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Building a Photo-Editing Computer on the Cheap

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Having returned to photography after a lay-off of some years, I had discovered a whole new world, where, among other things, computers had largely replaced darkrooms. It soon became apparent that my Windows 10 laptop was sadly underrated for the tasks required. I began to research alternatives.

I fairly quickly decided that while a top of the line laptop could probably do the job, there were still limitations, not least the price. Going back to a desktop tower computer configuration made more and more sense. Also, I negotiated the commandeering of a closet that was fortuitously suitable for a digital photo set up. Back into the closet — just like my darkrooms of earlier years!

Determining Desired Specs

I spent a lot of time on the Internet studying what would be the characteristics of a desirable computer. There was no question it would be a Windows 10 machine, far and away the best choice for the combination of cost and compatibility with a large number of post-processing programs. I came up with a list of desired minimum specifications:

  • Windows 10 Professional Operating System
  • Intel i7 processor, 4 cores
  • 16 gigs of RAM
  • Decent Graphics Card
  • Terabyte of Storage

Further desirable options would be:

1. A solid-state drive (SSD) at least large enough for booting and start-up for programs. 256 gigs would serve nicely.

2. An additional 16 gigs of RAM bringing the total to 32 gigs.

And these additional options would require at the least that the computer could easily accept more RAM.

Searching for the Right Computer

I started looking for suitable computers. At first, a box that would meet my needs seemed easy to find — tower computers designed for home and office, and starting around $800 and heading north. But, these computers did not include a graphics card up to the task.

A graphics card suitable for a higher resolution monitor used for still photography and normal video would add somewhere from $130 and up. And, problematically, such a card would likely require at least 100 watts, probably more. But, careful checking of specification sheets demonstrated that the packaged computers from the big name companies had nowhere near that much reserve power.

It quickly became apparent that what I really wanted was a gaming computer. These machines featured everything I wanted: blazing speed, loads of memory and terrific graphics capability. And stiff pricing of $2,000 and up. Sigh.

I started looking at used and refurbished computers on eBay. One caught my eye: the Dell Optiplex 9010, being offered refurbished with 30-day return privilege, with Windows 10 Professional, an i7 processor running at 3.4 GHz and with 4 cores, 16 gigs of installed RAM and a 500-gigabyte new hard drive. It also included two optical drives — a read-only DVD drive and a read/write DVD drive. And the price: $260 delivered!

The seller, the Blind Center of Nevada, has an excellent eBay rating. Computers being retired are donated to them, but with the original hard drive held back and destroyed. They refurbish the computers, add a newer hard drive with Windows 10 Professional, test them and sell them for attractive prices. They were not the only vendor offering refurbished Optiplex 9010 computers but their offering seemed like the best value. (Note that there a number of refurbishers who offer the Optiplex 9010 through eBay, Amazon, Walmart, NewEgg, etc. Be sure to shop around.)

Anyhow, this was looking more and more like a viable solution. The Optiplex line has always been Dell’s front line business model, for which reliability was and is an important design criterion. Other than a burp around 2004, the product line has met reliability expectations.

The computer so offered did NOT include a keyboard or a mouse. But since I had a USB mouse and keyboard from an earlier computer that was not a problem. Also, the computer did not have a wireless interface for Wi-Fi. It did, however, include an Ethernet jack, plus 6 USB 2 and 4 USB 3 connectors. I found I could purchase on eBay a wireless USB adapter dongle for less than $7, which I ordered immediately.

The computer also did not include a card reader. After all, this computer was designed to be a serious office computer or work station, not a consumer model. Again, USB card readers from slow to fast are readily available on eBay and elsewhere from less than $10 to over $100.

I wanted a larger hard drive, but 500 gigs would serve me for quite a while. And more on that subject later in this article.

I started doing further research. One YouTube video, in particular, showed how the presenter upgraded the exact computer into a pretty decent gaming machine.

It is a major resource for this article. This video answered a lot of my questions quickly and became a major guide for my upgrading. Now convinced that I could accomplish what I wanted, I ordered the computer.

If you decide to follow closely in my footsteps, you should understand that the Dell Optiplex 9010 is available in several different configurations. The one I selected is the Dell Tower version.

If you choose to purchase a different configuration, you need to understand that it may well not be as easy to upgrade; indeed it may well be impossible.

Also, it is important to note that the 9010 family was available with a choice of Intel i3, i5 or i7 processors. The i7 is far and away the most powerful, which you will certainly want for graphics processing. Yet, surprisingly, the pricing differential is not that great. Insist on an i7.

I knew I would need to add a video graphics card and a beefed up power supply. I already knew a 450-watt Antec VP450 supply that would fit and, as specified in the above-referenced video, would cost about $37 on Amazon. And this supply would give me somewhere between 200 and 250 watts of reserve for a graphics card.

