At the beginning of 2019, there was very serious concern about Apple’s continued commitment to photographers’ needs, and Intel was doing their best to frighten even PC-using photographers with generation after generation of essentially unchanged chips at increasing prices. There were increasing questions that Moore’s Law had stalled, that the reason we weren’t seeing different computers in the part of the market that photographers tend to inhabit was that they simply couldn’t be built.
There is still reason to be concerned about Apple, but that concern has gone from “will they ever release what we want?” to “will they keep it up?”. Intel continues to struggle, and their most recent notable release was primarily important for a ~50% cost reduction, rather than for its performance – but AMD has introduced an enormous amount of competition into the desktop CPU market this year, and there are signs that Intel is responding. Intel still has the upper end of the mobile CPU market essentially to themselves (AMD is not a factor in fast laptops), and there are still traps among cost, performance and battery life there – but there has been a near doubling of possible laptop performance since the beginning of 2018, and the most powerful current laptops will cruise through 50 MP raw files and handle even 100 MP.
The new computers released by Apple and others this year break some new ground, but, more importantly, they are refined versions of what we had that are capable of handling high-end photographic workloads. The curve of Moore’s Law looks more optimistic than it did a year or two ago, and, at the same time, “what we have” has intersected “what we need” for still photography. There are areas of video production, and especially 3D motion work like AR and VR where computer power is still a restriction, especially at a reasonable price. Still photographers are, for the most part, living in a world where available computers are more than adequate, even with libraries of thousands of 50-100 MP images.
Laptops going from four cores to eight without a loss in speed per core was a major development of the past couple of years. Today’s top-end laptops are literally twice as fast as what was available in the beginning of 2018. For a long time, laptop chips had been well behind what was available on desktop PCs – today’s fastest octo-core laptops perform within 5-10% of an octo-core desktop PC on almost all photographic tasks. At the same time, RAM capacities have climbed from 16 GB on Macs, with 32 GB on some PCs as a relatively exotic option to 64 GB on both Macs and PCs, with 128 GB as an exotic option on a very few PCs. Fast SSDs have gone from 1 TB as a practical maximum (with an expensive 2 TB option) to 4 TB practical and 8 TB available. A quad-core machine with 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB drive is constrained by high-resolution images, or by very large libraries of 24 MP images. An octo-core with 64 GB of RAM and a 4 TB drive is plenty for 50 and even 100 MP images, and it holds a significant library on its internal drive, along with previews for even an enormous, externally stored library.
Intel’s roadmap still shows reason for concern – apart from low-power mobile chips for ultra-thin laptops and possibly some high-margin server chips, any real innovation (as opposed to iteration) is looking like it will appear well into 2021, and perhaps as late as 2022. They don’t have room to double the cores on laptop chips again (maybe another two cores, for a 25% bump). Intel might go from eight to twelve cores on “standard” desktop chips (ten is more likely, and we actually don’t WANT to see a twelve core Intel desktop CPU on this technology, because it means the next generation is delayed yet again). AMD is already shipping twelve-core desktop chips in quantity, and sixteen cores in (very) limited quantity.
Intel’s response has been to release the next generation of their server-derived high-end desktop processors at half the price of previous generations, competitive with AMD’s more than eight-core desktop chips. Intel’s chips will be available in the next couple of months. They offer up to eighteen cores and some other design advantages, but they run hotter and use more power than standard desktop chips, as well as needing different, expensive motherboards. These disadvantages are not insurmountable, and they’ve created an interesting stack of desktop chips from Intel and AMD in combination. Both offer lower-end quad-cores and fast eight-cores in standard desktop motherboards. AMD goes as high as sixteen cores on these same boards, while Intel jumps over to server-derived boards to get as high as eighteen. AMD has a server-derived line of Threadripper workstation chips that offer as many as 32 cores at significantly higher prices, and using a lot of power, while Intel has a second server-derived line that goes to 28 cores at very high prices.
