If you work with CAD software day in, day out, you’ll know how important it is to use hardware capable of coping with the programs you use. Most CAD software comes with stringent minimum system requirements, and an everyday consumer PC generally won’t cut it. As such, most CAD professionals rely on custom-built workstations to do their jobs.
However, whilst advice on which software to buy is abundant, hardware advice is somewhat thin on the ground. As such, it can sometimes be hard to know what exactly goes into a great CAD workstation.
Here at Scan2CAD, we want to change all that. We’ve created this guide with the aim of providing you with the information you need to build your own ultimate CAD workstation. We’ll be focusing on PCs that run Windows operating systems, rather than Linus or MacOS, due to the system requirements of many popular CAD programs. However, you’ll still be able to find plenty of choice here, and we’ll break down ways for users to maximize any budget—be it large or small.
History of CAD workstations
Once upon a time, a workstation was a radically different concept to a standard PC. In their earliest incarnations, workstations were single-user minicomputers. As such, a machine’s computing power—which was intended to support several users—was instead used by just one person. Over time, manufacturers began creating dedicated single-user workstations, but whilst they came to physically resemble PCs, they were far more powerful.
Workstations in the 1980s had the objective of meeting the three Ms: a Megabyte of memory, a Megapixel display, and a MegaFLOPS computing performance. Though these targets no longer seem remotely ambitious, they far outstripped the capabilities of standard PCs of the time. With high performance came high prices, however—it wasn’t until 1986 that Sun released the first sub-$10,000 workstation.
Despite the steep cost, workstations proved invaluable for CAD professionals. Their reliability, high computing performance and support for graphics made them perfect for work on 2D drafting software and, later, 3D modelling software. PCs, meanwhile, had very limited capabilities, and were not suitable for CAD use.
Over time, however, workstations and PCs have grown closer together, to the point where it can sometimes be hard to tell what the difference is between them. The two classes of machine now share technology—and, as a result, the price difference between the two is significantly smaller.
What is the difference between a workstation and a PC?
Nowadays, PCs and workstations look superficially largely the same. Indeed, CAD workstations are, essentially, a subset of PCs. As such, the distinguishing features of a workstation are found at the component level. Workstations are built to last, with faster processors, a greater number of cores, more memory, and, crucially, a better graphics card.
This durability is necessary to cope with the strain of coping with CAD work, and ensures that users will not have to frequently replace their entire machine. After all, a workstation’s intended user will make their living from what they do with their computer—so, it needs to be reliable.
As you may expect, these higher standards mean that workstations are costlier than consumer PCs. However, the price gap is far less pronounced than it once was. Rather than a workstation costing orders of magnitude greater than a standard PC, the difference may now be as little as $100. The price can be even lower when you build your own workstation, rather than buying a pre-built machine.
To build or not to build?
Advantages of building
No two designers work in exactly the same way. As such, customizing your PC is a great way of ensuring that it meets the requirements of the software you use every day. This doesn’t just mean including additional components—it also means not paying extra for parts that would be redundant for your needs. This means you can maximize your budget and get the most out of your workstation.
This ability to pick and choose what you spend your budget on means you can focus on components that are crucial for CAD work. Many entry-level, pre-built workstations, for example, come with integrated graphics processing, rather than a dedicated graphics card. This renders them unsuitable for CAD work. Moving up to a more expensive pre-built system may provide better graphics performance, but you’ll also have to shell out for features you may not require. Building your own bespoke system, meanwhile, allows you to jettison features you don’t need whilst investing in those you do.
Buying a ready-built workstation also means subjecting yourself, inevitably, to markups—which can be pretty hefty. When you choose everything that goes into your machine yourself, you pay only for the price of the components, and avoid getting stung.
Advantages of buying
Nonetheless, that isn’t to say that there are no advantages in purchasing a ready-built workstation. For starters, there’s no need to construct your machine yourself: it works straight out of the box. This makes it a better option for users who may be somewhat reticent about building their PC themselves.
There’s also a good chance that your workstation will be ISV-certified, meaning it’s been independently tested and verified as being compatible with CAD software. (It’s also worth noting, however, that in a 2017 survey of CAD professionals, less than 5% considered this a “must-have”.)
So, build or buy? It’s ultimately your choice—but we’re guessing that if you’ve made it this far through our guide, you’re at least a little intrigued about going it alone. But how exactly do you do it? Read on for the details.
