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What Is a Professional CAD Workstation, and Why Would You Need One?

What distinguishes workstations from other types of computers? Although they may look identical to standard PCs on the outside, workstations are designed for heavy professional-level use, comprising components and features that are typically more powerful and more reliable than those found in consumer-grade machines, such as error-correcting code in memory. In addition, workstations — and workstation components — may earn ISV certification, meaning that independent software vendors (such as Autodesk or Dassault Systèmes) have tested and confirmed that the hardware can run their software smoothly.

Are Workstations Worth the Extra Expense?

Workstation customers have a wider range of price points to choose from than in the past, and the price gap between workstations and consumer-grade computers is smaller than it used to be, but workstations still cost more than standard PCs, in general. What justifies the difference in cost? And is it better to save money by buying a PC instead?

For some demanding applications, such as heavy simulation and rendering, workstations are non-negotiable; they provide top-end compute performance that is simply not available at lower levels of the market. An entry-level workstation appropriate for less compute-intensive work has more competition from standard PCs, but is still distinguished by ISV certification and greater reliability, which save time during purchase and use. For casual computer users, downtime and data loss from crashes and throttled software are an annoying inconvenience; in design and engineering environments, they spell wasted wages at best, and disaster at worst.

Choose Workstation Components That Meet Your Needs

Configuring a workstation — choosing the right combination of components for your workload — is a balancing act. On one side, you have software performance requirements that you must meet, or you’ll suffer the consequences of slowed software operation, crashes, or inadequate storage. On the other, you have budget constraints, and you certainly don’t want to waste money by buying more computer than you need.

Don’t Skimp on CAD Workstation Peripherals

Although not part of the workstation itself, peripherals are key to a productive, comfortable interaction with your machine.

Find the Most Functional Form Factor for You

Tower workstations. The tower (or desktop) workstation, the oldest and most common form factor, is a familiar sight in design and engineering offices. They are generally more affordable than other form factors, and their lack of portability doesn’t affect the office-bound CAD user. In addition, full-size towers are often necessary to house all the components required for compute-intensive workflows such as simulation and rendering.

Mobile workstations. Because so many CAD users today require portability, mobile workstations have proliferated in recent years, with capabilities that are coming ever closer to those of their desktop kin. Who needs a mobile workstation? They can be a helpful addition for users who visit remote offices or client sites, or even as a replacement for a desktop workstation in some cases. Keep in mind that although they are portable, mobile workstations have shorter battery lives than consumer laptop computers, and they’re heavier. Mobiles also have different configuration considerations than desktops.

Small and other workstations. If space is a concern, look for small form factor (SFF) models, which are a more compact version of the classic tower shape (you may also see the term minitower). Recently, some even smaller models have made their debut: The pocket-sized Lenovo ThinkStation P320 Tiny and HP Z2 Mini are barely recognizable as workstations.

A few users would benefit from a more specialized machine, such as an all-in-one touchscreen workstation such as the Microsoft Surface Studio.

Virtual Workstation Options

Today, a workstation is not necessarily a physical item humming away within arm’s reach. Thanks to cloud computing, CAD professionals have access to new technologies including shared virtual workspaces and hosted virtual machines. Cloud-hosted virtual workstations can alleviate some data handling struggles and security concerns, and help companies scale up or down with workforce fluctuations more efficiently than they can with physical hardware.


Cadalyst Exclusive Content: Workstations
Newly Divided HP Unveils New Mobile Workstations and Thin-Client Platforms Article
Newly Divided HP Unveils New Mobile Workstations and Thin-Client Platforms   31 Dec, 2015

Just days after Hewlett-Packard split into two different companies, executives showed off new and enhanced offerings with appeal for CAD users, including a 2-TB solid-state drive for its desktop workstations.More>>

Input Technologies for CAD: What’s the Best Mouse for Your Workflow? Part 1 Article
Input Technologies for CAD: What's the Best Mouse for Your Workflow? Part 1   23 Dec, 2015

Herrera on Hardware: Although the wired, optical mouse is ubiquitous, there are many other options on the market today, including devices that promise improved comfort and efficiency.More>>

First Look Review: Computer Direct Outlet Volta Pro VP 1 Article
Computer Direct Outlet Volta Pro VP 1   11 Dec, 2015

First Look Review: High-end 3D modeling workstation is reasonably priced, but lacks some extras.More>>

Herrera on Hardware: More CPU Cores or Faster CPU Clocks? Article
More CPU Cores or Faster CPU Clocks?   1 Dec, 2015

To best address the demands of a modern CAD workflow, look for a balance of CPU core count and clock rate in your next CAD workstation.More>>

HP ZBook 15 G2 First Look Review Article
HP ZBook 15 G2   22 Nov, 2015

First Look Review: The price-to-performance ratio for this mobile workstation is less attractive than its beautiful display and long battery life.More>>

Choose a CAD Workstation on a Budget

Workstation Reviews from Jon Peddie Research

Boxx Bets on Zen to Power an AMD Comeback in Workstation CPUs
By Alex Herrera, December 16, 2017
Boxx stands out for its attention to detail and its understanding of its customers; so do these new Zen-based workstations. Read more at Jon Peddie Research
 

Mobile Workstation Comparison
By Jon Peddie Research, December 3, 2017
At Siggraph Dell announced a new Anniversary edition thin and light 5520 Precision mobile workstation in recognition of the brands 20-year contribution to the mobile space. Read more at Jon Peddie Research
 

@XI Computer PowerGO Mobile Workstation
By Jon Peddie Research, September 28, 2017
Mobile workstations will never replace a monster powerful desktop with dual processors and dual or Quad AIBs, and a 1200W power supply to keep all that stuff humming. Read more at Jon Peddie Research


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What is the approximate cost of your primary desktop CAD computer (hardware and OS only)?
Up to $1,000
$1,001–$1,500
$1,501–$2,000
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My primary CAD system is a mobile/laptop computer, not a desktop.
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