Not to get into a war with PC VS Mac but my main station at home is a custom built PC. I learned how to build them about 5 years ago and I follow a few computer forums. It has proven a learning curve but the reward and price has far out weighed the cost I would have spent. To date I have built 7 PCs all of which are running AMD/ATI. I do like the Intel Sandy Bridge but there is no need for me to transfer into that area because I can swap and parts (such as ram or CPUs) around if something went wrong or diagnosis.
It cost me around 3000 for a really good design station and the specs are:
The above you can estimate around 2500.00 USD. Im sure I can find cheaper if I shopped around and from experience you can watch Amazon, Newegg, and Tigerirect on prices.
Now all the above is over time and all the parts come from manufacturers I have used over and over again. In a few years when motherboards are better I may get another motherboard that holds bigger RAM. If a 12 core CPU comes out in AM3+ I can swap with the 8 core I have now. I didn't buy all of these at once they are a collection over time, but as I stated once you start down the custom building path you tend to find a company you like and you can mix and match when needed. The great thing also about over time I don't have to spend another grand here or another grand here. I can spend usually 250 every couple years and my system is still running better than whats out there.
NOTE on the ssd. I first bought a 60ish back in the day during the CS4 master suite and quickly filled that up. I would suggest not going lower than 128gb. Also some ask me do I overclock and the answer is no.
Currently my old stations run as RIP stations/servers all with quad core and 4gbs in a Linux environment. To date I think I own around 20 HDDs in different RAID configurations. I was lucky a few years back and bought 10 Western Digital 1TB Blacks on Black Friday @ Best Buy before the flood and snagged them all for 39.99 each.
My point is though Macs are great but when you do your own thing and work on projects at times buying all Macs are not feasible. Not saying there is anything wrong with a Mac but that's just the facts when money is involved.
As far as a laptop I still have an old Inspiron 1720 I use as a Ubuntu terminal for PDF processing and to take with me when I need to. I do plan to buy a mac but I'm still on the debate on whether I can justify the cost for a desktop VS laptop. Also, still use your old laptop and put it to work!
So, what bits of hardware matter the most to a designer?
What matters to me is how quickly that
.ai file will open and if the color is accurate. In my arsenal I also use Spider for monitor calibration.
Is a dedicated graphics card overkill for a Creative Suite power user?
Not at all and I would recommend it, but be aware there is a difference with a Desktop GPU and a workstation GPU. Workstations are best described as a guaranteed level of performance. Some higher models are good if you plan on doing 3D modeling.
If not, how fast should a GPU be to handle Photoshop and cutting-edge Web technologies?
How much of a difference would four cores make over two when I run a script in Illustrator?
You would see this in performance the most when trying to open large files or doing a gradient on a large size canvas. I also believe that past CS3 Adobe requires a quad core now or suggests one?
Does the usage of design software mean that my system would need more RAM?
RAM is useless in theory if you have a low CPU. The best way to look at it is in relation to a car. The CPU is the motor and the transmission is the RAM. You can have the best transmission in the world and it show a little but if your CPU is low where are you really going?
Two small monitors or one big one?
My feelings towards monitors is based on the users preference. I know some that love a single 30" but I cannot stand not using anything less than dual monitors even if they both are 20" each.
I know storage space is a big deal, so straight solid state probably isn't viable...but having OS and Creative Suite on a smaller drive and throwing in a 1TB drive might work really well. That's the kind of thinking I'm trying to have.
This is a great idea and it helps in hdd performance, too. Just be careful when looking at an SSD you get one that will fit your needs. As stated already I learned the hard way and still have my 60ish gb hdd.
Along the same lines, has anyone gone to the desktop to save some bucks and regretted it later?
I've never regretted building my own desktop but purchasing a desktop I wouldn't do unless it was a Mac tower. I have had my ups and downs with it but there are great open source software for diagnosis out there and a few good forums built for people that like to build their own rigs.
Can a desktop plus a tablet fill in well enough for a laptop?
That would depend on the usage or what you are doing. If you are doing web apps in coda then you would need a Mac and a iPad would come in handy. If you are dong web design an iPad would come in handy for viewing when you are coding the CSS. So many variations.