Building a Photoshop (CS5) Computer

New and old designers, photographers, and photoshopers of all flavors at some point come to ask “What kind of machine will run Photoshop the best?” To answer that question you have to understand what Photohsop needs from a computer. You can actually have a great Photoshop machine depending on your needs for as little as $400. Don’t believe me? Read on and be amazed!

SIDE NOTE: If you are interested in buying a Photoshop Laptop, read this article as well.

What does Photoshop Need?
To run efficiently in most cases this is all Photoshop really needs:

  • Dual Core 2.4Ghz or better Processors
  • 4GB of RAM or more
  • 500 GB Hard Drive 7200 RPM

This will be more than enough for you and if you and Photoshop will launch in under 5 seconds. I know because this is the work station I use for Creative Suite CS5 everyday at the office. With this build you can edit images for print and web in 8Bit mode without much lag or delay at all. If you want some general advice on speeding up Photoshop Performance read this article:

You can also optimize Photoshop to take full advantage of this build. This build cost $199 on as DIY kit. Yes you have to put it together yourself and install Windows. You also have to put in another $20 for a SATA DVD Burner since it doesn’t come with an optical drive. Even if you have to buy a new copy of windows this Photoshop machine cost less than $400!

The Most Powerful Photoshop Machine I Can Get Under $1500 (Non Mac)
If you are doing some “Serious Photoshop” and I mean you are editing images from a 18MP or higher Canon or Nikon Camera, at 300DPI 16Bit color, to produce print posters or something then you can still do that and not break the bank…

  • 4x 3.2Gh Processors or Better
  • 16GB RAM
  • 1x Solid State Drive 60GB or Better
  • 3x 1TB Hard Drive or Better
  • 1GB 256Bit Video Card Open GL 4 or Better

I can get most of this in DIY build from new egg for less than $600 as far as 1 of the Hard Drives, the Processors, 4GB of the RAM, including the casing and power supply, all I would need with this kit to “plug it in” is a copy of Windows. Maxing out the rest of these specs brings it out to about $1200 unless like me you want to throw in a Blu-Ray Burner and a good monitor. I tried building this machine in the Apple store and it would cost over $4000 without some of the specs like the Blu-Ray Burner and Solid State Drive.

Super Photoshop Hard Drives….
You are going to need at least 3 “Hard Drive Leves”, here is how I’ve broken it down:

  • Application Level > Windows OS, Photoshop, Other Applications:  1x 1TB Hard Drive (2 Partitions)
  • Storage Level> All files and data from applications: 2x 1.5TB Hard Drives ($70 each)
  • Scratch Disk Level> Dedicated Scratch Disk: 1x 9 GB Solid State Drive (SSD- $160)

So why are we using 3 Hard Drive levels and 4 Hard Dives (minimum)? Photoshop performs faster when it multitask across these different drives and use their separate bandwidth. So having your application, files, and temporary files, all on separate disk using separate resources is essential to maximum Photoshop Performance. Solid State Drives for the scratch disk take that performance to a whole new level. Also if you are doing major work like we talked about you know that it is possible to get a 1GB or larger Photoshop file, the max file size for PSD is 2GB, you can exceed that in a PSB, not that I would want to…

Is 16GB Of RAM Enough For You and Photoshop?
The answer to the  question above should be yes. I can’t imagine what you would have to do to exceed 16GB of RAM but once you do that is what scratch disk are there for. With this much ram their should be no issues as far as performance. And this is only the physical RAM, you can obviously use some of your hard drive space (you have enough of it with these specs) for Virtual RAM.

If you are worried about the price, that’s the beauty of it 16GB of GSKILL RAM only cost $150 and is the best way to get maximum performance out of Photoshop. Just make sure you are running the 64 Bit Version of Photoshop and Windows so you don’t waste your time and money on RAM it won’t use otherwise. You could just upgrade the RAM and forget everything else here and see great performance…

Photoshop Video Card
Your video card doesn’t effect Photoshop performance as much outside the fact that you can use resources from it that are being covered by our 16GB of RAM. What a great video card does allow you is greater rendering speed and quality when working with Photoshop’s 3D tools and Video Editing capabilities.  If you’re looking to get everything you can out of Photoshop $160 on your video card is well worth it.

You don’t have to break the bank to build your ultimate Photoshop machine, you can start with a modest DIY Kit that fits your immediate needs for less than $600, and just price your upgrades and do them one at a time, I would start with the RAM since its one of the cheaper items and will give you the biggest increase in performance. I would probably do the Solid State Drive next and then the Hard Drives and the Video Card last, since the video that comes onboard nowadays is decent.

