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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.

 


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Choose a CAD Workstation on a Budget

Workstation Reviews from Jon Peddie Research

@XI Computer PowerGO Mobile Workstation
By Robert Dow, August 14, 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. But if you don’t need, or can afford a monster system like that, then you have some very exciting choices in mobile workstations. Read more

HP’s Z2 Mini Is a Tiny Powerhouse of a Workstation
By Alex Herrera, March 20, 2017
With its capable, ridiculously small workstation, HP looks to cast a wider net on visual computing professionals. Read more

Giving Boxx's Pro VDI a Test Drive
By Alex Herrera, February 7, 2017
Can a Virtual Workstation truly provide an experience comparable to a traditional deskside machine? Read more

Read all hardware reviews from Jon Peddie Research


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