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Picking which CPU to use in your workstation can be an overwhelming task with literally hundreds of options to choose from. Should you use Intel or AMD? How much does the core count matter? Will an expensive CPU be worth the cost? Even for those that enjoy keeping up on the latest technology it can be daunting, which is why so many of our customers love that they can simply talk to our consultants about what they are doing, and we take care of figuring out what the best choice is for their unique workflow.
With the launch of the Intel Core X-10000 series and AMD Threadripper 3rd Gen processors, we now know how the latest and greatest CPUs from both brands perform in the real world. We already have several articles for these new CPUs that examine how they perform in applications like Photoshop and Lightroom Classic. However, these articles tend to dive pretty deep into the details which can make them a bit overwhelming for many readers.
In this post, we want to keep things less tech-heavy for those that do not have either the time or interest to closely following PC hardware. Being able to choose the right CPU is something that should be possible for anyone, no matter how much time they have invested in keeping up with the latest tech.
Currently, there are four main processor families that you should consider for a photography workstation:
- Intel Core 9th Gen (up to 8 cores, $499 max MSRP)
- Intel Core X-series (up to 18 cores, $979 max MSRP)
- AMD Ryzen (up to 16 cores, $749 max MSRP)
- AMD Ryzen Threadripper (up to 32 cores, $1,999 max MSRP)
While your overall budget is typically going to limit the number of CPU models you may be considering, since many of these product lines have overlapping price points you are still often left with a number of options to choose from. In addition, more expensive does not always mean faster, and in many cases, a more expensive CPU can results in worse performance.
In order to help you pick the right CPU, we will be going over some of our benchmark results to give you an idea of the relative performance between each of the latest CPU options. Then, in our Conclusion, we will discuss our recommendation for which CPU models to use for different workflows and budgets.
What does the CPU (processor) do?
In the theme of making this post approachable to everyone, we first wanted to have a brief discussion about what the CPU does – particularly in photography applications. In a nutshell, the CPU (or processor) is the most critical component when it comes to performance. We are starting to see more and more applications utilize the GPU (video card) to accelerate a limited number of individual tasks, but even in these cases, the CPU is still being used to at least some degree.
Within a CPU, there are several factors that determine how fast it is, but it can be simplified into two main specifications: core count and core frequency (speed). If you want this broken down into layman terms, we have a terrific video that explains them using a car analogy:
However, in addition to just the number of cores and frequency, there are a ton of other factors that affect the real-world performance of a processor. The amount of cache (similar to short-term memory), and even just the general architecture can make a huge difference when it comes to how the CPU actually performs. This is why it is especially inaccurate to use core count and frequency to compare between Intel and AMD CPUs – they are simply too different for a comparison like that to work.
So, if pure specs are not a reliable way to pick a CPU, what is? Honestly, that is why we spend the amount of time we do testing a plethora of processors in a range of applications. We have tried many different methods over the years, and in the end, actual performance benchmarks are the only reliable and accurate way we have found to determine how a specific CPU will compare to others.
Photoshop CPU Performance
A lot is going on in our performance charts below, so before getting into it we wanted to provide a key regarding the color scheme we used.
- Light blue = Intel consumer CPUs (9th Gen)
- Dark blue = Intel HEDT CPUs (X-10000 Series)
- Light red = AMD consumer CPUs (Ryzen 3rd Gen)
- Dark red = AMD HEDT CPUs (Threadripper 3rd Gen)
Photoshop isn't all that great at using a large number of cores, so there isn't much of a reason to use the more expensive Intel X-series or AMD Threadripper CPUs. Recent technology advances have made it so that higher core count CPUs are no longer much slower in these kinds of workloads, but in this case, you simply won't get much of a return on your investment.
In fact, what is amazing is that between the slowest and fastest CPUs we tested, there is less than a 10% difference in performance. What this means is that your choice of CPU will likely be dictated by the rest of your workflow, even if you spend the majority of your time in Photoshop.