What still photographers need, broadly speaking, is something in the range of eight cores, plenty of RAM, and lots of fast SSD space. Hard drives are useful for storing photo libraries, but once you’ve tried editing photos from a really fast SSD, you won’t want to go back to a hard drive for your active images. Users of lower-resolution cameras will be fine with a four or six core chip from Intel or AMD, although eight cores are worth considering if you might either buy a high-resolution camera (above ~30 MP), have a very large library of images, use processor-intensive plugins or edit video as well. An eight core CPU adds a couple of hundred dollars to a desktop photography workstation, and is generally well worth it. On an Intel system, going from eight to twelve cores adds $500 or more, in part because of the expensive motherboard that supports the higher-end chip. On an AMD system, the difference is much smaller, and a twelve or even sixteen core system may offer excellent value.
On a laptop, the power needed for serious photo editing is expensive – six and eight core laptops with Intel’s powerful H series processors start above $1500, and adding photographer-friendly options rapidly pushes them well over $2000. Expect to pay $3000 or more for a really good laptop photo workstation, and $4000-$5000 is easy to reach with some higher-end options.
Of course, quality desktops with the right combination of features are not cheap, either. While it is possible to buy an eight-core gaming-focused desktop for around $1300, that machine will require hundreds of dollars of upgrades to reach the standard of the machines discussed here, and it will probably have a low-quality power supply or other parts. Building your own, it is possible to put together a real photo workstation, although not at this level, for around $2000, while buying an entry-level photo workstation from a reputable builder might cost $2300-$2500 or so. Options can kick the cost into the stratosphere pretty quickly.
This article profiles seven photographic workstations, fast and powerful systems from Apple, Puget Systems and Lenovo that can handle just about any photographic task. For ease of comparison, all seven are equipped similarly – they have 64 GB of RAM, 2 TB of fast PCIe SSD, at least a current generation eight-core processor (CPU) and a graphics card (GPU) that is more than adequate for any still photographic task. These machines are at the higher end of 2019 photo editing workstations – what you might buy today to use with a high-resolution camera and a big printer.
These systems are mostly in the $4000 price range – it is possible to spend significantly less, by giving up large-scale SSD storage, accepting 32 or even 16 GB of RAM, or choosing a lesser CPU or GPU. If you have a lower-resolution camera or a smaller library, those tradeoffs may well be worth it. It is possible to spend significantly more, but for still photography, it is rarely necessary outside of special circumstances such as stitching very high-resolution files. These are also highly capable 4K video editing workstations, although video beyond 4K is a reason to spend more on a more specialized computer.
There is only one dive into the extremehigh end (the new Mac Pro) – the kind of system best paired with a Phase One IQ150 or a RED cinema camera. There are some minor variations – the Puget Systems Ryzen has a twelve core CPU, the two Puget desktop systems and the two iMacs have more powerful GPUs than the two laptops and the Mac Pro, and expandability varies from very little in the laptops and iMacs to nearly unlimited for the expensive Mac Pro.
As recently as early 2019, the iMac Pro was pretty much the only Mac with the power to handle really large images. The Mac Pro was the only other Mac capable of meeting the specs above, but it was an ancient, unupgraded and unloved 2013 design, the iMac was stuck at four cores and tended to overheat, and the MacBook Pro, while it reached six cores, had very expensive storage upgrades, thermal issues and a problematic keyboard. Fast-forward nine months and there are no less than four Macs that qualify – two of them released in the past month. The MacBook Pro in this article arrived last week, and I’ve been using it extensively. It’s an excellent photo editing machine, capable of working with ~50 MP images with very little lag, even in complex tasks. It holds thousands of images on its incredibly fast internal storage, and it has plenty of power for future tasks.
Arrayed on Team PC are a pair of desktops from custom builder Puget Systems and a ThinkPad laptop from Lenovo. Puget Systems is a Seattle-area company that specializes in PCs for creative professionals – they may be a little more expensive than a comparable Dell (a couple of hundred dollars at most), but every part is high quality, and the machines are configured specifically for creative use rather than gaming. The Puget Systems Ryzen workstation profiled here has been requested for review, and it (or something very similar) will be arriving sometime early in the new year.
Lenovo’s ThinkPads are the longest-running laptop line other than the PowerBook/MacBook Pro, and they have an excellent reputation. PC prices, especially from the major vendors, vary wildly from week to week, depending on specials – but Lenovo has been somewhat cheaper than Dell or HP for mobile workstations lately.
