Linux box essentials

@betazoid’s new PC thread got me thinking.

1 What are the essentials for a Linux box for photography?
2 If you were to build one from scratch today, what would be the parts list?

When answering 2, keep 1 in mind. No splurging.

Have fun discussing!


It may depend upon which software you use. Since I am primarily a darktable user, OpenCL processing is an essential.
Additionally, budget is a constraint for almost everyone, so bang-for-buck is essential. After all, why spend more for a certain brand-name that is no more capable than another? That said, capability needs to be measured in terms of upgradability, too, for most, and here brand lock-in can be a significant concern.

My story with custom-building a Linux box in late 2017 for photography started with wanting to run darktable fast enough to be usable, with plenty of options and pathways for upgrading to higher spec. CPU-wise Intel processors were way more expensive than AMD. Moreover, at the time the AM4 socket was new, with the promise of many Ryzen architectures to use it for years to come. So I started with an A12 APU (4 compute cores, 8 graphics cores, supporting OpenCL), a single stick of 16GB DDR4 and a budget-priced Gigabyte board that nevertheless supported driving up to 3 monitors simultaneously. I repurposed an exisiting 500GB Samsung EVO850 SSD and use three existing flat-panel monitors of various ages and manufacturers. Again, existing mouse, keyboard, card reader.

More than 3 years later I have upgraded everything except the case.

To go back to the original question, what are the essentials?

  1. case and power supply. Repurposing existing is fine. 500W PSU is a good place to start.
  2. keyboard and mouse, card reader. A good card reader can make a huge difference to download speeds - I can recommend very highly the UGreen USB3 reader which significantly outperforms the Verbatim one I also have.
  3. CPU matched to motherboard. It still seems to me you get more cores and more power for your buck going AMD, but the AM4 socket may not have much more life in it. 16GB DDR4 RAM. (Although 32GB can be nice). A bonus if the CPU and motherboard between them can support the video performance you need. If not, need to add:
  4. Video card - and one you have made certain will work on the linux distro you choose with the software you wish to run. I got a budget ASUS GEForce GTX 1660 when I upgraded my A12 to a Ryzen7-2700X.
  5. SSD for OS and caching I would now count as essential. Spinning platters for bulk storage are ok. NVME form-factor a bonus if your motherboard supports it. 500GB I find plenty (I can have two different distros on different partitions with my 500GB).
  6. Monitor. Essential would be any monitor you have or can get. Nice would be one well-suited for photography and supported by calibration software in Linux. Especially with the amount of screen real-estate taken by UI elements, 4k is - if not essential - highly recommended.
  7. External USB3 drive/s for bulk storage and for portability. I’ve had awaful issues with Seagate external drives, but have been very pleased with Toshiba Canvio Basics range - 1TB, 3TB, 4TB, 6TB sizes are available here in Australia.
  8. A backup mechanism for your precious photos.

I would think a colour accurate monitor is essential for anyone taking photography seriously. Also does anyone else adhere to the @Andy_Astbury1 rule of thumb that ppi between 90-110 is more important than 4k? To get that ppi on a 4k monitor you’d need a bloody big screen, 40"ish + diagonal (pending aspect ratio). Not to mention, the higher the resolution, the harder the graphics has to work.

While I know NVME SSD can record speeds 4x faster in benchmarks, does anyone notice a practical speed difference between it and SATA SSD for general photography use? I’m not an expert, hence the question, but my understanding is you’d have to be working on an enormous file to notice the difference (perhaps stitching and stacking? or perhaps exporting files in bulk?). Of course, if NVME was similarly priced, you’d take it.

Does this include your data, or just OS and apps? 500GB is not enough for me on my laptop with OS, apps and data (lots of photos), but is ample if I move data to an external drive. For OS and apps (office, photography software) of a single distro, 128GB is more than sufficient for my usage. For data, mileage will vary a lot between use cases.

Nice list!

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Hello, you don’t need a lot of computing power to do photography on Linux.

I changed my motherboard in 2014 or 2015, with one just a bit above the cheapest, I added 8GB of ram (again, normal ram, no speed stuff) and a Nvidia card of €50 or perhaps €75. OS and /home are on a little ssd, I store my photos on a standard drive (no ssd) of 2TB, plus a dedicated photo backup drive of 1TB. Ten years ago I spent some more money on a good monitor for photo work, a NEC MultiSync. Not in the league of an Eizo, but very usable.

