgraded to Spider 3 – it had 64 bit Vista drivers.

    I’m sure third party RAM would have saved me some money. One of the expensive items was the addition of RAID – it was an extra $1,000 on the Mac Pro, and $0 for the PC – I assume it is built into the motherboard on the PC.

    Hi Richard,

    As someone who has used both, your opinion is valuable, I appreciate your comments.

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the great comment! That is a good analogy – I think part of my decision to stick with a PC had to do with staying with something familiar.

    42 Macs, that is great! Apple should be sending you free Ipods.

    I would be surprised if I enjoyed my PC as much as you enjoy your Mac. Many Mac users are a passionate about the product – there must be a good reason because you don’t see that same passion with PC owners that for sure!


  5. Ha! I also have the illness of over-researching!! So much that I can’t stand it sometimes and just need to go buy it and get it over with.’

    I can really empathize with your decision process here Ron as I am going through the very same thing right now. If I was going to go for a PC, I also decided it would most likely be Falcon Northwest – so I am really interested in how you end up liking it.

    The system I priced out from Falcon was actually about the same as a Mac Pro – but I didn’t go for the internal raid on the Mac because it was such a pricey option, and I didn’t price the RAM from Apple, but figured on getting it afterwards and popping it in myself. I am holding out to see what Apple announces mid-January, and if that doesn’t seem to fit all that I want – I may end up at Falcon also.

    My film scanner is also going to be an issue whatever system I end up with. It is an old SCSI attached Polaroid SS4000 which has served me well – but I highly doubt it will work with anything new. I really hate investing in a new film scanner since I don’t shoot it anymore.

    So did you get the liquid cooled jobby? That was a new area for me that had me curious – was expecting a radiator cap on the top of the PC! 🙂

  6. You haven’t done yourself much harm … you did misunderstand the raid option a bit … a software raid controller is included in os x 10.4/5 and will operate on any number of internal or external drives. This is probably what you have with your setup. The expensive raid option is for high-spec hardware controller and drives. Apple does charge too much for drives and memory both, but both are trivial to install in mac pro.

    One factor you didn’t consider was resale value. The resale value of your Falcon on ebay in three years will be 100 dollars or less, maybe 150 with 8 gig of ram and the drives.

    The resale value of the Mac Pro in three years will likely be 450-650 with little investment in sales (e.g. ebay).

    So other than the 1000 or so minutes you wait a year for virus and malware scanning, and the 1500 extra minutes or so you spend managing your files, as long as you avoid a virus or malware you only lose a week of productivity. You would probably lose the same week in the first year to retraining anyway.

    For Mark: You might be able to operate your SS4000 using Parallels with XP (they have added scsi support, but I’d check with them), or Bootcamp (not as convenient as you have to reboot to use). You’d need a scsi board, of course.

  7. Hi Ron, I can empathize! I am on a custom built pc right now but sure wonder what all the hype is about the macs. People seem to really love them.

    So I’m wondering what you do for file storage? Or have you discussed this all in another post you can point me to? I’m looking to share some files around in my office a little more and realize having a nice large external storage would be the answer here. A small office network? What do you do?

    Thanks for taking the time Ron.

    ps. I’m heading for turnagain pass for another day of photographing snowboarders.

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    Hi Mark,

    I do remember reading your post on considering a Mac.

    I didn’t go with the liquid cooled jobby lol – liquid and computers didn’t sound like a good combination – I bet it is a lot quieter then a fan.

    Thanks Michael for the explanation.

    I clearly didn’t understand the raid capability of the Mac – I went back this morning and see what I missed. When you go to configure a Mac Pro, they don’t make that overly clear, I’m fairly certain I would have spent an unnecessary $1,000 on that card. They do claim it is “Ready to RAID”, but when I saw that card as an option, I incorrectly assumed it was needed.

    I didn’t consider resale value as I typically keep my computers until the are obsolete. My Dell Dimenision that is being replaced is at least 6 years old and probably has zero value. Maybe if at 3 years my computer still had a reasonable value (ie Mac), I would sell it and upgrade – you make some good points.