1.)16” MacBook Pro 2019 – 2.4 (5.0) GHz 8 core Intel Core i9-9980HK, AMD Radeon Pro 5500M (8 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $4299.
A one sentence review of the 2019 16” MacBook Pro in a high-end configuration is “A 4.3 lb iMac Pro”… This is a laptop? Not only does it benchmark within 5% or so of a friend’s iMac Pro I’ve used extensively, it feels like the iMac Pro in use. A multi-core Geekbench 5 score around 7300 is a good score for an upper-end desktop system, let alone something that runs on batteries for as much as 12 hours (of writing – nothing will edit photos on batteries for very long).
Until last week (when the new Mac Pro finally came out), its score of 3347 on the challenging Cinebench r20 benchmark would have beaten any Mac Pro, as well as any iMac (in fact, any Mac) other than the 2019 8 core and the iMac Pro. In day to day photographic use, it responds like a fast desktop – moving any slider in any software is near-instantaneous, including DxO’s calculation intensive adjustments on a 46 MP image file.
Compared to its predecessor the 2019 15” MacBook Pro, it has substantially improved GPUs and battery life, along with a new screen and perhaps most importantly, an excellent new keyboard. The prior generation of MacBook Pros used a controversial “butterfly” keyboard, while this one has moved to a design closely related to Apple’s recent desktop keyboards. It’s not a mechanical keyboard, but it’s one of the best laptop keyboards I’ve seen.
The one real drawback is Apple’s continued insistence on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports (and nothing else). It’s not a big deal with peripherals in your home or office, because many of us will use a docking station, and, even if not, USB-C to standard USB-A cables are a dime a dozen, and USB-C to HDMI or DisplayPort cables are also common. Where it’s a pain is on the road – don’t forget the USB-C to HDMI adapter for dealing with built-in projectors, and if someone hands you a USB memory stick, you’ll need an adapter to read it (Mac-friendly double-ended memory sticks exist, but they’re expensive enough that you don’t hand them out ($20-$30 instead of $2). This one’s a permanent member of our test fleet (exactly the configuration mentioned above, except that our long-term machine has a 4 TB SSD), so more coming in the next few weeks and over the years.
2.) 27” iMac 2019 -3.6 (5.0) GHz eight core Intel Core i9-9900K, AMD Radeon Vega 48 (8 GB), 64 GB RAM*, 2TB NVMe SSD. $3849 plus $300 for 3rdparty RAM.
For almost exactly the same price as the 16” MacBook Pro, you give up portability, but get a machine that’s a little faster (10%) under sustained CPU load, has a somewhat stronger GPU, and has a larger screen. It’s that close. Do you want a big screen, or do you want it to run on batteries and fit in your backpack? Two configuration traps await the unwary iMac buyer. First, the iMac in its default configuration comes with what Apple calls a Fusion Drive. That sounds nice and high-tech, but what it really is is a fusty old hard drive with a very limited amount of fast SSD caching. You don’t want one for serious photographic work – upgrade to one of Apple’s trademark superfast SSDs instead. Second, Apple will happily sell you $300 worth of RAM – for $1000. The 27” iMac has a hatch on the back that makes popping the RAM in a 5 minute job – buy your Mac from Apple and your RAM from someone who doesn’t charge a 300% markup.
The iMac also has one catch that none of the other three Macs share. Its two Thunderbolt 3 ports are on one bus – if you attach a high-resolution external display to one and a RAID unit or a couple of fast SSDs to the other, performance could be compromised. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue, since even a 4K display leaves plenty of space for a very fast drive. If you intend to attach a second 5K display to match the internal screen, or worse yet, Apple’s new (and very expensive) 6K Pro Display XDR, you will reduce bandwidth available to storage devices. All other Macs mentioned here have dual Thunderbolt 3 buses – display on one, drives on the other and the problem goes away.
3.) iMac Pro – 3.2 (4.2) GHz eight core Intel Xeon, AMD Radeon Vega 56 (8 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $5799.
