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SSD Setup Guide for Image-Editing Computers

Best SSD Setups for Imaging workstations

It’s 2021, and you should definitely be using Solid State Drives (SSD) for your photography workflow. They will help you to be efficient in ANY photo editor. However, this is especially important for RAW image workflows in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, and Adobe Photoshop CC.

If you’ve only been using Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) until now, it’s time to upgrade and make the switch. Here’s how you can switch over to using SSDs the right way.

What’s The Most Practical Config For SSD-based RAW Photo-editing Workstations?

Setting up your workstation with multiple SSDs will make the best use of multiple data pathways to and from your CPU, GPU, and RAM. When your computer is set up like this, your OS and programs will not be competing for bandwidth to access the paging file, scratch disks, or your data.

Here’s what an optimal setup would look like:

Optimal Setup for a Desktop Workstation

If you’re editing photographs on a Desktop workstation, here’s our recommended setup:

  1. OS: SATA3 500GB SSD dedicated to your boot OS drive
  2. TEMP: SATA3 500GB-1TB SSD for scratch disk / paging file
  3. WORK: M.2 NVMe 1TB SSD only for your projects and files
  4. ARCHIVE: SATA3 4TB or 8TB HDD RAID array for archival of completed projects.

You can choose to merge the boot OS and Paging file disk. But try to set aside one drive for temp folders, preview files, and other files that various programs often need on a temporary basis.

Optimal Setup for a Laptop Workstation

Here’s our recommended setup for a laptop that has an M.2 NVMe expansion port.

  • OS: 1TB M.2 NVMe SSD for your boot OS and program files
  • WORK: 1TB SATA 3 SSD for your project files.

We get into the details of why we chose these particular configurations in the latter half of the article, so read on for our rationale.

TERMINOLOGY: What Are SATA 3 & NVMe (and where does M.2 fit into this story?)

You may have noticed that we mentioned 3 different hardware interfaces, and SSDs are available for all three. So why pick one over the other? In short, because of pricing and performance differences.

This article delves into SATA3, NVMe, and M.2 in more detail than we can cover here. You can open it up into a new tab to read later because the summary is right here.

SATA, NVMe and M.2 (The Summary)

HDD, SSD and M.2 SSDs.
Computer Storage Devices: SATA3, M.2 – SATA3 and NVMe

Here is a quick summary: SATA is a standard from the days of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) which had physically spinning platters. SSDs are capable of data access and transmission speeds that exceed the SATA3 standard of 6Gbps. This means that people took to accessing SSD data feeds via the PCI Express bus, which led to the NVMe standard. So SATA 3 and NVMe are the actual standards.

M.2 is just an SSD form factor / Interface that is slim and space-saving. This is especially useful since SSD hardware doesn’t need the 2.5″ or 3.5″ format bays that HDDs needed. M.2 drives could be either SATA or NVMe, so watch out for this difference when buying your motherboard and SSDs.

Now, let’s move on to the details…

Deciding Which Drives To Use for Every Purpose

We’ve explained the setup, now let’s talk about why you should choose one type of drive over another for every purpose.

1. Choosing The Right SSDs For Your Primary OS Drive

Your primary boot drive has your OS, and usually all your programs. You want them to load up quickly. With the OS running off an SSD, your computer could be up and running in mere seconds instead of a few minutes with a HDD.

Using an SSD for a boot drive ensures that your operating system is not bottle-necked, and it has all the fast RAM/paging file access that it wants. This ensures that the base OS and user interface remain smooth and responsive at all times.

It also makes sense to install all your applications (program files) to this drive for the same reasons. We suggest using a fast 500GB or 1TB NVMe SSD for this purpose.

Feel free to get 1TB if you want to, but resist the urge to store your projects and RAW files on the primary boot drive. We store them on a different drive to ensure that they’re not competing for bandwidth.

