Almost 3 years ago I build the desktop computer I'm still using as my primary editing machine. Sure, I added an SSD a couple years ago, upgraded the video card to one which was more Hackintosh friendly, and doubled the RAM because it was on sale a few months ago, but essentially it's the same computer based on Intel's original i7 'Nahalem' platform. A 920 CPU to be exact. Well Intel has finally released its successor, the so-called SandyBridge-E and you know what? For the first time in my life, I'm not itching to upgrade my computer.
Recent History For those of you who want particulars, let's back up for just one second and retrace Intel's path. You can alternately just jump down to "What does this all mean" below. To break it down simply, you could say that Intel has two different consumer lines: One for 'normal' people and one for 'enthusiasts'. Usually the 'normal' platforms are a slight bit slower with fewer memory channels which limits you to less system memory slots and smaller caches. Very similar, but there are differences. The 'enthusiast' platforms tend to be almost identical to the Xeon server chips which Apple for instance uses in their Mac Pro. The only real-world difference is that the Xeon's are able to be used in Multi-processor configurations. So if you buy a single processor Mac Pro, you could get the same amount of number crunching power for a lot less money.
Ok, so here is the short history. Back in late 2008, Intel released the original i7 'Nahalem' which I'm still using. A few months later they released the 'normal' version based on their 'Lynnfield' core. Both were great platforms but the former had 6 memory slots and the later 4. Being a Photoshop guy, I like RAM, so I was glad that I went with the 'enthusiast' part. A couple of years of more incremental upgrades and Intel finally comes out with the 'Sandy Bridge' processor last January. It was great, really fast, ran cool, and if you got the more expensive ones (2600k), it overclocked like the dickens. You could build a great little machine around it, but it only offers 4 memory slots max, which limits you to 16GB of RAM if you use 4GB sticks. I know there are 8GB dimms, but they're still way too expensive (about 4 times what the 4GB dimms cost) and a year ago were doubly so. 16GB of RAM sounds a lot, but I don't want to be stuck there if I keep the new computer for another 3 years especially since it would be a step back from the 24GB I'm running now.
So finally last week Intel released the replacement for the original 'Nahalem' part called 'Sandy Bridge E' where the E stands for enthusiast or extreme or some such. The first ones they released were 6 core monsters starting at $500 for the cpu alone. They give a 20-30% improvement in Photoshop benchmarks which is because Photoshop isn't well multi-threaded, meaning it's going to waste much of the power of the extra cores. And that's in a benchmark which measures how long it takes to run a bunch of filters and conversions. Not the kind of thing I'm doing for 98% of the time I've got a stylus in my hand. Frankly, I'm a little be disappointed.
What does this all mean? Well, first of all it means that I don't think I'll be upgrading my machine any time soon. I've got 24GB of RAM and my i7 overclocked to 3.4Ghz so I'm still doing just fine in the number crunching department. Would the new CPU speed up RAW file conversion in Lightroom? I'm sure it would, but not enough to justify spending $1000 on the hardware I'd need to make the leap.
I guess the bigger question is if we've gotten to the point where photo editing (even the 16 bit 20+MP files with 30 layer stuff that I'm typically doing), no longer requires the latest and greatest. I can remember when photo, 3D rendering, and video were the trifecta of use-cases that people would alway pull out when someone asked why 'faster' was better. You might say that we're down to two. And even then, you can certainly cut video on a Macbook Air, you just wouldn't want to render it on one. That's all a little bit crazy to me.
I'd say that if you're running a quad-core CPU and 16-24GB of memory and have an SSD as your boot/applications drive, you're in the butter zone. Yes, faster machines exist, but I doubt the difference in real-world usage would blow your hair back. I'm sure there are a handful of editors out there who are building panoramas from multiple 60MP medium format files and require more than this, but that's way at the end of the curve.
Now, I'm not suggesting that can use a Macbook Air as your main editing station. It's maximum of 4GB of memory and slower dual-core CPU are designed for small size and lower power usage. Though they make a fine travel machine and for use tethered on set in my experience. Just don't expect a lot.
That said, a quad-core Macbook Pro or 27" iMac with an SSD and enough RAM would be just fine. That's actually a little tough for me to say, it's been so long that I've been fighting for faster machines. I guess the only problem with those computers for photo editing is that their screens are good and not great, but you could alway plug them into a nice pro NEC panel. Yum.
For me, I'm going to stick with the two machine scenario. My one big 3 year old hackintosh desktop with lots of internal drives and a little 13" Air for travel. I guess I'll just keep reading anandtech.com and hope that intel surprises me with its next trick, Ivy Bridge.