Building a Photo and Video Editing PC, Part 1: CPU and Motherboard
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Building a Photo and Video Editing PC, Part 1: CPU and Motherboard

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The CPU and motherboard are the beating heart of your PC build, and picking the right combo is key to building an awesome photo and video editing PC
Source: Pixabay, CC0

Building your own PC is the best way to get maximum photo- and video-editing performance for minimal spend, but the idea of putting together such a complex piece of tech scares most would-be builders away from even trying.

Fortunately, it’s not as scary as it seems, and to prove it, we’re going to teach you how to build your own creator PC while simultaneously building one ourselves! We’ve partnered with Intel, NVIDIA, MSI, Corsair and Seagate to get all of the parts we need to build a top-tier photo- and video-editing PC for the DPReview offices. And while we’re building ours, we’ll walk you though everything you need to know to plan out and build your own.

The series will be split into six parts:

  • Part 1: CPU and motherboard
  • Part 2: GPU, RAM and storage
  • Part 3: PSU, case and cooler
  • Part 4: Monitor and calibration
  • Part 5: A step-by-step build guide
  • Part 6: Benchmarking our build

Today, we’ll tackle the beating heart of a PC build: the motherboard and CPU. With so many choices at such a vast variety of price points, selecting the right CPU and motherboard is probably the most complicated part of any build. It also dictates everything that comes after: the kind of RAM you can use, the number of storage drives you can connect, what sort of cooler you need to invest in, and on and on.

Today, we’ll tackle the beating heart of a PC build: the motherboard and CPU.

Thankfully, if you understand just a few basic details about these two components, it’s pretty easy to find the right parts for your build without spending an arm and a leg on features you don’t need or won’t use.

Choosing a CPU

The CPU, or central processing unit, is the literal brain of your computer. Every time you type a letter on your keyboard, open a photo editing application, or slide the contrast slider in Lightroom, the CPU has to interpret that input and decide how it’s going to fulfill the request.

How exactly it makes that decision is based on many different aspects of CPU architecture and design that we don’t have time to get into. So for our purposes, we’ll focus on the three most important questions you should ask yourself as a creator when shopping for a CPU:

  1. What are the most relevant specs?
  2. Should you go with Intel or AMD?
  3. What is overclocking and should you do it?

Classification, Clock Speed, and Cores

Knowing more is (almost) always better when making a buying decision, but you don’t need to have a degree in Computer Science to pick a CPU that will meet your needs. There are really three specs that you should focus on: where your CPU fits into the Intel or AMD product line, the maximum clock speeds that it can reach, and the number of cores that it contains.

Let’s take these one by one.

Classification: Generation, Family, and Tier

When building a PC, it’s important that you pick a processor that was designed for the kind of work you’re going to be doing, which means choosing a chip that is part of the right generation, family, and tier.

All of Intel and AMD’s consumer CPUs fall into one of three broad processor families:

Core X
Target User Amateur and Enthusiast Enthusiast to Professional Workstation and Server Amateur to Enthusiast Enthusiast to Professional Workstation and Server

Each processor family is aimed at a different target market, and the vast majority of photo and video editors will be perfectly happy with an Intel Core or AMD Ryzen CPU. If you’re a professional video editor working with super high-resolution source footage, then Intel Core X and AMD Threadripper are worth considering – since they contain more cores and PCIe lanes (more on these later), a PC with a Core X or Threadripper CPU is generally more expandable and better at tackling complex tasks like video encoding. Unless you’re a professional VFX artist or you’re working in 3D CAD design, you can ignore the Intel Xeon and AMD EPYC lineups entirely.

Each family is further split into different price and performance tiers. Intel’s Core series is split into Core i3, Core i5, Core i7 and Core i9, while AMD’s Ryzen series is split into Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, and Ryzen 9. Similarly, Intel Core X can be had in Core i7 and Core i9 variations, while the Threadripper CPUs are split into three tiers that are embedded in the product number: 3960, 3970, and 3990.