The eight-core iMac Pro is severely overpriced since the 2019 iMac came out. It’s about $1500 more for a very similar machine in most ways. When it came out, the most powerful iMac other than the iMac Pro was a quad-core, and the only way to get more cores was to pay for the iMac Pro. Intel has recently released the successors to the Xeons used in the iMac Pro – and the new ones are half the price, which would cut hundreds of dollars off the iMac Pro’s price. Apple will probably offer more cores for the same cost (unless they make a major change like a new screen) whenever they update the iMac Pro (spring???).
That said, the iMac Pro is worth considering if you can find a good deal on one, especially in Apple’s refurbished store, although there are sometime big sales at B&H, Adorama, and friends as well – for several reasons. First of all, the logical iMac Pro to buy isn’t the eight-core – if you need more cores, especially for video editing, the iMac Pro is available with up to eighteen (for a significant price increase) – eight is the top of the line for the regular iMac. Second, while the top speed of the iMac Pro’s processor is actually slower than the regular iMac, it has better cooling, and will run at top speed all day long, without ever speeding up the fans to a noisy level. Third, even the basic Vega 56 is more powerful than any GPU in any other iMac, and it is also available with Radeon Vega 64 and 64X GPUs that are faster still. Finally, the ports are better – it has 10 Gb Ethernet that higher-end Network-Attached Storage units will take advantage of, and it has four Thunderbolt 3 ports on two buses. Watch out if you like very expensive displays – it won’t drive the new Apple Pro Display XDR at full resolution, because the Thunderbolt controller is too old. Expect this to be fixed in the next update! Oddly, the only Mac other than the new Mac Pro that’s fully compatible with the Pro Display XDR is the 16” MacBook Pro (and certain recent models of the 15” MacBook Pro).
An update is due relatively soon, it will use much less expensive processors, and it will almost certainly fix the Pro Display issue with a newer Thunderbolt controller. Will it be cheaper, or will Apple add features to keep the price up? Only Apple knows that.
4.) New Mac Pro – 3.5 (4.0) GHz eight core Intel Xeon, AMD Radeon 580X (8 GB), 96 GB RAM*, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $6799 plus $649 for third-party RAM
When you look at those features and that price tag, something doesn’t make sense. This is a machine that performs very similarly to three other Macs, doesn’t come with a monitor, yet costs more than 1.5x as much. It even has what may be the slowest GPU in the group, depending on the task. What are you paying for? The answer is expandability… A base model Mac Pro makes no sense (and this one is very close to a base model). The Mac Pro is for people who need more than 128 GB of RAM (the iMac Pro is the only other Mac that can exceed 128 GB, but it’s so expensive to upgrade to 256 GB that most people who need that much are better off with a Mac Pro, which is easily upgradeable). The Mac Pro is for people who need huge numbers of CPU cores. The Mac Pro is for people who need enormous GPU power – GPU upgrades are available that range up to $10,000, but that is for many times the GPU power of any other Mac.
Here’s a “minimum sensible Mac Pro” that will outrun any other Mac:
4a.) New Mac Pro – 3.2 (4.4) GHz SIXTEEN core Intel Xeon, AMD Radeon Pro W5700X (16 GB), 192 GB RAM*, 2 TB NVMe SSD. ~$9799 plus $1199 for third-party RAM. The price of the GPU is a guess (I included $1000), because the GPU high-end still photographers might want isn’t out yet.
Expensive? Yes, it is – but at least it delivers performance. There are a few Geekbench numbers floating around the Web for a machine like this, and it looks like it’s about twice as fast as anything else in this roundup except the Puget Ryzen. It is barely faster than the eighteen-core version of the iMac Pro, but it has much more RAM expandability, far better graphics choices and PCie slots to add anything you might want. An eighteen-core iMac Pro is around the same price, and is considerably more expensive if you want more than 128 GB of RAM – the iMac Pro is difficult to add RAM to (and tops out at 256 GB), while the Mac Pro is easy to upgrade and goes to 768 GB, and an astonishing 1.5 TB with certain, expensive processor options.
Amazingly, this is still barely a midrange Mac Pro! It’s possible to spend $50,000 on one, largely because of the huge RAM capacity and very high end GPU possibilities.