A week later, the computer arrived, well packed. The appearance was excellent — obviously not new, but clean and very acceptable. I put it on a table, attached an old VGA monitor, a keyboard and a mouse and fired it up. It booted up beautifully. I attached the wireless dongle and immediately had internet, once I was registered. I went to “Control Panel”, accessed the system page under “System and Security” and verified that the computer was what I ordered. It was.

Being well aware that this is a used computer, and with a 30-day return privilege, I was determined to rigorously test it. First, I ran the computer non-stop for three days, during which time it updated Windows 10 and also the Windows Defender virus definitions. Everything continued to operate flawlessly. Next, for three more days, I turned the computer on and let it run for an hour, then shut down, then an hour later turned it back on. I did this as convenient over a period of another three days. Again, the computer passed with flying colors.

While engaging in the run-in testing, I studied my options for a graphics card. Long story short, I ended up ordering from Amazon a Gigabyte GeForce 1050 card (GV-N1050OC-2GD) with 2 gigs of memory. The cost was $130.

While not the fastest card in the world it seemed, and later proved, to be everything I needed and more, and with a very low power draw, less than 100 watts.

It is worth noting here that there are other power supplies and other graphics cards available that will work fine in this computer. BUT! It is important that you confirm that they will fit! The length of both the power supply and the graphics card are important — there is only so much room available. (The video also covers this subject.)

Having satisfied myself that the computer was performing flawlessly, I unplugged everything, I laid it on its side, swallowed hard, grounded myself, broke the supplier’s seal and opened the computer, as per the video. I was immediately impressed with how clean the inside of the computer was. It looked like a brand new computer, not one manufactured around 2012.

Changing out the power supply proved to not be difficult. As per the video, I unplugged the cables from the original supply, then removed the 4 screws holding the supply to the computer case, and slid it forward and out. It is a good idea to make notes of where the cables were, and perhaps take a photo or two on a smartphone or camera.

Once the original supply is out, put the new supply in, replace and tighten the screws.

The new Antec VP450 supply came out of its box with many more cables than the original Dell supply. This was not a surprise, considering the Dell supply was purpose-built for the 9010, whereas the Antec supply was intended to be as universal as possible. Generally speaking, if one of the cables from the power supply will fit the power input connector for one of the 9010 components, it is safe and appropriate to use it. All connectors are keyed so that you can only plug them in one way — you can not plug one in backward. But there is one exception to this: the motherboard power connector does not exactly match the connector from the power supply!

It seems there were two different power connectors for standardized motherboards. One uses 20 pins, the other uses 24 pins. The 9010 uses 24 pins. The upgrade video does NOT explain this. The Antec supply uses a simple cure for the problem: they made the motherboard connector so that it accepts an additional mating connector adding the additional 4 pins making it work for the 9010. The additional mating connector is in the same cable bundle as the 20 pin connector does, and you will see that they can nest together and line up to offer 24 pins. If you watch the video closely you will see that the demonstrator does exactly that but without comment. The Antec manual, which must be downloaded from the Web, explains this… sort of. But you will see it when you get there and then it makes sense.

Anyhow, once I had attached power to all the connectors the original supply was hooked to, I tidied up the extra cables, tying them together with cable ties left from an earlier project. I can not tell you everything was neat, but the cables were tied off and out of the way. Then I replaced the cover, reattached the monitor, put the power cord into the new supply, turned the monitor back on, and then came the moment of truth. I pressed the power button on the computer and… nothing happened. As I began to panic, a quick thought occurred. I went to the back of the computer and pushed the rocker switch on the back of the new supply the other way, then tried the computer power button on the front again. And voila! The computer booted just fine, and I heaved a sigh of relief. All was well.

My next step was to install the video card. As the video shows, there is a blue accessory slot near the left end of the accessory slot bank. Actually, installing the card was very easy, once I had removed the two slot covers from the back, and removed the rubber foot protecting the graphics card connector pins. You have to get slightly physical to push the card down into the slot, but don’t force it! Everything should come together nicely. The Gigabyte card I had selected does not need an additional power connector as some cards do.

That done, I closed up the computer, attached my new graphics monitor, of which I’ll discuss later, and fired it up again. The computer booted, but the resolution on the monitor was terrible. I went to the Gigabyte site on the internet, and found and downloaded the correct drivers for the card for Windows 10 and installed them. I do not recall whether I had to reboot the computer after driver installation or not, but shortly everything was working properly, and with beautiful resolution and color.

That completed the first phase of the project, and as far as I am concerned it was very successful. I was now sporting a powerful computer that, though not state of the art, is not all that far behind either. Post-processing programs run beautifully on it. Windows 10 is an elegant operating system that supports everything very well. And, for what it is worth, this article is being written on the system. The best news is the price: At this point, I had $445 invested in it, excluding the monitor, but including the Wi-Fi dongle and a cheapie card reader that works fine.

