Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Plugged In: Get video carded for better digital photo use

Digital photography and desktop computing are fraternal twins. They’re not exactly alike but have a lot in common.

Decent digital photography requires some pretty heavy-duty computing and desktop printing power. At the same time, digital photography and videography add a great deal of clarity, power and persuasiveness to presentations and written documents.

Readers of previous columns will recall my view that getting a really fast, expensive video card is an unnecessary expense for most consumers. However, if you plan to use your computer for digital photography, then you should consider getting a Photoshop-compatible video card with at least 512 megabytes of memory installed directly on the video card. Digital photographers should avoid video cards that share memory with the overall computer and operating system.

Here’s why a video card is becoming so important to serious digital photographers and technical users, like engineers. Processing digital photographs, engineering drawings and other technical files demands a great deal of graphics manipulation and computing power.

A general-purpose CPU is not optimized for the sort of intense graphical processing required to process these high megapixel digital images. Even though the several most recent versions of Adobe’s industry standard digital photo programs — Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Photoshop Lightroom — can recognize and use dual or quad core CPUs, they still tend to bog down when processing big images and large technical files. Upgrading system memory to at least 2 gigabytes DRAM and installing a very fast hard disk and a quad core processor helps reduce long processing times, but it’s still not quite enough.

There is another solution that happens to be fairly easy and inexpensive to implement. Starting with the very recent Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe now uses the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) found on high-end video cards to reduce Photoshop’s processing times. GPUs are optimized for precisely the sorts of demands made by Photoshop. Recent high-end GPUs are actually very fast computer cores that specialize in graphics manipulation, where general-purpose CPU processors fall behind.

Replacing an older video card with a new, higher-end video processor is not very difficult or expensive. It’s probably one of the best ways to upgrade a computer used for digital imaging.

Remember, though, that GPU processing only works with the most recent versions of Photoshop CS4, Photoshop Elements 7 and Lightroom 2.2. Older versions of Photoshop programs will not see any improvement. GPU processing of Photoshop works with Mac OS 10.5.4 and 10.4.11, 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and 32-bit versions of Windows XP. The 64-bit version of Windows XP x64 is not supported. In addition, you’ll need to obtain and install the most recent Open GL 2.0 driver software for your new video card in Photoshop.

Not all video cards are suitable, though. To be supported, a video card can be any brand that is built around one of the supported GPU chipsets listed below, and the card must support Open GL 2.0. A current listing of supported GPU chipsets can be found by searching www.adobe.com. We recommend that you download the latest GPU chipset driver software from ATI and nVidia at these links: ATI video cards: www.ati.amd.com/support/driver.html ; nVidia video cards: www.nvidia.com/Download/index.aspx?lang=en-us.

Among the more common, high-end video GPU chipsets supported by Photoshop CS4 are:
  • nVidia geForce: nVidia 260 GTX 896MB, nVidia 9800 GTX 512MB, nVidia 9600 GT 512MB, nVidia 8800 GTX 768MB, nVidia 8800 GT 512MB, nVidia 8600M 256MB, nVidia 7900 GTX 512MB, nVidia 7900 GS 256MB, nVidia 7800 GTX 256MB, nVidia 7600 256MB, nVidia 6800 256MB.
  • nVidia Quadro: Quadro FX 4600 768 MB, Quadro FX 4500 512MB, Quadro FX 4400 512MB, Quadro FX 3700 512MB, Quadro FX 3500 256MB, Quadro FX 1700 512MB, Quadro FX 1500 256MB, Quadro FX 1400 -128MB, Quadro FX 570 -256MB, Quadro FX 370 256MB.
  • ATI Radeon: ATI Radeon 4850 512 MB, Radeon x3870 x2 512MB, Radeon x2900HD 512MB, ATI Radeon HD 2400 256MB, Radeon x1900XT 512MB, ATI Radeon x1800 - 512MB, Radeon x1800 256MB.
  • ATI Fire GL: ATI Fire GL 7700 512 MB, ATI Fire GL 7600 512 MB, Fire GL V7200 256MB, ATI Fire GL 5600 512MB, Fire GL V3600 256MB, Fire GL 3350 256 MB.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com, along with links to legal and community resources.

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