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Building a Photo-Editing Computer on the Cheap

Having returned to photography after a lay-off of some years, I had discovered a whole new world, where, among other things, computers had largely replaced darkrooms. It soon became apparent that my Windows 10 laptop was sadly underrated for the tasks required. I began to research alternatives.

I fairly quickly decided that while a top of the line laptop could probably do the job, there were still limitations, not least the price. Going back to a desktop tower computer configuration made more and more sense. Also, I negotiated the commandeering of a closet that was fortuitously suitable for a digital photo set up. Back into the closet — just like my darkrooms of earlier years!

Determining Desired Specs

I spent a lot of time on the Internet studying what would be the characteristics of a desirable computer. There was no question it would be a Windows 10 machine, far and away the best choice for the combination of cost and compatibility with a large number of post-processing programs. I came up with a list of desired minimum specifications:

  • Windows 10 Professional Operating System
  • Intel i7 processor, 4 cores
  • 16 gigs of RAM
  • Decent Graphics Card
  • Terabyte of Storage

Further desirable options would be:

1. A solid-state drive (SSD) at least large enough for booting and start-up for programs. 256 gigs would serve nicely.

2. An additional 16 gigs of RAM bringing the total to 32 gigs.

And these additional options would require at the least that the computer could easily accept more RAM.

Searching for the Right Computer

I started looking for suitable computers. At first, a box that would meet my needs seemed easy to find — tower computers designed for home and office, and starting around $800 and heading north. But, these computers did not include a graphics card up to the task.

A graphics card suitable for a higher resolution monitor used for still photography and normal video would add somewhere from $130 and up. And, problematically, such a card would likely require at least 100 watts, probably more. But, careful checking of specification sheets demonstrated that the packaged computers from the big name companies had nowhere near that much reserve power.

It quickly became apparent that what I really wanted was a gaming computer. These machines featured everything I wanted: blazing speed, loads of memory and terrific graphics capability. And stiff pricing of $2,000 and up. Sigh.

I started looking at used and refurbished computers on eBay. One caught my eye: the Dell Optiplex 9010, being offered refurbished with 30-day return privilege, with Windows 10 Professional, an i7 processor running at 3.4 GHz and with 4 cores, 16 gigs of installed RAM and a 500-gigabyte new hard drive. It also included two optical drives — a read-only DVD drive and a read/write DVD drive. And the price: $260 delivered!

The seller, the Blind Center of Nevada, has an excellent eBay rating. Computers being retired are donated to them, but with the original hard drive held back and destroyed. They refurbish the computers, add a newer hard drive with Windows 10 Professional, test them and sell them for attractive prices. They were not the only vendor offering refurbished Optiplex 9010 computers but their offering seemed like the best value. (Note that there a number of refurbishers who offer the Optiplex 9010 through eBay, Amazon, Walmart, NewEgg, etc. Be sure to shop around.)

Anyhow, this was looking more and more like a viable solution. The Optiplex line has always been Dell’s front line business model, for which reliability was and is an important design criterion. Other than a burp around 2004, the product line has met reliability expectations.

The computer so offered did NOT include a keyboard or a mouse. But since I had a USB mouse and keyboard from an earlier computer that was not a problem. Also, the computer did not have a wireless interface for Wi-Fi. It did, however, include an Ethernet jack, plus 6 USB 2 and 4 USB 3 connectors. I found I could purchase on eBay a wireless USB adapter dongle for less than $7, which I ordered immediately.

The computer also did not include a card reader. After all, this computer was designed to be a serious office computer or work station, not a consumer model. Again, USB card readers from slow to fast are readily available on eBay and elsewhere from less than $10 to over $100.

I wanted a larger hard drive, but 500 gigs would serve me for quite a while. And more on that subject later in this article.

I started doing further research. One YouTube video, in particular, showed how the presenter upgraded the exact computer into a pretty decent gaming machine.



August 2020
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