The question is whether you need one? There are very few tasks in still photography that use this kind of computing power. One possibility is stitching large numbers of very large images, and then manipulating the stitched files. A high-end MacBook Pro or iMac is perfectly happy with files in the 100 MP range, as long as it has plenty of RAM. What if you’re stitching ten or fifteen of those? If you do this regularly (and what are you using to print the results?), that may be a job for the Mac Pro. 8K video editing is a slightly more common task that can use this level of power.
5. ) The Mac That Never Was – 4.1 (4.6) GHz twelve core AMD Ryzen 3900X, AMD Radeon Pro W5700X (16 GB), 64 GB RAM*, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $4000 (if Apple would build it) – RAM is third-party.
This is the machine photographers have been asking Apple to build for years. It would not include a monitor, coming in some form of elegant (this IS Apple after all) minitower case. The AMD processor outperforms the Intels in most of these Macs by around 40-50% (it’s around the same speed core for core, but it has four extra cores). A Ryzen Mac is a possibility, depending on Apple’s deals with Intel – it would restore the historic performance differential between desktops and laptops. Looking exclusively at Intel’s chip offerings, the MacBook Pro is going to be about the same speed as the iMac for the next couple of years. AMD offers some additional performance on the desktop without going to an iMac Pro-style workstation chip.
If there IS a Ryzen Mac, however, it’ll be an iMac. Apple, for a number of reasons, loves the iMac design, and tries to avoid building desktops that aren’t iMacs. They make sure the Mac Mini doesn’t have the power to compete with the iMac, especially in the GPU, and the Mac Pro is substantially more expensive and not aimed at the same market. While many people say it’s just greed (Apple wants to sell the display, storage and GPU instead of letting people choose), that’s not all of it. The iMac is also an easy machine to support, and desktops that people can stick random parts in are hard to support.
Apple’s reliability and operating system stability is based in part on having only a limited number of configurations to support, with those configurations being well tested and composed of high-quality parts run conservatively. Windows has to deal with literally millions of possible configurations (to Apple’s 1000 or so), some of which include either cheap junk, heavily overclocked gaming parts or both.
1.) Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Gen 2 – 2.3 (4.8) GHz Intel Core i9-9880H, Nvidia Quadro T2000 (4 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $3519
Right now, Lenovo is offering the best deal on a thin-and-light mobile workstation that competes with the 16” MacBook Pro (the prices on this, the Dell Precision 5540 and the HP ZBook Studio all fluctuate). It’s a very similar machine, although the Mac has a few decided advantages for its additional cost. Lenovo provides some additional ports that make the ThinkPad easier to use, especially with projectors and USB memory sticks. A standard HDMI port is a welcome addition, especially when dealing with built-in projectors, since there’s almost always an option to connect via HDMI (and the Mac needs an easily forgotten adapter that not every venue has). There are two standard USB ports, welcome for dealing with USB memory sticks. The ports aren’t a big deal at home, because cables will easily adapt most peripherals, but they’re very useful on the road.
The ThinkPad has some of the cooling problems of the previous generation MacBook Pro, and the processor will sometimes drop down below 2.5 GHz under heavy load, while the 16” MacBook Pro is running well over 3 GHz. All of the thin-and-light mobile workstations running Windows I can find benchmarks for are 10-20% slower than the latest MacBook Pro, due to heat-related slowdowns. Some much heavier (6 lb) workstations can achieve MacBook Pro speeds and a little bit beyond. The Quadro T2000 GPU is about 2/3 the speed of the MacBook Pro’s Radeon, and the SSD is about ¾ the speed of Apple’s superfast model. Lenovo hasn’t managed to cram in Apple’s huge battery, nor is Windows quite as good as optimizing battery life as MacOS, so you won’t see 12 hour battery life on this or any powerful PC laptop.
1a.) Razer Blade Studio Edition – 2.6 (4.5) GHz six-core Intel Core i7-9750H, Nvidia Quadro T5000 (16 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB SSD. $3999 with 1 TB SSD and 32 GB RAM (only configuration sold) – upgrading to 64 GB and 2 TB adds ~$400 for a fast 2 TB SSD and close to $300 for the RAM.
