Blank Canvas: Photoshop, Crashes & RAM

“Photoshop crashed!”

I see this cry all over Twitter, on blogs, in web comics — you can’t go anywhere online that has a tangential relationship to Photoshop without seeing this complaint.

So why is it that Photoshop never crashes for me?

I’m not bragging or anything, but instead actually interested in why this happens to some people and not others. Perhaps it’s the setup, perhaps the types of files. I’d like to get to the bottom of this, and I need your feedback to do so.

My Setup

So let’s start off with a description of my setup, then an overview of a typical Photoshop document. First, here’s my rig:

  • Mac Pro (2008) dual quad-core processors
  • 14 GB RAM
  • Dual-monitors connected to the stock dual-monitor card shipped with the Mac
  • Creative Suite CS4 Premium (Photoshop CS4 Extended)
  • Wacom Intuos4 graphics tablet

I use Photoshop more for drawing and sketching than for photo manipulation, but a pixel is a pixel; a layer is a layer; a layer effect is a layer effect. Here’s a typical Photoshop document for me by the time I am done with it:

  • 8″ by 8″ (or larger) canvas at 240 DPI
  • 15-20 layers, collected in layer groups with effects such as transparency & masks added
  • RGB color mode

In addition, I am typically running Safari, my email program, iTunes, Illustrator, Acrobat, InDesign, Tweetie, an RSS reader and sometimes even recording or watching recorded video via EyeTV.

During the process I extensively use Photoshop CS4 features like the Rotate Canvas tool and other processor and graphics processor features. Rarely does Photoshop feel sluggish, occasionally do I need to wait for an extended progress bar, and as I mentioned at the outset crashes are virtually non-existent. At least no more often than any other random software application crashes on the Mac (which is rare as well).

What is RAM?

In case you are unaware, RAM (“memory”, aka ‘Random Access Memory’) is like a magic potion for your computer. Most (or all) modern operating systems use virtual memory, cache and scratch disks (even Photoshop uses it’s own scratch disk) to allow you to do many things at once (“multitasking”) with a limited amount of RAM. Basically these features use your hard drive to swap out things from the RAM to “make room” for the digital information.

Why Should I Care?

Hence, more RAM equals less swapping info with the hard drive. RAM is fast; hard drives are not. Even without RAM, you can still open 183 applications, but if there isn’t enough RAM to not only store them all in the RAM but also allow for enough room to store the information for your open documents, you’ll see slowdowns and eventual crashes because of the swapping of information to and from the hard drive.

So the idea here is the more RAM you have, the faster things should be on your computer (this is true for Mac or PC). RAM allows you to work on larger files, have more software running at once, and work with larger files faster.

Physical Limits

In chatting with other Photoshop users, one thing does play a big factor in your RAM situation: the maximum physical limit you can install on a machine. Computers are built to support a maximum amount of RAM, and once you hit that limit there’s nothing you can do about it. It seems those with older or entry-level laptops are the most affected here.

When I replaced my aging PowerMac G4 with the Mac Pro in 2008, believe me I wanted to go with a far less-expensive iMac. But back then it all came down to the RAM. The iMac back then maxed out at possibly 8, but definitely 6 GB of RAM. From previous experience, this was not sufficient. I knew I would want a minimum ceiling of 10-12 GB of RAM in my new computer. The Mac Pro holds up to 32 GB of RAM. While overkill, it was the only option that fit my needs.

Today the iMac handles up to 16GB of RAM, so when I finally do need to upgrade my main machine I will be able to go for an iMac (or the equivalent) when that time comes.

What’s Your Setup?

My question to the readers: does Photoshop crash on you on a regular basis? If so, what version of Photoshop and how much RAM do you have installed? If not — well, the question is basically the same. I’d like to hear from the readers on this so we can nail down the role RAM plays in your Photoshop usage.

And it also may be a “heads up” to those looking to buy a new machine to keep an eye out on the specs for the RAM cap on that new machine. A tool at a good price is no good if it doesn’t add to your productivity.

Go!

Discussion

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