Regardless of processor family, as the number gets higher, the performance gets better and the price increases.

Finally, each year Intel and AMD unveil the latest generation of every processor family. Intel’s Core processors are up to 11th Gen (i.e. Intel Core i9-11900K), Core X is still on 10th gen (i.e. Intel Core i9-10900X) the AMD Ryzen family is up its fifth generation (i.e. Ryzen 9 5900X), and AMD’s Threadripper CPUs are now on their third generation (i.e. AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X).

If you’re doing run-of-the-mill photo and video editing, a mid- to top-tier Intel Core or AMD Ryzen CPU is more than powerful enough.

If you’re doing run-of-the-mill photo and video editing, a mid-to-top-tier Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor is more than powerful enough, and you can probably get away with a slightly older generation if money is tight. Newer generations are pretty much always faster, even if the current gen CPU has the exact same clock speed and core count as last year, but the jump in performance between one generation and the next isn’t always huge.

For the sake of simplicity, we recommend purchasing a CPU that is one of the latest two or three generations at the most, and opting for no less than a Core i5 or Ryzen 5. For Intel, that means a 9th, 10th, and 11th Gen Core i5, Core i7, or Core i9 CPU. For AMD, that means going with a Ryzen 3000, Ryzen 4000 or Ryzen 5000 series CPU that’s Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, or Ryzen 9.

If you need the extra processing power that comes with an Intel Core X or AMD Threadripper CPU, we’d recommend sticking with the latest generation: Core X 10th gen and Threadripper 3000.

Pretty much all modern-day CPUs contain multiple “cores” that can carry out tasks in parallel, allowing the processor to multi-task more efficiently.
Source: Intel

Core Count

Most modern CPUs are split into multiple physical “cores,” each of which can carry out a single operation at a time. The more cores you have the more operations you can carry out at once, making the CPU better at multitasking during heavy workloads.

Furthermore, both Intel and AMD can split each physical core into two “threads,” basically doubling the amount of work the CPU can do by allowing each core to do two things at the same time: one task per thread. On Intel processors, this is called “hyper-threading” while AMD calls this same trick “Simultaneous Multithreading” or SMT.

Whatever you call it, the oversimplified point is that: the more cores and threads a processor has, the more tasks it can carry out concurrently. But there are two catches that are very important.

  1. More cores generally means a lower clock speed per core, so while you can do more at the same time, each individual core is slightly slower
  2. Not every application is tuned to take advantage of multiple cores and/or threads

This is where it pays to do a little bit of research on the applications you use most. Pretty much all photo and video editing applications are now capable of taking advantage of multiple cores and threads, but video editors will generally see the biggest boost in performance as the core count exceeds 6 or 8 cores.

For creative work, we would suggest aiming for 6 cores and above.

Clock Speed

The main spec you’ll see plastered at the top of every CPU product page is the clock speed, which comes in two flavors: base clock and boost clock. Clock speed is listed as a frequency in GHz (literally: billions of cycles per second) which is directly correlated to how many “instructions” or tasks a CPU can perform every second.

The base clock speed is the guaranteed number of cycles per second that the CPU can maintain at all times, while the boost clock is a faster speed that can only be maintained for a limited amount of time given enough power and sufficient cooling to keep the CPU from overheating.

Generally speaking, the higher the “clock speed” the faster your CPU and the faster your computer. However, there are a few caveats.

As we mentioned above, more cores usually translates into a lower base clock, sacrificing raw single-core performance for multi-tasking capability. The other main caveat is that newer CPUs are able to carry out more “instructions per clock,” squeezing more performance from the same exact clock speed as older generations. That’s why we recommend only going back a few generations at the most when buying a CPU: any more than that and the gap in performance, even given the same basic clock speed and core count, may start to be noticeable.

Linus Tech Tips did a great explainer about this exact point recently, showing how two AMD Ryzen processors (an older Ryzen 3000 and a newer Ryzen 5000) with the exact same clock speed and core count nevertheless showed a significant difference in performance on various benchmarks.