EDIT. Forgot to say that I added to the new motherboard a quad-core AMD cpu as well, not an expensive one (once again).

I use ART, RawTherapee, Darktable, Gimp, G’mic, ImageMagick, Inkscape and Scribus among others, without ever thinking Hey, this is slow. They all just run fine and I don’t feel the need to upgrade my hardware.

I often work with files of about 100MB (16-bit tiff scans of medium format film) and even when using several layers my pc is still fast enough. Raw files of any camera brand (PlayRaw!) don’t cause problems as well.

And yes I know, if I throw another €1000 or €2000 to my hardware, things will go a bit faster. :wink: But as said, for the moment I don’t need that extra power.


What components did you keep? They must pack a punch.

In contrast, my laptop can struggle with 18mp raw files, noise reduction being a definite no-no. I normally have to re-import a reduced image, the forum suggested 1920px length being a good size. Of course, I am still operating with 4gb of ram, which is too old or pricey to upgrade.

Since my laptop is running hot this month, under Win10, I set the max processor state to 80% and graphics to max battery life, making things even slower. Just biding my time. :crazy_face:

Hello @afre, I’m using a small laptop with W10 from time to time to talk to my printer (the Linux driver for my printer is only a subset of the one in Windows, and I really need the superset part for color management). 4GB as well and it is a very slow machine. I had a free subscription for Photoshop CC for a year, but that was nearly unusable, that slow. Starting Photoshop and loading 1 photo could easily take 5 minutes…

If possible, do image processing on a normal pc instead of an laptop, their screens, at least for the cheap ones, are totally crap as well.

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I would elevate monitor, that can be calibrated+profiled, to essential.


Another vote for color accurate monitor.
When I built mine, I spent more on the monitor than any other one component.

There are others that are better, but the BenQ SW2700PT, when I built a couple years ago, was where the curves aligned for me, so to speak.

Also, another vote for the amd ryzen stuff. Not just for value, they are just great stuff, and, if you buy well, you can get one motherboard to last more than one generation of chips…

Since changing from SATA to NVME I have certainly noticed a significant difference in the overall responsiveness, including in photography software. I haven’t benchmarked, but I doubt I have a 4x improvement. 2x or almost seems likely, however.

I went for an NVME partially because I took the SATA SSD from my laptop when I first built my box:

And that was an upgrade (to the laptop) of a 3600RPM HDD which was painfully slow.

That said, building a box today, every motherboard bought new now surely supports NVME.

Absolutely not data … except local configuration, database and cache, and maybe some copy-local images, I keep all my photos on external HDDs:

And always backed up to at least two different drives in different rooms:

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If photography is the only reason for building your box, I agree that a really, really good monitor is essential.

I guess my mixed-use scenario is the reason I compromised. I have two monitors - an Acer CB281HK (4K) and an Acer KA2708 (not 4K). The 27 inch had almost zero bezel, whereas the 28 inch a half-inch bezel, so they fit very nicely together. They have the same calibration options, and I have historically been able to profile using DisplayCAL. Plasma/KDE color management struggles with using two different profiles (one per monitor), however, so I only use the 28" 4K monitor for photo-editing.

I think there are several possibilities. One could e.g. go for a PC with a very good graphics card or for a machine with a processor that has at least 8 cores. I recently discovered that my compter (Ryzen 7) is not so bad when darktable is running without opencl. darktable would be as fast with 16 cores as a graphics card such as the RTX 20xx. On the other hand, there is also overkill. E.g. RawTherapee would not significantly benefit from a machine with more than 8 cores. Also, I don’t think that more than 32 GB is really necessary.
Well. I must admit that I don’t have experience with very large and high-res screens. Those probably need powerful graphics cards.
I can imagine that a 27-inch 4k screen is really cool, although I don’t feel the need for it.
I guess it also depends on your budget. Another important factor from my point of view is pollution (power consumption). Obviously, the larger your screen, the stronger your GPU and CPU, the more electricity you need.
I would have the money to buy an even more expensive PC but somehow… I don’t think that I am stingy. I just don’t feel like buying the most expensive of everything and I try to get things that I really need.
So I guess what is essential is subjective.
A good screen is certainly important but - owning a wide gamut screen since a few years - I meanwhile think that wide gamut is not 100% necessary. You can create great photography with a good sRGB screen, too. And I think a good sRGB screen does not necessarily need to cost more than 300 €. But this is just an example.
So, e.g. if you use RawTherapee instead of of darktable, you can choose a relatively cheap solution like a PC with a Ryzen 5 processor and an internal GPU. Or even a laptop. RT runs well on my Intel i7 laptop.
It depends on which programs you use, so ultimately on your style.
Then, of course, there is also the question of the distro…
I mean… I think it would be a really interesting business project and challenge to build and sell Linux boxes for photographers, sort of Mac alternatives. I wonder why nobody has tried that yet. Everything is possible with good marketing… but I guess the problem is that there are so many possibilities… probably an own distro should be created for that purpose…

Edit - conclusion: I think what is really necessary is surprinzingly little.