I have a powerful computer that I am delighted with. What are the downsides I see? OK. Let’s face it: at the time of this writing, we are talking about a computer that is as much as 7 years old. There is no support for it. But again, any computer more than a year old likely has no significant support either. The 9010 was Dell’s front line business computer and they made many, many thousands of them.

What skill level is required to follow my path? My feeling is if you feel competent to change a light switch in your home you can manage this. You should have at least a modest understanding of your way around the Windows operating system.

Of course, the Dell 9010 is hardly the only available option for such treatment. Other front line computer makers also offered comparable systems and are worthy of consideration if the price is right. If looking at a different box, do make sure it will accept a more powerful power supply, that it will accept a graphics card, and that it either includes or can accept at least 16 gigs of RAM. I would certainly suggest you demand an i7 processor or the AMD equivalent. YouTube videos will almost certainly be available to help you if needed. Check first!

Adding a Solid State Drive

Once you have owned or used a computer with a solid state drive, you will never be happy booting a computer from anything else. A typical Windows 10 computer will boot in a fraction of a minute — not the five minutes or so that means you start the computer and then go get a cup of coffee. And, the price of solid state drives has plunged in the last year. As I write this, a quality 240 gig solid state SATA drive is going for $30.

The trick with these drives is to make them bootable. There are a number of ways to try to do this that are free. Sadly, my personal experience is that none of those methods worked for me. (My first experience of this was converting a laptop to a solid state drive.) Finally, in desperation, I spent $25 to purchase an Apricorn USB to SATA adapter from Amazon.

It showed up two days later — the adapter and the software needed — and an hour later I was smiling from ear to ear. I have since used it about 6 times making friends’ SSDs bootable and with never an error. Buy one and keep it — it will serve you for years. Just always check their website before each use to make sure you have the current software.

In purchasing an SSD you want to plan a little for it. SSDs do not last forever — every time you change the data, the bytes involved lose a tiny fraction of their life expectancy. The devices have some very clever software built in that spreads the usage out to maximize their life. Basically, if you never load the drive to more than about 60% of their capacity they will last for many years. The closer you get to 100% utilization the faster their life expectancy plummets. So, what you want to do is have your SSD be the boot drive, plus put all your operating programs on the SSD, and then all data files, pictures, etc. on a separate hard drive. The SSD becomes Drive C, the Hard drive becomes drive D.

So purchase first the SSD you desire as well as the Apricorn adapter. Load the Apricorn software on your hard drive, having checked their web site to see that it is the latest. Run the program. It will walk you through the steps needed. In perhaps half an hour, the SSD drive will be ready to go.

There are two ways you can physically mount the SSD into your 9010. The simple way, which is easily and entirely reversible, is to procure some sort of Velcro-type system. I bought a 3M substitute at Walmart for $3.

Turn off the computer and remove cables as needed. If you have the room to lay the computer on its side you don’t really need to remove most of the cables. For safety’s sake, however, you most certainly should remove or unplug the power cord. You will find the Hard Drive bay at the opposite corner of the corner from the power supply. Unplug the two cable sets — one goes to the power supply, the other to the motherboard, which is the data cable.

Squeeze the two blue handles of the hard drive caddy and lift it out, and set it aside. Now, attach the power cable and the data cable to the SSD. Put the SSD into the hard drive bay, figure out where to attach it to the wall, then apply the Velcro or substitute and thus attach it to the wall. It will probably be easier to temporarily remove the power and data cables to do this, once you have figured out the best location. If so, now replace the cables, close up the computer, re-attach cables and power up. You should be absolutely delighted with the speedy boot.

The original Hard Drive should be carefully placed in a protective bag, labeled and stored. If for any reason you have a boot failure or SSD failure, you can always put the original hard drive back into the computer and go from there.

The other method of mounting the SSD is well described in the above-referenced video, so is not covered in depth here. Suffice it to say it is the more elegant approach. But for a home user, the Velcro approach is entirely adequate and easier, cheaper, and quicker.

Adding a Large Capacity Hard Drive

As stated above, it is a very good practice to not utilize an SSD at full capacity. Plus, the storage of a lot of pictures can and will take up a lot of memory. I could have utilized the 500-gig hard drive supplied with the computer as a second drive, but for one thing, I wanted to save it as my boot-device back-up, and for another, I wanted rather more capacity. Back to eBay!