Lightroom Classic CPU Performance
Unlike Photoshop, there is a lot of performance variation between different CPU models in Lightroom Classic. Luckily, choosing between Intel and AMD is at least and easy choice since AMD is the faster option across the board.
For many, this will make your choice of CPU pretty straight forward since you should simply get whatever the fastest AMD Ryzen or Threadripper CPU is that you can afford. However, if you scroll to the second and third charts, you will see that there is a bit of nuance here depending on whether you care about performance in active tasks like culling, or passive tasks like exporting.
If you don't need the best export performance, you can safely ignore the AMD Threadripper CPUs in their entirety. They are fine for tasks like scrolling through images and swapping between the various modules in Lightroom Classic, but they are no faster (or slightly slower) for these tasks than the more affordable Ryzen processors like the 3900X 12 Core or 3950X 16 Core.
On the other hand, if you regularly export a large number of images at a time, the AMD Threadripper 3960X 24 Core can significantly decrease export times. Compared to the AMD Ryzen 3950X 16 Core, the 3960X 24 Core is about 50% faster for these tasks, or more than 2x faster than the Intel Core i9 9900K. To put this into perspective, here are some theoretical export times you can expect with a few of these CPUs:
- Intel Core i9 9900K: 20 minutes
- Intel Core i9 10900X: 17 minutes
- AMD Ryzen 9 3950X: 14 minutes
- AMD Threadripper 3960X: 9.5 minutes
Oddly enough, the Threadripper 3970X 32 Core is actually slower than the 24 Core for unknown reasons, so while the 3960X 24 Core can be highly beneficial for some Lightroom Classic users, we do not recommend using the more expensive 3970X at this time.
What processor should you use for a Photography workstation?
At the moment, we recommend the AMD Ryzen 3rd Generation processors for a general Photography workstation. Depending on your budget, the Ryzen 7 3800X 8 Core, Ryzen 9 3900X 12 Core, and Ryzen 9 3950X 16 Core are all excellent choices that should be more than capable of even the most challenging photography workflows.
However, as is almost always the case, there are some times when a different CPU will make more sense:
Best CPU for processing large image sets in Lightroom Classic
The AMD Ryzen 3rd generation CPUs are still excellent for this, but if your budget allows for it you may consider upgrading to the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X 24 Core to speed up performance in tasks like exporting. For these kinds of passive tasks, the AMD Threadripper 3960X 24 Core is on average 50% faster than the Ryzen 3950X, although note that the Threadripper 3970X 32 Core is not any faster, so there is no reason to spend more money on that specific model.
Best CPU with Thunderbolt support
Thunderbolt is not something everyone needs, but if you own a number of Thunderbolt devices, you likely want to use a platform that has support for those devices. Unfortunately, no AMD platform has certified Thunderbolt support at this time which means you should use an Intel-based platform. ASRock has a few AMD motherboards that have their own un-certified implementation, but we highly recommend sticking with certified Thunderbolt solutions due to how finicky it can be on PC.
In this case, the Intel Core 9th Gen CPUs like the Core i7 9700K 8 Core and Core i9 9900K 8 Core are great all-around choices that are fairly affordable, and if you want to maximize performance for passive tasks like exporting, any of the Intel X-series CPUs will be slightly faster (and slightly more expensive). However, be aware that there is little performance difference between each of the X-series models in Lightroom Classic, so you may as well stick with the less expensive options like the Core i9 10900X 10 Core.
Hopefully, this post has helped you choose the right CPU for your photography workstation. Keep in mind that even with these recommendations, the exact right CPU for you may be different depending on the applications you use and what you do in those applications. If at all possible, we highly speaking with one of our technology consultants (425.458.0273 or [email protected]) if you are interested in purchasing a Puget Systems workstation as they can help you get the exact right system for both the work you do today, as well as what you hope to do in the future.