Building a $200 Linux photo editing computer

posted in: Computer, DIY | 0

My plucky laptop was doing its best to handle Raw files on darktable, but it was a struggle. Exporting finished JPEGs took a minute per picture, and TIFs weren’t even on the horizon. Too many masks and the whole thing would crash, losing some/all of my progress on that photo.

It was time for a new photo editing computer.

New computers, like cameras, can be expensive. But they don’t have to be. The premise of this blog is that you don’t have to break the bank to make great photos, and that sentiment applies to hardware as much as software.

The specification

An inexpensive but capable desktop for photo editing. Bonus points for reusing parts of existing computers.

The design

Because we’re trying to save money, we’re going to skimp on some parts of the computer that are less important for our purposes. The best way to get cheap parts is using PCpartpicker.com, an excellent website that allows you to mix and match compatible components and sends you to the online store where they are cheapest.

Unsurprisingly we’ll be using Linux to power this computer. Open source software is a more than a match for Photoshop et al., so that’s $100* saved right off the bat by not buying a Windows license.

We’ll make a major saving by not buying a Graphic Processing Unit (GPU), i.e. a video card, rather relying on a system with inbuilt graphics. That’s not to say GPU’s are useless for a photo editor: darktable and RawTherapee both make use of GPUs if they can, and they can add good speed-ups to operations such as denoising. But we’re on a budget, and a cost-benefit analysis says that we’re better spending our money elsewhere.

As we’re going without a video card, we need a processor (CPU) and motherboard combo that can handle graphics. There are two choices when it comes to CPU: Intel vs AMD. Although Intel usually performs slightly better in side-by-side comparisons, AMD is a hell of a lot cheaper. And cheapness is the name of the game for us. When picking a motherboard+processor, you have to make sure the two parts fit together (i.e. they have the same socket). We’re going for the FM series by AMD, and we’ll spare no expense by going for their newest socket: FM2+. This leaves room to upgrade either the CPU or the motherboard in the next few years. However, we’re not going to worry about maxing out the number of cores: 2 cores is a lot better than one, but returns diminish after that. Of course, if we had the dosh…

Processor: $65 (at the time)

Motherboard: $40 (at the time)

One of the most important parts of a photo editor is the memory (aka RAM). Programs like darktable require at least 4GB to function in a non-terrible manner (but my laptop had 4GB and was struggling). Ideally we’d get 8GB or more, but I happen to have a couple of 2GB sticks lying around from an old computer, so I’ll use those for the time being. Notice that the motherboard can hold up to 64GB, so we leave room to upgrade in the future (when we become wealthy…).

Memory: free

Another important feature not to skimp on is the hard drive. Hard drives are spinning disks, and can only read and write as fast as they can spin (which is why faster spinners are more expensive). Further, although the inner and outer parts spin at the same rate, that corresponds to a greater distance travelled on the outer part of the disk, and so a much faster read-write speed. Hard-drives slow down as they get full, in a large part because the computer now has to use the inner (slow) part of the disk. Photos are large, especially if you shoot Raw, so we’re going to go for a sizeable drive: 1TB. Not huge by today’s standards, but we can always upgrade later.

Hard drive: $50

Then I added a cheap case and power supply.

Case: $30

Power supply: $30

Monitor, keyboard, and mouse were all scrounged second-hand. The monitor especially is in need of an upgrade, but importantly it uses a digital DVI connector rather than an analog VGA connection (so we can calibrate our monitor more accurately).

Total: $215. That’s a nice number for a not to shabby computer. Well, it is kind of shabby thanks to the 2nd hand parts, but it runs fine.

The build

For those with no computer building experience, I can do no better than direct you to NewEgg’s incredibly thorough tutorial:

A few notes:

  • If you can afford it, getting a modular power supply will save you having a lot of unused cables to hide away in a tiny case:

Cable management headaches

  • You can get away without a CD/DVD drive unless you use one a lot. Almost everything can be done via USB these days, such as internet and SD card readers.
USB SD card reader
USB SD card reader.
Finished build with USB wireless receiver
Finished build with TP-Link USB wireless receiver on top.

Topped off with an old Apple keyboard:

Dirty Apple keyboard
Grotty Apple keyboard

Not the photo editing computer of your dreams, but definitely one of the most cost effective.

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