"So as we move into faster printers and bigger files, don’t we also need faster and more powerful prepress equipment?"
By Craig Miller
As I write this, we’re bringing a new killer PC online in our prepress room. Built in-house, this bad baby is equipped with a 3.3-Ghz six-core i7 Extreme Addition Intel chip. We have built our own PC RIP workstations for more than a decade. We have a very talented guy on staff who builds what we believe to be some of the fastest PCs in the world. So we have always enjoyed rippin’ RIPS, which, also helps get files printing faster. However, we have never had a PC as a front-line prepress workstation. We felt it was a good opportunity to try a PC because one of our designer/prepress specialists is equally comfortable with either Macs or PCs.
But making a prepress department process print files faster and more efficiently isn’t just about the computers themselves and how fast micro-processors have become. Ancillary computer technology can make equally impressive improvements in your operation.
For instance, when we began tracking upload times to our FTP site, we noted that customers were sometimes taking hours to upload huge files. So we recently replaced our T-1 lines with fiber optics. We now have a 100-MB pipe. And, with fiber, we have the option of having our speed throttled down to 20 MB for everyday use – this has been adequate and saves money. When we have some big events and we anticipate our FTP site getting hit hard, we have our provider turn up the speed just for this period.
Then there’s peripheral connectivity. USB is, of course, everywhere, connecting everything to our computers. It’s gotten faster with USB 2.0 and now USB 3.0, but, frankly, it still is no speed demon. The latest consumer Macs, however, come with not only a USB 2 port, but also FireWire 800 and Thunderbolt ports. If you haven’t experienced it, Thunderbolt (co-developed by Apple and Intel) will transfer information at 10 gigabits per second, versus 800 megabits per second on a FireWire 800 and 480 megabits per second on USB 2. Plus, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained. So you can connect a monitor to your Mac that connects to a RAID drive enclosure, for example.
Speaking of monitors, I have been a big fan of multiple-monitor setups for more than a decade. On one screen, you can have your graphics file, and on the other your tools. It’s a very efficient solution; there’s no need to open and close windows. Back in the mid-1990s, it was a considerable investment to outfit all of our designers/prepress specialists in this fashion – not to mention the fact that you had to have a really big desk to accommodate two 20-inch CRT displays. Today, though, you can buy decent 20-inch flat-panel monitors for less than $150, and their combined footprint is much smaller, so there’s no excuse not to have multiple monitors on all your prepress machines (and RIP stations for that matter).
Earlier, I mentioned our use of solid-state drives (SSDs), and we’ve integrated these into a number of machines, installing the operating system and applications onto the SSD. This allows the computer to fire up and applications to launch almost instantly. We also use SSDs for scratch disks. The way I look at it, we have never made a nickel having one of our prepress or design personnel sitting at their desks watching a progress bar.
Finally, a note about RAM: The price of RAM has fallen so dramatically that there’s no reason every computer in the prepress room can’t be maxed out. Two 4-gigabit RAM sticks now cost less than $50. This combination of a ton of RAM and properly set up solid-state drives can dramatically improve the performance of any graphics computer.
We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in our print rooms, sometimes millions. Yet it’s all too easy to ignore the capital expenses required by our prepress departments. To bring prepress up to optimal performance and efficiency, however, isn’t that expensive in the scheme of things. If you want to keep your expensive printers running, you need to attend to your prepress equipment.
Craig Miller is principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics (pictographics.net), where he is also director of military and law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.