AMD or Intel

There are some key differences between AMD and Intel processors that creators should keep in mind when shopping for a CPU.
Photo by Olivier Collet, CC0

The second (and by far more contentious) question is: AMD or Intel? In recent years, AMD has pulled ahead in terms of performance-per-watt, releasing some exceptional Ryzen and Threadripper CPUs that are more efficient and offer noticeably better multi-core performance, while Intel has generally stayed ahead in terms of single-core performance, hitting super-high boost clocks in excess of 5.0GHz on their Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs.

As we said above, this is where it pays to do a little research and find out how well your favorite photo- and video-editing applications can take advantage of multiple cores, and how many cores it can realistically tap into. Once you have an answer to that question, you can compare the price-to-performance ratio of 10th and 11th Gen Intel against equivalent Ryzen 4000 and Ryzen 5000 CPUs, and choose the option that looks like the best deal to you.

In recent years, AMD has pulled ahead in terms of performance-per-watt […] while Intel has generally stayed ahead in terms of single-core performance.

Another major difference is expandability. Ryzen CPUs feature enough PCIe lanes to directly power a discrete Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU (16 lanes) and an M.2 SSD directly (4 lanes). Older Intel Core CPUs only featured enough PCIe lanes for the GPU, forcing users to route their NVMe SSD through the motherboard chipset, which means your SSD will compete with other peripherals for bandwidth, potentially slowing things down. The latest 11th gen Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9 addressed this by adding another four lanes to the CPU, essentially catching up to AMD.

What are PCIe Lanes?PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) is the type of connection or “bus” used by all modern motherboards to link your CPU to other components in your PC. This connection is split into discrete “lanes” that can each carry a certain amount of data (1GB/s per lane for PCIe 3.0, and 2GB/s per lane for PCIe 4.0), and the more expansion cards and high-speed storage you put into your PC, the more “lanes” you’ll need if you want to get the full speed out of every single peripheral all the time.

Every CPU has a discrete number of PCIe lanes available – usually 16 lanes dedicated to the main x16 PCIe slot on your board and (sometimes) 4 lanes that are connected directly to one of the M.2 SSD slots. Once those 20 lanes are used up, any additional PCIe components have to be connected through the motherboard’s chipset, which communicates with the CPU through another 4 dedicated lanes.

Finally, the last major consideration is Thunderbolt. If you want Thunderbolt 3 connectivity (which provides transfer speeds high enough to drive monitors and external GPUs in addition to just external storage, for example) you pretty much have to go with Intel. There are a couple of AMD-compatible motherboards with their own Thunderbolt controller built in (literally “a couple”, as in two), but unless you’re willing to seriously limit your options, Intel is the way to go for anyone who relies on Thunderbolt peripherals.

To overclock or not to overclock

Finally, there’s the question of overclocking. Overclocking is pushing more voltage to an “unlocked” CPU to try and push it past its rated clock speed, and it’s only possible if both your CPU and your motherboard support it. If you’re going to overclock, you’ll also need a beefier cooling solution, because pushing more voltage to your CPU means generating more heat.

Generally, we do not recommend overclocking your CPU, especially if you’re building your first PC. The process itself isn’t too difficult given a compatible CPU and motherboard, but it’s not without risks. You risk lowering your CPU’s lifespan or even bricking it if something goes horribly wrong, and even if you do everything right, you could lose the so-called “silicon lottery” and end up with a CPU that simply doesn’t overclock very well.

Our recommendation? Take the extra $100 you were going to spend on a more powerful cooler and overclocking-compatible motherboard, and spend it on a slightly more powerful processor instead. Buying a more powerful processor and running it at stock is usually the wiser (if less “sexy”) choice, especially given the guaranteed ‘turbo boost’ clock speeds that both AMD and Intel’s high-end CPUs are able to reach these days.

