People are often curious as to what kind of computer one needs to get into digital art.
My answer is a powerful one. I learned this lesson the expensive way. I hate learning
lessons the hard way, and I hate forking over money to learn these types of lessons.
A few years ago, I bought a computer, which I thought was pretty powerful. I did research.
I read. I talked to people. I asked questions. I thought I was knowledgeable. Then I discovered
that the “minimum,” which to some companies is the “recommended amount,” to run a
program isn’t always accurate information.
First off, let’s start with this fact. You will rarely find a computer at your local store, and most
of the machines you see online are not what you want either.
Why is that you ask?
Most computers on the shelf, or online, are for the “average” user. Entering the world of graphic design,
and digital art, is not the “average” user anymore.
So how do you pick a computer?
You first take inventory of what you want to do. Do you plan only on working with Corel Painter?
Do you expect you will only work with Adobe Photoshop? If you don’t know, then look at the
computer requirements for both and pick the one that requires more computer memory and start there.
One thing you have to be aware of is the fact that as you grow, you are going to want to try different
plugins. Plugins are full-fledged programs. They can run in a standalone mode (meaning by themselves)
or more commonly they can be accessed through Photoshop or Corel, which act as a host (it is like a
gateway to the program, so you can access the plugins within the host’s menu). These plugins can
have significantly more requirements to run than your host (Corel or Photoshop) because you are in
essence now running two programs at the same time. Working with plugins places a heavy load
on your computer, which means you need more power.
My laptop has 16 GB of RAM, and my old computer started out with 16 GB of RAM. Do you
think these are equal?
Everything boils down to what graphics card you have in your computer.
My new computer has the latest NVIDIA card, and my laptop has an Intel card built in, which isn’t
anywhere near as powerful. This means my laptop can run Photoshop and Corel, but it has trouble
processing things. My brushes have delays, my rendering takes longer, and I can’t do some tasks
because it just takes too long. For example, to render a 30-second video on my laptop took upwards
of 8 hours, whereas my new computer can do it within a couple of minutes, yet on the surface, it would
appear that both computers would be able to do the same tasks equally well.
The graphics card area is overwhelming. I am stating this right off the bat. I felt overwhelmed learning
all the new lingo and trying to figure out what all the numbers really meant. Some graphics cards cost
thousands of dollars, and this is where the price of your machine increases. I took a risk buying my
graphics card for the new computer. I had spoken to NVIDIA and Adobe about the machine I was going
to purchase. Dell said I would be able to run everything I wanted with no issues, but I didn’t trust their voice.
NVIDIA said I shouldn’t have an issue, but they recommended a different card, which was a couple thousand
bucks, and it was out of my budget. Adobe said they couldn’t guarantee anything as they are
currently “testing” the card to see if it can hold up.
You might wonder why I took a risk? Haven’t I learned enough hard lessons in this computer
department area of my life?
I had to think about it. I hate risks. I decided to go ahead with this machine for a couple of reasons.
First, Adobe always tests NVIDIA cards. All the other NVIDIA cards have been approved, and this
graphics card is being placed in all the new computers, so it would be (in my mind) prudent for
Adobe to make sure it works with their programs. Second, it’s a powerful card, and all the representatives
from all fields agreed to this fact. Finally, if I have a problem, for some reason, I still had the computer I
was giving to the kids to use as a backup machine. That computer has an “approved” graphics card to
run After Effects, which was the most significant hurdle, and it would be the program to cause issues
the Adobe representative said.
Remember, you want to buy a machine that can “sort of” grow with you. I have to add “sort of” because
technology changes rapidly, and sometimes it is cheaper to buy a new machine than to upgrade the
machine you have.
My current computer can have the RAM upgraded to 64 (it is currently at 32). It can have different internal
parts, like that three thousand dollars graphics card, and it can have more hard drives added to it. It can
grow. My laptop is capped at 16 for RAM, and nothing on it can change.
If you’re not sure if you want a laptop or a desktop, I will tell you that you can get more power with a desktop.
Plus, there are fewer problems with it overheating, and it is easier to work on a desktop because you
have a spot to put your Wacom (another topic for another day). On top of that, cleaning a desktop is easier
too. You just have to remove the sides to blow out the dust, whereas a laptop requires so much more skill
to get inside. These little cleans make your system run faster than a machine filled with dust, so don’t
skip this area of maintenance.
Starting to walk in the direction of digital art can feel overwhelming. There is very little information to help
one understand what to get, and few people spell it out for someone that is computer illiterate or entirely
new to the field, so I wanted to help in this area.
In summary, this is what I would tell my children if they came to me asking what they should buy to
get into the digital realm of art.
1. Pick what brand of computer you want. I have a Dell. Remember, everyone has preferences.
You will find people stating they only work with one brand, while others tell you how that brand stinks.
It all boils down to their experiences.
2. Don’t get less than 16 GB of RAM, and try to get 32 with the option of going higher.
3. Pick the best graphics card you can buy. Do not buy the lowest end. Check to see if you can
upgrade your graphics card down the road. Look only for a NVIDIA card. NVIDIA has great support
for their cards. I have a NVIDIA GTX 1080 card. However, NVIDIA will recommend a different card
for Adobe products.
4. Get a SSD drive as well as a hard drive. You want your programs to run off the SSD drive (it is faster).
I currently have a 1TB SSD drive and a 2 TB hard drive build into the computer. However, I keep all my
documents and assets on an external 4 TB hard drive, which is sadly getting too small. Don’t
shortchange yourself by getting a little hard drive. Keep your SSD drive for your programs and
save your data to the hard drive, but keep in mind, you will eventually need to move your stuff to an external drive.
5. Shop around. When you have these specifications, you are going to find you don’t have as many
options as you might think. If you need a monitor, look at buying this separately from your computer
as you can usually save a couple of hundred dollars this way. I have bought computer monitors from
B & H Photo for a couple hundred dollars cheaper than a Dell packaged deal.
6. Be prepared to spend some serious money. You are going to be looking at anywhere from $1600 to
$4000 to just get the tower (the base of the computer). This price is going to be very dependent on
what kind of graphics card you get and whether you pick a PC or a MAC. This, of course, doesn’t include
your programs, Wacom, or art Pen (which will cost you close to another thousand). My newest tower cost $2500.
7. Before you swipe your credit card, talk to Adobe and Corel and ask them if the machine you are looking
at will encounter any problems with their programs. Do a quick Google search to see if people were
experiencing issues with the graphics card. It can save you some mental frustration down the road. Just remember
the minimum requirements listed are just that the minimum. Never go with the minimum, or you will have some hiccups
along the way. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to work in a program and having a lag time because
your system can’t keep up.
Finding a machine is work. I won’t lie. However, it is worth it. Digital art is exciting, and it is expanding rapidly.
The skills you learn will transfer to many aspects of the creative realm. You will never be bored working with this medium.