Suggested Drives:

2. Which SSDs To Use For Your Paging Files/Scratch Disk – Temp Drive

The second SSD is for your OS’s paging file (aka Swap file), as well as Photoshop scratch disks, Lightroom cache, Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve cache files, etc. Your Scratch SSD will be used only for files that have high traffic during program use but that do not need to store permanent data. You can settle for a 2.5inch SATA SSD for this purpose… It will still have the speed but will be cheaper.

The capacity requirement for the temp file drive could vary quite a bit and will be based on the type of work that you do. You may be able to get away with as little as 120Gb, but I suggest choosing a 250Gb or 500Gb as these drives give you space to grow. Larger SSDs are rather cheap these days, and should be more than sufficient for most systems.

We discuss setting up your Lightroom Classic, and Photoshop CC installations to use your SSDs optimally in this in-depth article.

As before, this is on a separate drive to ensure that access to your RAW photographs is not hindered by applications writing to or reading from the drive that they’re stored on at the same time.

If you don’t want to dedicate one entire drive to your paging files/scratch disk folders, you can still use your primary OS drive for this function, but don’t use a hard disk for this purpose.

Suggested Drives:

Use the same drives as suggested in the previous section.

3. Which SSDs To Use For Your Current Projects – Work Drive

Different types of M.2 SSD drives
Different types of M.2 SSD drives

You need all your RAW image files to be accessed as quickly as possible. The fast read speeds of SSDs meant that data is quickly accessible for processing by the CPU and Graphics card, with as little latency as possible.

This is very important if you want photoshop or lightroom to work with very little wait-time. If you have large, multi-layered PSD files you will feel the difference between using an SSD and a HDD immediately.

If you create large files, then you know that your PSDs can easily become a few hundred MB in size (I often find my 16bit images running into GBs of data).

Loading and Saving these files takes some time, and from experience, I want to save them as often as possible. Thankfully, Photoshop now allows background saving, and using an SSD will allow you to keep working at speed.

Now that all your current work is on a fast SSD while editing in Lightroom, and Photoshop, great! What next?

Suggested Drives:

4. Some of The Best Hard Disk Drives For Your Finished Projects – Archive

Once your files have been approved, and will not be accessed as frequently, you can move them into your long-term storage or backup solutions. This means using RAID or HDDs.

Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) have the upper hand when it comes to the cost-per-GB of storage. This is why you’d choose HDDs instead of SSDs for long-term archival storage, and why you would probably choose to use 8TB Hard Disk Drives.

You could possibly even choose to use multiple HDDs in a RAID configuration for redundancy.

As we said earlier, once your projects are edited and published, they go into your archives… You’ll be storing all the projects that you’ve finished working on, and will access only rarely on these HDDs. I save these files in a year-based folder hierarchy. Perhaps you do too!

You could also save your non-critical files, like personal photographs, videos, computer games, and more on the HDD.

Suggested HDD Drives:

Final Advice on Making SSD Purchase Decisions!

You’ve already seen the recommendations under each section, but you may want to make your own choices. That’s probably exactly what you should be doing anyway. But before you go, I have a few pointers for you.

SSDs aren’t all that simple to understand. There are multiple terms to understand, and a few things to watch out for, so spend some time getting to know them. We can get to that in a later article if needed.

Now, Let me give you a few rule-of-thumb guidelines for your SSD purchases:

  • Avoid the cheapest SSDs. They can sometimes be quite slow. The literature only lists their fastest speeds. These are the WD Green and similar drives that offer high capacities at ridiculously low prices. The performance of these drives makes them ones to avoid.
  • Avoid the most expensive SSDs. They’re probably good, but you probably don’t need them as the increase of speed will only give you minor noticeable benefits.

Here is also some quick guidance about how the most common SSDs are ranked. Check out the two images below for a hierarchy of SATA and NVMe SSDs to suit your needs.

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Published: June 26, 2020 | Last Updated: November 15, 2021

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