CAD software’s are becoming increasingly demanding and the tasks are becoming more resource intensive consuming a lot of processing power and memory. So, depending upon the type of CAD software and the type of work you do with it the hardware and software need to be optimized to get the best performance from your investment.
In this article, I have tried to discuss the importance of processor, memory, storage, and software in your PC and how they impact the performance of your CAD software. We have not included mice in this discussion and we have a separate article where you can see our recommended list of best CAD mouse.
You can also directly jump to our recommended list of best CAD laptops and workstations by clicking here
It’s the heart of your machine which does all the computing work. Intel series like i3, i5, and i7 are predominantly used in the consumer grade PC and laptops and Xeon is almost entirely dominant in enterprise/drawing offices.
But Intel is not the only dominant player in the processor market. More recently, AMD has made a return to the high-end market with their Ryzen and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs although they’ve yet to become a staple in corporate workstation configurators.
Cores and Threads
The processors come with many cores and the speed with which these cores can perform calculations is referred as clock speed which is measured in gigahertz (GHz). Single and Dual-core processors are rare now, and most common processors these days have a minimum of four cores with the high-end i7 having 6 cores, Ryzen with 8 cores, and Xeons/Threadripper having over 12 cores and beyond.
The simple 3D modeling and drafting software like AutoCAD is mostly single threaded, that means it only uses one core to perform the task so in this case higher clock speed is obviously recommended.
Though Autodesk is continuously developing and rewriting their source code to enable multi-threaded support for more features, there are now many features within 2D and 3D CAD applications which can utilize multiple cores.
But if you are working with newer rendering software like Vray, Maya or blender then they are generally multithreaded and hence, in this case, a processor with more cores would be better.
More cores will allow multiple simultaneous operations and hence faster processing. In case of multithreaded software, I would recommend a standard consumer grade quad-core processor with hyperthreading or SMT (simultaneous multithreading). This should be sufficient for almost all light to medium CAD workflows.
However, if you use simulation software like Ansys or rendering software like Keyshot, you will gain a big benefit from the additional cores which over time will bring a good return on investment for the price premium of a higher end CPU.
Overclocking in CPU
You might have heard about overclocking, which apparently improves your processor’s performance. but I always say to never ever overclock a PC that you rely on to make money i.e. if you do commercial project work on it or if it’s in a professional office, I do not recommend overclocking.
It’s an objective fact that overclocking increases the instability of a computer, it doesn’t matter how many stress tests that person has done and passed, an overclock increases the chance of the computer completely crashing.
So, for home users or students it is fine, but I would never recommend a business user performs an overclock. The gains are typically minimal to CAD software and not worth the risk of losing work.
Moreover not all processors support overclocking for example Xeons are not supported for overclocking and all AMD Ryzen based CPUs support overclocking. Additionally, you need to also ensure that your motherboard supports overclocking not only the processor.
RAM or the physical memory installed in your PC dictates the number of and size of concurrent programs and datasets you can have open at any one time. As modern software grows more complex, the need for more RAM becomes a factor but as always, your budget can be a limitation.
For simple 2D CAD workflows, 8GB RAM should be the absolute minimum you should consider. For 3D CAD applications, we always recommend a minimum of 16GB RAM. But as always, more RAM will allow you to work with more programs at once and open bigger datasets.
If your CAD program requires more RAM than you have installed then windows redirects the allocation to virtual memory (section of the hard disk that is set up to emulate computer’s RAM) that will allow you to continue to work, but you’ll find operations are slower and sluggish.
A common mistake is to assume more RAM will automatically make your computer run faster in every department, this is incorrect. More RAM simply means you have more breathing space to work on bigger datasets before Windows begins to use the virtual memory.
If you have 32GB RAM installed but your programs are only using 9GB RAM, your computer will perform the same as if you had 16GB RAM installed or 64GB.
RAM must be matched to be compatible with your CPU, you can find this info on your CPU vendors website. RAM can be classified as DDR3/DDR4 and has a frequency rating in Megahertz.
