Building the perfect Lightroom desktop on a budget – 2020 edition

7 months ago  •  By  •  0 Comments

Building the best Lightroom desktop -silent and small, bang for buck- that will really speed up your workflow.

A friend of my once said that with the amount of time we spend on laptops and desktop, the speed they gain each year and the performance boost we thus get, you should always buy the latest and greatest.

Get yourself the fastest laptop or desktop, it’s worth it

 Joris Overzet

And with that in mind I bought a Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop 2 years ago.

I really like the Lightroom power my Dell XPS 15 9570 brings to the mobile game. If you set it up correctlyincluding GPU acceleration on– it’s a fast machine for editing.

But it’s far from a perfect laptop.

  • Driver issues / hardware compatibility issues in the beginning
  • The weird webcam placement (which they solved on newer models)
  • Battery life was very good in the beginning has dramatically dropped (which I replaced myself)
  • And for some reason the machine won’t charge at the 180 W Dell WD15 Dock any more
  • A hinge that broke

Workflow optimization vs machine optimization

At photography meet ups we would talk about our setup and workflow and everybody uses tricks to speed up and improve their workflow. Different software for selecting the best photos, because Lightroom is so slow when browsing trough your raw selection. Special plug-ins like JPEGMiniPro to reduce the file size for web use or client folders. Adding certain effects at the end of the editing process because they are heavy etc. Some of the tricks improved workflow but I would still be spending way to much time behind my laptop waiting.

With an optimized Lightroom setup, an optimized workflow and a heavy duty laptop I was about out of performance optimization options. But what if I took a totally different approach. What if I build a brand new desktop just for editing. How much time would I gain in doing just that?

On the hunt for the best components for a 2020 silent Lightroom beast on (somewhat of) a budget

So I called up my friend Jeroen. Jeroen is the co-owner of the IT company Bossers en Cnossen that supports our business with our IT needs. He usually builds supercomputers for customers and still loves both hardware and software and he has hand build more that 500 computers over his career.

Together we went on a hunt for the best components to build a modern Lightroom desktop, which should have a perfect balance of price and performance for Lightroom Classic. These are the components we selected.

Processor – 3900X

We started with processor and my heart was screaming “threadripper”. I could say I wanted to selected it just because of the name, but at $750,- the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X is simply an awesome and powerful processor for it’s price. It is however not the best option for Lightroom.

Since most Lightroom work is files we’ll have to choose a CPU with a higher clock speed which meant I ended up at the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X which at $470,- is also a lot cheaper.

Just to give you a feel. A 100 image export with the 3900X takes 32 seconds where the 3950X will do it in 40 seconds. Thanks for testing this Tweakers.net!

As a side note: Pugetsystems tested all these CPU’s and they found the 3960X to be the best processor for the price. It got a score or 1498 making it about 30% faster then the 3900X that scored a 1133. But at $1,565 this CPU is 3 times as expensive as our 3900X.

With this CPUworking hard, we need something to cool things down. Usually I would opt for a be quiet! Dark Rock 4 Air Cooler at $75 but this is going to be a low profile build, because I’m mounting this under my diner table. That means we are going for a low profile cooler. The be quiet! Shadow Rock 2 Air Cooler at $48 is the right tool for the job, but getting a Shadow Rock took longer then expected, so we migrated to the Taijintek Pallas 140. The device looks awesome, but it did not fit our case 🙁 For Intel CPUS you can rotate the cooler 90 degrees to make it fit but the AMD mount plate did not have those options so we had to send it back. (Small hint and tip for Taijintek here 😉

We then ordered the Noctua nh-u12s which can be mounted in 360 degrees and fit the case really nicely.

Storage – Samsung 970 EVO plus SSD (1TB)

The second thing that is going to be important is storage. I immediately jumped to SSD’s and doublet between the Crucial MX500 1TB at $110 and the Samsung 860 PRO 1TB which is faster but also twice the price at $275. I would have gone for the Samsung but then Jeroen jumped in telling me I should be looking at an NVMe. Long story short: Non-Volatile Memory Express is faster. The Samsung 970 EVO plus SSD (1TB) retails at $200 and is the proper “disk” for the job. If you want more storage there is room for two SSD’s and one more NVMe on the motherboard and it the case.

Memory – Corsair Vengeance LPX 32Gb

With storage checked, memory was up next. Tom hardware just finished their test and 2x 16Gb of Patriot Viper Steel DDR4-3200 is the way to go. At $140 memory it is very well priced.

Too bad we can’t choose it because need low profile (LPX) sticks since we selected a small case. The Corsair Vengeance LPX 32Gb (2×16) is our best option there at $125.

Motherboard – Gigabyte X570 I Aorus Pro WiFi

Now we need a place to plug all these components in to. The Dutch site Hardware.info tested 25 motherboards with the 3900X in September of 2019.

