A few months back, I faced the decision of purchasing a new computer for my photographic needs. My old iMac G5 at 1.8 GHz was maxed out with its lowly 250GB hard drive and 2 GB of RAM. I was processing my Lightroom Library off of an external hardrive and was at a breaking point in user-friendly functionality.
My first steps in looking for a replacement centered around the pretty and new iMacs with 24″ monitors. Man, they’re pretty. The price tags, however, are not so pretty. I wanted enough horse power to run Lightroom 2 and Photoshop simultaneously, in addition to Firefox and/or Safari. To get what I wanted out of my new Mac, I would have to put together an iMac with a $2000+ price tag, or step up to the Mac Pro where I was looking at $2500 to $3000. Ouch.
While I understand that many pro photographers out there (and I’m sure many amateurs as well) will pony up whatever Apple is charging for its great user interface and intuitive operation, that’s not necessarily for me. As I thought more about it, I realized that Lightroom is the program that is the most important to me. Second, would be Firefox. Third, is Photoshop. All three of these programs are available on Windows as well.
So, I started pondering the possibility of going back to Windows for my next box. Then, when I started looking, I noticed the huge price differential for essentially the same specifications. The price difference pretty much convinced me that I needed to go with a Windows machine for my next computer.
What About Vista?
If you’ve watched TV, browsed the Internet, or opened a magazine in the past year, you’ve likely heard that Vista sucks and sucks bad. There was no way I was going to buy a computer with Vista on it – no way.
I started looking at specs for computers with Windows XP Pro, something with which I was familiar. I couldn’t seem to find anything that offered more than 4GB of RAM. When I asked a friend that works in IT why this was, I found out that Windows XP and Vista 32-bit didn’t take advantage of the extra performance offered by anything greater than 4GB of RAM. I don’t know why this is, but it was a deal killer for me. It also made me second guess my decision to find a Windows box.
Then I started looking a little closer at Vista. The more I looked, the more the idea of using Vista seemed palatable to me. I couldn’t really find any complaints or reviews that should prevent me from using Vista. To be fair, my experience with OS X, while great, hasn’t been without problems. I’ve had plenty of cursing sessions with OS X, as I have with past Windows-based computers.
So, Vista 64-bit seemed like a viable option. It offered support for tons of RAM. It is supported by Adobe Lightroom 2. Photoshop support is there as well. Firefox, same thing. I couldn’t find a must-have program that wasn’t supported by Vista 64-bit OS.
Decision: Dell Inspiron 530
With an OS and a rough spec-list decided on, I set out to find the best deal. I checked a number of online retailers, including Amazon.com (one of my favorites), but I found the best deal on a package at my local Best Buy. I picked up a Dell Inspiron 530 with 64-bit Vista Home Premium, a 2.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 processor, 6GB RAM, 750GB hard drive, a 256MB video card and a 22″ flat panel monitor for under $1100. It was actually cheaper at Best Buy than it was through Dell. Go figure.
User Experience and Performance
I had my doubts about Vista; however, I tried to approach it with an open mind. As a result, I have very few negatives to point out about Vista itself. The only software issue that has been troubling is video playback and some Java functionality on Firefox. For some reason, embedded videos do not play well with Firefox. This appears to be a known issue. While I can restart Firefox to fix the problem, I usually just open the given link in Internet Explorer. I imagine that this hiccup will be fixed in a future update and I only consider it a minor gripe for now.
Overall, I’ve been very happy with the way Vista works. Lightroom and Photoshop are smooth as can be with the RAM and video card in the Inspiron 530, which was the goal I hoped to achieve. I can run batch operations in Lightroom and jump over to any number of applications while the batch is processing. This is something I can’t do on my old iMac G5.
I’ve kept my G5 though. It is sitting on my desk to the left of me, while the Dell occupies center stage. I still use a handful of Mac programs like iMovie and iTunes, but most of my “work” is done on the Dell.
I’ll also point out a hardware problem that I believe is driver related; however, I’ve been unable to pinpoint the problem to date. This is primarily due to poor customer support in my opinion. The built-in media reader on the Dell is pretty fancy. It supports a number of memory cards and offers front-panel USB ports. It worked like a charm for several weeks, then began to intermittently fail to recognize a CF or SD card when plugged in. I searched for solutions online and couldn’t pin it down. I called Dell tech support and they refused to help me troubleshoot the problem because I purchased the computer from Best Buy. Dell told me I had to call the Geek Squad to received support.
I was frustrated by this response; however, I took my medicine and called Best Buy’s Geek Squad. The geek that I spoke to on the phone refused to help me troubleshoot the issue and offered absolutely no assistance other than telling me I needed to bring the computer in to the store in order for them the help me. I declined. If I had a laptop, I might consider doing this. However, I’m not about to unplug all the stuff from my tower and load it up to take to Best Buy.
This has been the most disappointing aspect of buying a Windows computer. Every time I needed support from Apple I got it over the phone and they usually got it right. Additionally, in my experience, my tech support call was never outsourced to India, which is apparently where my phone call to Dell went.
Now that I’m off my soap box, I’ll tell you how I solved the problem. I just plugged in one of my USB-based memory card readers in the Dell and it works like a charm. It’s silly that I am using this as a workaround, but it works and I don’t really notice a difference in speed or otherwise from the external reader.
Again, the Dell machine on Vista 64-bit handles all of my photography software and functions as good or better than they worked on my Mac. While I prefer the user interface of the Mac, I’m more than happy to work with Vista at less than half the price of a similarly spec’d iMac or Mac Pro.
I’m not saying that Mac users need to switch to a Vista machine or even that a Vista machine is better than a Mac for photo processing. However, for cost conscious photographers, a fast PC running Vista 64-bit is a viable option to the graphical glory of the Apple machine.
To learn more about the Dell Inspiron and other Dell PCs, you can visit Dell online: Special Deals from Dell™ Home