So, my recommendation, in this case, is to consider a minimum of 8GB for 2D CAD, 16GB for 3D CAD, ensure the RAM is supported by your CPU and if possible buy large modules to leave free memory slots on your motherboard for potential future upgrades if required.
There are currently two main types of hard drives commercially available, solid state drive(SSD) and hard disk drive(HDD). The HDD is the traditional option and it is generally seen in older laptops as well as desktops. All modern laptops and desktops are offered with an SSD, it’s up to the user to make sure they specify it when buying.
Mechanical HDD contains a metal disk drive platter and they store data on their magnetic surface which rotates at high speed. The data is directly read from this fast-rotating disk and as a result, these drives are clunky, noisy, slower, and less reliable (due to moving parts).
SSD addresses the issues faced by HDD and in this case, there are no moving parts in SSD hence these are more compact and almost silent and far more reliable than HDD and obviously have a faster data transfer rate then HDD.
SSDs are generally separated into two categories identified by the communication bus they use, that being SATA or PCIe. SATA solid-state drives are limited to roughly around 600mb/s data transfer rate which is the limit of the SATA interface, whereas PCIe based solid state drives can read and write at over 2500mb/s. There are many SSD’s on the market that can read and write at 3500mb/s too.
Most high-end systems are default equipped with an SSD boot drive (the drive where the operating system is installed) and I also recommend SSD at least for the boot drive of your CAD laptop or workstation.
Graphics Card (GPU)
It is generally considered and preached that CAD is one of the most demanding graphical workflows and that the very expensive and powerful graphics cards (GPU) are designed with CAD in mind. This is not always true; however, it can vary based on the vendor of the software.
For example, Autodesk CAD applications graphics engine is heavily CPU dependent. Performance increases in a linear fashion when CPU clock speed is increased, with little reliance on the GPU. Many CAD applications use the CPU for calculating what should be displayed on the screen, with the GPU mostly being used for storing texture information in the video memory on the card (VRAM).
Most Autodesk CAD applications support both the gaming (GeForce & Radeon) and professional (Quadro & Radeon Pro WX/FirePro) graphics cards, we generally recommend that home users purchase a gaming grade card whereas professional end users purchase a professional card.
There are many other factors to consider when deciding on a GPU i.e. do you plan to use a variety of applications. So, it’s impossible to suggest on what to go for, but as a rule for CAD, ensure the GPU has at least 4GB VRAM.
When it comes to monitors the rule is simple, the bigger the better. I highly recommend using ultrawide monitors for CAD, look at the LG 34UC79G for example. This is a 21:9 aspect ratio and is 1440p mid-way between regular 1080p and 4K. The screen space you get for CAD on a monitor like this is absolutely breathtaking and far better than what 4K at a regular 16:9 ratio can offer.
Widescreen displays are expensive and difficult to justify buying in business environments, but it allows for incredible multi-tasking and gives you an insane amount of CAD modeling or drafting space.
It’s also worth mentioning that if someone is considering a 4K monitor, that resolution is not supported by many programs and can result in very messy dialog boxes and tiny unreadable text.
It also requires a much more powerful CPU and GPU as there’s roughly 4 times the number of pixels to send to generate and send to the monitor. Although AutoCAD does handle 4K quite well still I would not recommend 4K for CAD.
Recommended CAD Laptops
As you have just seen that there is a lot to keep in mind before you decide on your ideal type of CAD hardware and hence recommending a laptop which is suitable for all type of CAD requirements is simply ambiguous. So, here we have prepared some recommended laptops which are suitable for most mainstream CAD software with the common type of CAD workflows.
Dell 15.6 inch gaming Laptop
This laptop has a quad-core Intel i5 processor with 8GB DDR3 RAM and Nvidia Geforce GTX 960M graphics card with 4GB VRAM and 256 GB SSD. It also comes with preinstalled Windows 10 operating system. So, in short, this is a complete package at an affordable price point and a great Laptop for AutoCAD and other 2D/3D CAD software.