As a Photoshop professional and author of Photoshop and Elements books, people looking to buy a computer to use for image editing often ask my opinion about what I recommend. I use Mac as my main work station, and have a PC laptop. Though Mac is a preference for me, I think the platform isn't as critical a decision for image editing as it once was. However the peripherals and accessories I put into my 'ultimate system' whether on mac or PC can be fairly extensive. To me, the additional expense is not only unavoidable, but essential to handling images safely and getting the best results. All the items I choose are not necessary for every system and all level of user, and some of your personal preferences may differ. But some core elements should be considered beyond just the platform to enhance your image editing experience.
The following are all part of my main work station:
*dual core processor
Keep in mind that for my work with professional photographers I need a lot of processing oomph. If you are a more casual user you may not really need all this stuff, and some of that is personal preference. But here is a breakdown of what advantages each of these provides:
Dual, Matching Monitors
Dual monitors provide a lot of visible landscape, generally at a fraction of the cost of a larger monitor. Another option may be a very large screen, like the 30" Mac Cinema Display, but that is not in the price range of many users. Two monitors may require an additional video card depending on your setup, but really a large monitor may demand a video card upgrade as well. The goal of increased viewing area is to allow for room to open multiple palettes while viewing your images large on screen.
Spyder Monitor Calibrator
Monitor calibration is essential for getting good results with your images consistently, in print and on the web. If you don't calibrate, your monitor color may be off, and you can't possibly trust what you see on screen. Dark monitors will find you overcorrecting images and the results will be light in print; monitors with a color shift will find you compensating toward the shift's complement color -- a monitor with too much red may find your prints consistently leaning toward a cyan hue. Hardware calibration can measure the color on your screen with great accuracy and will be the cornerstone of good color practice and workflow.
2+ GB of RAM
One of many complaints I hear from users as they upgrade to new versions of Photoshop and Elements has to do with the program running slower. Often running slower can be attributed to keeping an old system and trying to run a more demanding program with the same equipment. Current system requirements for Photoshop suggest a minimum of 512 MB of RAM, this is in addition to what you need for your operating system (Windows Vista requires 1GB of RAM), and really the size of your images. There is almost never too much RAM and you may want 4GB to stay ahead of the curve.
4 Matching Hard Drives
It might seem like overkill, but I use 4 hard drives on my system: 1 for system/programs, 2 for images/work in a RAID array, 1 more for a dedicated scratch disk. Drives should all be fast, and it is handy to have them in matching size and manufacture so you can swap them out in emergencies (e.g., for example if one drive in your RAID goes out, you can sub in the scratch disk while waiting for a replacement). Keeping work separate from your programs allows you to run a RAID array to make instantaneous backup of your work to protect you from losing anything. A dedicated scratch disk allows photoshop plenty of room to scale its memory needs without conflicting with image saves and program activity. A RAID can easily be set up on a Mac; PCs will require additional software.
Dual Core Processor
Photoshop is a processing and memory hog, and having a fast processor at the core is essential for peak performance. Photoshop has been built for a long time to handle dual core processing, and that capability leads to less wait and more productivity.
There are various input devices to choose from, and my input of choice is a Kensington Turbomouse, and has been for many years. Mice require a lot of wrist movement and potential strain, and Wacom tablets while interesting and unique, do not provide the kind of accuracy and control I can get with a trackball (try stopping in the middle of a stroke with a graphics pen, for example). The trackball is really a huge inverted mouse with the advantage that it never needs to be moved, takes up little desk space and offers the ultimate in control of your cursor. Don't get a flimsy trackball with a small controller...it just isn't the same.
As images mount on your drives you will eventually need to back them up to make room for new ones. One of your best long-term options for high capacity storage/archive are DVDs, which offer about 6 times the space of a CD. They are also quite durable, and likely your best option currently for image archive and storage.
External Backup Drive
For daily or weekly backup, to keep your current work safe should you experience some type of computer meltdown, you can make use of an external drive with at least the same storage capacity as your work drives. Doubling the capacity will allow you to retain the original backups while making the new, and considering the low cost of hard drive space these days, a single large backup drive will save you infinite worry and offer the capability to restore work easily.
A device that I have found to have ultimate utility on the road as well as for daily download of images is my portable Wolvarine drive. It sports additional slots for a variety of card types, and an 80GB capacity which allows me to take approximately 12,000 photos before having to touch base with my main desktop. It has an internal power pack so it can operate anywhere, and attachments for car lighter plugs. Great for backing up cards on the road, and reading them into the computer as well. If you keep two cards on hand, you never need to waste time downloading before you geet to the next shot; download one while you keep shooting.
Power Backup System
Power backup allows you to stave off the ultimate, unpredictable catastrophe: power loss. Power can go out at any time, and some types of power/surge protectors offer surge protection and full switched power that automatically stores and kicks in during a power outage -- and can save your work. A must if you live in an area where unpredictable power outages occur.
Of course, my image editing program of choice is Photoshop, but Photoshop Elements is often just as good for most users who will never need the additional non-photo-editing features (CMYK generation, Actions/Scripting, Web development tools). Some of this list is equipment you can accumulate and reuse between systems as you upgrade.
You may notice the glaring omission of a home printer. I am not big on printing at home, and send everything to a service. To get the equipment I’d want for that I figure I am saving about $80,000 in a printer cost which I assume is worth it ;-). You can also save yourself the headaches associated with maintaining supplies and printer maintenance/calibration/profiling. I discuss this in a lot more detail in my From Monitor to Print: Photoshop Color Workflow course.
If you are looking for the ultimate system for editing images, or even to begin upgrading as you begin to take image editing more seriously, this list of key components should prove helpful in your consideration of building the ultimate system. I'd be glad to answer additional questions on the subject (Contact Richard: firstname.lastname@example.org)