Monday, December 27, 2010

Dell Precision M6400 and photography

The proper title should be "Dell Precision M6400 and a Leica M9, Phase One P45+ and Canon 1DsIII" but that's just a bit too long.

I'm probably not your "normal" photographer in that I choose not to use an Mac for my work. Don't get me wrong, I did use one several years ago however I've used PC's much longer and when the time came to upgrade computers I chose to return to a PC - warts and all. The studio computer which I've had for several years is a Dell Precision 690 with 32GB RAM, 2-video cards supporting 4 monitors, as well as 4-internal hard drives and 2-Drobos totally close to 12 terabits of storage. I wanted a laptop that would hold its own while on the road and when I replaced my reviously underpowered laptop I decided to go all in and ordered the Precision Workstation M6400. I've been using the 690 now since August 2006 and the 6400 for close to a year (ordered February 2009); both computers have far exceeded my expectations.

I use 2-cameras producing large files with every image and Sandy's 1DsIII that produces a slight smaller file. I also shoot multiple images that are either stacked one on top of another to achieve focus or stitched together for a panorama, either of these techniques often produce files larger than 1.5GB. My normal workflow is to download all the images from the day each night saving them on 2-separate external hard drives. I then open the images on one of the drives to ensure I achieved what I was after and do anywhere from slight to through processing; there's nothing worse than having 4-images all taken with a slightly different focal point thinking that it's going to be okay only to find you goofed when you're 1,000 miles away. Thus you need just as good equipment after the image is captured as what you used to capture it in the first place; I needed a laptop that was as close as possible to my studio computer.

I had originally ordered the M6400 with 1-drive and 8GB RAM knowing I'd grow into it. I quickly added a second drive and left it in that configuration until just recently. I've also been using a set of Western Digital USB Passports 250GB external drives for temporary storage. The main problem with standard external drives are that they are usually slow drives spinning around 5400 and connected using USB. The external drives can and have caused bottlenecks while attempting to process images on the road. That's changed.

I've just finished tweaking the M6400 to it's fullest potential as well as the external drives. Going to I upgraded the RAM to max out at 16GB at the same time swapping the OS drive for a Crucial 250GB SSD. The original thought was to also change the 2nd drive out as well however that proved to be impossible as the connections wouldn't line up properly so I've kept that drive the same. What I've done is taken the 2nd SSD I bought for this upgrade and placed it into a Macally PHR-S250CC Firewire-400/USB 2.0 external drive. I chose the Macally because it has 2-firewire ports that allow for multiple drives to be daisy chained (the M6400 as a single 6-pin port). I've daisy chained the four external drives together and have more than enough storage and speed while on the road.

Bottom line is that I have a kickass (yes that's a technical term) road system that allows me to work on images on the fly thus letting me know that I got what I wanted or more importantly if I need to reshoot. While the entire retrofit was expensive it's not as expensive as if I lost an image.

This is what's been added or changed or replaced:
• 16GB RAM
• 1-250GB SSD internal (it now takes less than 30 seconds to boot and CS5 and C1 Pro are much faster)
• 1-250GB SSD external firewire drive
• 2-300GB external firewire drives
• 1-128GB SSD external drive that I had laying around that will be used for video storage.

This entire system rocks! I've gone to Dell recently and see the replacement to the M6400 is the new M6500 with up to 32GB RAM! I thought the 6400 was fast. It looks like laptops will have more and more RAM in the future; no wonder Dells calls these mobile workstations.

Just a minor point of irritation... After cloning the OS drive onto the new SSD drive I of course opened my primary imaging software, Capture One 5 Pro and CS5. While both programs opened much faster than they had before, I had a slight problem with one of my plug-ins namely Nik Viveza 2. Viveza 2 thought it was running on a trail basis and when I entered the product code it kept bouncing an error message. Not a great thing to happen right before Christmas. I contacted support at Nik and 5 days later got an answer that included a link for a patch that fixed a "known issue on some computers". I'm pleased to say that I just reinstalled Viveza 2 along with the patch and all seems to be working as it should. Two notes here; I run everything in a 64 bit environment and my other Nik plug-in Silver Efex Pro caused no problems whatsoever. I plan on obtaining a trial of HDR Efex Pro early next year and hope to be able to report on that.

Thanks as always for letting me share.

Happy Holidays to all


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