How to choose the right components
Choosing the right hardware starts with understanding your needs. Every engineer, designer or CAD professional will know which software they use to complete tasks day-to-day. This is an ideal starting point. Identify the program (or programs) you use most, and then check out their system requirements. Though these only provide a baseline figure—and you should probably be shooting much higher—they can help eliminate unsuitable machines and guide your decision. For example, the system requirements for AutoCAD 2018 include a CPU of 1 GHz or faster, 4 GB of disk space, and at least 4 GB of RAM on 64-bit systems (with a recommendation of 8 GB).
As mentioned, however, these guidelines tend to show the bare minimum you need to run a particular application. For a better idea of what you should aim for, check out if your main program comes with a list of certified hardware. Then, skim through the list and check out the specs of the machines that your software provider actually recommends. For AutoCAD 2017, for example, many certified machines feature processing power of at least 3 GHz, with RAM typically 16 or 32 GB rather than the recommended 8—with many machines featuring up to 64 GB. This should help you to come up with a better estimate for what your machine should include.
Once you’ve decided upon which features to focus on, the next step is choosing components that fit your criteria—before going on to build the machine itself.
Building your machine
Now you’ve come to actually selecting the components that will form your CAD workstation. In this section, we’ll tell you what to look out for, and give some options suitable to different price points.
First things first: your central processing unit. Your CPU will be dealing with all the background calculations that go into making your CAD software (and everything else on your PC) work, so it needs to be capable of coping with the strain. However, it can sometimes be a little tricky to work out what exactly to look for in a processor. In the past, there was one simple measure to look out for: clock speed. Whilst this is undeniably still important, things are more complex now. Performance comes down to the number of instructions per cycle your processor can perform, its process size, its architecture, and other factors.
One issue to deal with is the number of cores. It may be tempting to go for a multi-core processor; some guides recommend at least four cores for 3D modelling use. However, it’s important to take note of whether this is suitable to the programs you use. AutoCAD, for example, is largely a single-threaded application, and only supports multi-core technology for specific functions. This means that AutoCAD cannot take full advantage of a multi-core CPU; as such, opting for more cores may mean you spend more money without achieving any significant increase in performance.
It’s also important to ensure your CPU is compatible with your motherboard (AMD and Intel don’t mix) and that it’s well matched to your other components. Investing in a high quality graphics card, for example, is useless if you don’t have a CPU capable of dealing with the extra capabilities—and vice versa.
There are a number of impartial benchmark tests out there which can help you decide upon the best processor for your needs. These include CPU Benchmarks from PassMark, CPU World, and AnandTech. Below, we’ve provided a few examples of some processors suitable for different workstation budgets, but make sure you research thoroughly to ensure the CPU you buy is suitable for you.
Budget: Intel Core i3-6100 3M 3.7 GHz ($114.99)
Mid-range: Intel Core i7-7700K 4.20 GHz ($329.00)
High-end: Intel Core i7-6900K 3.70 GHz ($1,019.00)
In a recent Cadalyst survey, 88% of mobile users and 76% of desktop users agreed that a professional graphics card was necessary for graphics-intensive work. As such, though most processors come complete with a graphics unit, a separate graphics card is still the way to go. This allows for a great FPS rate, allowing for smooth transitions when rotating, panning, or zooming. As such, it’s of particular importance when working with 3D CAD applications such as SolidWorks.
It’s also important to ensure you choose a workstation graphics card, rather than a gaming card. These two classes of card may have similar specs on the surface, but they’re optimized to run different types of software. Gaming cards tend to focus on fast loading and smooth frame rates at the expense of detail. For CAD applications, they are therefore generally unsuitable. After all, engineers and architects need precision, meaning that the detail is crucial.
Additional advantages of workstation-class graphics cards are faster performance and computing power, and GPU acceleration technology. Two series of cards which are perfect for CAD use are NVIDIA Quadro and AMD FirePro. Below, we’ve chosen a selection of NVIDIA cards which offer GPU acceleration technology. However, it’s important to research which cards best fit your needs.
Budget: NVIDIA Quadro K1200 ($299.00)
Mid-range: NVIDIA Quadro P2000 ($430.00)
High-end: AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100 ($630.00)
Your workstation’s primary memory is what ensures that any necessary data is available, ready for your CPU to hit the ground running. This distinguishes memory from storage (often, confusingly, also referred to as “memory”), which is where data is stored for long-term use.
