It’s all about control—and when you set your DSLR to capture images in the JPEG format, you’re giving up a whole mess of control. Sure, those images may look pretty good, but your final JPEG output never accurately reflects what your camera sensor actually sees, regardless of how well it converts data into the final picture.
A digital camera captures data on an electronic sensor. At its lowest level, this data is known as the raw file. It’s sensor data at its purist, virtually free of modifications and any digital conversions. All the sensor does is catch photons on millions of receptors and write the data to files. That data is literally raw—and DSLRs and some high-end point-and-shoot cameras give you access to this data in order to manipulate your photos with tremendous control.
Don’t like the ISO setting? Tweak it! White balance doesn’t seem right? Correct it! Editing raw files lets you work directly with pure sensor data, making decisions about exposure, shutter speed, fill light, and more, all after the image has been actually shot.
When we introduced our new system benchmarks last month, we thought it might be at least six months before review machines began stomping the holy crap out of them. Unfortunately for us, Digital Storm couldn’t wait to pile it on. The company has unleashed a rig so damned powerful that we’re wondering if our new benchmarks and zero-point system aren’t already obsolete.
But what would you expect of a rig named HailStorm Black Ops Edition that’s equipped with Intel’s new hexa-core Core i7-980X CPU? The Core i7-980X normally clocks in at 3.33GHz, but Digital Storm pushes the CPU to 4.4GHz, with the help of an impressive dual-radiator and large ID hose water-cooling system. For graphics, the company combines three Radeon HD 5870 cards, which have been clock-bumped as well, thanks to the beefy water-cooling. Along with the CPU and GPU cooling, Digital Storm water-cools the chipset and voltage regulators on the EVGA X58 Classified motherboard. We still haven’t reviewed one of these EVGA boards, but its selection by several high-profile OEMs is making us want in on that action. Get the hint, EVGA? We should also mention that for the amount of hardware the HailStorm packs, it’s one of the quietest machine’s we’ve tested.
We can count on one hand the number of people we know who have bought into Nvidia’s 3D Vision gaming system—those shutter goggles haven’t exactly been selling like hotcakes.
The lackluster response to this 3D-gaming renaissance is no doubt due in part to the 3D Vision kit’s $200 admission price. On top of that, early adopters were also likely put off by the technological limitations of the requisite 120Hz monitors—another $400 wallet-draining investment—which maxed out at just 22 inches and a paltry 1650x1080 resolution.
Acer’s GD235HZ is a second-generation 120Hz panel that sheds those constraints, measuring 23.6 inches and running natively at 1920x1080 pixels.
In a pleasant surprise, the GD235HZ doesn’t cost any more than last year’s 22-inch $400 asking price. To keep the price in check, Acer omitted extras like USB ports and component inputs from this model. And aside from the 120Hz refresh rate, this is a pretty standard TN panel. Color fidelity fared respectably in our tests and contrast (rated at 1000:1) looked better in the darks than the lights. We didn’t notice any color banding defects at various settings, either. But like most LCDs, we could spot a bit of backlight bleed along the edges of the screen, though this was only noticeable with the lights off and a very dark image on the screen. We also thought that text looked a little off, with very light shadowing between characters. Tweaking Windows 7’s ClearType settings helped alleviate this issue.
We wouldn’t complain if we never had to review a cheap TN LCD panel ever again. Our experience with ViewSonic’s VP2365wb, on the other hand, has taught us we shouldn’t assume that the mere presence of an 8-bit IPS panel will ensure top-drawer performance. On the third hand, the fact that numerous online retailers are selling this monitor for just $300 renders it a solid value.
ViewSonic markets this model as a “professional grade monitor for pros,” which is an unusual claim to make for a 23-inch display with native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. A monitor of that size and resolution sounds much more like a consumer electronics product for watching HD movies than a tool for editing digital photos. It’s also odd that ViewSonic would include HDCP in its DVI port but not include an HDMI port at all. Nonetheless, the VP2365wb is leagues better than the ViewSonic VX2433wm we reviewed in our December issue, a TN panel we dismissed as a “steaming pile of mediocrity.”
Bibble 5 Pro—one of the first applications to marry sophisticated raw editing with robust workflow management—has a loyal following among professional shooters. Earlier versions were criticized for an overly busy and inconsistent user interface, but version 5 has cleaned up most of those issues.
While its pure image-editing tools aren’t as extensive as Photoshop’s, Bibble 5 Pro does have most of the basic cropping, selection, and layering tools you’d need for digital photo editing—it’s a photographer’s tool, not a general image editor. On the raw side of life, Bibble 5 gives you meticulous control over exposure, color correction, vignette correction, and a host of other parameters, allowing you to fine-tune a photo’s final look. As with Lightroom, Bibble 5 Pro is nondestructive, so if you get lost and don’t like what you’ve done, reverting back to the original is easy.
Adobe’s stand-alone raw app gives you all the granular photo-hacking horsepower of ACR, plus even more sophisticated photographic adjustments tools and a powerful database tool for managing your collection. And like any good raw app, Lightroom is a nondestructive editor, saving changes to metadata settings, rather than changing the pixels themselves, as Photoshop does.
