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Options and Memory
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The biggest performance improvement for any computer has always been RAM (memory). I don't mind using wimpy computers, and I always upgrade their RAM to the maximum.
If you're on a budget you're much better off opting for an older or slower-rated (GHz) computer and buying more RAM, compared to spending the same price for a faster-rated computer with less RAM. A slower-rated computer with more RAM is faster than a faster-rated computer with less RAM.
RAM is instantaneous electronic memory. The computer uses it to do all its work. Your hard drive stores a lot more, but is a mechanical device with a spinning magnetic wheel on which information is recorded. Compared to RAM it takes forever to get anything on or off your hard drive.
RAM is like space on your desk or light table. Your hard drive is like your filing cabinet. Imagine having to complete a project requiring a lot of data or sorting through a lot of photos with a desk too small to hold the whole project. You'd have to take files back and forth between your desk and file cabinet so you eventually could see them all. That wastes a lot of time compared to having a desk large enough to lay out all the files. Having enough RAM is exactly like having that big enough desk. It doesn't matter how fast or slow the computer's processor is if you're lugging files in and out of the filing cabinet or hard drive. The computer is doing all this file shuffling in the background while you're working all the time; it's not only when you open or close computer files.
Now you understand why I get as much RAM as I can. This is especially important when you're running a lot of files at once or working on huge film scans.
You can buy memory when you get your computer from Apple and they'll guarantee it. You also can get memory much cheaper from third parties, but sometimes after an operating system upgrade memory that used to be fine might start having problems. The good news is that most RAM is guaranteed forever from just about everyone. I use 1 GB of extra RAM in my laptop from TransIntl because when I got my iBook Apple didn't even offer that much memory. It's worked great.
I got 8GB of RAM for my Quad G5 at The Chip Merchant.
How Much RAM is Enough?
Adobe has a page here which, about 3/4 of the way down, discusses how much memory PhotoShop can access on different operating systems. On Mac OS 10.3 and newer it can use up to 8 GB, including scratch discs!
Having blown over a grand on RAM I see in Activity Monitor that my Quad G5 almost never uses more than 2.2 GB. If I was doing this again I'd order my G5 with the base 512 MB RAM. I'd then add 2GB more. This will give 2.5 GB total and be more than I ever use, running PhotoShop, Dreamweaver, Text Edit, iTunes, Mail, iView and many windows of Safari all at once.
I have used all 8 GB of RAM if I open several huge images in PhotoShop and resample them to insanely large sizes. Activity monitor never shows PhotoShop as using more than 2.67GB of RAM. The rest of the RAM is used by Photoshop as a scratch disc before using the hard drive. This really speeds it up. Set PhotoShop's memory usage to 100% if you have 8GB RAM. It won't use more than 3GB for the program itself, but will allow it to use your excess RAM as a scratch disc.
I personally ordered my little iBook and huge Quad with the biggest hard drive I could. Apple calls it "build to order" and it came in a few days straight to my door.
I usually carry a spare firewire drive like this LaCie when I'm in the field. It allows me to carry more of my photo archive with me. I also backup my work to the firewire drive after I load it into my laptop from my cards. These drives power themselves from the laptop's battery through the firewire cord, no other power supply required.
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