How to Choose a CAD Workstation on a Budget You’re not looking to splurge on all the bells and whistles; you just need a reliable machine that will get the job done. But what type of configuration will meet your needs? And which components and capabilities are must-haves? The sample configurations and expert advice in this guide will help you decide.
How to Choose a CAD Workstation on a Budget Get the configuration advice you need to optimize your hardware experience as much as possible, while keeping costs to a minimum.
s a CAD user, you know the software you rely on every day is crucial — you couldn’t do your work without it. What could be more important? Just one thing: the hardware that runs it. Although options are multiplying, for most users, that still comes in the form of a desktop computer. Just because you can’t live without that trusty workstation, however, doesn’t mean that you want to pay an arm and a leg for it. Everyone faces budget constraints of some kind, whether you’re heading up a three-person design shop or making purchasing decisions for a 300-person department.
Don’t focus solely on price. If it doesn’t meet your needs, a great bargain is just a waste of money.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to get a workstation that can meet the needs of most CAD users without breaking the bank. At the entry-level end of the spectrum, for example, prices have dropped well below $1,000. But you don’t want to pinch pennies at the expense of functionality — focusing only on getting the lowest possible price will lead to regret, if your new machine isn’t up to the task.
A Common Foundation To help you find the right balance of cost savings and capabilities, we’ve gathered advice and configuration recommendations from Alex Herrera, industry expert and author of Cadalyst’s Herrera on Hardware column, and a variety of workstation vendors.
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»» On the cover: ©iStockphoto.com/Henrik5000
Herrera begins with the basics that everyone should keep in mind: “First off, every CAD user these days should start with a reasonably fast (middle-of-the-road offering or better) quad-core CPU [central processing unit] and an SSD [solid-state drive]. If you work with bigger, more complex models, consider spending the extra money to go for a PCIe/NVMe SSD (rather than the standard SATA). For memory, 8 GB is the minimum — that should be considered the baseline for all.” HP’s Sean Young, worldwide segment manager, Product Development and AEC, agrees that CPUs and SSDs are essential fundamentals. “For Autodesk software applications, the clock speed of the CPU (GHz) is a top priority, as it impacts all core operations and 3D graphics performance,” he explained. “Multiple CPU cores will boost multithreaded processes, such as file open and save, Boolean operations, and when using multithreaded processes such as ray
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tracing and simulation. Four or six cores in a single CPU is a good choice.” As for the benefits of the SSD, “Complex datasets should load and save quicker,” Young notes. “Random read/write access is also fast, which is particularly important when multitasking and swapping between applications.”
Getting Into Specifics Beyond these initial considerations, what else should you look for? Ultimately, that depends on what you will do with the machine. Before you move on to the categorical recommendations, determine which of these three user categories best describes you:
As you read through the relevant recommendations, keep in mind that a configuration that makes sense for you today may become inadequate tomorrow.
1. A user of CAD software (such as AutoCAD) who does at least a little work in 3D. 2. A CAD user who also does some light rendering. 3. A CAD user who also does some photorealistic rendering. As you read through the relevant recommendations, keep in mind that a configuration that makes sense for you today may become inadequate tomorrow. How frequently do job roles and workloads change in your workplace? Is it reasonable to assume that your daily computing demands will remain relatively constant in the near future, or would you be better off investing in a machine capable of doing more than you currently need it to? These are questions that can only be answered by examining your individual situation — and budget. “Spending a bit more per each segment will assure more longevity of the productive life of the workstation,” says Robert Bragaglia, president and CEO of @Xi Computer.
Category 1: All CAD, All the Time “CAD software is predominantly a single-threaded application,” notes Gary Underwood
, CEO of Computer Direct Outlet. “That means that high-frequency CPUs are much more favorable than multicore processors for 2D and 3D design/modeling work. The main bottleneck in CAD design work is the clock speed of the CPU, with the amount of RAM coming in second.” Danny Payne, owner of Orbital Computers, expounds on this point: “In general, the majority of tasks in AutoCAD are considered single-threaded, meaning that the program will only use one CPU core at a time, even if your workstation has a dozen CPU cores. The two main ways to speed up single-threaded performance are to use a newer CPU with a more efficient architecture (e.g., a sixthgeneration Intel Core i7 will be faster than a fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU), or to use a CPU with a higher operating frequency (e.g., an Intel Core i7 6700k at 4.5 GHz will be faster than an Intel Core i7 6700 at 4.0 GHz). “It is critical to note that one can only compare CPU frequency within the same CPU family in order to get an apples-to-apples
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»» Category 1 Configuration ($1,795 with discount for Cadalyst readers): The Orbital Silenced C1500 features an Intel Core i5 6600 processor (four cores, four threads, 3.90 GHz, 6-MB cache); 8 GB of 2,400-MHz DDR4 RAM; an NVIDIA Quadro K620 GPU; and a 240-GB SSD. The workstation comes with free lifetime tech support. Image courtesy of Orbital Computers.