The first factor to consider when it comes to CAD is, quite simply, how much RAM you need. CAD applications tend to be fairly RAM-hungry; AutoCAD, for example, recommends 8GB. However, if you’ve got the budget, then increasing this figure can help improve the performance of your applications and allow you to run different programs side by side.
It’s also worth considering whether or not to opt for ECC RAM (Error Correcting Code). This detects and corrects memory errors when they occur. Heavily-utilized systems are especially prone to experiencing these errors, meaning that CAD professionals are likely to see some benefits from ECC RAM. However, there are differences of opinion within the CAD community. Some see ECC RAM, in and of itself, as unlikely to make much of a difference to most errors CAD users experience.
Budget: Corsair Vengeance 8GB ($66.00)
Mid-range: Kingston HyperX FURY 16GB Kit ($105.00)
High-end: Kingston Technology 32GB RAM Kit ($325.99)
Your motherboard is what allows connectivity between the various components that make up your workstation. As such, it’s a crucial part of your system—though it can be easy to ignore. When choosing your motherboard, some crucial stats to look out for include:
- Memory slots — for connecting to RAM
- SATA ports — for connecting to mass storage devices
- Maximum addressable memory — starting from 32GB
- PCIe slots — for connecting to peripheral devices
Budget: ASUS PRIME B250M-K mATX Motherboard ($82.41)
Mid-range: ASUS ROG STRIX Z370-I Motherboard ($174.00)
High-end: Asus Rampage Extreme Motherboard ($410.00)
Your PC’s case is your chance to get creative and put a real stamp on your workstation. However, that doesn’t mean you can just purchase any case and expect it to be suitable. For starters, you’ll need to check whether your case can host your chosen motherboard. Look out for the terms ATX, MicroATX and Mini-ITX when purchasing: these refer to the size of motherboard that your case can host, in descending order of size.
Speaking of size, you’ll need to ensure that your case can actually fit onto your desk. Full-tower cases are the tallest, at around 22″; mid-tower cases stand at around 18″; mini-towers are the smallest. Your case may also already include a built-in cooling system; if not, you’ll need to invest in one.
Budget: Rosewill Dual Fans MicroATX Mini Tower ($22.99)
Mid-range: DeepCool Tesseract Tower ($44.23)
High-end: Rosewill Thor Tower ($120.89)
Choosing your operating system is, perhaps, a simpler task than choosing some of your workstation’s physical components. After all, most major CAD programs are built to run on Microsoft Windows. 64-bit operating systems are now the norm for CAD work; AutoCAD 2018 only runs on the 64-bit version. The Pro edition of Windows 10 includes several useful features, including BitLocker, and the ability to defer updates. However, many pre-built workstations ship with the Home edition. It’s up to you to decide if those extra features are worth it.
Keyboard and mouse
You may think that there is very little room for customization when it comes to two of the simpler parts of your CAD workstation. Au contraire. Though any keyboard or mouse will, largely, perform the same job, it’s worth thinking about the ergonomic value of the parts of the machine you’ll have the most direct contact with. After all, if CAD is (part of) your job, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together.
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to see that 3Dconnexion have created the CadMouse. This mouse comes with several nifty, unique features that make it ideal for CAD users. For starters, there’s the addition of a third, middle mouse button which is dedicated to panning and zooming around your screen. It also comes with additional buttons next to where you’d place your thumb, as well as a button placed on top of the mouse, underneath the scroll wheel. The latter of these also comes with a circle menu that users can customize themselves.
When it comes to keyboards, there’s nothing quite so specialized. Nonetheless, it’s still worth putting some consideration into your choice of keyboard. Good examples include the Logitech K400 920-007119, with an integrated trackpad ($22.99 on Amazon) and the ergonomic keyboard/mouse combo of the Logitech MK550 Wireless Wave ($44.99 on Amazon).
Budget: Logitech M510 Wireless Large Mouse ($18.99)
Mid-range: Razer DeathAdder Elite ($59.99)
High-end: 3Dconnexion CadMouse ($99.00)
The above guide does not aim to be exhaustive or definitive. First, there are other components you’ll need to incorporate, such as a cooling system, power supply unit, and storage. Second, prices will fluctuate over time, and today’s luxury could be tomorrow’s bargain. However, following these guidelines will give you plenty of useful tips on building your own ultimate CAD PC.