The Gigabyte X570 I Aorus Pro WiFi is one of many cards they ranked Excellent and at $220 it’s great value as well.

Video card – GIGABYTE NVIDIA RTX 2060S

Now, the tough one. The video card. Lightroom classic does use the GPU but it does not use it much. A supported card will accelerates rendering of images in the Library module’s Grid view, Loupe view, and Filmstrip. It will also speed up some of the development process. It’s also better when you use 4K monitors for editing.

Now that we know a little more we can start looking at options.

The NVIDIA GeForce GTX1660 is costing only $230. It’s a very well priced card but its 4K performance is not very strong.

The AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT and NVIDIA RTX 2060S (Super) are very comparative when it comes to pricing. But RX 5700 XT is about 10% faster in nearly every performance tests. So normally I would pick the 5700 XT. It won’t make a lot of difference in Lightroom because of limited usage of the GPU, but it does make a difference if you use the system for games ea.

But there are two reasons to select the RTX.

First the RTX is faster in one Lightroom area: Enhance Details. The Lightroom feature is about a year old and adds some AI power to the photo editing mix. I have never used the feature because it’s so intensive, but this is where the RTX outperforms the XT.

The second reason is that the NVIDIA drivers are more mature. And I love a stable system.

We’ll add a GIGABYTE NVIDIA RTX 2060S -$430- to our system. Now we need a box to put it all in and something to power the machine.

Power supply – be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11

With all the components selected it’s time to look at the power supply. Since we wanted something to fit the case and we want it to be silent we’ll go for a be quiet! Their psu calculator calculated we needed at least 500W so we ended up picking the be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 ($140) that supplies 550W.

Hardware.info ranked it “Ultimate” in their power supply round-up of April 2019.

If you don’t care about sound the Corsair RM550x (2018) is a good option at $100,-, which was ranked “Excellent” in the same test.

While installing the Dark Power Pro we did had to remove some parts of the case to make it fit and the power supply was longer then expected. This means the holes for the vents from the case do not line up with the holes from the power supply, but that’s that’s only about a cm. Because of the size of the power supply, we also had to cut off part of the mount for the video card to make it all fit.

The case Silverstone FTZ01-E

The case has been one of the limiting factors of this build since we want it to be portable and mountable. We found the Silverstone FTZ01-E ( $152) to be the best option. The small package makes it very compact and portable so even if you were to use it for other purposes like gaming it’s an easy system to bring along.

If you want to go bigger I’ve personally always liked the Fractal Design Meshify C ($85).

Monitor – LG 27UK850-W

The monitor is the most difficult part to select. Eizo, Dell and Asus make great specialized screens but they will break the bank. The Asus ProArt PA32UCX stood out at $1,320 offering tremendous value for money.

I don’t want to go 32″, because it’s so big and I don’t want to go curved because I need to be able to put the monitor away and store is somewhat flat.

The best monitor for photo editing in the bang for buck department is the BenQ SW271 27 Inch 4K. It is an amazing monitor. 4K, HDR, IPS monitor. It’s color accurate (100% sRGB, 99% Adobe RGB), it has build in hardware calibration and you can power it with one USB-C Port. It has a Hotkey Puck allowing you to switch from Adobe RGB mode to sRGB mode to Black & White mode with a physical switch. It supports 10-bit HDR which the video people will love and it includes a detachable shading hood to reduces screen glare from ambient lighting. It’s also $1080,-

Option two is the QHD version of this monitor (SW2700PT), which brings the price down to $588,-, including the hood but is does have rater big bezels. If you don’t care about looks this is your best option. Dell has build a monitor to match the LG dubbed the Dell UltraSharp UP2716D ($470), but the user ratings give it a 3,9 out of 5 where the LG gets a 4.4.

If you want to go 4K on a budget you end up at the LG 27UK850-W which is the monitor I ended up ordering. It can power your laptop via USB Type-C, supports HDR10 just like the BenQ monitors and thanks to FreeSync it’s very suited for games. At $409,- you get a beast of a monitor which is almost bezel-less. It’s pretty color accurate (99% sRGB, 81% of Adobe RGB), where both BenQ monitors will cover 100%. The screen is matt so reflections are minimized. You won’t see a huge difference between QHD and 4K at 27″ so you might want to check out a 32 inch monitor, but for me 27″ is enough.

If you are a pro shooter doing a lot B&W or print work you will want to go BenQ (or up it to a Eizo or Dell). Since most of my photo’s go up online and we are looking for value for money I’ll “settle” for the LG monitor.

Keyboard & mouse – Cherry CK 1000 & MX Master

I hate wireless stuff for offices. It’s battery, radio and Bluetooth signal mayhem. But since this setup will end up at home, and I want to be able to quickly remove everything from the diner table wireless might be the best options.