“Spend your money first on the highest CPU frequency you can afford, and make sure you have enough memory — at least 8 GB to start.” — Bill Martin-Otto Lenovo Workstation Technical Solutions Team
comparison,” Payne points out. “That is, one can say an Intel Core i7 6700k at 4.5 GHz is faster than an Intel Core i7 6700k at 4.2 GHz, but one cannot say that an AMD FX-9590 at 5.0 GHz is faster than an Intel Core i7 6700k at 4.2 GHz, even though on paper it has a higher frequency.” Payne also suggests “an NVIDIA Quadro K620 GPU [graphics processing unit] with 2 GB of DDR3 video RAM, 8 GB to 16 GB of system RAM (depending on the size/complexity of the models you work with), and a fast SSD to keep a snappy system response time.” Bill Martin-Otto, Lenovo Workstation Technical Solutions Team, also recommends a mid-range Quadro card: “For this type of work, integrated Intel graphics or an NVIDIA Quadro K620 graphics card would be ideal for the budget-minded. Spend your money first on the highest CPU frequency you can afford, and make sure you have enough memory — at least 8 GB to start.” Herrera prefers a discrete GPU over integrated graphics. “This user should have an entry-level GPU, at minimum,” said Herrera. “At the very least, an Intel P-series GPU, available on Xeon. Preferable would be an entry-level to mid-range NVIDIA Quadro (K420, K620, K1200, or M2000) or AMD FirePro (W2100, W4100, or W4300).”
Category 2: A Little Light Rendering “This user segment most likely identifies a corporate designer with mid-complexity projects, bigger files, and a more elaborate workflow,” posits Bragaglia. “[This type of user] needs a fast, prompt response in the interactive part of the design process — i.e., drawing lines, building and modifying models — and is also involved in some light batch processing like rendering, stress analysis, or simulation, where multiple cores and hyper-threads capability of the CPU are valuable,” he says. “When selecting a processor for this user group,” advises MartinOtto, “look for a processor that allows for hyperthreading. The performance of rendering scales with the number of processor threads: the more threads, the better the performance. If your budget can stretch, look into a 6- or 8-core processor as well. If your rendering application is more reliant on graphics capabilities, the minimum graphics card suggested would be the NVIDIA Quadro K620; but if your rendering is GPU-based, you can scale
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»» Category 2 Configuration ($1,599): The HP Z240 Tower offers a quad-core Intel Xeon E3-1240 v5 processor (3.5 GHz or up to 3.9 GHz with Intel Turbo Boost Technology, 8 MB cache); a 4-GB NVIDIA Quadro K2200 GPU; 16 GB of DDR4-2133 ECC registered SDRAM; and a 1-TB, 7,200 rpm SATA drive. This model provides tool-free access to interior components. Image courtesy of HP.
down the processor and boost your graphics to an NVIDIA Quadro M2000 (or higher), offering more NVIDIA Cuda cores.” Herrera concurs with that recommendation: “Consider upgrading the GPU to a mid-range option, such as the NVIDIA Quadro M2000 or AMD FirePro W4300/W5100, and boost memory to 16 GB.” Payne suggests essentially the same system as he recommends for the first category of user, but with an Intel Core i7 6700 CPU instead of the i5 6600. “The difference is the i7 CPU has eight CPU threads, versus the four threads found on the i5,” he explains. “AutoCAD’s rendering function can utilize as many CPU cores/threads as are available. Thus, having twice as many CPU threads will lead to render times about 35% faster than the i5. Single-threaded performance will remain just about identical between the i5 and the i7, though the i7 does run at a marginally faster 4.0 GHz.”
»» Category 2 Configuration ($1,983): The Xi MTower PCIe features a clock speed of 4.1 GHz on all cores using a sixth-generation i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro M2000 GPU, and a 500-GB SSD. The case boasts soundproofing and a small footprint. Image courtesy of @Xi Computer.
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Category 3: Stepping Up to Photorealism “Well, in this situation you need a high-frequency CPU to do the CAD design and a multicore CPU to do the photorealistic rendering,” says Underwood. “So the question is, How much photorealistic rendering does the user actually do? … If the answer is ‘quite a bit’ and minimizing daily project completion times is important to the user, then I would go with the Core i7-5960X (eight-core, overclocked to 4.1 GHz). I would probably bump up to a Quadro K2200 graphics card as well, with 32 GB of RAM. “If the answer is ‘some rendering but rather infrequent,’ then I would go with a Core i-5820K (six-core, overclocked) with 16 GB of RAM, and a Quadro K1200 graphics card,” he continues. “At this stage, you should upgrade the GPU, CPU, and memory,” urges Herrera. “Get the fastest quad-core CPU, and consider more cores. Memory should be a minimum of 16 GB. A mid-range GPU is the minimum, and if models are complex, consider an upgrade to a higher-end GPU, such as the NVIDIA Quadro M4000 or AMD FirePro W7100. For the very upper echelon of 3D — the most complex models with frequent maximum-quality (photorealistic) rendering — consider dual CPUs and an ultra-high-end GPU (Quadro M5000 or FirePro W8100), as well as 32 GB of memory.” Young also sees the value in dual processors. “To boost performance when rendering with 3ds Max Design and Showcase, consider dual processors with multiple CPU cores,” he says.
»» Category 3 Configuration ($2,460.60): The Lenovo ThinkStation P500 features an Intel Xeon E5 1620 v3 processor (3.5 GHz, 10MB cache); 16 GB of DDR4 2,133-MHz memory; an NVIDIA Quadro K2200 with 4 GB of VRAM; and 256-GB M.2 NVMe and 1-TB 7,200 RPM drives. Color-coded touch points are designed to simplify component access. Image courtesy of Lenovo.
Martin-Otto makes the following recommendation: “For a heavier workflow like this, your processor should be focused on higher core counts, and potentially a dual-socket system for double the core potential. ... Similar to the second user group, if your rendering is GPU-based, put your dollars to work on a higher graphics card, with a base suggestion of an NVIDIA Quadro M2000.”
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