The Photoshop Computer

The Photoshop Computer
Learn how to choose the right hardware to build your own computer optimized for Adobe Photoshop CS2 and learn how to tweak Photoshop to take advantage of the new hardware.

Operating System

When selecting a computer, the first step is to select the operating system. There are two main operating systems to use:

  • Mac OS ®
  • Microsoft ® Windows ®

Deciding which operating system to use is based on your preference. If you're upgrading your computer, stick with the same operating system so you don't have to purchase another license for the software you already have. Otherwise, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Which operating system am I most comfortable with?
  2. Is there any software I need to use that's only available in a specific operating system? (ex. Apple Aperture)

Photoshop does not perform its best when used with Microsoft Windows Vista RC1. Although Photoshop is compatible with Windows Vista RC1, there may be some performance issues. For example, opening the "Save for Web" tool takes longer to load than Windows XP. With that said, keep in mind that Windows Vista is currently still being worked on and many bugs and tweaks should be resolved in the finalized version.


64-bit computing allows Photoshop to use approximately 3.5 GB of RAM. If you will be using more than 2GB of RAM, make sure that you use a 64-bit operating system such as Mac OS X, Windows XP 64-bit Edition, or Windows Vista 64-bit Edition. Generally, we recommend investing in 64-bit hardware and software to adapt to the new generation of computers.


RAM (Random Access Memory) is a major factor in determining the speed of Photoshop. For the current generation of computers, we recommend a minimum of 1 GB of RAM. Keep in mind that your operating system and other running software will also be using your RAM.  RAM is relatively cheap and is generally the best performance gaining hardware for your money.


How much ram do you really need? This depends on your usage. If you're working on large files with many layers, you'll need to get more RAM. However, if you're using Photoshop just for simple task such as resizing photos and correcting color and you don't have a lot of programs running in the background, 1 GB of RAM should be enough. Here's a method to determine how much RAM is required:

  1. Run Photoshop and open a typical file you usually edit. For example, if you edit high resolution digital images a lot, open a high resolution photo.
  2. Make sure that your document isn't maximized. You can ensure that it isn't by choosing Window> Arrange> Cascade.
  3. On the bottom of the window, locate the ► arrow. Click on the ► arrow and choose Show> Efficiency. The status bar beside the ► button shows the efficiency. If your computer has enough resource to display the image, the efficiency should be 100%. Anything lower means that more RAM may be beneficial.

  4. Try opening several of your typical Photoshop files. If it stays at 100%, it means that your current system has enough RAM. Use this to judge how much RAM you'll need for your next computer. For example, when I ran the test, I opened 7 high resolution photos and my efficiency dropped to 72%. Because my current system has 1 GB of RAM and the efficiency was at around 72%, I can conclude that 2 GB of RAM is a safe amount of RAM to get on my next computer.

Note: When using Photoshop on a 32-bit computer or operating system, Photoshop is only able to use 2 GB of RAM. Photoshop is able to use around 3.5 GB on a 64-bit system. Some version of Windows® requires modifying the boot.ini file to allow Photoshop to use up to 3 GB of RAM. The 3GB switch may not work with all computers. For more information, search the Microsoft support page for "3gb".

High Speed RAM

There are many types of RAM available; some reaching speeds of 1111 MHz such as the Corsair XMS2 Dominator PC2-8888. It's disappointing to say that using 1111 MHz RAM is not much different than using a 667 MHz RAM on a current-generation computer. The speed RAM can operate depends on what your entire system supports.  This means that you should only purchase the fastest RAM your computer will be able to use. Unless you have extensive knowledge with computer hardware and plan on overclocking your computer, there's no reason to purchase in top of the line RAM.

ECC (Error Correction Code)

Some types of RAM you may bump into will have the acronym ECC on its name. This simply means that the RAM will automatically detect and correct errors that may arise during the data transmission. ECC RAM is slower and much more expensive than normal RAM and isn't necessary for Adobe Photoshop. They're meant for critical tasks so we don't recommend using ECC RAM.

Processor\CPU (Central Processing Unit)

The next most important component to building a Photoshop computer is the processor, also known as the CPU. The processor processes all the calculations and instructions required to run tasks such as a filter. Many Photoshop filters are processor intensive and their speed depends on the CPU.


As new and faster processors emerge, software will adapt to take advantage of the faster processor speeds. The fastest processor usually cost around two to three times more than the average processor and slower processors aren't that much cheaper. When choosing a processor, choose one that's the best bang for the buck or one that fits within your budget.


If you'll be using more than 2 GB of RAM, you should be using a 64-bit processor. Adobe Photoshop will only be able to recognize up to 3.5 GB of RAM on a 64-bit computer. The current generation of processors is all 64-bit and there's little reason to stay with 32-bit processors.  Although most applications are 32-bit, support for 64-bit is growing and new 64-bit computers will be able to take advantage of the larger 64-bit address space. Only Photoshop CS2 and future versions of Photoshop support 64-bit.

Some recommended desktop 64-bit processors are:

  1. Intel Core 2 Duo
  2. AMD  Athlon 64


Most new processors are dual core meaning that there are two processors in one chip. This allows improvements in multitasking. Photoshop 4.0 and above supports dual  processor configuration and will benefit from a dual-core processor.

Update: Quad core processors are now available and benchmarks show that Photoshop does support quad core processors and benefit from them. Currently, quad-core processors are expensive so we don't recommend getting them unless everything else in your computer is the top of the line. While they may perform faster in Photoshop, keep in mind that not all software support quad core processors and those software will not use all four processors.

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