Razer offers a thin-and-light mobile workstation with a Quadro T5000 GPU, which is a couple of times faster than the Mac’s Radeon, but there are significant compromises inherent in that design. The CPU is a lower-performing six-core that produces a Geekbench 5 score around 5000 to the MacBook Pro’s~7300. Battery lifeismuch shorter, and there are significant heat issues. Most photographic applications don’t use the GPU extensively (yet), and they can certainly take advantage of the Mac’s fast CPU. Unless you are editing video seriously, losing close to 30% in CPU performance to gain GPU performance is a poor tradeoff. So far, the Razer Blade Studio is unique in getting a really powerful GPU into a professional thin-and-light machine (a couple of relatively light gaming laptops including a closely related Razer manage the same feat in similar ways, and large, heavy gaming laptops can include high-power CPUs and GPUs at the same time).
2.)Puget Systems Lightroom Workstation – 4.1 (4.6) GHz twelve core AMD Ryzen 9 3900X, Nvidia GeForce 2060 Super (8 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $3498
Depending on whether and how you value the internal monitor on an iMac, this machine is either $600 or so cheaper than an equivalent 2019 iMac or as much as $600 or so more expensive. If you already have a monitor you are happy with, and the iMac screen would just be a palette monitor, the Puget would be significantly cheaper. If you would be buying a monitor with the Puget, the iMac display is worth something in the $1000 -$1200 range.
It’s quite a bit faster than any iMac except the 14 and 18 core variants of the iMac Pro, and massively faster than any CPU anyone can dream of cramming into a laptop. It’s a classic deskside tower design, with space for dual graphics cards plus a 10 Gb Ethernet card or a RAID controller. It can handle up to twelve internal drives (three NVMe SSDs, seven 2.5” or 3.5” drives, one of which can also be a 5.25” optical drive if anyone still uses those, and two 2.5” SSDs). If you really want to use all those drive bays, you’ll need a RAID controller, because the motherboard supports three fast NVMe drives plus six slower SATA drives. Standard photographic configurations with one or two NVMe drives plus a pair of hard drives are easy…
This machine shows where AMD is with desktop processors in comparison to Intel right now. It’s 50% faster than anything Intel-powered that doesn’t use a workstation or server motherboard (which adds substantially to the cost). Similar performance in an Intel-based system using a workstation board adds about $500 (for a machine from Puget Systems specced as close as possible) For about $300 extra you can even get a sixteen core version of the AMD system that’s faster still. An eighteen core Intel that competes with the sixteen core AMD is about $600 more than its AMD competitor. To be fair, the workstation-based Intel systems do support 256 GB of RAM, which their AMD competitors do not until you jump up another price category to ~$5000+ Threadripper systems.
The GPU in this system is approximately equivalent to the one in the iMac Pro, maybe a little faster. If you have software that really uses GPU power, an upgrade or even dual GPUs are possible. Conversely, if nothing you do taxes the GPU at all, you can save a few hundred dollars by opting for a slower GPU. Unlike any Mac except the $6000+ Mac Pro, you aren’t stuck with your initial GPU choice – if an upgrade to your favorite RAW file editor suddenly starts taking advantage of fast GPUs, it’s easy enough to replace it for a fraction of the cost of a new computer.
I have requested a Ryzen-based Puget workstation for review – exact configuration details are unclear, but it’ll be something like this.
3.)Puget Systems Photoshop Workstation – 3.6 (5.0) GHz eight core Intel Core i9 9900K, Nvidia GeForce 2060 Super (8 GB), 64 GB RAM, 2 TB NVMe SSD. $3312.
There are two interesting aspects to this system – one is that it highlights the difference between top-end Intel and AMD desktop chips, and the other is that it is almost exactly a “tower iMac”. It sells for around $800 less than a comparable iMac, but it doesn’t come with a monitor. If you happen to like the monitor that comes with an iMac and the other component choices, the iMac turns out to be a good deal – the monitor sells for more than $800 on its own.
This system is a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than a comparable AMD system – but the Ryzen has four extra cores while not losing much speed per core (5-10% at most). If you have an important application that demands the maximum possible single-core speed, the Core i9 9900K is probably the fastest chip around – otherwise, AMD is generally ahead in desktop cost/performance as of December 2019
At this writing, there are excellent choices in photo-editing computers – Mac and PC, laptop and desktop. This is not a comprehensive survey of what’s out there, especially on the PC side, where there are thousands of variations.