The Upgrade


I doubt there's a more loaded word in the modern lexicon. We kid ourselves that the next bit of technology will put us ahead in the game but in truth we're all just hamsters madly spinning our wheels as file sizes, bandwidth and obsolescence conspire to put the brakes on productivity. If you're a photographer you experience the friction every time you pull a card out a camera and prepare to spend as much or more time processing as you did shooting.

My last desktop machine lasted 27 months, the one before that 36 months. Faced with an ever-decreasing lifespan, it's a good thing I take a perverse enjoyment in the chase.

I'm completely agnostic when it comes to my operating system. I cut my design teeth on the Mac, took a right-click onto Windows and now seem to have settled on a hybrid arsenal of both. I carry a MacBook Pro and the new iPad2 on the road, but my last few desktops have been PCs Admittedly I gave some thought to a Macintosh workstation this time around, but ultimately opted to build a Windows 7 desktop. No cards or letters please, I've happily made my contribution to Apple for this quarter.

Below the desk the new box is a stealthy matte black Corsair 800D, clean lines and wonderfully engineered inside for wire management and cooling. Fueled by gaming there's been a quantum leap in presentation, and every component from CPU coolers and fans to video cards and RAM are now designed to be seen but not heard. There's a large acrylic window in the Corsair case for our cats to view all this trick componentry: Asus Maximus Extreme IV motherboard; i7 3.4 GHz 2600K CPU (overclocked to 4.2 GHz); H60 CPU cooler; 16GB of Corsair Vengeance Ram; a 1200AX PSU; OCZ Vertex 3 SSD (boot drive); a pair of OCZ 2 SSDs (lightroom catalog and cache); a 2TB WD HDD for raw images and a 1TB WD HDD for final client export files. I'll fore-go the photographs, since BikeSnobNYC who's always poking about the VeloDramatic archives, will only use it as material on a slow day.

Between assignments it took several days to assemble the hardware trying always to think two steps ahead before committing to the next move. There was a minor delay when temperatures indicated the CPU cooler needed to be reseated and a standoff broke in the process. Thankfully Corsair is virtually round the corner in Fremont, so a quick drive over to their office and a parking lot hand off replaced the unusual fastener. It also took a while to get full SATAsfaction... as the various SSDs and HDDs were temperamental about the motherboard ports and order they were added to the system. After a good deal of reading I organized the system to avoid unnecessary writes to the boot SSD, moving temp files, logs, email data and the page file elsewhere. I freely admit that without Google none of this would have been possible; can anyone remember what life was like before that search engine provided all the answers about silly stuff like "trim, environmental variables and %appdata%"

And this was the easy part. The true difficulty comes in reinstalling all the applications, applying patches, transferring presets, plugins and finding invariably that your two-year-old Adobe CS4 Master Collection has compatibility issues with Windows 7. As I type this I'm sitting on hold@adobe listening to the same 30-second Muzak clip looping endlessly. Total time on hold with them this afternoon approaching 3.5 hrs. What's worse is I know they won't be able to solve the problem because I've already confirmed the answer doesn't exist on Google. Ultimately there's only one way to make things right and it's going to involve my credit card.

So the question is was it worth it? Absolutely... Lightroom is lightening quick, the new NEC screen is calibrated and sharp. So now I can get back to shooting and spend a little less time in front of the computer.

Adobe Postscript (no pun intended). Today has been an absolute case study in negative customer support. All of us have heard the familiar words "this call may be recorded..." Well all I can say is I hope today's three calls were recorded, but I'm quite sure no CS manager at Adobe would sit and listen to 3.5 hours of Muzak. Adobe saved the best for last, the final call tonight was the clincher. After two aborted 90-minute holds for level 2 support I once again called the main support number, waited 35 minutes till a script-reading rep took the call and told me she 1) had no way of knowing how long I might wait for someone to answer at level II when she transferred me 2) had no way of requesting level II to call me when a technician was finally available 3) Assured me that once transferred if I waited indeterminately someone would eventually answer the phone. She transferred me... the phone clicked and the voice said "Adobe Technical support business hours are ya-da-ya-da-ya-da, call back during regular business hours. I rest my case, which by the way is #182320640

It's worth mentioning that there still are some companies that have great support. While Adobe seems intent on dropping the ball, I had a great experience with Other World Computing (OWC) as the source for the 30" NEC PA301W that's now my main working monitor. It ships with NEC's Spectaview II software and hardware (based on the X-Rite Eye-One 2) which makes short work of calibration. Lloyd Chamber's informative Mac Performance Guide highly recommended the NEC and OWC; both recommendations are well founded... thanks Lloyd. Shipping was fast and very reasonable for this heavyweight screen.

6 Responses to The Upgrade

  1. Stephen Bartnikowski says:

    Good times. I know I’ve been there.

    Out of curiosity, did you add a discrete video board in there, or are chipsets good enough for photo editing these days?

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I don’t think the onboard chips are quite up to the task yet.

    I went with two Radeon 6870 Cards. One drives the 30″ NEC PA301W and the other a pair of monitors a Lacie 321 and a Dell 2408WFP. Individually the card is probably capable of powering the whole desktop but I wanted the full performance out of the NEC.

    It’s interesting that the two cards can be “Crossfired” together. This configuration links the GPUs and is the preferred setup for gamers who want two (sometimes three) cards pooling resources to do the necessary calculations for hi-frame rate games. In all my reading I never came across any graphic professional linking cards to improve the GPU calculations that Photoshop can now leverage. Someone else can pioneer that setup.

    Except for the software wrinkles with Adobe (and Intuit’s Quickbooks) I’m back to work and looking forward to at least 18 months before I need to revisit performance.

  3. Todd says:

    Good choice on the WD drives – a tiny fraction of your purchase is going towards my paycheck!

  4. BR says:

    When I left Adobe in 1999 we had stuffed one 18 floor tower downtown, broken ground on #2, and had the model for #3 in the lobby. I rode in yesterday with my old Adobe boss and as we passed the campus he told me that one of them is completely empty due to the exporting of Engineering & Support. Here at Cisco we time our support calls to the region where we want to do business. I just spent a few days fixing a problem that required strategy 1st. It’s absurd but time your call to 1PM India time and go from there.

  5. So there we have it, BR has it in a nutshell, forget the speed of your computer, the quality of your monitor or the amount of ram you have. “What’s the time in India” is what matters when you have a problem. The consumers of the world who have a problem and have the gall to call for customer support need to know what the time is in India, because that’s where your help is based.
    A while back I had a problem with my credit card, couldn’t make any more transactions suddenly, so I called customer care, heard the dreaded automated clicks on the line which means your being transferred to another number. I’m Scottish, we speak our own version of the English language, I was answered on the line by a Chinese lady in the Indian based call centre, now how likely is it that language will be a problem in a call like this???
    I was in funds and had a perfect credit history, but I had made a purchase outside of my normal geographic are and the Card’s security flagged this as unusual they tried to call my home, I was away on holiday, they called my mobile I was unobtainable in the Highlands of Scotland, so they stopped my card. To cut a long story short I no longer take a card from this particular company. I have one with a call centre based in the UK, the more of us who do something about it , like stopping using the products who treat us with contempt, the sooner we’ll get customer support in our own country.
    Best of luck Michael, sorry but I think the call centre closed while you were reading this.