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    Hey Scott,

    It is sunny here – I bet you are having a great day in Turnagain Pass! I did hear 4 avalanches the other day while X-country skiing in the Resurrection Valley.

    Writing a post on file management has been on this list for a while now. This is what we use for storage at home:

    It is a pretty neat device – nice and quite, and gives us both instant access to any image in our inventory. We use it in our home network. Ideally, you would want it on a gigabit network, 100 is a little slow.

    We then use external usb SimpleTech drives for off-site storage (friend’s house), and we also travel with a set of external drives so we can do business on the road.

    What are you doing?

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    Hey Richard,

    You know Janine mentioned your email – I need to get on her computer and take a look – thanks for the reminder and the heads up!


  11. Hey Ron,

    Sorry to hear you refused to go with a Mac.

    You know if you’re looking for technical advice you’re always welcome to give me a call. 🙂

    Good luck with the computer, bro.



  12. Top of the Evening Ron,

    I think you might agree that the comments you’ve collected so far on this thread suggest that personal computer operating systems are right up there with religion and politics.



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    Hi Carl – You know, I could have called you for Mac help had I gone that route. 🙂 Thanks man.

    Hi Warren,

    I think you are right. This is right there with Canon / Nikon or Chevy / Ford! I did get a lot of traffic over this post thanks to some Mac sites.

    Happy New Year,


  14. Ron – Thanks for the info one your archiving/working files. I like the concept behind that drive box that you linked to. Seems like the most cost effective next step for me as well.

    I haven’t developed much of a system at all yet. Basically just a home built pc with 5 hard drives in it and a few 500 GB internal drives which are slipped into external enclosures. The external drives are my backup. So far so good with this very simple system, but now that I’m looking to have some help working with my images I can see that sharing access to my archive would greatly increase efficiency. It’s also time to improve my backup strategy now that I occasionally find a photo worth keeping.

    Turnagain pass was gorgeous on the hike up Tin can ridge, but once we got were we wanted to be, the sun went behind the mountains, then when it came out again the clouds had moved in. All in the name of good practice!


  15. Post

    Hi Scott,

    Five internal drives, that is a pretty slick setup. We decided on the network drive because it does make it easier for Janine and I to share. That would be great to have extra help in the office.

    “occasionally find a photo worth keeping” Are you kidding – you have thousands of killer photos!

    Turnagain Pass definitely get better light later in the winter – still a fun place to hang out.

    Happy New Year!


  16. Hi Ron,

    Found your blog via Mark Graf’s blog. Thanks for sharing this detailed commentary on your research of MAC vs PC which is something I am also looking into these days as my Dell Dimension is clocking up 4 years in February. The insight has been useful as has all the follow up comments.

    Other than that, and more importantly, I enjoy a lot of your great images!


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  18. Top of the Evening Ron,

    Does Janine have her new machine yet? If so, is she happy with it? What about yourself?



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  20. Ron,

    How interesting, but way beyond my technical understanding. But, what I find most fascinating is that you actually CONSIDERED a Mac after 20 years of teasing and ribbing me about using the BETA of computers. I think we’ve had 15 Mac’s in 20 years. Only had one crash, and that was the latest G5. By the way, I love the new Mac Book Pro.

    Thanks for all of your help and Janine’s help with my website, and Blog.



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  22. Ron – I looked back at this post and thought I should post another comment from my slick mac keyboard, on my brand new mac pro. When the came out with the new processors I couldn’t find a reason to wait. So far I’m loving it. Took me about 2 days to get up to speed, swapping in 4 hard drives, installing all the programs and relearning my way around in Apple’s operating system. Adobe switched my CS3 design premium for just the $15 it cost to ship the mac version.

    I’ll be honest, I love this computer and much prefer the the operating system over windows XP pro (which I thought I loved!) My PC was moving pretty quickly with it’s new dual core processor and 2GB of ram, but this mac pro with 8 cores and now 6GB of ram is really fast, silent, and smooth to work with.

    I’ve been memorizing the key commands for general file management and finder navigation and in just the first week of using this computer it’s clearly faster and more efficient for me.

    Ramble ramble, but I figured some of your readers would like to hear from another photographer in the same situation who took a different turn.

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