I’ve used both PC and Mac, I had to be Mac exclusive for nearly a year, plus it was what we used when I was in college. Performance wise their is no difference as long as you are in a 64Bit environment. Mac has exclusive rights to some programs, but so does windows. That’s the difference. If you are a designer or a digital artist, you can build a PC machine literally 4X more powerful than your Mac out of the box at a 4th of the price or better.

About Roberto Blake
Roberto Blake is a Professional Graphic Designer, Photographer and Digital Artist. When working with clients to develop their branding, Roberto creates content to support Designers and Artist in the creative community through online articles, tutorials and videos.


Great post. Its helpful to us. Thanks for share 

Bill Clifton
Bill Clifton

Great info! I am ready to upgrade my desktop, possibly a Dell 8300 with the equipment stated above. What bradn and size do you recommend for a video card. I understand some work a lot better eith PS than others.


Hi Roberto, Nice article, and really useful. I've a few questions. Why would you partition Application Level drive? What's the partition strategy (e.g. OS in one partition, and Application incl. PS in another)? Will this improve performance? What if I use SSD drive for Boot+Apps? Will be really appreciative if you could answer.


I was reading this article and then I realized you and I went to high school together and were even in the same club. Long time no see! Anyways I'm contemplating a laptop essentially just for Photoshop but not too sure I want to invest a lot. I have one that runs Photoshop but it's not the fastest thing in the world. I've also got a powerhouse of a desktop that I could use but I don't have a proper desk to use it on. I'm wondering if I should invest in a wireless Wacom Intuos instead if I can find one. Might be the better option.


Should add that my operating system and CS5 reside on a SATA 3/6GB SSD (overwhelmingly faster than traditional HDD) and my 27in screen (1920X1200)is powered by an MSI GTX580E 3GB GPU, which CS5 is also designed to take full advantage of! My set up is undeniably costly, at least initially, however, I look at it over the long term, which in my case represents thousands of hours in front of a screen! It's about keeping my sanity! Commonly waiting around for adjustments to complete, sometimes ending in system freeze ups and lost work! Now, I can take a 16bith tiff image with a dozen layers and literally manipulate as fast as 4X6 in the old XP system with CS3 and 3GB of ram. I also use Phase One Capture One to process RAW files and it too has been redesigned to take full advantage of 64bit OS and the latest hardware. I can now process hundreds of images from RAW to 16bit Tiff in minutes vs hours and that's just awesome!


Roberto, this is quite an interesting topic and one I have also put a lot thought into. I think one point that needs to be addressed is that you get the most out of a machine if you use the 64bit system of win7. Its obviously if you state that with 16GB of RAM usage in the "under 1500$" machine, but its not obviously to someone not too tech-savvy. I´d recommend going for a triple -channel system, that means you have a processor and chipset from intel like the core-i7 920 who supports this and to get full advantage of the quad core you need 6GB of Ram only to make it a beast with Photoshop. You wonder why only 6Gb, that is because of the triple channel, the minimum is only 3GB, max is 24 (so far). I´m using this under 32 bit with a gigabyte UD3 and only 3GB of Ram and CS5 runs like a charm and I work regularly with files from 300-1500 MB. As for the Hard drives I don´t know exactly if the terabyte drives are useful, IMHO you are better with a RAID made of two or 4 WD velociraptors who have 10k RPM - OK, this makes the price go higher, but that with a scratchdisk made of flash makes CS5 feels like a Tornado.

Roberto Blake
Roberto Blake

I'm a fan of running AMD processors, every design pc I've used with Intel processors hasn't performed nearly as well or lasted nearly as long. If you use a computer and parts recommended for gaming, your Photoshop performance is nearly guaranteed.

Roberto Blake
Roberto Blake

You can actually speed up the performance on your laptop considerably. For a start use an external hard drive as a scratch disk. Increase the ram Photoshop uses and use a USB drive as virtual flash ram. Adjust your laptops power setting for performance instead of battery life. And of course you can always pay to upgrade the ram and video card.

Roberto Blake
Roberto Blake

SSD is definitely much faster and much more reliable and I definitely suggest using them for an OS Layer with 64Bit OS, and also the Application and Temp Storage/Scratch Disk Level while using large HDD on a RAID1 for you Data layer. If you're going to be doing Photoshop for the long haul and want to know your system if "Future Proof" this is definitely the way to do it.


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