What gets Photoshop cooking?

Adobe Photoshop has been the app of choice for several generations of image editors. Tweaking its performance is a hobby for some, but what practices can really make a difference? Adobe engineers spill the details.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Adobe Photoshop has been the app of choice for several generations of image editors. Tweaking its performance is a hobby for some, but what practices can really make a difference?

Adobe blogger John Nack recently posted notes from the performance tuning presentation offered at Photoshop World by Photoshop co-architect Russell Williams and Adam Jerugim, the performance testing lead. This presentation is an annual event and filled with interesting tidbits. The PDF presentation is here.

The presentation offers advice on how to go about testing your system and workflow as well as some general tips about performance improvements.

Of course, monitoring CPU performance with Activity Monitor is an important first step. It's useful to find things that might be taking away CPU cycles from your image crunching.

For example, why do usually sensible graphics pros insist upon running memory-hogging applications, such as browsers (they are all bad) and iTunes (or QuickTime Player)? Turn them off!

But there can be hidden junk on a machine running in the background. The presentation said that Mac users were much better off on this front than Windows users:

Applies to Windows users a bit more – Macintoshes don’t seem to suffer the gradual performance decline that XP seems to. Vista isn’t supposed to either. And so many Windows machines come with junk now.

Most of us engineers do a fresh OS install on any new machine. We start from a known state and control what gets installed. At least scan Add/Remove programs on a new machine and remove anything you don’t think you’ll need.

Be careful about what you install. In theory, an uninstall cleans things up – but it doesn’t usually work that way on Windows. Mac users are in good shape here. On Windows, scan through Add/Remove Programs (Vista: Programs...) once a month or so to see what things you really didn’t use or need and remove them.

The engineers suggested that Mac users look occasionally at /System/Library/Startup to make sure nothing unwanted has been added.

For most users, two cores in a system is sufficient. But it depends on your workflow.

Going over 2 cores in a system has diminishing returns. It won’t hurt, but it won’t help as much as you might think. This goes back to the speed of processors versus the bandwidth of memory. Of course, if you do radial blurs all day, more cores will almost always help. Don’t avoid getting more, of course, there just may be better ways of spending your machine budget.

In addition, the presentation pointed to a test created by RetouchArtists.com that you can download and then benchmark your system against other Photoshop users.

After weeks of research and many hours of consultation with fellow creative professionals we have designed, built and tested an action that runs a mixture or real world operations. This enables you to test your systems efficiency against other machines, which allows you to optimize your machine for the fastest Photoshop results. It is also a helpful tool for creative professionals looking to upgrade their systems, letting them compare Photoshop speeds with possible system purchases.

Here are a few more tidbits from the presentation:

Storage. One item that popped out were the performance gains from running a RAID O (striped) SATA box with smaller-capacity fast disks. The speed graphs were convincing.

The engineers also mentioned that a hard drive only has one read-write head and if there are multiple applications trying to read or write at the time, that can hurt performance. Another reason to kill unnecessary tasks. VM Buffering. Photoshop users can sometimes find solid performance gains by forcing virtual memory buffering, which is accomplished by a plug-in. This forcing is needed if you're still running Mac OS X 10.4.x Tiger — Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard comes with the VM buffering turned on.

You can turn it off however, with another plug-in.

Vista. Another reason to wait on Vista. The slides showed that the 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista perform almost identically. Vista scored just a hair better on the same machine.

Still, the presenters suggested that Windows users move to Vista x64 as long as there are drivers for everything in the workflow.

BTW: Big Fat Brain's hilarious (and educational) series You Suck at Photoshop won a Webby. If you've never seen the videos, you will enjoy them, even if you're not a Photoshop maven.

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