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Choosing a motherboard

If the CPU is the brain, the motherboard is the rest of the nervous system: it connects your CPU to every other component in your PC, and it’s critical that you pick a motherboard that is a) compatible with your CPU, and b) includes all of the features you need to get the most out of the parts you’ve purchased.

Before we dive in, here’s a helpful graphic that highlights some of the most important components and connections you’ll find on a modern-day motherboard:

The layout of the standard motherboard, with common components labeled. Source: Intel

We won’t dive into every component, nor are they all listed above, but the most important parts are:

  • The CPU socket – where the CPU plugs into the motherboard and is locked into place
  • The M.2 Connector – where modern, high-speed M.2 NVMe solid-state storage is attached.
  • The PCIe slots – where you will connect expansion cards that need to communicate a lot of data with the CPU. This includes your GPU, high-speed network cards, video capture cards, and more. Full-width slots are known as x16 slots, but there are also x1 slots and (more rare) x4 slots that can be used with cards that don’t have to send and receive as much data.
  • The RAM slots – where you will place your RAM sticks, or DIMMs. Most standard motherboards come with four slots, which are split into two channels. Smaller motherboards might only include two slots, each with its own channel.

You don’t need to understand how all of the above works in order to find a motherboard that suits your creative workflow. If we boil it down to the basics, there are really three main questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What size/form factor works best for you?
  2. Are the “socket” and “chipset” compatible with your CPU?
  3. What specs and features should you prioritize?

Choose your form factor

Three standard sizes of motherboard make up the vast majority of your options: ATX, micro-ATX, and mini-ITX. ATX is the largest at 305 x 244mm (12 x 9.6 in), micro-ATX is a little bit smaller at 244 x 244 mm (9.6 x 9.6 in), and mini-ITX is an even smaller form factor at 170 x 170mm (6.7 x 6.7 in):

The three main sizes of motherboard are ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX. Larger boards come with more PCIe slots, a larger port selection, and other features, but they make for a bulkier build.
Source: Intel

Mini-ITX builds are all the rage these days because they’re so incredibly compact, allowing you to build a powerful PC inside a very small case that can comfortably sit on top of your desk. The trade-off is that you’re going to give up some expandability, it’s harder to build and cable-manage inside of a compact case, and you’re probably going to pay a bit more for fewer features.

You don’t need to understand how all of the above works in order to find a motherboard that suits your creative workflow.

Most Mini-ITX cases come with only two RAM slots and a single x16 PCIe slot, which will probably be taken up by your graphics card. Further expansion is out of the question.

For most creatives, and especially first-time PC builders, we would recommend going with either an ATX or Micro-ATX motherboard for your rig. The improved expandability is really nice if you want to add a high-speed network card or more RAM later on, and though it requires using a larger case, it will be easier to build in, and larger motherboards are usually better suited for high-performance workflows.

Match the socket and chipset to the CPU

Once you’ve picked a form factor, the next thing you have to get right is picking the socket and chipset that fits your CPU. Intel and AMD CPUs use different sockets (the physical platform that your CPU plugs into on the motherboard) and each generation of CPU will only work with certain “chipsets” (the “silicon backbone” that connects your CPU to every other component in your PC).

Both of these parts are critical. There’s no way to work around it if you buy a motherboard with the wrong socket or an incompatible chipset: you’ll just have to buy a new one and hope that someone on eBay wants yours (or that you bought from somewhere with a great return policy).

We’ve created the table below to guide you in choosing a motherboard with the right socket:

CPU Generation Compatible Socket
Intel Core 8th and 9th LGA1151
10th and 11th LGA1200
Intel Core X All Generations LGA2066
AMD Ryzen All Generations AM4
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1000 and 2000 TR4
3000 sTRX4
The “socket” is where the plugs into the motherboard. If you don’t pick a compatible socket, your CPU literally won’t “fit” in your PC.
Source: Intel

Picking the right chipset is a bit more complicated. Every CPU is compatible with only one socket, but most CPUs are compatible with multiple chipsets that vary in terms of both features and price. For example, the latest Intel processors are compatible with motherboards that use the Z590, H570, B560, or H510 chipsets, while the latest AMD Ryzen CPUs are compatible with motherboards that use the X570, B550, or A520 chipsets.