I tested a lot of keyboards for the office and we eventually picked the Cherry KC 1000 because it’s simply very nice to type on. It also is one of the cheapest options out there. Because I wanted to keep my typing experience somewhat equal when switching workstations I searched for wireless options, but Cherry does not have a lot of options, and the ones they do aren’t very well rated.

Before I switched to the Cherry I used a lot of curved keyboards and where it’s very expensive I think the Logitech Ergo K860 ($130) has surpassed Microsoft’s Sculpt Ergonomic. I noticed less fatigue with this keyboard that with other keyboards and since we usually spend a lot of time editing, it’s ok that it’s a little more pricey. I’ve also tested the Loupedeck+ Photo and Video Editing Console ($250), but it ended up on the “unused tech” pile after 2 months, but I’ll retest it on this dedicated setup.

For now I’ll settle on the Cherry CK 1000, but will be testing the Logitech when it becomes available.

The mouse is going to be an easy pick. The Logitech MX Master is unrivaled. You can get the Master 3 for $100,- and it looks sleek in graphite.

The end result

The best Lightroom -silent and small- bang for buck system that will really speed up your workflow (overview and price)

Processor: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X – $470
Cooler: Noctua NH-U12S – $55 (Big case option: be quiet! Dark Rock 4 Air Cooler at $75,-)
Storage: Samsung 970 EVO plus SSD (1TB) – $200
Memory: Corsair Vengeance LPX – $125
Motherboard: GIGABYTE Nvidia RTX 2060S – $430
Power: be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 – $140 (Corsair RM550x (2018) as to more noise, but cheaper alternative at $100)
Case: Silverstone FTZ01-E – $152 (Fractal Design Meshify C at $85 if you want to save money and add space)
Monitor: LG 27UK850-W – $ 409
Keyboard: Cherry KC 1000 – $10,- (Upgrade to Logitech Ergo K860 – $130)
Mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 – $100


Total: $2091,-

Tweaks to the hardware and BIOS

The machine now hangs under the diner table and the top lid has been removed for optimal cooling. By advice of Jeroen I tweaked the fan speeds so they run as fast as possible without hearing them to keep the system fast and quiet. We also decided to place the fan under the cooler so it blows the hot air out of the case because of the positioning of the case.

The monitor is very nice but it’s monitor base should have the ability to do cable management. You also can’t turn the monitor sideways because the foot does not have an option for it. A second USB-C cable to connect you laptop and a desktop to it would also have been nice.

The motherboard has on-board Wi-Fi but also an external Wi-Fi antenna which boosts signal tremendously. It’s a very nice add to the build.

Some benchmarks

3900X Lightroom machine

I ran some benchmarks for the new machine which you can find one Userbenchmark: Game 107%, Desk 143%, Work 139%

CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X – 97.8%
GPU: Nvidia RTX 2060S (Super) – 99.8%
SSD: Samsung 970 Evo Plus NVMe PCIe M.2 1TB – 317.2%
RAM: Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 3200 C16 2x16GB – 78.5%
MBD: Gigabyte GA-X570 I AORUS PRO WIFI

Dell XPS 15

To make a comparison to the XPS 15 it was also benchmarked: Game 36%, Desk 84%, Work 60%

CPU: Intel Core i7-8750H – 82.3%
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1050-Ti (Mobile Max-Q) – 30.4%
SSD: Toshiba XG5 NVMe PCIe M.2 512GB – 145.1%
RAM: Samsung M471A1K43BB1-CTD 2x8GB – 80.9%
MBD: Dell XPS 15 9570

Specs of the Dell XPS 15 9570

Intel i7 8750H (repasted and undervolted)
Toshiba 512Gb NVMe (KXG50ZNV512G)
NVIDEA GeForce GTX 1050Ti
16 Gb, DDR4-2666, Dual-Channel

Real live test

As an experiment I exported 100 photo’s from DNG to JPG

Lightroom system 3900X: 2m09s (129s)
Dell XPS 15 9570: 4m50s (290s)

That’s an 120% performance boost.

Performance off JPEG mini

I also did a JPEG mini conversion on the 100 photos and it turns out, JPEG mini does not utilize the hardware at all. Both CPU and GPU never came above 15% the run on the Lightroom machine was only 5% faster because of it. Time for some hardware optimization for the JPEG mini peeps 😉

Can I ever go back to a laptop?

It’s incredible what a powerhouse you can build for the price. Lightroom editing is fantastic on this machine. Yes import and export still take time, but it’s more then cut in half. But it’s not just Lightroom. Because of Corona the new machine has become the default workstation.

For the first time in my life I have a machine that can keep up with me.

For the first time in my life I have a machine that can keep up with me. It costs just as much as my Dell XPS but it’s just so much faster. Yes it is a hefty investment but one that I would advice any professional using heavy weight applications to make. And to be honest; I don’t think I can ever go back to just a fast laptop.

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