Expected near-term advances in computing technology

Improvements that will benefit photographers.  Now that most wet darkrooms have given way to computers—digital production suites, really, when you include monitors, storage arrays, input devices, scanners, printers, modems, switches, APCs, etc.—electro/mechanical post-processing tools have become pretty much as important as capture devices.  So where do we stand and what can we expect in the next year or two?

For casual still photographers, available computer systems have more than filled the bill for some time.  If your files are fairly small (you shoot JPEGs for example) and you don’t have voluminous storage needs, most any off-the-shelf desktop or laptop will do fine.  Pick what you like and go for it.

Still photographers who shoot lots of RAW images and process in a color-critical environment—and especially those who work with seriously large files like stitched panoramas—have significantly different needs.  Sheer computing power becomes an important factor, along with fast transfer rates to and from large storage arrays.  If photography for you is a business (sobering thought) then time is money and serious post-processing capability can make a real difference in your bottom line.  And, if you’re shooting video, these electro/mechanical factors are further multiplied.

At present, many of the constraints for processing data within computers have to do with RAM (as when you’re physically working on an image), or retrieving files from or moving them to storage (a hard disk drive, solid state drive, or optical disc).  In most cases it’s not the processor holding up the show; even 2.0GHz two-core units (especially those with additional virtual cores) can handle most modest loads just fine, and CPUs with even more cores may not have that much advantage because the majority of current imaging software simply isn’t written to take advantage of large numbers of cores.  Random access memory (RAM) can make a big difference though, and since prices have moderated more companies are optionally offering more at initial purchase, or you can easily add more later.  (Yes, I know…some of you would rather cut off a finger than open up a computer case, but I’ll bet you could find a friend who wouldn’t mind helping you and you might save a few bucks in the process.)  Simple suggestion—install as much of the fastest memory your budget and machine allows.  For serious imaging, 8GB ought to be a minimum…more if you can handle it.

The second bottleneck is data transfer.  Files have to get saved somewhere, usually on hard drives, and the handoff is through your motherboard.  For some time the prevalent internal protocol has been SATA revision 2.0 (colloquially called SATA II, capable of a 3 Gbit/s transfer rate).  Since this exceeded the read/write capability of most readily available hard drives all was fine.  Now we have drives (especially SSDs) which eclipse this standard and the industry is moving on to SATA 3.0 (6 Gbit/s), so for internal storage devices this interface should be adequate for a while.

External drives are another matter.  Few desktop computers have room for more than two internal hard drives.  Workstations are an exception (of which Apple’s Mac Pro is one), but these are usually quite large and very expensive.  Since internal drives are almost always faster than external drives regardless of connection protocol, having space for three or four inside the computer is a very big plus for photographers.  But just about everybody needs external drives for backup, archive, or simply space to hold really large image libraries, and passing data back and forth from these drives can be very time consuming.  Current connection options include USB 2.0, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, eSATA, USB 3.0, and Thunderbolt.  All have pluses and minuses and your selection will depend on the compromises you’re willing to tolerate.

Here’s my forecast and a few suggestions.  I expect more new computer motherboards in the next 12-18 months will incorporate the SATA 3.0 spec, PCIe 2.0 slots, and onboard USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.  It’s going to take a little while for this to happen, so if you can stand it I’d try to be patient and see who adopts what.  Intel has been very slow to support USB 3.0 (probably to give business advantage to their Thunderbolt I/O technology), but they’re now claiming they’ll get onboard.  SSDs continue to get faster, grow in capacity, and are becoming a little less expensive.  If you can manage an SSD for operating system and programs (and perhaps a second somewhat smaller one for a Photoshop scratch drive) you’ll be out on the leading edge.  Among the beauties of SSDs are their small size, low heat, and lack of noise; you can mount them in unusual places in a case with little detriment.

Whatever your needs, technology is always a moving target and keeping an eye to what’s likely right around the corner helps avoid the bitter taste of buyer remorse.  It also helps to rethink your priorities from time to time while trying to keep the most important factors uppermost in the hierarchy.  In my view, lenses usually trump camera bodies, and monitors usually are more critical than the box that sends the video signal.  Your priorities may vary.

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