Generally speaking, lower letter chipsets like A- B- and H- are more affordable, with fewer features, while the Z- and X-series chipsets are aimed at power users who want the latest features, better components, and overclocking control. This is a wild oversimplification, but it should get you started as you do your research.

If you buy a motherboard with the wrong socket or an incompatible chipset, there’s no way to work around it. You’ll just have to buy a new one.

Start by exploring the various options on AMD and Intel‘s websites, pick two compatible chipsets that seem like a good fit for your needs, and then read a few reviews and comparisons online before you pull the trigger. If you want to double-check that compatibility isn’t an issue, use a tool like PC Part Picker that will check the compatibility for you. Even if you don’t buy from them, it’s a good double-check to ensure everything is compatible before you drop $100-300 on a fancy paperweight.

PCIe 4.0, Thunderbolt, and high-speed networking

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices by finding a compatible socket and chipset, you’ll want to take a close look at the specs to make sure that the actual branded motherboard you’ve landed on includes all of the features you’ll need, or enough expandability to support them. This includes everything from Thunderbolt support, to high-speed networking, to sufficient I/O.

Each chipset includes a maximum number of USB ports, SATA connections, etc. that it can support, but that doesn’t mean every motherboard that uses a particular chipset will include every single option. For example, the latest-and-greatest Intel Z590 chipset supports up to 37 USB ports of various types, but there isn’t a single motherboard that includes all 37. That would be … interesting.

The most important features for creatives to consider are: PCIe 4.0 support, Thunderbolt support, and high-speed networking.

If you go with an AMD Ryzen 3000 or newer or an Intel 11th generation CPU, your processor supports PCIe 4.0, which is twice as fast as the previous PCIe 3.0 standard, but you need a motherboard/chipset that supports it as well. You probably won’t see a huge benefit right now, but it acts as a buffer, giving you more options in the future as more and more high-speed devices take advantage of this new standard.

Next up is Thunderbolt support. Many high-end photo and video editing peripherals are Thunderbolt only, making this a must-have for many creative pros. For now, Thunderbolt support is still limited to more expensive, high-end boards. It’s also limited (almost) exclusively to Intel boards. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the merging of Thunderbolt 4 into the USB 4.0 spec means TB4 support for a wider variety of motherboards at a wider variety of price points in the very near future.

The most important features for creatives to consider are: PCIe 4.0 support, Thunderbolt support, and high-speed networking.

Finally, high-speed networking isn’t super important for the everyday user, but 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, or even 10Gbps networking can be a huge benefit if you’re a photo or video professional who wants to work directly off of network attached storage. The more common 1Gbps ports built into many modern motherboards are great if you’re just backing up your work, but if you’re merging massive panoramas, putting together time-lapse films, or editing high-resolution video, you’ll very quickly run into a bottleneck.

If you choose the right combination of CPU and motherboard, you’ll end up with a PC that’s blazing fast, highly expandable and future proof.
Photo by Rafael Pol, CC0

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Final thoughts

Of all the components inside your PC, the CPU and motherboard are probably the most important and the most complicated. Believe it or not, we’ve only covered the bare bones minimum in this article: offering just enough information so that the first-time builder who wants a PC for photo and video editing can purchase their first CPU and motherboard with confidence.

That said, there’s always more to know and learn. If you like geeking out about this stuff and want to dive deeper before you start building, check out some popular YouTube channels like Linus Tech Tips, Gamer’s Nexus, and JayZTwoCents, or visit some of the great PC hardware sites out there like Tom’s Hardware and PC World.

Finally, if you enjoyed this simple guide to picking a CPU and motherboard for your creator PC build, stay tuned! In part 2, we’ll talk about navigating the confusing world of GPUs, RAM, and storage solutions, and how to pick a good combination of the above for creative work.

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