I would doubt this statement :wink:

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Indeed, the point of this thread is to distill the essentials for those who may want to build. It is already hard enough for the average customer to choose a prebuild. The analysis paralysis is real. The gulf between newbies and veterans is huge; people who think they belong to the latter group but don’t. There is much to learn.

The first, second or both?

PS I forgot to address this

I do think about this often. As said, my machine is runs hot in the warmer seasons. I have to turn down the processor. Turn off the computer when the temp peaks. Energy isn’t being used efficiently if idling or basic computing turns it into a space heater. (In the winter, no problem. :snowflake:) But then, replacing the hardware would mean that I would have to discard or disuse it, and replace it with something that required energy, resources, infrastructure and disadvantaged people to make, with externalities like pollution. I don’t let these thoughts make me depressed but if one is to be truly responsible there is much to consider.


Interesting comments, thanks to all.
I’ve been running the OpenRC version of Artix (Arch) for about 8 months on a now 7 year old Dell with I5-4570, 16GB RAM and SATA SSD system drive and have absolutely no issues in Darktable with 24 MP raw files. And that’s with the Intel 4600 Pro integrated graphics! I also did a couple of shoots with D800 and D810 and have no problems processing those raw files either.
I paid about 250 USD for the refurbished Dell from Amazon :smiley:
I did first buy a Lenovo PC with Ryzen 2400G over a year ago, but couldn’t get any Linux stable on it. And, I do plan to build a custom SFF box with a newer Ryzen G CPU soon.
That said, I do believe practically any recent, Linux friendly PC with plenty of RAM will do.
Window$ and MacO$ users, YMMV.
I too recommend a good wide-gamut RGB monitor, BenQ is plenty good enough and the price can’t be beat IMO. Check the BenQ website for sales and refurb’s if you need to save some $$.
Another big speed boost for me has been investing in better/faster SD cards and readers. My favorites so far are Angelbird AV Pro cards and Angelbird USB3 reader. In the past I’ve always used SanDisk Extreme Pro cards, but the Angelbird kit is faster and much cheaper. Also, the cards are made in Taiwan and the reader is made in Austria!



Thanks @stevenvh for participating and welcome to the forum!

(for some reason I can’t get the quote function to work on the forum)

It’s a Benq monitor I use, a 27" 2560x1440 display. This is the one I use: BenQ PD2700Q 1440p QHD 100% sRGB IPS Monitor for Graphic Design | BenQ UK 4K on a 27" monitor turns everything too small, without using interface scaling…

Even the onboard GPU on my AMD A8 6600K cpu was able to drive the 27" monitor at 2560x1440p resolution without any issues. The only reason I upgraded to a discrete GPU was for more performance with opencl. (Previously an Nvidia GT1030, currently a GTX1660). You don’t need the latest and greatest of GPUs for opencl acceleration for image editing.

A key factor though, is to run a distro and desktop environment which supports colour mangement natively, e.g. Gnome, Cinnamon and XFCE. KDE apparantly has issues with colour profiles if you use more than one screen.

I wouldn’t say there is a direct correlation between display size, and GPU & CPU power needed. The main factor which dictates power consumption is what you are doing with the computer. e.g. rendering 3d animations will use a lot more processing power than editing photos even if the display is a 32" 4K display.

With regards to cooling, perhaps an additional case fan would help @betazoid ? Or if the computer tower is housed in a shelf under your desk, move it onto the top of your desk, giving it more free air for cooling?

I don’t understand. What are you referring to? My new PC is super silent. So far at least. We have a cool spring so far.
Edit: Ah, I think you are confusing me and @afre . But he has a laptop i think.

Ah possibly, At least your new PC is nice and quiet.

Also I seem to have remembered how to do a quote on the forum!

Highlight (= select) the text you want to quote, then click on the rectangle that appears with the text “Quote” in it.