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>So, why would ACR be so much faster than PS CS3?
Because it's optimized to run fast...
I wonder if ACR is using the same deconvolution technique that Smart Sharpen does; that might explain the difference.
Camera Raw doesn't use Smart Sharpen at all...
That's one helluva optimization, especially when you consider that, for the most part, sharpening is better in ACR.
So, then, Smart Sharpening ought to go away in favor of a similar method as available in ACR. It's ok to go to ACR, but I have to flatten first, and that's a drag.
The other option is to drop to 8 bit first in Smart, but that also is counterproductive in spades!
If you like the results of a deconvolution sharpener like Smart Sharpen, then I think you are going to have to pay the piper and maybe get a more powerful machine. You could try Focus Magic or Focus Fixer, which are also deconvolution sharpeners, but I suspect they will also be slow (although I find Focus Magic reasonably snappy on my AMD X2 4800). The deconvolution process is compute intensive.
On the other hand, if you like the results from ACR but you want easier access to it from PS, it sounds like PK Sharpener would be a good fit for you. ACR sharpening was influenced by pass 1 of the 3-pass sharpening technique developed by Pixel Genius, makers of PK Sharpener. I have not experimented much with PK Sharpener but I suspect it would run significantly faster than Smart Sharpen.
I know that Smart Sharpen is slow, but the speeds it's running now with a 50M 16 bit file is roughly equivalent to a scanned 2400dpi 120 image back when I first installed CS3. When I got the Nikon D-80, I was delighted with the fact that Smart Sharpen now moved smartly along. Now this!
I alternate between Smart and ACR, letting the image tell me what looks best.
I did a trial with PK when it first came out and I was and am impressed. That is, I was until I started running it on b&w and I found I had to convert hundreds of well scanned, well adjusted files to RGB, just to use PK. It was a no-brainer for me. When I told the folks about my reservation, they claimed to be looking into a gray scale version, and would I be interested in participating in a Beta test? I agreed, then never heard another thing.
I think that sharpening, given the nature of digital, needs to be a number 1 priority in a high end graphic editing program. Paying another 100 bucks just for that seemed outrageous especially since "creative" sharpening was of no interest.
A little side note: When I ran the Surface Blur filter, I also saw a slowdown. But when I sharpened in ACR then ran the Surface Blur, it was back to it's usual speed.