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A report on processing performance
Monday, January 5, 2004 | by Rob Galbraith

In January 2003, we published a report comparing the processing performance of the Mac and the PC in pro digital photography. At that time, a single processor Pentium 4 PC was shown to be considerably quicker at a variety of tasks than a dual processor G4 Mac.

It's now a year later, and a lot has changed in the Mac world: Apple has moved its Power Mac desktop line to the G5, a much more powerful processor than the one it replaces. The company has also released OS X 10.3, a sweeping revision to the operating system driving modern computers from Apple. It has been 12 months of solid progress for the Mac folks.

Meanwhile, all of the RAW file processing, image editing and photo cataloging applications that comprised the performance testing last year have been updated at least once, while new applications have emerged as well. Nothing stops the march of application software introductions and updates, and the year 2003 was no exception.

photoshop_camera_raw_2.jpg
The Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in was introduced in 2003

By comparison, the mainstream PC's year was a little slower paced, at least when the measure is operating system revisions or processing horsepower increases that benefit pro digital photographers. Windows XP Home and Pro offered largely the same set of features in December 2003 as they did in January 2003. Similarly, the year began with the Pentium 4 processor ticking along at 3.06GHz, and it ended with the P4 only a hair quicker at 3.2GHz.

The geekiest among you will have noted that there were other speed-enhancing improvements in the architecture around the Intel processor, including a faster frontside bus, faster RAM and, in the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, a larger L3 cache. Plus, dual processor Intel Xeon machines also reached the 3.2GHz mark, the speedy yet power-efficient Pentium M processor for laptops was released and AMD began to deliver its 64-bit Athlon processor lines.

This flurry of activity, however, added up to only small performance gains for pro digital photography tasks, at least when measured against the heady performance bump on the Mac side. In fact, the combination of a big leap forward in processing power on the Mac desktop, the emergence of RAW file processing software better tuned for the Mac architecture and relatively modest horsepower increases for the Windows crowd meant there was the real possibility that the Mac closed the performance gap last year.

Given this possibility - plus the opportunity to correct an injustice we'd done to the PC by not including a dual processor computer running Windows last time out - we set out to see whether, as 2004 gets underway, the computing landscape has changed for pro digital photographers, at least in the area of processing performance.

To that end, we gathered four of the fastest Mac and PC desktop computers available, loaded them up with pro digital photography software and got to work. The results of our efforts are on the pages ahead.

Interpreting the Results

  • As you read the results, remember that the speed at which a computer completes a task is only one factor in the computer selection process. But, for any photographer trying to create an efficient workflow, speed of processing is critical.

  • We configured each program's processing parameters in a manner that was best suited to that program's capabilities and workflow. This meant that, for example, noise reduction and sharpening was switched on in Phase One's C1 Pro, while the same functions were switched off in most other programs that have them. As a result, comparing processing times between different programs isn't a good idea, though of course comparing processing times for the same program across the four computers is not only a good idea, it's the object of the exercise.

  • To learn more about the rationale behind these tests, as well as to learn how the Mac and PC fared a year ago, see In pro digital photography, megahertz matters. Because so much has changed in the software tested, it's unwise in most cases to make too many direct comparisons between this report and the one published in January 2003. Having said that, there are general trends worth noting, including the fact that the Mac got a lot faster in the last year.

  • This report focuses on RAW file processing performance primarily, and the processing prowess of Mac and PC computers for pro digital photography generally. This is not a report on processor architecture, processor potential or the broader processing capabilities of the hardware available for the two platforms. If you don't use the applications or perform the tasks benchmarked in this report, then it's likely that the information here isn't relevant to how you use a computer.

Thanks to Gary Voth for his assistance in the preparation of this report. Testing assisted by Megan Somerville.

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