I fairly quickly found what looked to be a real bargain: a 3 terabyte SATA drive, new, for $50 post paid, from eBay advertiser GoHardDrive. Wow! I read the fine print carefully. The brand of the drive was not given, only that it was a “White label” Enterprise Drive. User comments said that the drive was made by Hitachi, a respected supplier. So what the heck is an Enterprise Drive? A little search engine research gave me answers: it is a drive intended for server farms — i.e. The Cloud. Some comments suggested that Enterprise drives are not as reliable as consumer-oriented drives, which, however, cost rather more for the same capacity.

I thought about this. I would have a back-up for the data, right? Be it on premises or in the cloud, anything you value must be backed up. That was good enough for me. I ordered the drive.

At the same time, I ordered another hard drive caddy for the 9010 from an eBay supplier, being careful to select a USA source, since I wanted the caddy quickly. And, as suggested in the video, I ordered a right-angle SATA data cable.

All arrived within a matter of days, and once in hand, I installed the new hard drive. I looked at the original hard drive, still in its caddy, to figure out how to mount the drive into the “new” caddy, which turned out to be simple once I figured it out. I unplugged the computer, placed it on its side, and removed the cover. The caddy with the new drive dropped easily into the empty drive bay. I found another power cable with the appropriate connector from the bundle of unused cables from the power supply and attached that. I followed the SATA data cable from the SSD to the motherboard and saw the rest of the SATA inputs. There was one vacant socket left. I plugged the new SATA cable into that and the opposite end into the new drive, closed up the computer, and powered it back up.

Hmmm. Windows Explorer showed no sign of the drive. Then, fortuitously, I remembered the note on the hard drive invoice: “You will need to format the drive before it can be seen on your computer.” Okay…

A brief exploration of the internet gave easy directions to do this. You are taken to “Disk Management”, where you will find the new drive is listed, then directed to partition and format the new drive. The actual process of doing so takes rather less time than researching it.

I chose to add no partitions to the drive. And, I designated it to be drive “D”.

And it was done. It was still necessary to tell a number of my programs that data was to be stored on Drive “D”. Also, I entered the “Power Management” profile and set the hard drive to switch off after 10 minutes of not being used. It is my hope that this will greatly extend the life of the drive.

And that concludes this portion of the article. Actually, I have now set up two identical computers as per above, both purchased from the same sources, one in service with a friend. While not quite state of the art, they are powerful computers that should serve well into the future. I did consider adding more RAM memory, to go from 16 gigs to 32 gigs, but I have not yet seen a situation where I believe the added Ram would have given me greater performance. If I do decide to add more RAM later, it is a simple matter to install it.

I did add one other item that has been a very nice addition: a backlit keyboard that uses real key switches. I got it from Amazon — it is an Eagletec KG010 Mechanical Keyboard, USB Wired for $40. It took a little getting used to but I love it. It is a great tool for writing.

So. Now I have a fine computer for post-processing. But what about a monitor? Of course, that is a separate story. I did the usual internet research for what constituted a good monitor for photo post-processing. After some research, I had developed a listing of suitable monitors from several different manufacturers. I took that list and checked the usual sources. I was willing to consider a used model if the provenance sounded right.

Again, long story short, I purchased a BenQ PD2700Q 27″ 1440p Designer Monitor refurbished, directly from BenQ. The monitor was listed on eBay for $236. All I can say is that if this monitor was ever out before refurbishment, I could never tell. It seems perfect in every way, not least including no apparent bad pixels. The color is beautiful and I am delighted with it — it is a very fine match for my computer. It was designed for photo editing and works beautifully for that. Today the world is moving towards 4K video and higher, with higher resolution in video monitors. But the BenQ 27″ works for me. The computer video card will indeed support higher resolution monitors but I have no present plans to update.

I hope this article will encourage others to try my path. I figure my frugality has saved me at least $1,000 which can and will be applied to new photo gear.

Please note that I have absolutely no financial connection with any of the suppliers referenced. I get no royalty or commission. Happily, and without exception, everything I ordered has performed as expected, to my pleasure. And this article was written on the computer this story is about. Cheers!


Update on 7/11/19: I just upgraded another Optiplex 9010 computer for a friend. We ordered another Antec VP450 power supply, and to our surprise instead received an Antec VP550 Plus in its place. It appears the VP450 is discontinued in favor of the VP550 Plus.

We were very concerned whether it would fit or not, but careful measurements assured us it would and in fact it did. Installation proved to be trouble free as otherwise per the article above. Plus, we now had the bonus of an additional 100 watts reserve power.


About the author: Bob Locher certainly makes no claim to being a great photographer; rather, he considers himself to not be a very good one. He is not much of a speaker either, and does not have his own YouTube Channel, nor does he do Photographic Tours. But, he has been in the photographic hardware industry most of his life, fancies himself as something of a writer, has opinions and is not afraid to express them. He loves photography, values technical quality and is indeed a pixel-peeper. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Locher has written over 50 magazine articles as well as two books. You can find more of his work and writing on his website.

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