If you’re only familiar with image editors like Photoshop, Lightroom takes some adjustment. For one thing, there’s no “save” function; if you want to save to another format, like a JPEG or TIFF file, you’ll need to use export. The version we tested, 2.6, is fully 64-bit and robustly supports dual displays.
Version 2 of Lightroom is more tightly integrated with Photoshop, but we recommend that you do as much work in Lightroom as possible. All Lightroom edits are nondestructive, but once you load an image into Photoshop, it’s loaded as a 16-bit-per-pixel TIFF file. Any edits in Photoshop are baked into the pixels, and when you save and exit, the TIFF file shows up in Lightroom with the Photoshop changes. The original raw file is still present, but doesn’t have any of the changes made in Photoshop itself.
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) isn’t a stand-alone app, but rather an add-on built into Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Despite its add-on status, ACR offers a rich set of features for tweaking raw files. You can easily adjust exposure, make lens corrections, fix white balance, and do some basic image editing. When you click “done,” Camera Raw creates an XMP file (also known as a “sidecar file”) that reflects the changes you made nondestructively; the actual raw file hasn’t been altered. However, once loaded into Photoshop, any changes made are destructive, and you can’t save the file as a raw file—not even a DNG-variant raw file.
While ACR offers settings for both luminance and color-noise reduction, their overall impact can be hard to discern. ACR’s noise reduction certainly isn’t in the same class as Bibble’s Noise Ninja. And since ACR is itself an add-on, it doesn’t have its own set of aftermarket filters. Indeed, at its heart, ACR is really just a one-dimensional app for modifying the specific properties intrinsic to raw files. It’s got some limited image-editing tools—like crop and straighten—but its real strength lies in easily adjusting basic photographic attributes, like exposure and white balance. Its feature set is limited.
Unlike Canon’s bundled-in editor, Capture NX2 is an added-cost option, though Nikon will occasionally include it as a freebie with DSLRs during sales promos. The pricing might be justified for members of the Nikon nation, as Capture NX2 offers considerable sophistication when editing Nikon-sourced raw files.
The original Capture NX had an obtuse user interface, but the latest version cleans up many of the UI issues. How you go about editing images still takes some effort to learn, but once mastered, certain types of edits are much quicker to make than in a traditional app, like Photoshop.
The number of options can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to wander into the weeds and get completely lost. However, Capture NX2 is a nondestructive editor, making it easy to revert to earlier versions. Every setting has an undo button, and if you load up a saved file, there’s even a way to revert to the original. Capture NX2 saves all the changed data in the main NEF file (Nikon’s raw-image file format), so the saved file is larger than the original raw file shot by the camera.
Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) ships with every Canon DSLR. It’s a simple, straightforward editing tool that pretty much supports just the basics: adjusting color temperature, batch conversions to other file formats, and simple noise reduction. It lacks the sophistication of its competitors, but since it comes free with every Canon DSLR, it’s tough to be too harsh.
The main interface is simple and uncluttered—arguably too uncluttered, as DDP hides much of its functionality under the menus. Want to crop? Pull down the tool menu and launch the trimming tool. Need spot repairs to remove dust specks? Fire up the stamp tool. Once in a tool, you can’t do anything else until you finish, then close the tool.
The main photographic touch-up capabilities are available when you begin editing an image. You can easily adjust white balance, brightness, contrast saturation, and tone curves in a tabbed panel alongside the image being edited. It’s easy to pop up a window that compares the original to the edited image, so you don’t have to always eyeball the changes from memory.
It seems obvious, right? The more stuff you have, the bigger the box you need to put it in. And in computer-land, you have options ranging from tiny micro-ATX cases the size of a hardback book to enormous full-tower cases into which you could cram every computer part you’ve ever owned. But not everybody needs or wants a full-tower case. Medium-size cases, or mid-towers, take up less space, weigh less, are more portable, and (hopefully) cost less than their full-tower brethren. What’s more, features that were once exclusive to full-tower cases, like dust filters, toolless construction, and CPU cutouts, are now finding their way into mid-size chassis—and not always accompanied by price increases. Indeed, just because you have two 5970 videocards and want to water-cool your CPU, it doesn’t mean you have to go with a full-tower anymore; some mid-towers have radiator mount points and room for your beefiest cards.
We have certain criteria for testing any computer chassis, and no case is exempt. Cases gain points for build quality, ease of installation, toolless mounting—but only if it’s sturdy!—stock-cooling ability, cable-routing options, and extra features like support for water-cooling installs, space for extra-long videocards, filtered intakes, and SSD brackets. Bonus points are earned for style and going above-and-beyond the expected. Points are deducted for thoughtless design flaws, poor build quality, bad cooling performance, lack of room for essential parts, and general suckitude. We don’t automatically add or subtract points for LEDs or other aesthetic flourishes, though tasteful use is appreciated.
This month, Maximum PC tests five of the newest and hottest mid-tower cases out there, from budget to luxe, steel to aluminum, tiny to nearly full-tower-size. These enclosures have their differences, but some of the similarities are surprising. All the cases in this roundup, for example, have CPU backplate cutouts in the motherboard tray (a first), and all have very similar front-panel connections. From the small and sub-$100 Zalman Z7 Plus to the big, beautiful, expensive Silverstone Fortress FT02, Maximum PC is, shall we say, on the case.