Mac Mini: all you need to upgrade from PC for $499!
Note: I wrote this back in 2006. Today, in 2007, most of this page is out of date and most of the links have dried up and blown away. Luckily, since in 2007 I personally still use Apple's crummiest laptop from 2003, anything you can get from Apple today is more than enough for photography and web design and everything. Just be sure to get all the RAM and the biggest optional hard drive you can, and be happy! Processor speed hasn't been relevant for a long time.
Likewise, even though as of 2006 I use a hulking Quad G5 and 30" monitor at home, any of today's Mac desktops, from the Mac Mini and up, is all you really need. Just max out the RAM and hard drive. Buying more computer lets you get more done a little faster, but any of them works great. See also "Is It Worth It?"
I work on my computer all day. I'm usually running email, many pages of web browser, a text editor, iView (a photo sorting program), Photoshop CS2 and Dreamweaver (a website making program) all at the same time. I usually have about 15 windows open at once!
For this you want as much RAM (memory) as you can afford. Having enough RAM is more important than how many GHz it's rated.
Guess what? I do this all on Apple's cheapest plastic 12" Apple iBook G4 laptop. It's two years old and only rated at 800MHz (0.8 GHz). Today's cheapest Apples, like the $499 Mac Mini above, are twice as fast as what I have. Of course I have 1.12GB of RAM, the maximum possible, in my iBook.
iBook: The $999 laptop from which this website comes.
Having a fancy computer is a luxury, not a necessity. Buy a better Mac if you want, especially if you have 300MB files from a 4 x 5 camera to process, but you don't need it even for the highest resolution digital cameras. Film scans need some horsepower to process, but even 20 Megapixel digital camera files are trivial.
I'm amazed at how I run so many things at once with my little laptop. I usually use it on a desk 90% of the time and on my lap 10% of the time.
When on my desk I connect a CF card reader, two Casio digital camera stands, three scanners, a printer, an external keyboard, monitor and mouse, another external CD recorder and an external DVD/CD recorder as well as a couple of Firewire hard drives, all at the same time, in addition to the drives inside the iBook!
All this stuff just works as soon as you plug it in. I use a 7-port USB hub and daisy-chain the Firewire items. When I come home I just plug in the power, one USB and maybe one Firewire plug and I'm done. Someone on windows would still be trying to set jumpers on just one new hard drive.
Today you can get a much better laptop than mine for $999 here. Even better, I see a $100 rebate at Amazon. 2 years ago I had to special order the wireless card, extra-large hard drive and more RAM. Today this version is twice as fast and includes all that I had to special order. More about RAM is on the next page.
Mac vs. PC
I prefer Mac. This is a personal issue like religion and politics. I have a page on Why Pros Use Mac. If you're considering throwing more money at windows I'd strongly suggest you step up to Mac as I did. It's not expensive: A $499 Mac Mini is a lot better than anything I own. All you do is plug your existing monitor, keyboard and mouse into this hamburger-sized wonder and you're set. It's easy to pick out a good Mac, and a minefield trying to guess what windows PC is good enough. That's why the only advice I offer on windows PCs is to make the ultimate upgrade to Mac. Of course you'll need to have your programs in Mac versions; check your software packages to see if you already have them.
Once you go Mac you don't have to upgrade hardware continuously. I still use my five year old PowerMac desktop which works better than when I bought it.
How Much Computer Do You Need?
When asking yourself how much computer you need, ask how much computer you actually use. How much do you do at one time? I'm crazy and have a brain which allows me to be working in several programs all day long as I read my email, do photography and expand this website, all at the same time. You need a lot of computer for all this, or at least a lot of RAM.
Normal people only do one or two things at a time, like read their email or play on the internet or work in Photoshop. If you only do one thing at a time it's much easier for the computer, and you'll probably get along fine with whatever your Mac has standard. You always can add RAM later.
Digital camera files are easy to process in Photoshop, even from the most exotic digital cameras. You want about three or four times as much RAM as you have MB of file size. Even an $8,000 Canon 1Ds MkII can't break 20 megapixels, which would result in files smaller then 60 MB. (There's three bytes, one each for R and G and B, for each pixel.) 60 MB x 4 is less than 256 MB, which is about as little RAM as you can get today. Digital camera makers try to impress you that you're getting a lot of resolution for the many thousands of dollars you give them for cameras, but in fact these images are puny in the broader scale of photography.
I work with scanned film images. You probably don't. A 35 mm slide scanned at 5,400 DPI on a $570 Minolta 5400-II scanner gives a 42 megapixel image which is almost a 128 MB file. To play with these you'll want 512MB of RAM.
I work with larger formats of film. You probably don't. I get over 100 Megapixels (300 MB files) from my 4 x 5 film scans, and they work fine on my iBook. At these file sizes and above you (or I) tend to want a more powerful computer with over 1GB of RAM. The latest 15" and 17" Mac PowerBook laptops can take 2GB of RAM and the latest PowerMacs can handle 16 GB of RAM.
PhotoShop CS2 can use up to 8GB of RAM just for itself on OS 10.3 and newer. Adobe has a page with all this and more here.
Of course these PhotoShop estimates are just how much RAM you need to make PhotoShop happy. The computer needs more RAM to run itself, and any other programs running at the same time need more RAM, too.
You can check how much RAM your computer is using right now by going to FINDER and then starting the program at APPLICATIONS > UTILITITES > ACTIVITY MONITOR. Click SYSTEM MEMORY in Activity Monitor's window and you'll see a pie chart. If you have a lot of green ("Free," or unused memory) you have plenty, if you have just a sliver of free memory you're computer will probably be happier with more.
NEXT > > OPTIONS, MEMORY AND HARD DRIVES